When Officer Donielle “DL” Watson and his partner Officer Alex Avendano arrived at the home of the suspected 15-year-old gang affiliate, they were greeted by his mother and two siblings, but the young man seemed embarrassed by the team’s arrival, with a pastor and reporter in tow. There was no apparent indication of a father figure residing in the home, but all the team members earnestly hoped by being there — however brief — they could help make a difference in this young man’s life.
The kid had been in trouble in school, and based on his association with known gang affiliates, without some intervention, it probably wouldn’t be long before he was a fully committed gang member, or worse, locked up in a Kansas Jail. The team wasn’t there to arrest him or even question him about a crime. Instead, they were there to just talk, mostly about the young man’s future.
It’s not clear whether the officers made an immediate impact with the young man that day, but they’ll keep trying, and along the way, they’ll change or even save a life, and it will be worth it.
The officers are part of the City of Wichita Police Department’s new Juvenile Intervention Unit (JUI) aimed at proactively addressing and reducing youth involvement in gangs and illegal behavior. The Unit works under the premise that appropriate and non-violent interactions between youth and law enforcement officers can significantly reduce juvenile arrests.
“The great thing about what Officer Watson and WPD are doing is opening them [troubled youth]for better community/police relations,” said Pastor Albert Paredes, a former gang member and drug runner for the Mexican cartel.
Pastor Paredes, who rode along with the duo that day, led a prayer for the young man and his family before the team left the home. Albert sees the value of the JIU Unit and what Watson and Avendano are doing.
“It’s a good thing to call somebody, but it’s better to knock on their door and meet them in their home. Get in that living room, pray with them and tell them, hey, what else can we do to help you,” said Pastor Paredes. “What can we do as a community to save them from that horrible life?”
Through his work with the JUI, Officer Watson focuses on balancing public safety demands with the best interests of the youth in the city. Watson, a native of northeast Wichita, strives to positively impact the same neighborhoods he once grew up in. As a former gang member himself, Watson’s work with the JUI is more than a job.
Watson knows some of what the children he’s trying to reach are up against. As a child, Watson’s father was addicted to drugs and left him to be raised by his single mother. Growing up, in his father’s absence, he began to gravitate towards drug dealers and gang members as father figures.
Watson’s mother noticed the shift in his behavior and used the church and his love for basketball as leverage to steer him away from the streets.
“Before my dad left the house. He did one of the best things ever, and that was building a basketball goal in the backyard, and my mom knew that was my passion,” said Watson. “She told me, ‘hey, I see that you’re gravitating towards gangs. So, you need to leave that life behind and get involved in the church if you want to play.’”
His mother helped him get involved in church, where he could gravitate towards family men, business owners, and others involved in the community. He recalled men like John Wright, who was coach of a community track team, and Pastor Kevass Harding, who at one time had been a Wichita police officer, as being among the men who had a positive impact on his life.
“That’s kind of why I’m invested in a nutshell, because of how I grew up, ” said Officer Watson. “I love the city. I love my people, and I especially want people that look like me to succeed.”
Officer Watson has dedicated much of his 17 years with WPD working on gang prevention as a special community action team member (SCAT), gang intelligence officer, and the Violent Crimes Response Team. His current position is considered part of the department’s community policing team.
Recently, WPD has come together with the local church and community leaders, asking for help to curb the rise in youth violence. According to the WPD Crime Analysis, in 2021 alone, there have been 45 shooting victims between ages 15 and 19.
“Even though there is an uptick in violence. I still feel like we are a pretty safe city. But still, we’re hurting, and we are hurting as a nation,” said Watson. “When you look at a lot of the youth in the system or involved in these shootings, a lot of their basic resources haven’t been met, like food, clothing, shelter, and so they’re active [in gangs] because they feel pressure from outside influences.”
Watson was on the team that helped create The Way to Work program that empowers youth with schooling, job prospects, and positive lifestyle changes to help local kids get into college. Each year, the program hires 120 to 150 temporary/part-time seasonal youth, with some going on to receive full-time job offers.
With kids spending so much time engaging online, Officers Watson and Avendano thought of another way to impact them positively. As a result, they created the YouTube channel Positive Blues which allows the duo to reach a bigger audience than they could with their regular work.
The channel covers both behind-the-scenes glimpses at WPD, vital information on managing stress and interview preparation skills and more entertaining videos like why cops love doughnuts.
“ I’ve only been a police officer for 17 years, but I’ve been a Black man in this community for 40 years, so I have a unique perspective to offer the youth from seeing both sides,” said Watson. “There are not very many out there like me because I’m still in the streets. I’m still in the trenches talking to the kids and the families, and these are the same streets that I grew up in.”
When Officer Watson isn’t in uniform, he is an active member of his community. He sits on several boards, including the Wichita Branch NAACP and McAdams Academy, an alternative school for students expelled from USD 259.
Watson advocates for stronger mental health counseling for both youth and adults, serve his fellow officers as a peer supporter for officer-involved shootings, and firmly believes in the power of yoga as a positive stress reliever. He hopes to institute yoga principles into the community.