Chess Offers A Way For Pittsburgh Cops To Connect With Kids In ‘Challenged’ Neighborhoods

May 1, 2017

Officer David Shifren plays a game of chess April 25, 2017 at the Hazelwood Library.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

After school, many Hazelwood kids migrate to the library. Some stick to computers and scroll through the internet, some huddle in a corner to read books and a pair of 12-year-olds play chess.

Leroy Spencer, 12, moved to Hazelwood to live with his dad about a year ago. One of his new friends told him that people play chess at the library, so he started bringing Dieon Ford, also 12, who already had an interest in the game. His mother taught him how to play a few years ago and he said he watches YouTube videos of professional players in his spare time.

The two boys are at about the same skill level and it’s a tossup who will win when they play. Although they’ve been playing against each other for a couple of months, they still correct each other after a move.

“You can’t go sideways,” Spencer said, patiently surveying the board.

Ford agreed, as Spencer offered a solution.

“I’d move your piece here and risk this life,” Spencer said. “It’s the best thing you can do.”

While they go back and forth over moves, they get encouragement from an unlikely source: a cop.  

Officer David Shifren plays a game of chess with a child at the Hazelwood Library April 25, 2017 at the Hazelwood Library.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

“Yes, very nice,” said Pittsburgh Police officer David Shifren, confirming that Ford won by promoting a pawn into a queen. “That’s a check mate.”

Shifren knows the boys, not only because he teaches them the rules of chess, but because he patrols their neighborhood as a Zone 4 officer. While sporting his black uniform, he reminds them to be patient and shake hands when the game is over.

About a year-and-a-half ago, a Pittsburgh Police commander sent out a memo to rank-and-file asking for volunteers to coach youth sports teams.  Then-Chief Cameron McLay supported the idea as a community policing initiative. Current Police Chief Scott Schubert has also been supportive of community outreach.

At the time, Shifren, who’s had somewhat of an unconventional career path, proposed the idea of teaching chess to the kids who don’t play sports. At age 63, he’s only been a Pittsburgh police officer for four years, and describes himself as a novelist and screenwriter. He previously spent five years as a police officer in the South Hills. He said he wanted to work on a script and took off time to go back to school. A few years ago, he said he wanted to get back into policing and applied to be an officer in the city. 

“I was doing ride alongs with the city of Pittsburgh homicide detectives and found it fascinating,” he said. “It was research for a book. I went to the police academy for more material and found policing so interesting that I went into it.”

Shifren also has experience teaching chess, which he learned from his father.

He acknowledged that kids might hesitate in trusting cops. A lot of children might only interact with a cop when something bad has happened.

Dieon Ford, 12 of Hazelwood, plays a game of chess April 25, 2017 at the Hazelwood Library.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

“I like to think that if they come to know me as a person, then they’ll be more understanding. They’ll listen more, I guess, is a big part of it,” he said. “A lot of problems come when people listen to each other. Listening to a police officer, not only in terms of my telling them what they must do, but making suggestions that concern their welfare and them doing well.”

Shifren said chess teaches the same kind of life skills other extracurricular activities offer – like patience and strategy. He repeats the motto of “think before you move” when playing, telling kids that their actions have consequences.

In the last few weeks, he’s worked with cops from Wilkinsburg and Aspinwall who are interested in starting programs of their own. The program has also branched out to other city neighborhoods, including Beechview, Sheraden, Knoxville and South Oakland – all neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. Two other community resource officers cover those clubs. Shifren refers to them as “challenged” neighborhoods that could benefit from community policing.

“It’s improving relations. It’s making for some kind of trusting relationship, frankly,” he said. “I try to be a nice chess player. I’m OK if they try to take back a move, generally.”

These days, people in the neighborhood call him the chess cop. He said he’s getting more questions from the kids about chess than about being a police officer. Seeing him as a person and not just a cop, he said, is part of the goal.