How to Rebuild Trust Between Police and Local Communities: HOPE for Prisoners Founder Jon Ponder

Following the killing of George Floyd, there have been growing calls to defund the police. Through the eyes of an ex-con who successfully turned his life around, why is this dangerous and counterproductive?

What are real strategies to mend relations between law enforcement and communities that distrust the police?

And, how can we as a society reduce violent crime and help formerly incarcerated Americans build a better future?

In this episode, we sit down with Jon Ponder, Founder and CEO of HOPE for Prisoners.

This is American Thought Leaders , and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Jon Ponder, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Jon Ponder: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: Jon, I wanted to speak with you because you founded an organization which actually puts people who were convicts together with law enforcement in a mentorship program. It’s remarkable.

I definitely want to talk more about what you do in a moment—but in this context, we have this situation, this horrible, horrible killing of George Floyd; the aftermath; we have protests, and then we also have rioting and looters; we even have this autonomous zone that was set up where no police, ostensibly, are allowed. And of course, we also have the White House talking police reform. How do you see this whole situation?

Mr. Ponder: First, right off the bat, I just want to express the heartbreak that we have for the senseless death of George Floyd. Our thoughts and our prayers are with his family. People are angry and rightfully so. You take a look at the protests, and it’s important that we have protests so that folks’ voice will be heard.

But, when it’s followed up by the violence that we have seen and the other things that are taking place across the country, it takes away from the very purpose of the protests themselves. I know that the White House is really taking a look at … the police reform, to make sure that community policing—that’s one of the things that we do here in our local community—that community policing is probably the best that we have ever seen.

As a matter of fact, we have had conversations about taking the model that we built up with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and exporting that into communities across the country. And I think that you would see a tremendously better reaction, not only from law enforcement, but also from people in the community because you have established terrific relationships with them.

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. They don’t trust the police. The reason why they don’t trust police is because they are not in a relationship with them. And in what relationship could you ever establish true, bona fide trust unless it is life rubbing up against life and the spirit of complete transparency, that we have to understand that we have more in common than we have differences.

It’s not big you and little me. And I think that when life rubs against life in that transparency, out of that transparency builds the relationship, and out of that relationship is where trust gets established. We at Hope for Prisoners, our organization works with men, women, and young adults that are exiting different arenas of our judicial system, so that we can provide the supportive services to make sure that the men and women who have paid their debt to society can come home to an atmosphere where they’re going to be able to successfully reintegrate back into their homes, back into the workplace, and ultimately help them to be stand-up leaders within our community.

We do that through intensive training. We do that through educational opportunities. We do that through working with employers to make sure that they’re finding sustainable wage jobs so they can take care of themselves and be able to take care of their families. But we could not do that without our partnership with the men and women of law enforcement.

Our law enforcement comes alongside and mentors and trains formerly incarcerated people that are returning back to those communities. And we get very excited about that because never before in the history of reentry, nowhere on this planet to this magnitude has law enforcement gotten this involved in mentoring and training people returning to their communities.

So not only are we able to get 74% of our folks that come through our mechanism with our partnership and law enforcement are successfully gaining full-time employment, but based over that, out of the 3200 individuals that we’ve had the privilege to serve, there was only 6% of those men and women returned back to our system. And that is something that we are extremely proud of, and that is something that we could not be able to do. A huge piece of that success is because of the men and women of law enforcement.

Mr. Jekielek: I was reading about your story, which presumably is the inspiration for your organization and this very interesting relationship that you developed with the FBI officer that arrested you. I’m wondering if you could tell us about this. It’s such a remarkable story.

Mr. Ponder: I grew up [as a] product of a single-parent home, in a community where, much like the way you see the violence and things like that, [I was] being impacted. I was a guy who started getting in trouble at a very early age, at the age of 12 years old, and stuck in that rut of criminal activity and things of that nature. I grew up hating the police. [I] didn’t want to be around them, not having a conversation with them, and lived my life that way for a very, very long time.

And so, prior to getting incarcerated … The last time a set of handcuffs had gotten put on me, I had this disdain about law enforcement and didn’t want to have any conversations with them. And I was arrested for a federal crime. On my way to a maximum-security United States federal penitentiary, I’m still angry. I have anger issues towards the world, particularly with law enforcement.

Until one day, the FBI agent that was on my case had walked into the room. When this man walked into the room, there was something about his demeanor that I saw past the sunglasses and that suit. He walked into the room and just revealed his heart, the human side of him. And the minute that he did that, something clicked on the inside of me that, you know, this is a law enforcement officer, but he is treating me with respect as if we’re friends.

And from that day, I’ve never looked at law enforcement ever again the same. And then when I saw the relationship that I had built up with this law enforcement officer, and it had such a huge impact on my life, that was when it just got set in my spirit, “Well, perhaps there are other men and women who can experience the same level of freedom that I had gone through.”

You see, I grew up my entire life fighting the enemy. But if you ever think about how close that word “enemy” comes to the “inner me,” and I think that once you conquer the enemy on the inner you, the enemy on the outside is going to disappear.

So, for all those years while I was looking at law enforcement as if they were my enemy, I had to take a deep look inside me and conquer those things that were making me believe that law enforcement was the enemy. And that’s when I came to the realization, to me, law enforcement was never my enemy. It was everything that was going on on the inner me.

Once I conquered the enemy on the inner me, those enemies on the outside disappeared. So, to this day, FBI agent Richard Beasley is my dear friend. And out of that relationship, it inspired our partnership with law enforcement.

[I] had a conversation with one of the men and women of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, who spearheaded this relationship that we have with law enforcement. And now there are over 95 officers that are a part of our mentoring process. Life rubbing up against life. And there’s one interesting story about a young man who was gang-affiliated, who had gotten arrested and did 17 years in prison.

So, when he comes home from prison, we built up this mechanism where we have 18, 19 officers come in and to train. And I’m trying to explain to everybody in the room that police are our friends and sometimes … At that point, people don’t want to hear it.

And then on this day, when the law enforcement officers, our partners, walked into that room, the young man we’re talking about in question, he got up and walked out of the room. And when he got up and walked out of the room, I came behind him and he’s literally weeping. And he says to me that one of the officers was the arresting officer 17 years ago, and he said, “Jon, I can’t go back into the room.”

I sat him down on the couch and began to have a conversation with him. And he began to tell me a story about how it was hurting him to be there. And he said, “That officer had taken me away from my son for 17 years,” and he’s trying, and I let him get his tears out.

After he was done crying, I said to him, “That comment that you made, that that officer had taken you away from your son, it was not the officer. It was that enemy on the inside of you that was causing you to do the things that sent you to prison in the first place. That officer was just doing his job.” I walked that young man back into the room, and he had a conversation with that arresting officer of 17 years ago.

They embraced in the middle of the room with a roomful of people, and both of them were in tears. And to this day, they are best friends. To this day, the officer comes to me and tells me that the formerly incarcerated person, after seven, eight years now, is mentoring him. The life rubbing up against life. We have more in common than we have differences. And I think that if, as a society, once we fully understand that I think that the world would be a much better place to live.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s an unbelievable story. I found myself almost tearing up here listening. One of the things that really strikes me here, when you’re talking about the enemy and the inner me and so forth, is something that Bob Woodson said to me when we were talking earlier. The idea that impressing upon someone that they’re a victim of circumstance is one of the most lethal things you do for a person. I wanted to get your sense of this.

Mr. Ponder: We love Bob Woodson and the Woodson Center. He has made it such an impact on our organization. This is what I believe. Yes, there are horrific things that are taking place in communities of color across our country.

But I believe that with the proper support, which is what it is that is needed, it doesn’t matter where you come from in life, what you’ve been through in your background, somewhere along the line, you need to muster up the wherewithal to step up to the plate and to take your life in a whole other directions.

We could sit around, and we can talk about, “This is the way I am because of … I’m this way because of the neighborhood I grew up in; I’m this way because my dad wasn’t there.” That may be true, but if we continue to have that victim mentality, I need to be able to point the finger at me. Right? Because you get to a point where you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired and step up to the plate and lead your life in a whole other direction.

It’s self-accountability. I have to take accountability for me. Just like other people have to take accountability for them and do whatever they possibly can to take advantage of whatever opportunities that may be in front of them so that they can come up out of that victim mentality.

I remember the story of a young lady who actually went to prison. And during her arrest, she was involved in an officer-involved shooting. It was a high-speed chase. The person that was in the car was shooting at police. The police shot him because they were shooting at him and the young lady, who was his accomplice, had gotten shot. She went to prison. We started working with her early on in prison. She comes home and we’re taking through this process. And I remember the day that the police officers were supposed to come in.

Now picture if you will, men and women who’ve just come home from prison, police officers are probably the last ones they want to see. And we’re telling them on this day there’s going to be 30 uniformed police officers walking through that door. But our law enforcement men and women do a fantastic job in interacting with the people because they’re not coming in talking police stuff.

They’re coming in and telling very transparent stories about themselves so that the men and women who are looking at them are seeing past the badge. They’re seeing them as moms and their dads, their brothers and sisters. They’re men and women who get up every single day and get out into the community to protect and to serve.

On this particular day, this young lady came up to me, and she was weeping. She was saying, “Hey, listen.” And then she told me what the story was, and I remembered the story vividly. She said that “I’m hoping that I can get to meet that officer because I have something that I’d like to say to him.” So, I made arrangements. That officer came to her graduation.

Our graduations, by the way, are at the headquarters of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Fifty to sixty officers in attendance, in addition to judges and prosecutors and parole and probation and corrections, all our law enforcement partners are at the table. So, at this graduation, when I made the introduction to the officer, this young lady brought her seven-year-old son up to meet the officer.

In the introduction to the officer, this young lady told her son in front of 300 people in the room that, “Mommy made a mistake. Mommy did something that broke the law. Mommy went to prison. Mommy got shot.” And she pointed at the officer and said, “It was not that officer’s fault. This officer is a good man. He was just doing his job.” And they’re in relationship to this day, bridging the gap between the way things were and the way it could be.

The Bible calls that “the Repairer of the Breach.” That’s what it is that we’re doing in those relationships with law enforcement, bringing restitution, restoring lives. We’re not only Hope for Prisoners, we’re hope for police officers too, by them coming and just giving back in this way.

They always see the arresting side of it. But the mechanism that we built up, that I believe can be spread all the way across this country, is something that is going to be beneficial to the whole world at large. I had another young man who grew up in Los Angeles, the streets of Los Angeles, gang affiliated. He was doing something that he was not supposed to be doing. And one of the officers in L.A., his brother lost his life. And he said that at that age of 15 years old when his brother lost his life in that officer-involved shooting, he said he grew up and had this deep-rooted hatred for police.

(Video Clip) Hope for Prisoners Graduate Desha Taylor: As I turn around, I will never forget. There was a cop and [he shot] my brother three times in the back. I grew a lot of hatred and anger towards cops because I felt like they took my brother away. That put me even deeper in a gang, deeper in the streets.

Mr. Ponder: It drove him deeper into the gangs. More violence, things of that nature, going back and forth to prison. And then he came across our organization. And after these officers had come in and shared in a very transparent way, to let them know that they are not the enemy, that they are there to do everything they can to help them.

(Video Clip) Mr. Taylor: My probation officers told me to go to the workshop. That week changed my life mentally. For the first time ever, I shook Detective B.J., I shook his hand. When I shook his hand, my whole body was shaking. Officer B.J., he put his arms around me and put my head into his chest and held me like I was his child.

Mr. Ponder: And now that person is successful. He’s a productive member in the community. He often goes out into the community, with our community policing division cleaning up our neighborhoods, going into the inner cities and those communities and helping remove graffiti and showing the world around him that not all law enforcement is bad.

I liken that to be a husband. I’m a husband. There are great husbands out there who love their wives and take care of their families and do what they’re supposed to do as husbands. But there are some husbands out there that commit domestic battery. There are some husbands out there that beat their wives; and there’s some husbands that do things that other husbands don’t do.

But you can’t classify, categorize all husbands as batterers. Right? That same thing happens with the police department. I believe that 98% of them are good officers. 98% of them get up every single day to get out into the community and to do what it is that they need to do. 98% of them are loving people among the community, going into those communities across our country, wanting to be viewed as someone who is there to protect and to serve. But you can’t categorize all officers just like you cannot categorize all husbands as batterers.

Mr. Jekielek: Jon, these are incredible stories of reconciliation and forgiveness. Powerful, powerful moving stuff that I think this is the kind of stuff that can help change communities. Tell me about the importance of community policing because not everyone understands what that even means exactly.

Mr. Ponder: Sure. The community in policing is so very, very important. Right here in the city of Las Vegas with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, it is the absolute best that we’ve ever seen. Again, something that we’re having a discussion about replicating the model that we built up all the way across the country.

If you look back many, many years ago, before things got really, really crazy, you will see police officers out in the communities and playing basketball with the kids. You would see them out and just interacting. Life rubbing up against life. In that community policing aspect, it is important that we see police officers out in the community, doing things in the community, not just because 911 is called.

In that level of community policing, is when you get in and you start building up those relationships. You’re not just Officer Dave, you are Dave, you are my friend. And we get to know each other on that human aspect of it. And I believe that that’s where we really begin to transform nations.

One of the things that we encourage our folks to do after they interact with our law enforcement officers, which is so important, is to take that message back into your home. And first share with people around your dinner table that there are some men and women of law enforcement who are not the enemy, that they’re loving you, and doing everything they possibly can to ensure that they’re helping you be successful.

It is important that those community relationships get initiated. It’s important that those community relationships with law enforcement, those relationships get cultivated, so that they will begin to thrive. And I believe that that is going to transform communities across this country.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s actually remarkable because, again, we’re hearing right now all these calls to defund the police and this kind of thing. But you’re talking about a police department in Las Vegas that seems to be doing it right and could actually help a lot of other police departments do a lot better.

Mr. Ponder: Right. We have been doing this for almost 11 years right now. These things that have been put in place. They’re taking a look at the use of force and looking at the way community policing is done. These things were being done prior to the incident that had taken place a few weeks ago.

I tip my hat to the leadership of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, specifically Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, who we sat down and had a conversation with many years ago. I know that the heart of our police department and the other men and women who have boots on the ground are just doing things.

I’ve seen how they have shown up day in and day out over the past 10 years to make sure that we’re bringing redemption to communities. We are reconciling those relationships. 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.

But the law enforcement men and women stepped in and now that person is in a job. Those people are in jobs earning sustainable wages because the law enforcement has shown a tremendous magnitude that they don’t want to arrest you. They don’t want to send you back to prison. They want to step up to make sure that you can take your rightful position inside your home, inside your workplace, and inside your community to do your responsibility to raise your children up in a world that looks so much different than the one that we all grew up in.

Mr. Jekielek: You obviously are very familiar with law enforcement. You yourself spent quite a bit of time in prison, which kind of led to all of these initiatives that you’re involved in right now. What do you make of the “defund the police” calls?

Mr. Ponder: That has to be the absolute ridiculous thing that we’ve ever heard of. … Policing itself is one of the pillars of our community. I couldn’t even imagine a world without the men and women who are upholding our laws in our community. And I believe that is going to be absolutely devastating if those things take place.

You could take a look at what’s happening right now and violent crimes going up and the homicide rates and things of that nature. I believe it’s the quite opposite. I don’t believe that law enforcement should be defunded. I believe that more and more resources should be given to the police department so that they can do that absolute best training that they possibly can.

Think about it. A police officer’s job is just extremely, extremely tough. And to be quite honest with you, I don’t know, and I like to think that I’m a brave person. I don’t think that I could do their job. I don’t know if I can get up every single day and get out in the community to protect and to serve. And every day that I leave the house, that I know that my life is on the line to protect and serve. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that.

So, more and more resources are given to law enforcement so that we can make sure that our police officers across the country are trained top-notch. I believe that more resources need to be given so that every officer would be able to have the body cameras. Not only is for the police officers’ benefit but people in our community.

I think about where we would be at right now if George Floyd’s incident were not recorded. So, more resources and training for them; more resources so that they can be as diverse as we possibly can. So, defunding them is the absolute wrong thing to do. On the contrary, we need to put as much resources as we possibly can into the men and women of law enforcement who are upholding the laws in our country. And to defund them, we will absolutely take this country backwards.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the big things that’s happened over the last four years, in my view, is this criminal justice reform bill being affected. … From your unique vantage point here, what’s your take on the impact of that on these communities?

Mr. Ponder: I think it is a huge impact. The First Step Act, I believe that President Trump and his administration knocked it out of the ballpark with that. Was that First Step Act perfect? No, it wasn’t. But it was just that: it was a gigantic first step. And we’re looking very forward to the things [that are going to] be able to follow up on that.

That’s everything from making sure that the resources are available for people prior to them being released; and there’re resources that are available to help to create an atmosphere once they get released where they’re going to be able to thrive and be able to grow. One of the things that was addressed in there was the sentencing disparities amongst African American people.

We know that systematic racism that … they were not fair, right, but being able to take a look at, seeing why African American people were getting sentenced to longer periods in time than their counterparts. But these are some of the things that are being addressed in those criminal justice reforms, to make sure that it’s just and it’s fair.

Mr. Jekielek: In these inner cities, there’s a lot of crime. There’s a level that a crime in some ways is described as being at a level that is unsustainable. How do we fix this problem?

Mr. Ponder: First of all, I believe that not only do those communities need to be properly resourced, but you just can’t throw money at the problem. Not only do those communities need to be properly educated, but education is not the only thing that needs to be done. I believe that we need to do a moral search, that we’re providing the proper leadership in those communities.

I’m a firm believer that inside those communities that we first really need to love each other, love ourselves, so that the world can take notice. I know that a lot of things that take place in those communities, there’s black on black crime that we can’t just sweep under the rug. We need to be there to love on each other, to take the initiative and to stop doing the things that the rest of the world is sitting back, looking at and watching us do.

If we want the rest of the world to be able to respect us, let’s show the rest of the world that we respect each other. Sometimes when things in communities happen, it’s very popular amongst the gang community.

Something happens and all of a sudden, the shot callers will call a gang truce. And inside that gang truce, everything will stop. There’s no killing, no homicide, no drive-by, things of that nature because there’s something that is being negotiated, whatever the case may be, it’s not important.

But what is important is that those communities have the abilities to say “Stop.” And it stops for a period of time. Then afterwards, game on. What if inside those communities, we can take that approach and those leaders in those communities say, “Listen, enough is enough. We have done this way too long. What if we call a 5-year truce? What if we can call a 10-year truce and maybe that can turn into a permanent truce? What if we could begin to hold each other accountable and train each other and take care of each other, to make sure that we’re not out causing violence?”

One of the things that just really breaks my heart is that you hear the stories all the time, that the 12-year-old girl, 14-year-old boy senselessly murdered in a drive-by shooting. Those are the things that we need to protest. Those are the things that we need to get angry about. Those are the things that we need to take accountability and to make sure that we’re addressing those things inside our community.

Mr. Jekielek: This just occurs to me. I saw a press conference of different New York police union leaders talking about what had happened to them, their perspective. They were saying, … This is my thumbnail here, “We are being held back. The types of regulations that are being talked about will make it unable for us to do our jobs. If we actually do our jobs, we’ll be subject to criminal investigation, or something of this nature.” What do you make of this?

Mr. Ponder: … I’m glad that they’re taking a look at that whole union mechanism. But here’s what the bottom line is, I believe that law enforcement across our nation, they need to be held to an extremely high standard, probably a higher standard than other agencies. Police officers, law enforcement held to a higher standard. And I believe that when those standards are breached, then there needs to be a high level of accountability. And if there’s any barriers that are in place that are preventing that accountability to be enforced, then I think that we really, really need to be able to take a look at that.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting because you’re saying you want to see accountability across the board. You want to see accountability on the side of law enforcement. You want to see accountability on the side of the communities. You want to see accountability on the side of the convicted felons and so forth.

Mr. Ponder: Yeah. If we all stepped up to the plate and held each other accountable for our actions. Police officers need to be held accountable for their actions. Formerly incarcerated people that are coming home and trying to do the right thing after they have paid their debt to society, they should hold themselves accountable, not having things thrown up in their face. They’ve paid their debt to society.

I believe that members in our community, they are fantastic leaders in our community that need to be held accountable and hold people accountable. If we live in a world where we love each other, right? God calls us to see each other as He sees us. He loves each and every one of us, so much that He sent His only Son to die for us.

But if we begin to view each other in our community the way God views us, think about the incredible world that we will live in. That we get up and we look for ways to serve people in our community, to be able to impact their lives for the better. We wake up in the morning, we’re not looking to take, take, take or cause harm, cause harm.

What can I do to love the people in the world around me, in my community; to make sure that I’m helping them in any way that I can, or any way that we can to help them to live their life by a higher standard.

That’s what it is that we do at Hope for Prisoners, to make sure that we can leave a mark on the reentry population, so that they can return back to those communities from which they live and just live life on a whole other level to where they can reach down and touch the next generation of their people.

I believe that if it starts high up in the police department, it has to start all the way up at the top so these concepts and these principles of community policing, and that we can’t arrest our way out of the issues, that that gets trickled down to the patrolmen that just came out of the academy. We even go into the academy. We share these concepts of community policing and how law enforcement helps people that are formerly incarcerated with doing that at the academy level, so that they can get engaged.

So, as they begin their career in law enforcement, this becomes part of their training, that they begin to understand that they’re going to be working with a diverse type of people. People that don’t look like you, people don’t have the same color of skin, people that don’t talk the same lingo as you do.

Mr. Jekielek: These are incredible, incredible things that you’re talking about here, and a discussion that I certainly haven’t heard very much of up to now. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you here. Any final words before we finish up?

Mr. Ponder: Coming from my perspective, a person who grew up in neighborhoods of color, who grew up hating police officers, didn’t want to have anything to do with that, I am so grateful that God had opened up my eyes to show me that there’s another way to look at them. The Bible says that all authority comes from God.

I believe that we need to be able to submit to that authority, but we just want to make sure that we’re submitting to that authority, that we’re not submitting to the bad apples. I just want to encourage the top law enforcement folks across this country to really take a deep look into the actions of the police officers that are in those departments and immediately hold them accountable.

I know that’s what’s taking place and I can speak personally for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. I know that there’s levels of accountabilities that have taken place. Is the police department perfect? No. But I believe that every single day that we strive to be the absolute best that we possibly can be in the communities and in our police department, I do believe that gradually and incrementally over time, we will live in the world to where we’re loving each other.

These things that we are looking at today, whether it’s racial issues or whatever the case may be—economic disadvantage—whatever that is, gradually and incrementally over time, if we work together, I believe that we’ll live in a place that is so much more peaceful.

Mr. Jekielek: Jon Ponder, such a pleasure to have you on, and I wish you the best of success in all your work.

Mr. Ponder: Jan, thank you so very much. I appreciate it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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