The police van pulled up around East 23rd St. near J. A. Adams Elementary School, and Ronnell Hatchett didn’t run even though he felt “iffy” about what was to come next.
Hatchett was 11 years old then, living a nomadic existence with his father in prison and his mother having lost her job.
Water and electricity and even a bed had become luxuries, and police seemed to him to be there only to give him more trouble.
“Being younger, just kind of feeding off of everybody … it was always ‘F’ the police,” he said. “They’re not going to do nothing for you but hurt you and take you away from your family.”
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Hatchett wasn’t much less wary when he found out what they wanted.
“I was like, ‘Why do the police want us to come play football?’ ” he remembered.
Nearly six years later, during another of the infinite afternoons he has spent at the KCPD’s Police Athletic League facility at 1801 White Ave., Hatchett understands completely.
It was to nurture him academically, physically and emotionally. “Stuff like that,” he says, smiling.
It was to discreetly provide him with 90 days of food when he passed out at a football practice and revealed he hadn’t eaten in two days.
It was to be a resource even for his father to turn to when he got out of jail … and sought help to relate to his son.
It was to give him a vision of the possible and structure to counter the flux that surrounded him.
“I’m not, like, a really bad kid. But being on the streets, that will happen,” said Hatchett, a junior at East High who hopes to play football at the University of Missouri and is interested in an engineering career. “Somehow, some way, you will get into something. Intentionally or unintentionally. That saved me from a lot.”
In some ways, he still uses measured terms to talk about what this has done for him.
But that only adds an eloquence of sincerity.
“I’m not saying trust (the police) if you don’t know them, but if you get to know them I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have a problem associating with them. Because I associate with them often,” he said.
Sitting on a bleacher in the PAL gym with the sounds of basketballs dribbling behind him, he added, “I’m not going to say they’re like my best friends or anything. But I’m close with them. Some of them are kind of like family …”
And there’s something else he’s come to understand.
“It’s more than just a job,” he said.
On Monday night at the Kansas City Sports Commission Awards Banquet, KCPD Chief Darryl Forté will be honored as the Children’s Mercy Hospital Community Champion.
That’s because of his unwavering commitment to PAL at a time this sort of attempt to connect perhaps never has been more vital — and when diminishing resources might make it tempting to reclaim some of the eight officers under that umbrella for other duty.
“What they’re doing there is changing lives,” Sports Commission president Kathy Nelson said. “And Chief Forté makes sure that the program is taken care of.”
The program touches some 600-800 children a year, PAL board president Christine Lentz said, and its ripples are extending farther:
It presented at the national PAL convention last year, and it’s being emulated by St. Louis County Police in its ongoing response to the strife in Ferguson.
“They’re the real deal, and they greeted us with open arms,” St. Louis County police Capt. Tim Cunningham said.
Since its launch in October, Cunningham estimated about 350 children have signed up for various aspects of the program from boxing to horseback riding.
“Without (KCPD PAL),” he said, “we’d be months behind and maybe not even have the plane off the ground.”
Forté was unavailable for an interview, but in a statement issued to The Star he said “the impact PAL has had on the lives of urban-core children, many of whom live in poverty, cannot be overstated.”
The beauty in this isn’t just that PAL can point to children who’ve gone on to work at Ford and Sprint or graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy or any number of colleges. Or that it can cite examples of kids who now are giving back, perhaps as a mentor or referee.
It’s especially in the barriers these engagements are lowering, as Hatchett’s story vividly illustrates.
“We always talk about seeing people as people,” said Sgt. Skip Cox, who had been in the KCPD’s leadership academy until becoming PAL Supervisor five years ago.
At this level, the department strives to get past the short-term fixes or Band-Aids and seeks proactive creation of relationships.
“There’s two ways to be police officers,” Cox said. “And I can do it with brutal force, which has been proven over and over is ineffective and yet a lot of agencies still do that.
“And then there’s a way of actually trying to humanize somebody and see them from that perspective.”
That’s why Sgt. Shawnie Nix has been with PAL for 14 of her 26 years with the KCPD.
She has become a Godmother to one of her protégé’s, routinely is invited to family events of others and on Friday was to attend the concert of another former apprentice.
Nix, who became a boxer at 29 and whose specialty is coaching that, routinely takes children for eye exams and dental care.
She smiles when she thinks of a kid who’d been in the program and left before coming back with declining grades.
When she chastised him for it, he said, “That’s why I need to come back, because I need you to get on me.”
It’s sad, she added, that he’s not getting that at home.
“But they know they’re going to be held to a standard if they come here,” she said. “And they want that.”
Even so, she also can’t forget the boy who dropped out of the program and didn’t come back even as she saw him hanging out in the wrong places and tried to convince him to return.
Next thing you know, she said, he was shot and killed in a gang activity.
On any given day you might see 50-100 children at the PAL facility, a building that in itself is a telling component of this important work.
The former recreation center was on the cusp of being condemned when it was obtained in 2001.
And it was going to be impossible to keep open when black mold was discovered some five years ago and Cox got a bid for an undoable $30,000 to remediate it.
Then he called Lentz, a childhood friend he thought might have ideas through her work as president of FirstService Residential.
And so she did, not to mention being a force of nature to whom the cause appealed enough she wanted to go all-in.
“Nothing’s impossible,” she said, smiling. “There is never the word ‘no’ in my vocabulary.”
Nor in the vocabulary of anyone she’s asked for help.
Galvanizing the community and friends near and far, the facility since then has benefited from what Cox estimated was about $1.7 million in upgrades and renovations through direct donations or goods and services small and large.
During a tour Thursday, at every turn Cox named individuals and companies that had been instrumental in making the center a more vibrant place that includes new computer equipment.
When he gazed over the football field, he thought of the $100,000 the Chiefs earmarked for the cause.
He thought of the volunteer labor — including many police — who put in the sod and the 150 dump trucks of dirt that was donated from drivers in the neighborhood who refused to take money.
He looked at the lights, enabled by various donations from KCP&L and Mark One Electric and a $20,000 check from a board member.
Then, adjacent to the building that had been taken over riddled with bullet holes, he looked at the donated $18,000 scoreboard that he worried would be vandalized or tagged with graffiti.
And he thought about it how it never has been blemished.
That’s because, Lentz believes, many now see it like this:
“‘This is my home, this is where I’m safe. This is where I’m getting everything I need in life.’ ”
She added, “It’s a start, anyway.”
When the PAL van took a donated bed to Hatchett’s house a year or so ago, Cox said gang members waved at them with “one finger.”
When they soon returned with another bed, one of them confronted the police, telling them, “This is our street.”
When it was explained why they were there, for a PAL kid, Cox said the gang member said, “That’s really cool you guys do that.”
And as they pulled away, what had been the one-finger salute became a wave.
“From an officer’s standpoint,” Cox said, “that’s monumental.”
It’s a start, anyway — one that can be life-changing.
“If you don’t believe what I’m saying, then come try yourself,” Hatchett said. “You can build relationships anywhere with anybody anytime if you only try.”