From left, NFL players Charles Leno Jr., Malik Williams and Keith Tandy are briefed on the history of the Nickerson Gardens apartment complex in Watts. It is the largest public housing development in California and a longtime hub of gang activity. (Ben Golliver/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Charles Leno Jr. was raised in the “Murder Dubs,” an East Oakland neighborhood whose ominous nickname references its street numbers (the 20s) and reputation for deadly crime. As the Chicago Bears offensive lineman tells it, his path to the NFL was aided by a large and caring support structure — including both parents, his grandparents and uncles — and an athletic, 6-foot-3 frame that earned him a scholarship to Boise State University.

But Leno is also quick to credit members of the Oakland Police Department, who happened upon him as a young child. “I was handling a toy gun, and the cops came up to educate me,” he said. “They broke it down, telling me what a gun can do and how the image of me holding a gun can be threatening.”

When stories of officer-involved shootings, such as the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, hit the news, Leno finds himself returning to that childhood conversation. “I remember being that kid,” he said. When a shooting like Rice’s takes place, Leno said, "I know right then and there, that’s a bad cop. That’s a guy who didn’t have any training and didn’t respect his community. He doesn’t deserve to have a job. Something about that moment [in Oakland] inspired me. These are actual good people. Not all cops are bad.”

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem to call attention to racial inequality and police mistreatment of African Americans began in August 2016, a month after the high-profile shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The protests have dominated headlines in the years since, and many players — notably those in the Players Coalition — have used the increased platform to draw awareness to social justice issues.

But there is also interest among some players to pursue a career in law enforcement once their playing days are over, and the NFL Players Association recently established a week-long externship that connects its members, including Leno, with the Los Angeles Police Department. The intensive five-day program is intended to foster dialogue and better understanding, but it has another goal: to recruit NFL players to the police force.

“Law enforcement is a natural progression for an NFL player,” said LAPD Lt. Chris Zine, who has helped run the annual NFLPA externship program since its 2018 launch. “You’re a part of a team of officers. Communication and working together are important. There’s a physical training component to the police academy. And they’re already active in their community, going to schools and talking to kids.”

The LAPD program is one of 27 offseason externships offered by the NFLPA; they place players everywhere from Gatorade to Under Armour to Capitol Hill to prepare them for life after football. Shortly after launching the externship program six years ago, NFLPA staffers began receiving requests for law enforcement placements from players, selecting the LAPD as a host given its wide-ranging facilities and resources.

All seven of this year’s LAPD externship participants were African American, as were both members of last year’s inaugural class. African Americans represent 9.6 percent of the LAPD’s sworn officers, according to departmental data, a figure nearly identical to the city’s demographic breakdown.

“There’s a narrative out there that NFL players are against the police based on how some people have viewed the player protests,” the NFLPA’s Brandon Parker said. “This program is a reinforcement that our players have a great respect for law enforcement and the military.”

LAPD officers led the NFLPA's externship participants on a foot beat patrol through the Nickerson Gardens housing development in Watts. (Ben Golliver/The Washington Post)

The 27-year-old Leno, a full-time starter on a four-year, $37 million contract he signed in 2017, was the most established player in this year’s group. Atlanta Falcons safety Keith Tandy boasts career earnings of more than $3 million, but the five others — A.J. Howard, Victor Salako, Linden Stephens, Malik Williams and Ronald Zamort — have yet to make their NFL debuts.

The week of instruction opened with a conversation about how police officers are viewed, plus a detailed overview of the job’s demands. “I thought about how my friends would react to me hanging out with police,” said Howard, 23, who participated in an internship program with the Boone, N.C., police department while working toward a pre-law degree at Appalachian State. “I’m here fact-finding and possibly wanting to get into this after football. I’m using it as a tool to network.”

Zine, an 18-year LAPD vet whose father, Dennis, served 33 years on the force, said Kaepernick’s protests and the issue of police brutality weren’t major topics of discussion this year, but the program did outline the department’s policies regarding use of force and explained concepts such as probable cause and reasonable suspicion. Zine also stressed that the LAPD had just 33 officer-involved shootings while handling 1.7 million citizen contacts in 2018, pointing to the department’s de-escalation protocols and its use of less-than-lethal tools such as stun guns and beanbag shotguns.

One of the LAPD’s central messages to the players — that a department “can’t arrest its way out of crime” — was reflective of its philosophical shift toward community-oriented policing following the infamous Rodney King beating in 1991 and the Rampart corruption scandal of the late 1990s that gave the department a negative reputation for racist behavior and misuse of force. While public opinion of the department has improved in the decades since, there have been recent officer-involved shootings that have drawn national scrutiny.

As part of a national study, The Washington Post found that nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in the United States in every year from 2015 to 2018.

The NFLPA members met with Pueblo United, a youth football team coached by LAPD officers, and Mental Evaluation Unit staff members to learn how officers identify and react to signs of mental illness. They also took part in foot patrols through Watts, a high-crime south Los Angeles neighborhood that erupted in race riots in 1965 and again after the King beating.

The players arrived at Nickerson Gardens, California’s largest public-housing community and a longtime home of gang activity, in an oversized black van dubbed “The Turtle” by officers for its protective exterior and slow pace. After disembarking, they toured an unoccupied apartment, talked to a Spanish-speaking resident with the help of an interpreter and viewed “The Wall,” an extensive mural bearing the names of victims of gun violence and other deceased community members.

At the Jordan Downs complex, where “Menace II Society” was filmed in 1993, Notorious B.I.G. thumped from a passing car as the players met with community-center employees who worked to secure a $3.7 million jobs grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They also posed for pictures with gang members, although one man drew rebukes from the officers for flashing what they interpreted as a gang sign to the cameras.

“Don’t get it twisted,” an LAPD officer told the NFLPA members once the Watts patrols were complete. “These guys still call us ‘pig,’ whether it’s from decades of systemic racism or whatever you want to call it. We’re trying to build up the trust within this community and reduce the violence.”

In between foot patrols, the NFL players and LAPD officers broke for lunch at Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles in Watts. (Ben Golliver/The Washington Post)

The players also participated in a SWAT team drill and went through a “Force Options Simulator,” an interactive computer program that allows officers to practice their responses to volatile situations. “There was a guy with a bat holding a woman,” said Tandy, shaking his head at his performance. “I shot at him and missed, and then he started hitting her.”

Early in the week, the players were taken up in helicopters to learn about the LAPD’s air support unit. Multiple players were along for the ride as an alleged domestic violence perpetrator attempted to escape on foot. “He was running from the police, and they had him barricaded all around,” Leno recalled. “He was jumping on top of houses as he ran away. I was getting a little dizzy because the helicopter was making tight turns. It wasn’t a fun merry-go-round.”

Throughout the program, the cops and players drew parallels between their lines of work. Leno compared the fast-paced decision-making skills needed to handle an active shooter situation in the simulator to his day job processing coverage and audibles. The players were also warned that the lack of adrenaline control after a high-intensity altercation that leads to late hits on the field can produce the most explosive and regrettable behavior from officers. “There’s a lot of similarities,” Leno said. “Except their decisions are life and death and ours are a game.”

While the LAPD’s starting salary is roughly $63,000, the total benefits package includes overtime, a family health insurance plan and a pension. That doesn’t sound like much compared with the tens of millions of dollars paid to NFL stars, but it’s reasonably enticing to practice-squad players looking for a career with job security after football. Troy Nolan, one of last year’s externship participants, is now in the LAPD’s hiring process after a three-year NFL career spent mostly with the Houston Texans.

Although Leno isn’t about to walk away from his NFL riches, he completed the externship with knowledge that will guide his future. If former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman successfully transitioned from a 13-year football career to life as an FBI agent, Leno reasoned, perhaps he could follow a similar path.

“I always knew a policeman’s job was hard,” he said. “But they have to be psychologists, paramedics, mental health advocates, and the list goes on. It’s awesome work they do. Whether in Oakland or in Chicago where I’m playing, I want to be more of an asset to my community.”

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