Officer brightens day for parkgoers during pandemic

MEMPHIS (AP) — It’s a Wednesday morning in Whitehaven, and Memphis police officer LaTica Bennett’s voice rings out as she greets walkers, runners and faithfuls at David Carnes Park.

“It is a beautiful day. Y’all look so amazing. Keep up the good work and good morning,” Bennett says over her patrol car’s public address system.

For the past month, Bennett, an 18-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, has greeted the morning fitness crew in the park.

She picked up the duty during the pandemic to ensure those walking in the park are social distancing. Her patrol also serves as an additional safety measure – as park usage citywide has increased during the pandemic, so too have car break-ins at parks. But with her uplifting loud speaker announcements, Bennett makes her Whitehaven beat a little more upbeat.

It took her a while to get up the nerve to greet those in the park in such a public fashion amid the recent tension nationwide between police and the community.

“I was nervous because of the climate that we are in as far as the police and what is going on and what has been going on,” Bennett said. “I was kinda nervous about it. But when I started seeing the hand raises and then smiles, I knew this is what the Holy Spirit told me to do.”

Bennett arrives just before sunrise and leaves after the sun sets in the 9-acre, $5.4 million park that opened last year off Auburn Road and Whitehaven Lane in the heart of the community.

The park is the first in the state that is part of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation’s BlueCross Healthy Place program, which promotes healthy lifestyles.

The park is full of activity from sunrise to sunset, with people on the walking trails that wind through an oak tree canopy. On any given day, one may see a dance class practicing moves on the soccer field or personal trainers coaching clients at the fitness stations.

Because of COVID-19, the splash park and playground are off limits and Bennett said she has had to remind people of that from time to time as she sits and watches from her patrol car that she nicknamed Betsy. Most parkgoers, however, are considerate of the new rules and adjustments.

Mary Rogers, who arrives at the park daily at 6:15 a.m. for her walks, loves Bennett’s presence and her daily greeting.

“She tells us we are beautiful and amazing, and I love it,” Rogers said. “It puts a pep in my step when I hear her voice as I walk the trails.”

Jo Ann Johnson, the first lady of Greater Faith Tabernacle Ministries next door to the park, allows Bennett to park her police cruiser on the church’s parking lot to monitor the comings and goings.

“It is for safety, and we appreciate her being here,” Johnson said. “I look for her every morning.”

On most days, Bennett will work an eight-hour shift and then turn around and work another eight-hour shift.

“I live in the community and come exercise here too,” she said. “If I was at home, I would be doing nothing, so I often volunteer for overtime shifts and come back to the park and work. I love this community. I love giving back to the community. It is part of my mission in life.”

Bennett grew up in the Greenbriar Apartments in Frayser and graduated from Northside High School in 1992. As a teen, she thought her mission was to be a mortician.

“I decided I was best suited to work with the living and not the dead,” she said.

In 2002, she enrolled in the Memphis Police Academy and, after graduating, worked at the Airways precinct until she was assigned seven years ago to the Raines precinct.

Two years ago, she started a free summer camp for children in the Whitehaven community at the church where she is a member, The Dominion Church across the street from her precinct.

She asked businesses in the Whitehaven area to sponsor the summer camp that, this year, had to be canceled because of the pandemic.

“I do miss the summer camp so much and the kids,” she said. “My detail at the park has me interacting with the community, which I love. I am a community freak. We have the summer camp. We help the homeless, and I love giving back because I know what it feels like to not have your own and need some help.”

About 10 years ago, Bennett faced a serious medical condition. After attempting to pay the mounting medical bills, she lost her home, she said.

“I was once homeless as a police officer,” she said. “Things went bad for me after I was hospitalized, and I had to reach out for help and moved in with my mother. By me reaching out, I know somebody else needs help out there, so that’s why I give back to the community.”

Bennett, 46, is the mother of two adult daughters and is the grandmother to a 4-month-old child.

She called patrolling the park and offering her daily greeting her “woosah” moment, a moment of clarity where she is living out her truth and her mission in life.

“I am walking in my purpose now,” she said. “At first, I didn’t know what my purpose was. I didn’t understand it, but now I know and my purpose is to help those in the community when I can help, even if it is a simple good morning.”

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