Officers from the Alexandria Police Department and Prince George’s County Police Department gathered in the gymnasium of George Washington Middle School for a friendly game of hoops last weekend.
What seemed like a casual, fun afternoon was actually one piece of a greater police initiative that many now hope spreads nation-wide.
Organized with the help of the Jack Kemp Foundation, this particular basketball game between Alexandria and Prince George’s County police is one of multiple sporting events that have been taking place since February, as a part of the Unity Basketball Championship Tournament.
Office Bennie Evans was recently awarded Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Organization for his outreach work with the homeless and other community members.
Police departments, firefighting units and homeland security teams from all over the Washington D.C.-Virginia-Maryland region have been competing against one another. Meanwhile, a simultaneous tournament is underway with teams made up solely of former prison inmates. Ultimately, the best team of law enforcement officers will face off against the best team of former inmates, with a chance to see who can take home the Unity Championship title.
The goal of the tournament is right there in the name — “unity” — and that’s why the games are always fun and light-hearted, a chance for the community to come together, even if things can get a little competitive on the court.
“We call them ‘returned citizens,’” said Alexandria Police Sergeant Nicolas Ruggiero, referring to the former inmates. “That’s just so everyone understands what this is about. Everyone here is a citizen of the community. Some just happen to be returning to that community, so we want to be welcoming, to show that we all play a part in making this area come together.”
“That’s just so everyone understands what this is about. Everyone here is a citizen of the community. Some just happen to be returning to that community, so we want to be welcoming, to show that we all play a part in making this area come together.”
That means breaking down barriers of communication, peeling away the history inherent in the police uniform and revealing the beating heart of a fellow human inside — to show the community, in other words, that cops are people, too. They like playing basketball, eating pulled pork sandwiches, laughing over root beer in styrofoam cups. Like everyone else, they are a part of the community.
Even still, everyone would not have come together, Ruggiero said, without the hard work of Michael Johnson, a local leader in community outreach.
Johnson isn’t directly affiliated with the police department, but his goal of bringing together all aspects of the community – including historically opposing forces, like law enforcement and former inmates – drives ventures like the Unity tournament.
“When you’re dealing with crime, with improving the area and making the area safe and vibrant for everyone, you can’t do it without bringing different organs of the community together,” Johnson said. “That’s police, that’s firefighters, that’s schools, that’s the guys who might have gotten in some trouble in the past. It’s all one community.”
And if things go well in this community, Johnson said there’s no reason other communities around the nation can’t take part too.
“It feels good,” he said. “Feels good to bring folks together.”
Officers from the Alexandria Police and Prince George’s Police duke it out on the court for a chance to make it to the semi-finals against DC Police.
Alexandria Police Sergeant Nicolas Ruggiero surveys the court before the start of the game. “It’s all about showing we care,” Ruggiero said.