Updated: May 22, 2019
How DMV police are reinventing community relations – one basketball at a time
By Evan Smith, Forbes
March 14, 2017
Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.
The day is best summed up with one image: a police officer in full uniform, surrounded by registered felons, smiling as he hands a basketball down to a cute little girl.
It was a chilly afternoon in Alexandria, Virginia — a Washington suburb just a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C. — and this collection of police officers, former inmates and everyday citizens had all gathered inside the gymnasium of George Washington Middle School for a friendly string of basketball games.
But instead of teenagers out there on the court, it was grown police officers dribbling around grown police officers, former inmates popping off jump shots over former inmates.
For at least this one afternoon, they were all just basketball fans having a good time.
That some of these officers may have arrested some of these men was left unspoken.
“We’ve gotten a lot of ‘Longest Yard’ comparisons,” said Alexandria Police Sergeant Nicolas Ruggiero, name-checking the classic 1974 film in which prison guards compete against inmates in a football tournament.
It’s an apt comparison, even if there are a few differences between that old Burt Reynolds movie and this lived reality. For one, the game here is basketball, not football, and the teams of former inmates are known as “returned citizens,” a nod to the increasing desire on the part of police and authorities to eliminate the stigma of prison time from these men’s futures.
This game in particular, which saw the Alexandria Police Department squaring off against Prince George’s police, marks one of several such games that will take place over the next few weeks, a tournament of friendship made up of firefighters, cops, homeland security agents and “returned citizens” from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Organized with the help of the Jack Kemp Foundation, events like these continue a longstanding history of community outreach.
The goal of these games, says Alexandria police officer Bennie Evans, is to bring the community and law enforcement together. Simple as that. Eat some food, have a couple laughs, shoot some hoops. No great upheaval of the balance between law and order, but Evans said these small moments make an incalculably huge difference.
“I can go out in the community in a t-shirt and jeans and talk to kids like it’s nothing,” said Evans, who was recently named officer of the month by the National Law Enforcement Organization for his outreach work with the homeless and other community members. “But the moment I put this police uniform on,” he added, “the kids get real quiet, real chilly and tense.”
The obvious truth, of course, is that police officers have regular lives, too. They go to the movies, they eat ice cream and they walk their dogs around the neighborhood. But too often that humane reality can become glazed over by the constant deluge of negative stories in media — corrupt cops, police brutality and so forth — so that the moment Evans puts on his uniform, he might as well be donning years of history on his shoulders.
Indeed, with so much tension and mistrust simmering within that history, it means Evans must work even harder to reframe that narrative.
Here’s how he does it: by slapping hands with a registered felon who sits on the bleachers, lacing his sneakers before the game. He does it by swapping jokes with a group of local mothers as they goop delicious-looking food on their paper plates in the eating area. And he does it by bending down to smile at that cute little girl, her own tiny face lighting up as he hands the basketball down to her.
Freeze this moment: the little girl holding the ball up before her eyes, the ball almost as big as she is. See the bleachers filled with smiling community members. See the returned citizens swooshing practice lay-ups on the opposite side of the court. See the police officers laughing, the gym swelling with music and conversation.
The little girl squats and bends down. She braces. Then she lets the ball go, watching it sail up into the bright swirl of lights.
Does it even matter if the ball goes in?
“This is what community outreach looks like,” Evans said with a nod. “Small things, you know? A smile, a laugh. But these are the moments people remember most of all.”