• Print

    Memphis police officer gives time, money to run mentorship program

    Scott Carroll

    Memphis police officer James Smith with other MPD officers and volunteers run a mentorship program called One Beat, Inc. for children at the Dave Wells community center.

    Even in street clothes, Memphis police officer James Smith looks like a cop. And the kids at Dave Wells Community Center in North Memphis let him know.

    "They say, 'You look like the police,'" said Smith, a 15-year MPD veteran.

    It could be his mustache. Or his posture.

    Either way, Smith's badge has sometimes been a hindrance to gaining the trust of the at-risk adolescents he tries to help in his mentorship program, One Beat Inc. But the kids soon learn how much they have in common with him.

    Like many of the nearly four dozen children involved in the program, Smith grew up in a single-parent home in a rough neighborhood. He, too, was wary of authority.

    "I was always scared of the police," said Smith, 39.

    So were many of the kids in One Beat before they met him.

    Smith and a volunteer staff of about eight provide tutoring, programs in the arts and athletics, and gang prevention workshops at the community center on Chelsea several days a week. The nonprofit group also gives meals, schoolbooks and clothes to children in the program, regularly at Smith's personal expense.

    And since its founding in April 2011, One Beat has collected about $30,000 in scholarship money from private donations, according to Smith.

    Outside the community center, which is hoping to install a computer lab and small recording studio for One Beat programs, support continues for the kids and their family members.

    "My phone doesn't stop ringing," Smith said. "I'm on duty 24 hours a day. Even when I'm off duty, I'm on duty."

    One recent call came from a suicidal 23-year-old man formerly involved with One Beat, Smith said. The man had just been diagnosed with HIV.

    "I was tired that night," Smith recalled. "I had worked at least 10 hours or more. But I went out to this guy's house and I had to literally pull the gun out of his hand."

    The two talked and prayed together afterward, Smith said.

    Other times, a child in the program just needs a warm place to stay. Smith and his family fostered a 16-year-old Frayser girl over the holidays when her family couldn't pay their utilities bill.

    "What we're trying to do is bring hope," Smith said. "When we take this blue uniform off, when we hang up our badges, our guns, or whatever it is, we're trying to show that we're human too. We see the hurt."

    In his nine years as director of the Dave Wells center, 57-year-old Billy Richmond has also seen the hurt. But since Smith arrived, he's seen something else.

    "I can see a difference in them already, because my kids were always so loose and going wild," he said. "Then Mr. James got involved."

    Many kids in the program, including 16-year-old Northside High School student Martavious Bullard, now speak to adults using "sir" or "ma'am." And — like Smith — they pay attention to their posture. It's the small things that can be big confidence boosters, Smith said.

    When Smith wasn't helping Bullard outline a career path, the two worked to get Bullard's 16-year-old friend to leave the Vice Lords gang.

    "We're trying to help others do the right thing," Bullard said.

    Three other MPD officers — John Stone, Kimberly Houston and Smith's wife of 10 years, Alana — also staff One Beat, and Smith's daughters, ages 16 and 10, are among the children in the program.

    "It's easy to talk when you're a person of authority, when you're in uniform," Smith said. "But (the kids) want to see you in T-shirts and jeans. They want to see you out in the community. They want to see your face, and they want to see you actually stand for what you say."