As the sun begins to set Tuesday, the Hathaway Center in southeast Oklahoma City begins to fill with youth.
The sign above the door still bears an Oklahoma City emblem, but the center at 3916 S Lindsay, was closed in 2010 when budgets were slashed. It was renovated and reopened last spring as the second site for the police department's Family Awareness and Community Teamwork unit.
The doors are opened to at-risk youth who have been recruited into the program. A weekly event, typically a movie night, is offered Monday in northeast Oklahoma City and Tuesday at the southeast site.
The building is old, but nearly everything inside is new. The walls have been painted and the restrooms overhauled. The furniture is new and a bank of computers with flat-panel monitors line the back wall in one of the rooms. Shelves filled with donated books line a wall in a converted office. The sign atop the bookshelf designates the room as the Paco Balderrama National Memorial Library, a sly joke and small tribute to the lieutenant, who serves as the program supervisor.
Adolescents mill about the center, clustered around computers laughing at YouTube videos or playing games. Others trade stories and gossip. The smell of hot pizza is in the air, and more than a few mention dinner.
In the gym, basketballs are flying on both ends of the full court. There are no teams, but a cluster shooting hoops. A player in a pink Polo shirt, jeans and boots sinks several baskets in a row from half court. Unless face-to-face, the pistol and badge strapped to his belt aren't noticeable.
The player is Sgt. Jermaine Johnson, one of the unit's three gang intervention officers. Meanwhile, in the small kitchenette, Master Sgt. Teresa Sterling, another gang intervention officer, is divvying up 10 pizzas and filling plastic cups with ice and soda.
Behind a closed office door, Sgt. Wayland Cubit, or “Cube,” is staging an intervention with Aries Johnson. Johnson, 13, was grounded last week by his mother, unable to attend the program, and Cubit wants to know why.
Johnson calmly explains the incident the previous week at school, an incident with a substitute teacher frustrated by a classroom full of unruly students. Johnson fired back with a line that landed him in the principal's office.
He doesn't try to excuse his behavior or to divert fault or blame.
“As a leader, sometimes you have to take a blow. Not abuse, but a blow,” Cubit said.
Johnson agrees. After discussing a few other issues in his life, he is allowed to rejoin his friends.
Johnson is fairly new to the program, Cubit said, but was in the early stages of gang involvement. Officers staged an intervention at his school four or five months ago, he said.
“They came to our school to talk about gangs and I happened to stand out,” Johnson said.
“After I joined the program, I'm on a straight path. If I'm looking for a scholarship, I can't be getting in trouble,” he said.
He's having a little difficulty juggling athletics and academics, but is working hard to balance them.
“I'm on the right path. I'm not the best, but I'm doing good,” Johnson said.
His eyes were opened recently when an acquaintance was gunned down outside a convenience store near his home.
“The day before he died, I was with him. He wasn't my friend, but I was with him. What if I was with him that night? I don't want them to be wearing T-shirts with my face on them,” Johnson said.
“I'm not trying to be headed to my grave early. I'm trying to live my life,” he said.
“We know each of these kids' situations. We know exactly what's going on in their lives,” said Sgt. Fernando Hernandez, the unit's third gang intervention officer.
Defusing conflict and instilling both discipline and leadership qualities are at the core of the FACT program.