October 23, 2021

Community policing aims to foster trust, respect

Building a better bond

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Village Food Market co-owner Debbie Williams talks about community relations with the village of Homer police, including 10-year veteran Sgt. Roland R.J. Eckard on Thursday.

CORTLAND — It can be as simple as having a cup of coffee, riding a bike around town or even taking a walk along Main Street.

In Homer, Sgt. R.J. Eckard stood and chatted with Debbie Williams, co-owner of the Village Food Market on South Main Street. They shook hands and traded notes about policing in Homer.

It reflected part of an initiative the Homer Police Department takes about stopping in to local businesses and visiting. “I think they (the police) have a really good community presence,” Williams said.

Williams said having the officers stop in and visit makes her feel more secure and makes police more approachable.

“Our guys do a pretty good job,” Eckard said. He’d love to get out in the community more, but sometimes it’s tough when there are only a few officers on duty.

Community policing is a way for the police to work with the community and build trust and respect, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services through the U.S. Department of Justice. It worked for Sheriff Andy Taylor in the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, of the 1960s. It works in communities across America.

Different community policing

• Cortland — Bike registration program, Klondike Gold Hunt, Coffee with a Cop and Emergency Services Appreciation Day.

• Homer — Officers stop by the downtown business scene; help with community events like Winterfest and Magic on Main Street; and participate in a bike patrol.

• Dryden — Officers help with events like the Junior Fire Academy, Public Safety Day and the Dryden Community Cafe pasta night.

Over the past year with the introduction of programs like the City of Cortland Police Department’s new Community-Oriented Police Officer position and the Homer Village Police Department’s Bike Patrol there has been an increase in community policing.

It’s a part of policing that can connect police to the community and vice versa, officials said.

“The community is the police,” said Cortland police chief F. Michael Catalano.

What it is

Community policing begins with a commitment to build trust and mutual respect between police and communities, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since 1994, the COPS Office has invested about $14.9 billion on 13,000 of the nation’s 16,000 law enforcement agencies to add police to departments; enhance crime-fighting technology; support crime prevention initiatives; promote police reform; and provide training and technical assistance to advance community policing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Avram Bornstein, a professor of anthropology and interim dean of graduate studies at John Jay College, said community policing means different things to different people.

“In general it is a democratic concept that says that the community that is patrolled should have some say in how they are patrolled.” Bornstein wrote in an email.

That can take the form of monthly neighborhood meetings with cops, a regular block/ neighborhood patrol officer who gets to know the merchants and residents, a more formal role for community-based organizations and leaders to work with police in solving problems or other interpretations, Bornstein said.

Done correctly, community policing can increase the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public. “Where police have greater legitimacy, people are more likely to obey the law and cooperate with police activity,” Bornstein wrote.

However, if police are too cozy with the local community, officers may look the other way for their friends violate the law, Bornstein said.

Jesse Abbott, Cortland’s community-oriented police officer, said the only downside he could see is residents approaching a situation instead of calling the police.

A friendly face

For more than a year now, Abbott has put a face and a name to the city’s community-oriented police officer position. The fouryear position was created with a $125,000 grant from the federal Department of Justice to prevent crime and to build trust in police.

Abbott has begun a bike registration program, many events and even scheduled coffee with a cop events.

“It (community policing) is definitely important to have,” Catalano said. “For police to do their job they rely on people in the community as eyes and ears. They tell us what is happening and the issues. We all need to be on the same page.”

Community policing has always been a goal in Cortland, Catalano said. It has always been embraced.

Before Abbott took to the community policing position, a beat officer patrolled Main Street, Catalano said. However, it was difficult to keep an officer in the neighborhood because of the number of officers on staff and the call load.

Community policing isn’t just limited to Abbott, Catalano said. “It does rub off.”

The Friday before Christmas, city police officers conducted traffic stops for minor Vehicle and Traffic Law infractions. Instead of writing tickets, they handed out $25 Downtown Partnership gift certificates.

Abbott said Thursday that one officer even went as far as working with a woman to get warmer clothes and shoes to a man in need. “You do see other officers doing something proactive,” he said.

The community

Community policing isn’t new, said Robert Pitman, Homer police chief. “It’s been around for well over 20 years,” he said.

Twenty-four, at least. In 1994, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services was established by the U.S. Department of Justice. The same office awarded city police with its grant to fund Abbott’s position.

In Dryden, Chief Randy Mack of the village police said his officers and the department attend an assortment of events with the community.

Some events include the Junior Fire Academy, Public Safety Day and the Dryden Community Cafe pasta night, Mack said. However, with smaller staffs, the department has not been able to continue programs and partnerships at previous levels. “More officers would enable us to be available for specific community groups and events instead of just filling a shift and answering calls for service,” Mack stated in an email.

While more staffing makes it easier, there are ways to implement community policing ideas without a full-time officer.

Since taking the position as chief of police in 2016, Pitman has encouraged his officers to visit the businesses on Main Street and visit with owners and people in the community. It happens at least once a shift.

The officers also make it a point to pass through the village’s neighborhoods during patrols. “People like seeing us pass by,” he said.

This summer, Pitman worked to re-establish a village bike patrol. The officers have also been present at community events, including the firemen’s field days, Winterfest and Magic on Main Street.

In order for the police to their jobs, Pitman said they need the community. It’s about being in public.

“I feel we do a good job,” Pitman said. “I also feel we can do better.”

On Thursday, while Eckard stood chatting with Williams in downtown Homer, he was administering community policing. He was in public and building that relationship.