On a bright, breezy spring day, you see him out there on the baseball diamond - throwing the ball, catching it and pitching it back, but he’s not a player, and he’s not a coach. It’s Duncanville ISD Police Sergeant, Mitchell Lambert.
Sgt. Lambert has committed to connecting with members of the Duncanville High School baseball team as part of the department’s new ‘Panther 5.0’ youth engagement program. The effort, started this school year by Chief Chavela Hampton, is designed to foster good relationships between officers and the students they serve.
“It breaks the stigma,” said Chief Hampton. “It prevents youths from being involved in criminal activity. It gives them an out.”
Chief Hampton acknowledges many students only see police when something is wrong at home or if they get in trouble at school. Meeting on more favorable terms allows officers an entryway into students’ lives.
Sgt. Lambert is comfortable on the baseball field, having played the sport in high school himself. But he still felt self-conscious about fitting in with the students.
“At first I stuck out like a sore thumb,” said Sgt. Lambert.
Junior pitcher and third baseman Jonathan Alvarado was the first player on to befriend Sgt. Lambert. Johnathan was working on his pitching speed, so Sgt. Lambert set a goal for him and promised a Whataburger gift card if he reached it.
“We just had a bet, if I could reach the speed,” Jonathan said.
It didn’t take long for Johnathan to meet the challenge. And the first person he told was Sgt. Lambert.
“He couldn’t wait to tell me he had passed up 86 miles per hour,” said Sgt. Lambert.
Varsity Baseball Coach Scott Fahey wasn’t sure what to expect the first time he got a call from the district’s police department. He was concerned one of his players was in trouble. But now, seeing Sgt. Lambert at practice and games – sometimes in uniform, sometimes not – has become a welcome addition.
“If a kid would miss practice Lambert would follow up with him, just check in on him and make sure he’s all right,” said Coach Fahey. “There are a lot of things kids are dealing with – parents splitting, living with one on a certain day, living with another on a certain day. Lambert’s been really good at connecting with the kids and checking in on them.”
Sgt. Lambert is a regular in the dugout motivating players throughout games with fist bumps and words of encouragement. He has escorted the team to games in his police car with lights flashing. That’s been a hit with the players.
“I think they like the attention. It makes them feel important and that’s what our program is about. Celebrating the small things. Enjoying time with each other,” said Coach Fahey.
“It’s really fun. Just getting escorted. Just makes us feel like we’re big time,” Jonathan said.
Other members of the police department have also adopted groups. Chief Hampton has been hanging out with the freshman basketball team.
Officer Chastity Hylton regularly spends time with students at Central Elementary School.
The Panther 5.0 program has started with sports this year because those are the students who have been most regularly available during the pandemic. But the initiative is intended to include any student in the district who wants to get to know the officers.
Sgt. Lambert said trying to relate with students has pushed him out of his comfort zone because, as a police officer, he isn’t always sure whether the students will accept him. It also takes some time and work. Many of those hours spent at practices, games and performances don’t occur during the normal work day. But that investment is key to accomplishing the main goals of Panther 5.0 - establishing trust and ultimately, keeping everyone at school safe.
“It lets me see what kind of impact I can have instead of just responding to a call,” said Sgt. Lambert. “It reassures me that a relationship can be developed.”
It’s already happening for Sgt. Lambert and the baseball players. Jonathan says he and his friends can trust the officer to help them if he can.
“We all like having him with us,” Jonathan said. “He’s just a good guy.”