By Emily Gray Brosious | Gapers Block | Jun. 30, 2015
When police officers couldn’t make it to a scheduled basketball match with youth in the East Garfield Park neighborhood last Wednesday, 11th District Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga swooped in to save the day with an impromptu meet-and-greet of sorts.
Dressed in plain athletic clothes, the outgoing young officer spoke about policing in Chicago to a few dozen people gathered in the gymnasium. Then she opened up for a question and answer session. Children and teens sat cross-legged on the basketball court, eagerly raising their hands to ask Officer Varga about her background, her police work and what it takes to become an officer.
“Everyone in here could be a police officer. Be athletic, be healthy, get your degree,” she said before leading a few lively rounds of training drills and breaking into some basketball practice with the kids.
This isn’t necessarily the picture of police-community relations that readily comes to mind following recent waves of protest and national outrage over the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers. Amid such tensions, it can be easy to overlook the individuals and organizations actively working to change that dynamic.
Organizations like Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, which planned Wednesday’s event as part of a larger collaboration with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) aimed at building trust between police and community members to help tackle gun violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood.
“With more than 1,100 shootings in Chicago this year alone, the community in Garfield Park is bracing for the worst as summer approaches and temperatures rise — conditions under which gun violence historically rises in the city,” said Stephen Barker, Associate Director of Development at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.
Building a “coalition of peace” between the police and the community is a key strategy for lowering gun and drug related violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood, Barker said in an interview. “This is what saves lives.”
Officer Vargas echoed that sentiment and underscored the importance of community-police relations. CPD’s emphasis on community policing measures is actually one of the reasons she chose to join the department, she said in an interview.
Many children and youth were excited to meet with police officers Wednesday.
“A lot of people don’t like police because of shootings and things across the country, but I feel safer when they’re around,” 14-year-old Jacari Brown said in an interview.
He hopes increasing positive interactions between youth and police officers will lower the gang-related violence in his neighborhood.
“We want less gangs, less guns, less kids getting killed,” he said.