Omaha’s had a problem with gangs for a quarter century now. Most American cities share the same scourge, more or less. It’s good to be reminded that law enforcement efforts to deal with the problem don’t begin and end with patrolling hot zones or investing crimes or making arrests, they also include grassroots community engagement to try and steer young kids away from the pull of gangs into positive activities. The following story I wrote for El Perico a few years ago describes the community prevention-intervention work of one cop in Omaha, Det. Tony Espejo with the gang unit.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
For Omaha Police Department Gang Unit detective Tony Espejo, being honored as National Latino Peace Officers Association Officer of the Year in Austin, Texas earlier this month brought full circle the community service his parents modeled for him.
As long as he can remember, he said his folks, Juana and Ezequiel Espejo, “have been advocates in the community…Growing up, we always opened our house up to people. My mom is a big advocate in the YWCA. A lot of people know her. She’s had a huge hand in helping a lot of immigrant families.”
Today, Espejo, who’s married with two children, serves that same community working out of the Southeast Precinct. It’s a different environment than the small, tight-knit environment he knew as a boy. Families then were more cohesive, youth activities more numerous.The Gross High grad dropped out of college, then entered the military.
“I wasn’t doing bad things but I wasn’t doing great things. Boy, the Marine Corps got me on the straight and narrow, it got me organized. I grew up is what I did.
When he returned home, he found a new immigrant population reenergizing the area. But there was a new problem: unsupervised youths running the streets, trafficking in drugs, engaging in driveby shootings.
“The graffiti and gang problem was probably the biggest shocker for me,” he said. “When I left in 1992 it was just starting. I think there was one Hispanic gang in south Omaha and I knew all the kids in it. We used to play sandlot baseball and football together. I came back and these guys were full blown gangsters and there were three or four different gangs by then. Before, there was not the violence I all of a sudden walked into here. This wasn’t the south Omaha I knew.”
Back home his desire “to make things better” prompted him to become a cop.
“There weren’t a lot of Mexican police officers at the time, you rarely saw any on the street,” he said. Eventually assigned his old stomping grounds, he joined the gang unit in 2004. He said, “I kind of looked at it from a problem-solving aspect. Why are these kids doing this? What is the root of the problem?”
In 2005 the example of two men he met planted a seed. In Chicago, Bob Muzikowski channeled kids from the notorious Cabrini-Green projects into baseball. Locally, Stoney Hays funneled kids into Boys and Girls Club activities. Espejo liked the idea of recruiting at-risk kids away from gangs into something structured and positive. His first inclination was baseball, but the youth he ran into had other ideas.
“I would drive around on patrol and see all these different groups of kids playing soccer.
I didn’t know anything about soccer, but it’s huge for these kids.”
He formed a soccer league with help from the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association. It’s grown from six to 18 teams. He enlists kids he happens upon.
“There’s always a leader,” he said.”I find that kid and make him responsible. I let the group pick their own team name, colors, uniform. It means something to them. I want the kids to be proud of being from south Omaha.”
He said young people crave “a sense of belonging. They’re ripe for the picking.” His intervention program tries reaching kids before gangs do.
He and fellow officers volunteer as coaches. The consistency of positive adult role models, he said, “is probably the biggest thing missing in a lot of families nowadays.”
Participation’s free. Uniforms provided. But, he said, “we aren’t just giving it out, they have to put out and practice.” They have to act right.
“We emphasize we’re not just coaches, we’re police officers, so if you do get in trouble we’re going to find out about it, and we’d hate for you to embarrass us because we’re here to help you guys out. I’ve had my disappointments. Two leaders turned out to be little gangsters. I recently arrested one of my guys. I take it personally, because I took my chance to change them. I can’t be there every day for them. You can only carry them so far. At some point you gotta let ‘em go, and hopefully that little bit of time we spend with them, they’re going to make the right decision.”
The relationships built, he said, allow kids “to see officers in a different light. It humanizes us. And it gives officers an idea of what it’s like to live down here for these kids. A lot of them come from dysfunctional homes. They tell us their problems.”
The kids he started with are graduating high school and moving on with their lives.
He’s since added a baseball league. He wants to expand his efforts into north Omaha.
Along with mentoring kids, he educates parents about the dangers of gang involvement. He said his bilingual skills and respected family name “open up doors for me.”
He described his award as “huge.” Meeting distinguished Latinos in Austin, he said, “was a big inspiration. Now I know I can achieve higher, I should achieve higher. It means a lot for me to be even considered that caliber of person. But I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have other officers and volunteers helping me out on their own time.”
With 300 kids participating, he needs more fields, volunteers, sponsors. “This thing’s only limited by funding,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment, but it’s the right thing to do.”
To donate or volunteer, call 402-510-1495.
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Chicago gang database intends to predict violence (foxnews.com)
- NOPD targets group violence, gangs across city (wwltv.com)
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)