It’s not something people regularly see, which perhaps explains why a photo of three Chicago Police officers playing football with a few kids on a vacant lot in North Lawndale has gone viral on social media.
Four young Chicago cops were on foot patrol April 14 in the North Lawndale neighborhood when they came across a group of kids playing in a grassy lot at Roosevelt and Albany.
“Some kids were tossing a ball around, and they asked if we wanted to play with them,” said officer Pete Kalenik, 30. “So we just got out there and tossed the ball around.”
The cops regularly see those kids and have played basketball with them in the past.
The game: four-on-four, two-hand-touch football.
“One of the kids loved to juke and dodge. Another one loved to hide behind us as we blocked,” recalled Kalenik, who played football at Lane Tech High School and Concordia University Chicago.
Officer Olivia Karas, 26, subbed out of the game to let another kid play when she noticed people from the neighborhood stopping their cars to take pictures.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to take one myself so we could have a copy, so I just stepped aside and took a picture, too,” Karas said.
Kalenik, who’s holding the ball in the picture, posted it to Facebook. It was soon re-posted to the Chicago Police Department Facebook page, where it’s garnered 31,000 likes and 1,400 comments. One of Kalenik’s friends posted it to Reddit, where the photo has been viewed more than 500,000 times.
“We’re out there every day talking with folks and trying to build real relationships in order to have a level of trust where, if something does happen in the community, folks are more than willing to share information with us so that we can solve whatever crime may or may not have taken place,” said Kalenik, who served in the Army and taught at a Catholic school in Englewood before joining the police department.
The impromptu football game lasted about 20 minutes.
Valerie Leonard, a North Lawndale resident and community activist, said the photo stands in great contrast to the strained relationship many young black men in the community have with police officers.
“Every day you hear something on the news about a white cop shooting a black kid or black man, and this picture is so refreshing where you see young black boys playing football with white cops,” Leonard said. “It’s a nice break from all that.”
Leonard, who is Facebook friends with Kalenik, said some people looked at the photo and wondered why there was so much trash on the playing field.
“As a result of that, people are organizing a cleanup,” she said.
Sgt. Chris Taliaferro, who works in Rogers Park but will take a leave of absence when he is sworn in as alderman of the 29th Ward, applauded the work of the young officers.
“One of the biggest complaints is that cops don’t get out of their cars and interact with the community,” Taliaferro said. “It’s not easy being a police officer and taking the criticism a police officer takes every day.”
“If we are going to engage our youth and hope to get them off the streets and out of gangs, we need to be able to relate with them. It’s very positive what those officers are doing. Those 20 minutes leave an impression.”
Chicago police officers Olivia Karas and Pete Kalenic ended up playing touch football with some kids they know in North Lawndale. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times