WATTS BEARS, FOOTBALL TEAM COACHED BY LAPD

LOS ANGELES (KABC) --

The Watts Bears, a unique team coached by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, are the new L.A. County Pop Warner Southern Conference Champions.

The football team, which consists of players who live in housing projects in Watts, beat the odds and are thankful for their law enforcement coaches.

"We don't really like think of them as police officers. We just think of them as the coaches," Dominic Conner said.

They've been waiting six long years to be called champions. The team was honored for their win over Palos Verdes on Wednesday by Chief Charlie Back at an LAPD recruit graduation ceremony.

"I am hoping that out of the 11 of you that were able to come that one or two of you may decide that you want to sit in those seats," Beck said.

The young athletes admit they were at first skeptical of police officers taking an interest in their lives, but they eventually began to trust them.

They said the program has taught them to give back, and some even said they hope to one day become a police officer. Others have said they want to go to the NFL, and officers said they will do what they can to support the kids.

California police are taking on coaching roles to keep kids on path to victory

In the middle of Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles that is still emotionally scarred from brutal anti-police riots in the 1960s, a group of kids and coaches have come together for football practice.

The team steps onto the only green field seen for miles. It’s pocked with dead grass and dirt, but the players don’t seem to mind. They run, laugh and compete.     

The Watts Bears aren’t just preparing for their next opponent. Every snap, pass and touchdown is trying to fortify the lack of trust between the community and members of law enforcement.

“To try to change that and change the community you have to get your hands dirty and working with kids who are 9 to 12 so that when they're 15, 16, 17, 18 that relationship that they have with law enforcement is completely different,” Officer James Holliman, a Watts Bears’ coach, says.

The goal is to keep the kids on the field and off the streets. So the team’s four coaches, all Los Angeles Police Department officers who patrol Watts during the day, have made it their mission to mentor every player.

“Rather than just arresting and moving on to the next problem, we're preventing a problem before it even starts,” Officer Greg Goosby says. “Some of the kids don't have father figures at home so we've become that, so we're another voice or ear to listen to them.”

For many of the players, the police officers have become family.

“They're like another dad; they're like more parents for us. They give us good advice,” Jahiem "Big J" Gillett says.

Gillett says he can call the coaches any time and he knows they’ll pick up the phone.

Gillett’s friend and teammate, Quan'nell "Duda" McKissic, shares the same faith in his coaches, although he admits he didn’t always trust law enforcement.  

“I didn't like the police, I didn't want to have nothing to do with them,” McKissic said, explaining his mindset before he joined the Bears.

“My coaches fixed my life because before I started playing for them I was basically on the wrong track just doing bad stuff and now it's just getting my grades better and being more respectful to my mom,” McKissic says. “All cops are not bad and you should just respect the police and they'll give you respect back.”

And it's working. The three housing developments involved in the Community Safety Partnership Program, which sponsors the Bears, have seen a50 percent reduction in homicides since the football team hit the field in 2011. This year, violent crime is up across Los Angeles but has dropped in Watts.

In fact, the program is so successful it has branched out. Officers are now filling in at father/daughter dances, tutoring and even going to parent-teacher conferences.

“The fact is they really look up to their coaches and they want to be like them when they get older,” Kenya Brooks, whose son plays on the team, says.

As community and police tensions simmer across the country, both the officers and parents believe if a program like the Bears can work in Watts, it can work anywhere in the United States. 

“Football is the carrot, but we're really using that to mentor and be a focal point in these kids’ lives where we're helping them do better things in their lives,” Officer Holliman says. 

Will Carr joined Fox News Channel (FNC) as a Los Angeles-based correspondent in June 2013.

LAPD OFFICERS COACH SOUTH LA YOUTH FOOTBALL TEAM

LOS ANGELES (KABC) --

There are some Los Angeles Police Department officers who not only protect lives around the city, but are taking the time to coach the Watts Bears, a football team made up of young boys who live in Watts.

The officers do the coaching while on duty. The four officers wanted to start a mentoring program with a sports element and that's how the Watts Bears were developed.

"It changed my life because it shows me that the LAPD is not bad. It's just their job to protect the community. It changed my life because it keeps me active and out the gang violence," said Emorej Bradley, one of the players on the team.

He added that some of his friends chose a different path in life and some ended up involved in gang violence.

Some of the funding for the Watts Bears come from partnerships with organizations. There are also academic requirements to be part of the team, such as keeping a 2.5 GPA and attending summer school. The officers also check on the team members every day at school.

The officers want to send the message that anything is possible and kids can change their life if they believe in themselves.

Parents' perceptions of the LAPD have also changed thanks to the Watts Bears. Bradley said his mother did not trust the LAPD at first, but the program has allowed her to trust the coaches more, especially because they care for the members as if they were their own children.

To learn more about the Watts Bears, you can visit wattsbears.com.

The Watts Bears: Between The Lines

An inside look at the Watts Bears, a youth football and mentoring program run by the LAPD in Watts, Los Angeles. 

This is the first // Between The Lines video feature, produced by SportUp and shot over a three-day period with the Bears in South Central Los Angeles. 

You can learn more about the Watts Bears via their website:

http://www.wattsbears.com

Read more about the Watts Bears via SportUp's // Between The Lines spotlight series on youth programs making a difference on Medium:

http://bit.ly/WattsBears

You can view a gallery of images during our visit with the Bears via our Facebook page:

http://bit.ly/WBPhotosUP

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LAPD YOUTH SPORTS PROGRAM CHANGES HEARTS, MINDS IN WATTS

WATTS, LOS ANGELES (KABC) --

Los Angeles police officers are on the offense and defense this summer in Watts. They're taking part in Watts Bears, a track and football program that pairs officers with at-risk youth.

All the players are 8- to 12-year-old children living in housing projects in Watts. In addition to playing on the team, they're required to attend a six-week summer school.

Reporter Elex Michaelson shows how the program is changing hearts and minds one touchdown at a time in the video above.

For more information, visit wattsbears.com.