As Gregory Daniels leaned forward to sink yet another long-distance jump shot, an incredulous bystander shouted towards the police officers on the sidelines: “All these cops on the court, and they still can’t stop this man from shooting!”
Frequent shots fired and moves so quick they seemed illegal erupted on the hoop courts at Edgewood Park late Wednesday afternoon — and the cops not only didn’t try to stop the action, but took part.
The shots had nothing to do with criminal activity, and everything to do with basketball. Specifically, with basketball played between police officers and members of the community.
One of the flagship events of New Haven’s participation in National Community Policing Week, the two-hour long tournament, called “Cops & Ballers,” brought together dozens of top cops, patrol officers, and community members from all over the city for hotly contested, if always warm-hearted, games of half-court, 3-on-3 hoops.
Coming on the heels of an impromptu afternoon gathering in which District 7 cops shared coffee and safety tips with East Rock residents, and just a day after an animated and somewhat contentious panel discussion between law enforcement and concerned community leaders about race, class, and police violence, Cops & Ballers presented an opportunity for local police to engage with younger New Haveners in a way that eschewed traditional forms of dialogue in favor of physical, competitive fun.
The brainchild of Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirde Daly, and organized in collaboration with interim police chief Anthony Campbell and retired New Haven police Officer (and current Daly staffer) Holly Wasilewski, Cops & Ballers represented the latest attempt at community outreach from a law enforcement community eager to build both familiarity and trust among the population it serves.
The tournament featured 14 teams, each representing a different police district or department and each consisting of a mix of officers and community members. The first team to get to 10 points advanced to the next round.
Nearly everyone on the court was wearing a T-shirt with the event’s logo, custom designed by Sean Reeves’s Dixwell Avenue printing service, RHR Printing & Graphics.
“We really appreciate each and every one of you,” Chief Campbell said towards the beginning of the tournament, gesturing towards both the officers and their younger teammates. “This is really working out just as we imagined it, cops and community members getting to know one another, playing basketball side by side.”
While many of the community participants had some tangential connection to law enforcement, whether through family or friends, some of the young men who found themselves playing basketball in Edgewood on Wednesday afternoon were completely unaware of the tournament until a few minutes before it began.
“I was walking home through the park when I saw all of these police officers and cars gathered at the corner,” said Aaron Brevard, a 19-year-old student at Gateway Community College who also works for the school’s Office of the Registrar. “I was kind of worried, but when I walked over to find out what was happening, I got recruited to play on one of the teams.”
Brevard helped lead his “Youth 1” team to the second round, where they lost to East Shore’s District 9. The quarterfinals then pitted East Shore against Westville’s District 2 and Fair Haven’s District 8 against Dixwell’s District 6.
As the sun began to set, an arduously fought final game between Fair Haven and Dixwell kept everyone in attendance whooping and cheering from the sidelines as the poorly lit court submerged from dusk into darkness.
After Dixwell’s narrow loss to Westville in the finals, all of the players managed to leave the court with smiles on their faces, and, for some, trophies in their hands. One of District 6’s star players, Gregory Daniels, lifted his team’s second-place trophy before leaving the court for the night.
“They were friendly, they were very good basketball players, and they were really sticking up for us today,” said Daniels, 23, a former Common Ground High School athlete who now works in Hamden. “It’s really important that the police come out and show us that they’re human too, especially with everything that’s going down right now around the country. Today they did just that.”