Far Rockaway Watchdogs Find  Mentors Within the NYPD

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 Jennifer Blair, founder of the Far Rockaway Watchdogs, has been hard at work making meaningful connections throughout the community, especially with local youth. Her efforts recently caught the attention of NYPD Assistant Chief Ruben Beltran, commanding officer of NYPD Patrol Borough Queens South, who made the trip out to Rockaway on Tuesday, November 17, to see her work in action and offer his support on behalf of law enforcement.

Unfortunately, less than desirable weather forced a change of plans from an event that was supposed to be held at Bayswater Park, featuring a football and basketball showcase and a dance party, but a quick backup plan of hot chocolate and a networking opportunity at Far Rockaway’s 101st Precinct offered local youth the chance to make connections with police and learn about opportunities for their future.

Over the past few months, Blair has been spearheading efforts to connect local youth with law enforcement, but the Far Rockaway Watchdogs has been making meaningful changes within the community since it began in 2004. In memory of her dear cousin, Quentin B. Johnson, who was killed due to gun violence in 1999, Blair wanted to do something to honor him, so she set out to host a basketball tournament, a sport that Johnson loved. With funding provided by then Councilman James Sanders Jr., Blair established an official organization to carry out her efforts, which paved the way for the Far Rockaway Watchdogs.

The turnout for the tournament was beyond her expectations. “So many kids came out. It was amazing. They walked, rode their bikes and skateboards and came out from all over. Kids like organized sports and structure and rules and there’s so many lessons and takeaways from it,” Blair said. “We figured sports was a good way to connect with people, keep them engaged and healthy and connect them with positive role models.”

Having worked as an EMT and a juvenile detention counselor in prisons, Blair knows firsthand the importance of keeping youth healthy, engaged and surrounded by mentors. The Far Rockaway Watchdogs provides an outlet for all of those things by hosting events and connecting community members with vital resources and giving youth an outlet to play sports. Part of that effort was to include the start of a flag football league this year, but coronavirus put those plans on pause until next year. However, the organization found new purpose this year as events unfolded across the country. With the pandemic in play, the group has made efforts to deliver groceries to local seniors. Then as a national conversation opened up about policing, the focus changed again.

“After the George Floyd tragedy, we switched our trajectory to work more with law enforcement,” she said. The group started working with local police to spearhead basketball and softball games between local youth and officers. “And after the incident on the boardwalk where an officer used a chokehold, we doubled down,” Blair said. “We knew Rockaway people are different. We don’t want to turn Rockaway into Portland. There’s protests all over but Rockaway has protested and not one window was shattered.” Using that energy, Blair focused on connecting even more with local law enforcement, opening up meaningful dialogue between the community and the NYPD. At the end of June, she hosted a panel at Macedonia Baptist Church to bring together local police, youth, clergy and more for an emotional conversation. “It was good to hear from police officers who worked in Rockaway so soon after what happened. Everyone was emotional and upset and didn’t know how to direct those frustrations, so we took a humanistic approach and sat down with the officers and just talked,” Blair said.

Tuesday’s event involving the commanding officer of Queens South showed that these connections and conversations are ongoing. “I wanted everyone to see what community partners can do with law enforcement because the community is not going anywhere, and law enforcement isn’t going anywhere. Defund the police is the wrong brand,” Blair said before Chief Beltran and the officers of the 101st Precinct. “We want to fund you, but we want it to go to the proper channels. Let the community do what you shouldn’t do. Let us do this type of work and we can work together.”

Assistant Chief Beltran, who is familiar with the Rockaways as he raised his kids here, agreed. “I met Jennifer at a police reform meeting and the second she started talking about her program, I was excited to learn more about it. I’ve gotten to see it in person and the impact that you have in the community and on the kids. Kids are the future. Working with the kids, developing kids and mentoring kids is important. The work that you’re doing with the kids and young men and women, that’s what we need to work harder on to do. It’s gotta be successful, in that the young men and women want to participate and be a part of the change,” Beltran said. “How do we convert that energy from marching and social justice to improving our lives and having hope for the future? That happens with kids. There’s nobody more hopeful than kids. They have a blank slate, they have the world in front of them, they see where they want to go in their dreams. Our job is to make them believe those dreams come true and they can become whatever they want to become. Find out what that skill is, what that gift is and let them create that for future and make the world a better place. You’re on the frontlines of doing that so I thank you Jennifer.”

Before delicious hot chocolate was served, the floor was opened up to questions. Several of the youth in attendance, from NYPD Explorers to the youth of the Far Rockaway Watchdogs had questions for Assistant Chief Beltran and representatives from the Queens District Attorney’s office about internship opportunities and efforts to engage youth and how those opportunities can help guide their future.

By Katie McFadden

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