ATLANTA – Whether in a pickup game of basketball or a summer football league, cops have long challenged teenagers to battles of athletic prowess.

Playing with kids on their own turf helps to build relationships, the officers say, and could help steer them in the right direction. But there is no going toe-to-toe and hand-to-hand in the middle of a pandemic, when health guidelines encourage separation of at least six feet.

Officers in DeKalb County, Georgia, have taken their outreach efforts to a new, socially-distant arena: online video games.

“This gives us an opportunity and a platform to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community in a completely different realm,” said Detective K. Ricketts, a member of DeKalb’s Police Athletic League Plus (PAL Plus) program, adding that video games are a great equalizer. “We’ve had at-risk youth that have been in gangs with criminal activity and they will go home and play video games.”

Recently, the PAL Plus unit staged a virtual video game tournament and invited 12- to 16-year-olds to play against their officers, some experienced gamers and some playing just for fun. A total of 50 logged into their computers or gaming consoles for a chance to win cash prizes and bragging rights.

It was the second year for the Gaming with a Cop event, but the first for virtual gameplay. Aeden, a 12-year-old player who attends Salem Middle School, competed last year when the tournament was held at a county recreation center and returned Monday to shame some officers online.

As a player, he would rate himself “probably like a 6 or 7,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview last week. His officer opponents are at half his skill level, he said, but Aeden had some advice ahead of Monday’s tournament.

“You should have a tissue,” the 12-year-old said with a smirk.

The gaming event was the latest pivot for the police department’s community outreach programs, which have hurdled coronavirus restrictions over the past year.

The PAL Plus unit took its annual camp virtual last summer, and a new life skills program launched in January meets face-to-face but keeps classes small at 10 participants. The eight-week course is aimed at providing better options to youth ages 15 to 20 who “were kind of on the brink,” police Chief Mirtha Ramos said. Participants are primed on everything from financial literacy to interview skills with the hope of securing a job by the time the course is over.

Ramos thinks her department is doing more community engagement now than they were before the pandemic hit.

“We realized COVID is here to stay,” she said. “Law enforcement cannot pull back just simply because of COVID. We have to work around it.”

That includes the work of the department’s two revamped Community Policing Units, which are still operating in-person with the necessary precautions. Recently, the units’ officers took the offerings of a department-wide shoe drive to area extended-stay hotels. They lined up the shoes on tables and met with families in the parking lots, Ramos said.

For the 14 officers assigned to the units, community building is their sole responsibility. They speak with business owners and homeowners associations, work with faith-based organizations and generally provide any service DeKalb residents feel the police department is lacking, according to the chief.

After last summer’s protests over police violence around the country, Ramos said her department took the opportunity to build back some trust, doubling down on events like virtual town halls and sending her supervisors into neighborhoods with open ears.

“We want to make sure the community knows we’re not going anywhere,” Ramos said. “We’ve been more present rather than pulling back. In a time of insecurity, I want them to know we are here.”

The most innovative engagement ideas, the chief said, have come from the officers themselves. The Gaming with a Cop event was the brainchild of Officer Christen Munroe, a self-proclaimed gamer who hosts livestreams on the gaming website Discord.

For several years, Munroe also operated VS Realm, a video arcade and esports hangout for kids, out of North DeKalb Mall before the business became another casualty of COVID-19. Most of Munroe’s opponents would never guess he’s a cop, he said.

“One of my goals in this whole program is to humanize myself,” he said. “To get the kids to understand I love this game as much as you. I’m a human being. I have feelings — even in the midst of maybe talking a little junk.”

Taking the gaming tournament virtual this year allowed it to grow. Munroe thinks they could have doubled or tripled the number of players had they not capped the event at 50.

The kids were already hanging out online, Ricketts said, and the officers just had to meet them there.

“With the virtual aspect, it has allowed us to open so many doors that we probably took for granted before COVID-19,” the detective said. “To be able to engage and work with them through the very things they like to do is not really a challenge for us.”

It’s a lesson the PAL Plus unit will take forward even when social distancing and mask requirements are things of the past.

©#YR# Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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