“I grew up hating police,” said Jon Ponder, founder of the Las Vegas nonprofit HOPE for Prisoners.
A three-time convicted felon, Ponder grew up on the streets of New York without a father and became involved with a gang at a young age, descending into crime and substance abuse. His first arrest was at age 12.
In 2004, he was arrested for bank robbery. He was on his way to a maximum-security prison when he met the FBI agent who arrested him, Richard Beasley. “He walked into the room and just revealed his heart, the human side of him,” Ponder said in an interview with The Epoch Times for the “American Thought Leaders” program.
There was “something about his demeanor” that allowed Ponder to see “past the sunglasses and that suit.” Beasley treated Ponder with respect, almost as if they were friends, Ponder said. The interaction helped him shed his decades-old disdain for law enforcement.
“If you look across the country, one of the biggest problems—and we see that today—is that people in communities don’t trust police,” said Ponder.
The problem, he said, is that locals in these communities never interact with police on a personal level.
After Ponder served his sentence, Beasley came to visit him at the federal halfway house and told him that he had been praying for Ponder. The two bonded over Ponder’s newfound faith, which he had developed while locked away.
Soon after his release, Ponder launched HOPE for Prisoners to help fellow ex-offenders triumph over inner demons and overcome the barriers to finding employment and successfully reentering society.
He partnered with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to create a special mentorship program, in which law enforcement officers volunteer their time to coach former inmates, building trust and mutual respect.
It’s “life rubbing against life,” as Ponder likes to describe it—a process that helps ex-offenders look past the police badge or uniform and for law enforcement to see beyond tattoos or past wrongdoing.
“I’ve seen men and women of our local law enforcement go way out of their way to have conversations with employers, who traditionally would not ever hire someone who is formerly incarcerated,” Ponder said.
At the graduation ceremonies for HOPE for Prisoners program participants, police officers, prosecutors, and judges all gather to celebrate the achievements of former inmates.
One HOPE for Prisoners graduate, Desha Taylor, had developed a deep-seated hatred toward police after he witnessed an officer shoot his older brother three times in the back, just two weeks after his brother had been released from prison.
At a HOPE for Prisoners workshop, Taylor stood up, with tears in his eyes, and shook a police officer’s hand for the first time. “My whole body was just shaking,” he said in a HOPE for Prisoners mini documentary. “Officer BJ put his arms around me and put my head into his chest and held me like I was his child.”
They cried together, and “all of that anger, hatred, like a dark cloud just went away,” Taylor said.
Now Taylor has rebuilt his life and shed his criminal past. “He often goes out into the community with our community policing division, cleaning up our neighborhoods” and helping remove graffiti, Ponder said.
Only 6 percent of HOPE for Prisoners participants end up reentering the criminal justice system, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Crime and Justice Policy. And 74 percent manage to gain full-time employment, Ponder said.
“A huge piece of that success” is “the men and women of law enforcement,” Ponder said.
Defunding the police, a proposal touted by some protestors following the killing of George Floyd, would be “the most horrific thing that our country could ever do,” and violent crime and homicides would skyrocket as a result, Ponder said.
Instead, more resources should be funneled to police to boost training, fund body cameras for all officers, promote diversity, and build relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, Ponder said.
“It is important that we see police officers out in the community” chatting with locals or playing basketball with kids, Ponder said, “not just because 911 is called.”
“It’s life rubbing against life.”