Follow Sherman Patterson around Minneapolis and it doesn't take long to see why the police department chose him as its community engagement coordinator.
Stepping from a recent meeting with his boss, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, Patterson found Larry McKenzie, coach of the North High School boys basketball team. After some quick introductions and a photo, they were off again to the next meeting. The brief exchange, though, built a small bridge between a community leader and the chief.
It's one of the reasons Harteau created the position for Patterson this year. He knows a lot of people — especially people who don't normally interact comfortably with police officers.
Harteau is trying to improve relations between the department and the city's many ethnic and racial minorities, which have historically been contentious. Besides creating the new coordinator position, Harteau also meets with a citizen advisory group, made up of city residents, community activists, clergy and high ranking MPD officers.
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Patterson, though, brings a unique background to the work of building relationships. He's a retired soldier, a mentor to kids on the north side, and nephew of a heavyweight boxing champion. Patterson is also the recipient of a $100,000 Bush Foundation Fellowship, which he says he'll use to help keep kids away from guns.
"He's almost like a reference," Harteau said. "People are initially hesitant to work with police officers. It's this unknown. It's scary to folks. I mean, that's the whole thing about fear is it's about the unknown. Sherman can say, 'look, I work for the chief.'"
Before he worked for the chief, Patterson worked for former Mayor R.T. Rybak for eight years as a public safety aide. As a part of the job, Patterson sometimes had to wake the mayor early in the morning to tell him about the violent deaths of Minneapolis children. Patterson often accompanied the mayor to meet with the grieving parents.
Patterson, 49, said he was inspired to pursue public service many years ago in Savannah, Ga., where he was born and raised.
"I grew up in a tough environment. However, I was surrounded by a lot of mentors," Patterson said. "I came from a broken home. My dad wasn't there."
Patterson was raised by his grandmother, Martha Hilton, known as "Momma Tee" to the rest of the family. The 94-year-old woman, a former sharecropper, was a strict disciplinarian who helped raise Patterson and his three other siblings.
During a recent phone conversation, Sherman asked his grandmother to tell a reporter how she helped him turn out OK. "Because I would kill him, if he did something wrong," Hilton said as Patterson chuckled.
Patterson says his grandmother presented him with an ultimatum after she found out he got placed on academic probation as a college freshman.
"She says, 'you have 90 days — whether you go back to school, you go to work, you go to the military, but you're out of here. You're making adult decisions. Well, I'm going to show you,'" he recalled.
Patterson enlisted in the Army and rose eventually to first sergeant.
Patterson returned home to attend a family funeral, and remembers driving to the ceremony with his uncle — former world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson.
Patterson says his uncle stopped the car when he saw two young kids sitting by the side of the road. The kids' parents had put them out on the street to fend for themselves. Floyd Patterson gathered the two in the car and took a detour to the welfare office to make sure the kids got some help.
"He said, 'OK, after the funeral I'll get back with you. I want to make sure these kids are alright,'" Sherman Patterson remembered. "Man, that just reaffirmed everything I was doing as a young soldier was the right thing."
Something else at that funeral had a profound impact on Patterson. His estranged father came to the funeral in handcuffs.
Patterson said his father was serving time for a drug-related crime and was escorted to the ceremony by law enforcement officials. They had a conversation at the funeral which helped them reconcile their differences before his father died years later in 2002.
Patterson's father is not the only family member to serve time in prison. One of his brothers is in federal prison serving a white collar crime sentence, he said. Another brother is a sheriff's deputy in Savannah.
Patterson moved to Minnesota in 1999 when he was assigned to serve here and stayed when he met his wife. After he retired from the Army a few years later in 2002, they moved to north Minneapolis.
He soon discovered his house was located in the middle of gang territory. There were frequent shootings and other violence on or near his block. Instead of moving, Patterson reached out to the young gang members.
"These kids were good kids," he said. "I think they were good kids who just got caught up."
Over the years, Patterson has established relationships with the teenagers and sometimes took them out of the neighborhood for pizza or movies. He learned about their lives and learned what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Patterson was one of 24 people from the region to receive a 2014 Bush Fellowship. He says he will use the $100,000 award and the stories he heard from the young men on his block to help end the culture of gun violence.
Some young people carry guns for protection, others for show; others grew up around family members who illegally possessed guns, he added.
"If you look at where the guns — as far as our community — where the guns are coming from, they see it from a small age," he said. "How do we break that cycle?"
Patterson is still developing his program. So far, his plans are to recruit between 10 and 20 African-American and Somali kids who are at least 13 years old. He hopes to immerse them in existing youth programs and mentor and track their progress.
The work has become particularly important now at this stage of his life. A married father of two, Patterson will soon become a grandfather.