Ulisa Arreola-Campos had a lot on her plate the day she was supposed to attend court on the charge of driving without a license.
The Kansas City, Kansas, teenager had only recently been discharged from a month-long hospital stay after being felled simultaneously by COVID-19 and appendicitis. Her mother was also laid up — she broke her leg in multiple places when she fell on a public bus.
Ulisa, a high school sophomore, was trying to manage online classes and help her three younger siblings with their school work as they all stayed home during the early months of the pandemic in 2020.
“Virtual school wasn’t going good for me,” she said. “I had a lot of things going on.”
A couple of months earlier, while her mom was working, Ulisa had borrowed a friend’s car to drive to a CVS store to pick up medicine for a sister. She didn’t have a driver’s license, and she relied on luck to run a quick errand. A police officer pulled her over and issued tickets for driving without a license and not producing proof of insurance.
Ulisa was assigned a date to attend municipal court virtually. But she was panicking over her tanking grades. Faced with the choice of logging into class or court, she opted for class. Now, along with two traffic tickets, she had two arrest warrants on her record.
At age 16, Ulisa had fallen into a trap that is familiar to hundreds of teenagers, immigrants and low-income adults around Kansas City. Because the region mostly lacks reliable public transportation, people routinely drive without valid licenses. But the consequences frequently include court dates, escalating fines and bewildering encounters with law enforcement and legal bureaucracies.
“For kids who are undocumented, kids of color, below poverty level, their first experience with police is getting tickets and seeing their car towed,” said Matt Tomasic, executive director of the Police Athletic League of Kansas City, Kansas.
Those initial experiences, plus mounting warrants and fines, often force young people to continue driving unlicensed and uninsured — at substantial risk to themselves and others on the roads.
Tomasic, a former Kansas City, Missouri, police officer, wants to change that narrative. So he and the new Kansas City, Kansas, police chief have created what might be the nation’s first police-run driver training school.
Dozens of young people gather daily at the Police Athletic League (PAL), located in an old Catholic church in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.
Some learn gardening, others art. Most come for the gym facilities and the boxing ring in the center of what used to be the church sanctuary. The space today still serves as a sanctuary. It’s a place where kids from some of the region’s toughest neighborhoods can be safe and connect with adults whom they trust.
Kansas City, Kansas, police officer Joey Reyes helps teenagers avoid tickets by …….