“Family! Family! Family!” The moderator repeated the safe word in order to stop participants from talking over each other. Passions rose as some members of local law enforcement and the San Diego community, including juvenile probationers and staff from McAllister Institute, shared their perspectives and negative experiences interacting with the other. But though the room was tense, everyone was there voluntarily for the same purpose.

On November 8, PLNU hosted its first Game Changer event in Colt Hall Forum. This was the 70th event put on by Game Changer, a nonprofit with a mission of bringing together law enforcement and members of the general public to discuss problems between the two and devise solutions together in moderated focus groups, before attending a sporting or entertainment event. The organization’s ultimate goal is to bring about changes in perception and changes in behavior, which lead to more peaceful outcomes between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

To get to that place, Game Changer believes the two groups need to be in the same room having necessary, sometimes difficult conversations. The following is an excerpt of conversation at the November event.

“I understand that cops can feel threatened, but young kids need to see a positive face in cops,” shared a member of the community, as he discussed his experience with police as a young boy. “I think we’re lacking those positive interactions.”

“You guys are like superheroes,” a student added. “No one is going to be afraid of Superman. But cops have guns, weapons, and power. You need to see us as one of you guys. We don’t always need to see you as one of us.”

As the discussion turned toward racial profiling, another student shared her perspective. “Yes, we’re all equal, but black people, we get profiled so much more, not just black but Mexican. White people, they don’t get profiled like we do. They don’t get stopped on the streets like we do. They can just walk down the street and they won’t get stopped, unless they’re doing something illegal. But us, we look like, they just profile us, they just want to pull us over for no reason. Just because of our skin tone.”

“That’s against the law,” a police officer responded.

“But it’s happened,” she said.

Another law enforcement officer responded that cops don’t want to be seen as the enemy. He shared that police officers are prepared to encounter violence; when first starting out, a police officer’s first traffic stop can be very terrifying, because he or she is afraid they will be met with violence and killed.

A member of the San Diego Police Department added, “Members of law enforcement are being profiled too. We shouldn’t judge officers for being an officer. Not all officers are bad.”

The organization’s ultimate goal is to bring about changes in perception and changes in behavior, which lead to more peaceful outcomes between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Philanthropist Sean Sheppard founded Game Changer three years ago as a solution to the rise in deaths between law enforcement and people of color. He wanted to minimize the amount of violent incidents occurring in communities across the country by having law enforcement and members of the general public meet face to face and share their perspectives. And he wanted this to happen alongside a sports game.

“Sports are one of the few phenomena in this world that bring people together on a regular basis. I’m a former athlete and coach myself and I’ve seen what sports can do to allow people to get to know one another as human beings,” Sheppard said. “I’m of the opinion that a lot of the problems that exist between law enforcement and many communities is that law enforcement doesn’t look at those community members as human equals sometimes, and members of the community don’t look at law enforcement as human equals either.”

Sean Sheppard (center) leads PLNU’s first Game Changer event, held in Colt Hall Forum.

Game Changer’s five-hour focus group and sports game gives participants formal and informal opportunities to share their experiences, respectfully listen to others, learn from one another, and connect. It opens the door for tangible, real change to occur. During the focus group, participants devise solutions to agreed upon problems, and share their solutions with the group at large. At the end, the Game Changer staff compiles these action items to share with law enforcement leadership, elected officials, and city councilmembers.

“A lot of the problems that exist between law enforcement and many communities is that law enforcement doesn’t look at those community members as human equals sometimes, and members of the community don’t look at law enforcement as human equals either.”

In the November event held at PLNU, participants found profiling to be one of the top problems between law enforcement and the community, and engagement to be the best solution. Some community members suggested law enforcement approach traffic stops by explaining what they’re doing without lethal force, a member of law enforcement suggested police officers use downtime to volunteer and connect with the community more, and a community member suggested civilians could reach out to the police more. With these solutions, each participant walked away with an idea of how to implement change.

Game Changer has trained over 300 members of law enforcement and almost 700 members of the general public who participated in the program. It has grown from San Diego, Calif., to six cities in three different states across the U.S. and is continuing to expand. It was recently certified with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, meaning members of law enforcement can use a Game Changer event to count toward their required hours of interpersonal communication training. 

“The Department of Homeland Security has told us they are unaware of any other nonprofit in the country that has convened as many members of law enforcement and the general public like we have,” Sheppard said.

Game Changer is successfully healing relationships between police and the community on a large scale, and in doing so, it is demonstrating restorative justice.

Last year, San Diego State University’s Institute for Public Health analyzed survey data collected from Game Changer events over a 10-month period, and found positive results in changes of perception and behavior from both law enforcement and the general public participants. For example, law enforcement became much more communicative with members of the public during and in between traffic stops, rather than robotic and impersonal. And members of the public shared positive experiences with law enforcement among their social circles.

Game Changer is successfully healing relationships between police and the community on a large scale, and in doing so, it is demonstrating restorative justice.

Restorative justice is focused on restoring relationships between all people affected by crimes. This includes perpetrators, victims, law enforcement, and the community. Rather than taking a solely punitive approach to criminal justice, those seeking restorative justice focus on each person’s humanity.

Alfonso Esquer, director of PLNU’s criminal justice program, attends Game Changer events frequently and emphasizes restorative justice in the criminal justice curriculum. He has 21 years of experience in law enforcement and military service, and continues to serve as a mental health therapist for people who are incarcerated, as well as those released. He also runs a ministry that provides Christian services and teaches restorative justice to prisoners and members of law enforcement.

“There are many different models of how restorative justice can happen, but they’re all typically founded on these main principles,” Esquer explained. “The victim is able to be heard, to be apart of the solution for restoration, what is needed to make the situation better. It promotes accountability to the person who committed the harm, where, by hearing the impact they caused on the person harmed and on the community, they accept responsibility. The majority of offenders, when they commit a harm or offense, they only see the immediate offense. For instance, if a person assaults another person, their only perspective is that they harmed one person and they don’t understand the impact that harm caused the victim and the rest of the community.”

Related Story: Learn more about the mindset of restorative justice, where all individuals — despite what they’ve done or what’s happened to them — are valued and worthy to be restored and made whole as much as possible.

This is an important process because there is currently a severe lack of opportunities given to former inmates in the U.S. According to Esquer, once a person has a felony on their record, it can be almost impossible for them to get a job, an apartment, or student loans to go back to school and better themselves.

“You’re kind of paying this penalty almost for the rest of your life,” he explained. “The restorative justice model looks at restoring them while they’re still in prison. Taking away their freedom, but giving them an education and work skills, so when they return to the community, they can come back as productive citizens.”

Restorative justice is about coming up with a solution to ameliorate the harm that was caused. It’s about seeing people as worthy of being heard, restored and capable of change, and giving them opportunities to do so. It also provides opportunities for those harmed to experience healing, and for the community at large to rebuild trust and move toward resiliency.

“Ninety-five percent of people who have committed crimes will return to the community at some point. But in our criminal justice system, there’s no restoration within that entire process,” said Esquer. “Typically, they’ll end up going back. The U.S. has about an 80 percent recidivism rate of anyone who has been detained in any type of detention center or facility. With restorative justice, the statistics drop down to about 14 percent. It’s a system that dramatically impacts lives, not just to the person harmed or the person who committed the offense, but also to those that surround them.”

Restorative justice is about coming up with a solution to ameliorate the harm that was caused. It’s about seeing people as worthy of being heard, restored and capable of change, and giving them opportunities to do so.

Game Changer is a piece of the puzzle when it comes to bringing restorative justice to the U.S. criminal justice system — it shows what positive impact can look like when people from different backgrounds, with different perceptions and stigmas, gather together and discuss injustice, while extending grace and understanding to one another.

Esquer promotes Game Changer events to his criminal justice students so they will gain a deeper understanding of what restorative justice can look like as they step into their careers. In the spring, PLNU is set to host its second event with the organization.

“A big focus of ours is restoring the justice system in general to function as a community rather than a different entity,” he said. “The justice system is kind of segregated from the community, as the authority the community has to obey. Our program looks at integrating the two along with faith. All criminal justice professionals are still in and part of the community, and their family and friends are too. Our program focuses on how they can maintain community feel and values and actually serve the people in the community, rather than only exist as the authority over that community.” 

Related Story: Alfonso Esquer goes from an undercover DEA agent infiltrating cartels to a program director at PLNU committed to bringing restoration to his community.

Sheppard hopes the top takeaway all Game Changer participants have is that they come to see one another as fellow human beings and treat each other accordingly. He has seen officers break down in tears, talking about mental health issues or other officers they’ve known who have committed suicide. He’s witnessed people apologize for their behavior and take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. He’s seen people connect over a game after uncomfortable discussions. Connecting as fellow human beings can have an enormous power; it can change perceptions and behaviors and break down biases to show each person’s humanity — that we are just like everyone else.

“Ninety-five percent of people who have committed crimes will return to the community at some point. But in our criminal justice system, there’s no restoration within that entire process.”

Sheppard hopes this for every participant, including students entering careers in criminal justice.

“Whatever career path they go down, it’s important to maintain the perspective of humanity, that there are real people who have made mistakes in their life,” he said. “A lot of time, people are unaware of their own biases within their careers. This program is a great way to instill in people that we have biases and we shouldn’t allow them to affect the decisions we make that affect someone else’s life, whether you’re a judge or you’re a member of law enforcement or a member of the general public. You have to be aware of your own biases and how you go about treating people.”

The work of restorative justice affects everyone involved. Programs like Game Changer and PLNU’s criminal justice program are focused on the humanity of each individual. With this type of system, punishment is still inevitable for those who commit crimes, but so is restoration and real change — not only for the betterment of offenders, but for victims, community members, law enforcement, and the relationships in between.

Do you want to bring hope and healing to your community?

If you have college credits but not a bachelor’s degree, PLNU’s criminal justice degree completion program is designed for you. Join us as we seek to bring the practices of restorative justice to our society.

Learn more at pointloma.edu/CJ or speak with one of our admissions counselors at (619) 329-6799 or degreecompletion@pointloma.edu today.