‘They’re all our children’

Police Athletic Teams bridge gap between Birmingham’s children and its officers

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

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Birmingham Police Sergeant Venus Winn still calls them her girls – the members of the Police Athletic Teams basketball squad she coached more than 10 years ago. “That was just something I wanted to do,” said Winn, who was an officer in those days. “I coached three years; actually longer than that. They are still my girls. I’m not their birth mother but I’m going to make sure that they’re taken care of … doing their school work, staying out of trouble. They’re part of me.”

These days, Winn has far more girls – and boys – she considers her own as she is supervisor of the PAT program. There are 570 youngsters in the 8-, 10- and 12-younger basketball leagues with the 16-league set to tipoff this week.

Winn moved into her current role in October 2015 but PAT has been a part of Birmingham since 1970.

The program was created by city officials, community leaders and the Community Affairs Committee (CAC) of Operation New Birmingham to bridge the gap between the city’s police and underprivileged youth through various sports programs, including basketball, baseball and softball.

Volleyball has been added to the program. Other additions have been discussed, including boxing, track and field, and a proposed Midnight Madness program centered on basketball, Winn said.

She said PAT’s purpose is to create and cultivate a mutual appreciation and understanding between law enforcement personnel and the youth of Birmingham through athletics, training and competition. The goal, she said, is to reduce crime.

The sergeant said Police Athletic Teams and other programs in the police department’s Community Services Division build special bonds between police officers and children.

“These things keep our children well-rounded, it keeps them busy,” she said. “It keeps them in a relationship with the police officers.

“We are out there at the basketball courts when they’re playing,” Winn continued. “We are at the fields when they’re playing softball. We are at the courts when they’re playing volleyball. They don’t just see us in the field dealing with the criminal aspect but they’re seeing us in a positive aspect.”

Police Athletic Teams alumni include some of the most famous basketball players Birmingham has produced, including University of Alabama standouts Ennis Whatley and Buck Johnson. Now the athletic director of Birmingham City Schools, Johnson said his PAT experience was limited to all-star teams that traveled to Las Vegas and Provo, Utah.

These days, he has a greater appreciation for PAT’s regular league play, which closes the gap between younger recreational play and middle school play.

“If it wasn’t for them, it would be a huge gap in there with sixth-graders,” Johnson said. “PAT picks up the slack there as well as other sports. They do a tremendous job for kids in this area in sports programs.”

Barry Bearden was a Birmingham police officer for 10 years before becoming a coach and now athletic director at The Altamont School. While he only played one year with Police Athletic Teams, he recalls spending time in a police center on Tuscaloosa Avenue in West End.

“It was to keep our butts out of trouble,” said Bearden, who went on to play at West End High and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “At that time, I wasn’t thinking about playing basketball in college, or even going to college. It was just something we did.”

Today, PAT features basketball league play on Saturdays at Huffman and Jackson-Olin high schools. There is also Tuesday and Thursday basketball play for youngsters in Housing Authority Birmingham District teams at Harris Homes, Collegeville and Cooper Green.

“They’re all our children,” Winn said. “They’re PAT – same fee, same shirts, same rules. The only difference is they’re having to play at the housing authority site because of transportation.”

A housing authority official praised the program, calling it an opportunity to expose youth in public housing to a positive image of law enforcement authority. Youngsters’ first thoughts of an approaching police car can be images of someone they consider a friend and mentor.

“The partnership has been beneficial on both ends positively,” said Darius Hall, the recreation coordinator for HABD. “The police get the opportunity to work with our youth in a positive manner and our youth get to see the police in a positive manner. Each party has been very open and receptive to working together.”

Lando Williams was on the sideline Thursday when the Loveman Village team he coaches outlasted Collegeville 31-30. This is his third year coaching PAT basketball beginning at Smithfield.

“I think it’s a good thing for kids to have something to do other than them being on the street,” he said. “PAT is great.”