No matter where you find yourself in life, you can always pull yourself back up. Omaha Police Detective Tony Espejo says “perseverance” is the key to unlocking success.
Developing Omaha’s Police Athletics for Community Engagement program is one of his career highlights. But the 48-year-old South Omaha native and father of two experienced many setbacks and ego bruises before he got to that point in his life.
Espejo recalls how perseverance helped him achieve success after failure.
He was a young, brazen, fast-talking graduate of Gross High School’s class of 1989. College was supposed to be the next big step into adulthood, or at least that’s what Espejo thought. After two failed attempts—flunking out of Creighton University in 1990 and then the University of Nebraska at Omaha the following year—Espejo wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
So, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1992.
Learning how to Persevere
“When I got there, it was a rude awakening,” Espejo says. “My world got rocked, but I learned the discipline part of it. I learned how far I was behind physically, mental toughness-wise, and what I really learned was how to overcome and to persevere.”
How? Staring up at a rope. Every recruit in basic training was expected to climb it. They grabbed hold of the scratchy rope and began their way to the top. Most did not succeed at first, but that’s normal.
“Perseverance is probably the biggest thing that I learned from there,” Espejo says of his service as a Marine. “How to push through and how you can always push yourself harder than you thought and get more things done than what you thought you could.”
Growth, progress, and even adventure springs from such places of frustration. Occasional setbacks are inevitable. Espejo experienced plenty. For instance, he applied four times to be an Omaha Police officer before he was finally accepted in 2000.
“I almost gave up,” he says, shaking his head disapprovingly. “I almost gave up…I absolutely felt kicked in the freakin’ gut after the third time. But, finally, on the fourth try, I finally made it through the process. I made it. Again, going back to perseverance.”
In addition to the rigorous application process, new police officers face many obstacles in their first year on the job. For starters, there’s extensive training; followed by a period in the field overseen by a superior; and the constant testing of patience, tolerance, and overall stability.
Finally, in 2004, Espejo earned placement in the Omaha Police Department’s Gang Unit.
Above and Beyond
Acclimating into his new role in the Gang Unit, he proposed an ambitious idea in 2005. Espejo pitched a police athletic league for youth supervised by the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association as a way to proactively curb gang recruitment.
There was already a need, Espejo says. Gang activity in Omaha surged in the early 2000s. Officers were implementing routine home visits to juvenile offenders and other preventative measures to reduce crime and delinquency in the city. Espejo wanted to see his brothers and sisters in blue continue to actively build positive relationships with young people in their communities; he believed sports were the perfect opportunity for doing this.
The Latino Peace Officer Association’s athletics league began in 2005, in the backyard of the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club with a soccer league of six officer-led teams and roughly 65 young players. The league was rebranded as P.A.C.E. in 2015. Now the citywide athletics league has more than 4,000 young players in baseball, basketball, CrossFit, flag football, and soccer programming—all free of charge. P.A.C.E. also provides uniforms, sports equipment, fields (with help from the City of Omaha), and transportation to games and practices.
In 2017, the National Education Association recognized the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association with the George I. Sanchez Memorial Award for the P.A.C.E. program. The national award honors community work that significantly impacts education and equal opportunities for Hispanics.
Espejo and retired Capt. Rich Gonzalez, now executive director of P.A.C.E., run the organization from an office at Christie Heights Community Center in South Omaha. Most of the kids in P.A.C.E. come from neighborhoods in North Omaha and South Omaha.
Gonzalez says P.A.C.E.’s efforts have contributed—along with other community and police efforts—to lowering street gang membership, violence, and graffiti.
South Omaha Boys and Girls Club Unit Director Paco Fuentes says much of P.A.C.E.’s success is owed to Espejo’s diligent effort in spearheading the organization.
“He was [and is] a worker bee,” Fuentes says. “He recruited kids for the teams. He got sponsors for the teams. In the beginning, he coordinated with us for fields. We worked together to get umpires and referees for the games.”
Fuentes believes the program helped revive interest in baseball in the South Omaha community. “It brought that to a lot of youngsters who hadn’t played it before,” he says. “The kids love it.”
The program is fun, but it accomplishes so much more—getting youths excited and engaged, building sportsmanship etiquette, and improving physical health. “There are just a lot of different components that these sports have brought to our kids and the community,” Fuentes says.
Visit paceomaha.org for more information.
This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.