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On Chess: Chess Program Aspires To Build Bridges Between Police Officers And Local Youth

Police officers and students engaged in a friendly game of chess during this 2019 C.H.E.S.S. Cops event at Gateway Middle School
Crystal Fuller
St. Louis Chess Club
Police officers and students engage in a friendly game of chess during this 2019 CHESS Cops event at Gateway Middle School.

During these challenging times, it remains vitally important to find ways to strengthen relationships between police officers and students of color. In response to this need, the St. Louis Chess Club created the Chess Helping Enhance Student Skills program to bring students and police officers together over a game of chess. CHESS Cops events have always been fun, and now there is evidence that suggests these events have a positive impact on students’ perceptions of and relationships with police officers.

The CHESS Cops program is still relatively new. It began in 2017 as a one-off breakfast event but has since developed into a widespread community outreach program partnering local police departments with St. Louis area schools to facilitate chess games between students and police. The aim: bring distanced communities together and strengthen neighborhoods through the personal interactions facilitated by one of humanity’s oldest games. Following that first breakfast, CHESS Cops has hosted numerous events and summer camps. It’s spurred students at a local school to build their own chess club. It’s also started an effort to train school resource officers to assist within chess classrooms while always providing students and police officers a platform to sit together and play in a trusting environment.

Early indicators suggest that CHESS Cops is positively impacting students’ perceptions of police officers. This spring, the St. Louis Chess Club worked with researchers from St. Louis University, the University of Missouri and Basis Policy Research to understand the social impact of some of its outreach programs, including CHESS Cops. Feedback surveys following a CHESS Cops event at Lift for Life Academy asked students about their attitudes, trust and feelings about the police. Of the participating students, 92% said playing chess with the police officers helped them see police as regular people, 86% said it helped them see the officers as more friendly, and 86% responded that it helped them trust the officers more. While these results are encouraging, it is imperative that both parties come away from these events with a better understanding of each other. Trust between communities is built by the players on both sides of the chessboard; future research is needed to understand if the perspectives of the police officers are changing, too.

As a community, St. Louis has been traumatized by the shooting of Michael Brown and the fallout of other high-profile interactions between police officers and people of color. CHESS Cops is a welcome bright spot in our community. Reflecting on the recent CHESS Cops event, Lift for Life Academy Principal Jeff Edwards stressed the importance of building "positive interactions with [police officers], because there is so much negativity out there.” Opportunities like CHESS Cops may be one method to build bridges between police officers and the communities they serve.

Professor Brian Kisida and Dr. Matthew Pepper lead the St. Louis Chess Club’s research agenda investigating the impact of chess on student success. Andrew Diemer is a doctoral student at St. Louis University.

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