On a recent Friday night, a few marked patrol cars sat outside a gymnasium in Oak Park not such an unusual sight in this rough-and-tumble Sacramento neighborhood.
This time, however, kids were eager to see the cars out front and the sheriff's deputies shooting hoops inside.
"The best part is you play with police officers," 12-year-old David Jimenez said on a break from the basketball court.
"They teach you how to shoot. They talk about what's wrong and what's good," Jimenez said. "It's fun to have them here."
To the Sacramento Sheriff's Activities League, those words represent a victory that reaches far beyond the basketball court.
Sheriff's officials used a $11.3 million federal grant to create a 25-member anti-gang "Impact Division" with goals of intelligence-led policing, gang suppression and youth outreach.
At the center of that outreach is the SAL program, an effort to build bridges between law enforcement and area youths and loosen the stranglehold that gangs have on some of Sacramento's neighborhoods.
Dozens of sheriff's and police activities leagues can be found across the state and even in the Sacramento region. But this SAL stands out, sheriff's officials say, because it is staffed by on-duty deputies rather than volunteers.
Capt. Erik Maness, head of the Impact Division, said it represents the department's reinvigorated commitment to gang prevention and youth outreach.
"We have to get the kids on the front end, before they get into the gang lifestyle, before they get into drugs, before they get into all the things that can lead them astray," he said. "It creates a safer community altogether."
At the helm of SAL is former gang detective Deputy Cary Trzcinski, known to the kids as "Coach Cary." So far, he's organized "open gym" sessions on Friday nights in Oak Park. He also referees basketball games for local schools and teaches gang-prevention classes. Trzcinski who coaches youth sports on his own time hopes to start soccer and rugby teams and a summer football camp.
"You can use a lot of avenues to teach," he said. "I like to use sports."
For his days working with kids, Trzcinski suits up in khaki cargo pants and a black polo shirt usually without his gun. He wears his badge around his neck, and he sometimes hands it off to kids while they're playing.
It wasn't always that way, not when Trzcinski first started showing up at the Ephraim Williams Family Life Center in full uniform.
"I used to tease him," chuckled Charles Doss, gym supervisor of the Dr. Ephraim Williams Family Life Center. "He'd have all this gear on, and nobody would talk to him."
Now children enjoy being around the more casually dressed Trzcinski, Doss said. He noted that many adults want to make a difference but show up only for photo opportunities.
The kids know the difference, Doss said. "They just want to see consistency."
They have found it in Trzcinski, now a familiar face around the gym.
Trzcinski said he began to rethink his attitude toward youths after his partner, Vu Nguyen, was shot to death by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007. Instead of growing more cynical, Trzcinski said he began seeing the value in reaching kids before they are entrenched in the gang life.
The program has inspired such thinking in other deputies, too, he said.
"A lot of these deputies are recognizing that there are a lot of good kids out there," Trzcinski said. "They're not all dope dealers, they're not all gang members."
On a recent Friday, 9-year-old Malachi Grant breezed into the gym, gave Trzcinski a high-five and headed for the court. His father followed closely behind, also giving the deputy's hand a slap.
"I think it's good kids get to see cops are here to help," said the elder Malachi Grant, " no matter how it's perceived wherever (the kids) are from."
Celina Sanchez, 34, watched from the bleachers as her 11-year-old sons, T.J. and Julian Garcia, shot hoops with Trzcinski and his boss, Sgt. Mark Scott.
"A lot of youth, especially in this neighborhood, get scared and don't know how to interact (with officers)," she said. "It's kind of neat to see a different side of them."
Taking a break from a recent "open gym" session, 12-year-old Jason Bass said he has enjoyed getting to know the deputies who make his friends and him run drills and listen to life lessons before hitting the court.
"They make me think like they're my brothers," Bass said.
James Hernandez, criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said such activities leagues are "very effective."
The approach is akin to old-fashioned policing, when officers were more involved in their communities, Hernandez said. By the 1990s gang enforcement in particular had become much more aggressive and driven by arrests.
Outreach efforts like SAL, however, represent a positive shift back and are "the best investment of time and energy" an agency can make, Hernandez said.
"You'll never completely bridge the gap between the police and the policed, but you start putting names with each other," he said.
Maness and Trzcinski said they got a cold reception when they hit the streets to drum up interest in SAL.
"Kids would run away, doors were slamming, people were hopping fences," Maness said. "It's because cops never show up to do something good in their lives. That's what we want to change."
Santiago Chapa, principal at Bret Harte Elementary, said that when Trzcinski first started showing up at his students' games, they had a "visceral reaction" to seeing a patrol car out front.
But when Trzcinski pulled up on this particular Friday, one student reminded another that a police car out front doesn't always mean something bad has happened.
"It was mimicking (what Trzcinski tells the kids), but that's learning," Chapa said.
Maness and Trzcinski acknowledge the program's effectiveness will have to be evaluated over the long term. But so far, they agree, relationships are being forged.
"It's a whole different dynamic," Maness said. "The kids are running to (the deputies). It's a beautiful thing."