The first few times Apex Police officer Jacques Gilbert met Tracy Stallworth about four years ago, they immediately disliked each other.
Stallworth, a teenager at the time, was known to the Apex Police Department for multiple trespassing complaints from churches and businesses that didn’t appreciate him and his friends skateboarding on their property. Gilbert was the police captain who frequently got called to go break up the skateboarders. But they began an effort that ended with the town’s building a $1 million skate park near downtown this summer.
The story of their unlikely, yet fruitful, partnership was shared Monday at the White House at a ceremony with Vice President Joe Biden honoring Champions of Change. Gilbert and Stallworth, 20, were one of seven pairs of police officers and youth recognized from around the country.
At a time when law enforcement officers are increasingly criticized, Biden said, it’s important to highlight the good stories as well.
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“We’ve seen some bad cops lately, and it’s been highlighted,” he said at the ceremony that was streamed live on the Internet. “We’ve got to give good cops – we’ve got to give them some ammunition. ... There’s a small percentage of law enforcement who abuses their power. But we can’t let that cloud our judgment.”
There was a common theme among the seven pairs recognized Monday. They all involved police officers who did more than just respond to calls. They walked neighborhoods, got to know residents and broke down stereotypes.
They all also created something in their communities, ranging from the skate park in Apex to a youth boxing program in Texas and a homeless youth outreach in Oregon. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who grew up in Durham, called them “our hope for the future.”
Biden said for police officers and the communities they serve to unlock that potential, they must first stop stereotyping one another. Both Stallworth and Gilbert said they were guilty of that.
To Gilbert, a police officer for 25 years, skateboarders were punks. To Stallworth, cops were unreasonable.
“Officer Gilbert was the first police officer that I met that I personally liked,” Stallworth told the audience during a round-table discussion where the honorees shared their success stories.
“Before, people wanted to bother me, or they were on a power trip,” he said. “They had power and wanted to use it.”
The day it all changed, Gilbert responded to a noise complaint at Stallworth’s house. The teen’s neighbors had called the police to complain about his skateboarding in his own driveway, and Gilbert sided with the neighbors.
Stallworth was frustrated, but Gilbert didn’t care.
“Tracy asked, ‘Well, where can I skate?’ ” Gilbert said. “And I told him, ‘You gotta figure that out.’ ”
Gilbert drove off, but he was bothered. He came back to Stallworth’s house and invited the teen to grab some food. They started talking about the needs of both skaters and property owners in Apex and learned they had some common goals.
That meal was the beginning of the town’s new skate park, the Rodgers Family Skate Plaza.
Stallworth, who aspires to become a professional skater, told the audience he appreciated Gilbert’s invitation to sit down and talk.
“I think the biggest thing for it is dropping all the pride you have, whether it’s, ‘Oh I don’t want to be friends with this police officer,’ or for the police officer, ‘Oh I don’t want to deal with this little kid,’ ” Stallworth said.
Gilbert took the skate park idea to town leaders. They supported it and found strong community backing as well, with about a third of the $1 million cost coming from private donations.
Now, police officers have more time to respond to other calls. Downtown business owners aren’t bothered by skaters, and the skaters themselves have a place to hang out that’s both safer and less intrusive.
“I just tried to understand who Tracy was and what was important to him,” Gilbert said. “I think that’s important for all law enforcement officers, although sometimes we get away from that.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran