Cops and criminals, most often, find themselves working against each other, each side working toward its own ends. Peanut butter and jelly, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, or Hall and Oates they are not.
But Joel Hunter, an alum of Central City Concern treatment programs and a current CCC employee, believes that police officers and people with criminal histories can work together on the same team and achieve a common good. On Friday, December 12, he put his idea to the test.
That evening, the Matt Dishman Community Center in northeast Portland was filled with the distinct, rhythmic sounds of a ping pong ball bouncing to and fro, as it was the location of the first ever “Cops vs. Cons Ping Pong Tournament & Toy Drive,” an event that Joel created and organized.
The “cops” were represented by a handful of Portland Police officers, including an officer from the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), as well as a representative from the Service Coordination Team (SCT). The “cons” in attendance were primarily alumni of CCC’s Housing Rapid Response (HRR) program and the Recovery Mentor Program, as well as a few people currently in HRR.
Joel organized the tournament to achieve several goals. First, he wanted to break the ice between police officers and the people they arrest; some alumni had actually been arrested by the very same police officers in the room. All of the “cons” are now on healthier, more constructive paths of recovery and service. Many mentor people who are new to treatment and reliant on peer relationships to stay on track.
Joel knew that despite their new outlooks, there was still apprehension among the alumni toward the police.
Ping pong was a popular activity in the HRR program and at the Volunteers of America (VOA) Day Treatment program as a way to get to know new people and form friendships. Joel figured it would be a natural way to get people to show up.
Second, Joel wanted to show police officers that their work has a positive impact on the lives of people with dark pasts. As Joel put it, “my process [to recovery] always began in handcuffs.” Bringing cops and cons together was a way for the two sides to interact and get to hear each other’s stories: the cops knew about the cons’ pasts, but this was a chance for them to get to know where they are now.
Lastly, Joel wanted to achieve a tangible good from this tournament, so he also made it a toy drive. Participants showed up with new, unwrapped toys, which were donated to CCC’s family housing program. He says that he wanted both cops and cons to “come together as human beings and do good for our community.”
That night, the feelings of opposition between cops and cons were confined to the ping pong table between players. When they weren’t facing off against each other, they talked, laughed, and got to understand each other a little more.
Joel says that this is just the beginning. Both officers and alumni enjoyed this inaugural event so much that there’s already talk about a second tournament in the near future, perhaps doubling as a canned food drive.
“Playing ping pong together humanized each side for the other,” Joel said. “Now, we know we can and want to do more together.”
You can see great photos from the “Cops vs. Cons Ping Pong Tournament & Toy Drive” on Central City Concern’s Facebook photo album.