P.A.C.E. still connecting with the community thanks to sports

Tony Espejo is still working for a good sport team to help to young generation. Photo: Omaha World Herald.

By Karlha Velásquez Rivas

Violence has been one of the cancers of society. During the pandemic, it has, unfortunately, seen an increase in many homes during the confinement, as well as on the streets. This could lead to an increase in other crimes in society.

In South Omaha, the Police Athletics for Community Engagement program (P.A.C.E) has been in effect since 2005, aiming to lower the rates for violence and potential crimes during said area of the city, in which the population is mostly part of Latino groups.

All of this has been thanks to the hard work of founder Antonio (Tony) Espejo, who has been a police officer. In June he mentioned to El Perico during an interview that he has been in South Omaha for his whole life, so he’s aware of the needs of the community. It’s because of this that he thought of creating this program to try and help lower violence rates by getting the attention of kids and young people who are always looking for physical activities and some extra attention, which was sorely missing from the community.

“The idea was that young people were playing sports on the streets, and that I would help them organize. I would provide them with uniforms. Back in 2005 I approached the leader of a group – young people always have a leader – and I handed him a sheet so that, within a week, he could write down all the names of those who wanted to be part of a baseball team. One week later, they had 15 names on the sheet, which was definitely a good sign,” said Espejo.

The program’s offices are located in South Omaha, and has an open field for games of soccer, baseball, and other sports. More and more years go by, and Espejo is still standing strong.

In 2017, the National Education Association acknowledged the Latino Peace Officers Association of Nebraska with the George I. Sanchez Memorial award for the P.A.C.E. program. “The national award honors community work that has an impact on education and in providing equal opportunities for Latinos,” said Omaha magazine.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, P.A.C.E. has been working in a different way. Groups could not be formed and activities had to be scaled back in order to avoid any potential contagion between kids and young people. Everything was recently reactivated, and their website includes a calendar of activities up to mid-August.

Espejo informed that they aim to open the Mountain Bike and Racing Club in which parents are to be involved, so that they can have a good relationship with their kids. “I believe that parents offer valuable support and if young people see they’re being acknowledged, then we can have a good thing, because they are the community’s gears. We know that parents work hard, and we’re here to help,” he stated.

Changing points of view from within the community

In the community, police officers have always been perceived as a group of outsiders, seen as the authority who is there to impose repressive measures, but who also uphold society’s laws. Espejo had to work hard for the community to see him – a police officer – as a figure that is also part of the same community. “We must be there hand in hand with the community. I’m Latino, and people know me. I had to ask for the neighborhood’s permission to be able to open up a location for sports. I grew up on Q Street in South Omaha. I’m from here,” he said.

According to a 2018 report from the Omaha Police Department, the percentage of Latinos in the police force in Omaha was proportionate to its population. That is to say, that 13% of the population in Omaha is Latinos, while 10% of all police officers in the city are Latinos or are related to said groups. We must remember that 78.2% of the city’s population is white, and that 12.3% is African American. The Omaha Police Department is 79% white or Caucasian and 8.2% African American.

Espejo states that there is no room for ethnical or religious discrimination at P.A.C.E., a discrimination that can be perceived in other areas, as has been the case for the many manifestations after the death of African American George Floyd.  “We don’t just have kids from low-income families, we have kids from all over the place who want to practice a sport and be part of the community. We have people from North, East, and West Omaha as well.”

Because of this, the program is seen as something that can have future generations of police officers working hard to serve their community. “We want to have many positives from this program, and officers are determined to work with the community. People who want to improve the life of kids. It’s possible to see kids dreaming about doing something important and becoming famous, but for that to happen, we need to organize and collaborate,” said Tony.

He also stated that the job of a police officer is one of the most dangerous out there. “For us, it’s important to end the day alive and well at home. This is why we must work hard for the sake of our kids so that they don’t veer down the wrong path, such as the use, sale, and distribution of illegal drugs.”

Football soccer team. Photo: Google.

In search of a better quality of life

Detective Espejo considers there’s a nutrition issue in the Latino community because, in his opinion, it lacks access to fresh quality produce. “We have kids alone at home, with their parents out working. They see a piece of fruit and a bag of Cheetos. What do you think those kids are going to eat? Certainly, not the piece of fruit. We want to change that, to help them through sports,” he said.

A report from the University of Nebraska Omaha, Escuchando las Voces de los Latinos del Sur de Omaha (Listening to the Latino Voices in South Omaha), states the need for organizations, such as public schools, to promote a proper nutrition for kids.

“We also have a CrossFit program for people to get into shape. We also teach them about nutrition,” he said.

More organizing

According to Espejo, it’s not enough to have sports activities to make Omaha a better place for all. “We need more organizing on issues such as garbage collection and abandoned cars. Anyone who wants to learn more about South Omaha are welcomed to visit and to see what we’re doing and how kids are integrating and organizing,” he said.

A single tree does not make a forest.

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