“A beautiful thing:” Milwaukee police officers play basketball with kids in effort to connect

MILWAUKEE -- The Promise Zone Initiative targets some of the more challenged areas in Milwaukee. Part of the plan includes foot patrols and more officer involvement in the community. A viewer spotted the evidence -- officers in action, working to connect with young people.

It's not unusual to see officers in a squad car, checking things out. But what they were recently checking out in Milwaukee might be. They were watching their colleagues play basketball in the street with a group of neighborhood kids.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

Police officers have been doing this near 35th and Custer in Milwaukee.

"Wow. I mean, just wow. That's all I can say. It's a beautiful thing," Annetta Howard said.

One of the players said it's no big deal.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

"Because they play basketball with us like, mostly every day, and I get used to it," Karlton Knight, 11 years old said.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

But on the first day...

"I asked them -- I said 'can I play with you?' And then they all kinda looked at each other like they were looking for a hidden camera -- like it was some kind of a sting or something. And then as soon as I made the first three-pointer, it was alright," Officer Joseph Spingola said.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

It was game on.

The area near 35th and Custer is one of the city's Promise Zones, where a strategic effort is underway to help residents find jobs, resources and ensure public safety.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

So what do the young people think about playing with a couple cops?

"Not bad at all. I feel safe, actually. I won't lie. I feel safe," Martrell Lewis, 22 years old said.

The kids play in the street because they need a flat surface -- even if it means the game is interrupted so cars can go through. One day, they heard gunshots a short distance away while playing.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer

"These kids live in real problems and play in real problems, so if we can alleviate a little bit of concern for an hour or two while we're here playing basketball, that's what it's all about," Spingola said.

This effort is about more than playing basketball. The officers are building trust and relationships.

"I think that people should not be mean to cops. I think they should be good to cops because cops keep us safe," Denzel Boyd, 12 years old said.

Milwaukee police play basketball with kids near 35th and Custer