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Baseball as a model for improving police-community relations

While national attention is focused on an empty baseball diamond in Baltimore, we should also take note of how a program to enhance police-community relations is happening on little league fields in New York City


Police can learn from what happens on a baseball diamond. We can look at one play as a reinforcement of the lesson that no police activity should be considered “routine.” 

While much of the national attention is paid this week to a “historical” baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox — played in front of exactly zero spectators in the aftermath of riots and violent confrontations between police and protesters in Charm City — we can learn a great deal about improving police-community relations from what’s happening on little league diamonds 200 miles to the northeast. 

The Best Little ‘Little League’ in America?
When a baseball fan thinks of New York we remember Ruth, Mantle, and Maris, or perhaps more recent names like Reggie, Straw, and Jeter.

On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox set a “Major League first” — they played a game at Camden Yards in front of exactly zero spectators — which should serve as a wakeup call for police and political leaders across the country, because “crowd control” is not the absence of a crowd. (AP Image)
On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox set a “Major League first” — they played a game at Camden Yards in front of exactly zero spectators — which should serve as a wakeup call for police and political leaders across the country, because “crowd control” is not the absence of a crowd. (AP Image)

We must also remember the name Buczek. NYPD Officer Michael J. Buczek had been on the job just three years when he was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1988. Buczek — who was survived by his wife and parents — is remembered by countless thousands today because of the Little League baseball program named in his honor. 

The Michael J. Buczek Little League — probably the only Little League organization in the country run and coached by police officers — provides “good role models to teach these youngsters about fair play, responsibility, commitment and the dangers of crime and drug use continues. This mentoring creates a strong bond between law enforcement and the neighborhood — an essential component for a thriving, safe and prosperous community.”

The league is also “dedicated to honoring the memory of fallen NYPD officers and committed to building community relations” according to WCBS-TV. Each team is named for a fallen NYPD officer, with that officer’s name emblazoned on the back of the child’s uniform. 

The old baseball adage that “you play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back” is reversed in the Michael J. Buczek Little League. Each player learns about the fallen officer for which their team is named, opening up avenues for officers to interact with the kids on a very personal, one-to-one level which has proven to be highly effective. 

Since 1989, more than 20 players in the Michael J. Buczek Little League have become police officers with the NYPD. During the Opening Day parade last season, two former players — and current NYPD officers — described for the children “how the league helped them learn to be model citizens.”

During that event, Officer Carlos Delrosario said, “If it wasn’t for this league, I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you.” 

An estimated 18,000 have matriculated through to become anything else they wanted to be — perhaps they’re doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Each one of those individuals surely has a more positive view of police than they would in the absence of this very special league. 

Repairing Relationships and Building Bonds 
Safety for the welfare of the people was cited in the explanation for playing a MLB game in an empty stadium this week. I’m uncomfortable with the precedent, but I understand the rationale — Baltimore on Monday night looked like Ferguson in August 2014 (which, at that time, looked like Fallujah in mid-2004). 

The in-custody death of Freddie Gray was the spark for the rioting Monday — which led to the shuttering of Camden Yards gates on Wednesday — but the real fuel for the fire was the pre-existing condition of police-community relations there. 

Clearly, it was/is a relationship in a state of some degree of disrepair. 

The closing of Camden Yards for fear of a riot breaking out in the middle of a baseball game should serve as the impetus to work toward improving the relationship between cops and citizens in Baltimore (and elsewhere). 

While there are myriad ways in which officers and agencies can work to strengthen those relationships, Police Athletic Leagues have historically had an outstanding success rate. The abovementioned effort in New York is just one model you and your agency may follow. 

Let’s take the lessons learned on the diamond recently to help guide us through these tough times. Addressing the issue with “I’m doing everything I can,” and “I don’t have that problem,” just won’t cut it anymore.

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