Law enforcement strives for community engagement |

Law enforcement strives for community engagement

Ryan Hoffman
Rifle Police officer Carlos Cornejo chats with Barb Clifton, Rifle resident and city councilor, during “Coffee with a Cop” at Olive Ridley’s Coffee and Tea on May 27.
Ryan Hoffman / Citizen Telegram |

Whether it is a cup of coffee for the average Joe in need of a pick-me-up, a bicycle helmet for a young child or some other offering, local law enforcement agencies in western Garfield County are engaging with the communities they serve in ways beyond what the public may perceive as standard police work.

The effort is part of what is commonly called community policing, which the U.S. Department of Justice defines as “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues … “

To put it in different words, the approach involves community engagement intended to ensure that law enforcement polices in a way that is consistent with the community’s values.

“We want to be more engaged with the community so that they are being police in a way that they have input on … that matches the values of the community,” said Rifle Police Chief John Dyer. “You know each community is different in what they value, so we want to engage with (the public) and make sure that our values match what they expect from us.”

Earlier this year, the Rifle department partnered with Olive Ridley’s Coffee and Tea Co. to host “Coffee with a Cop,” a monthly event that allows the public to interact with officers in a relaxed setting.

“That’s a way for the public to be able to talk with us on a non-adversarial level,” Dyer said of “Coffee with a Cop,” which is hosted the last Friday of the month at Olive Ridley’s.

In May, they shifted the time to 8:30-10:30 a.m. — a slightly later window than previously hosted. The hope is that the later time will bring out more people to, as Olive Ridley’s owner Natalie Wilson said, ask questions, voice concerns, hear about community happenings or just say thank you.

Barb Clifton, a Rifle resident and city councilor, attended “Coffee with a Cop” for the first time in May. She used the opportunity to ask one of the officers for his thoughts on some issues City Council has addressed in recent months, such as recreational marijuana.

“It was a nice way to talk to them that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do,” Clifton said, adding that City Council hopes to partner with the department to attend some of the events and make it a “coffee with a cop and councilor” event.

Other forms of outreach

“Coffee with a Cop” is just one avenue the Rifle department uses to engage the public.

In 2014, City Council created the Rifle Public Safety Citizen Advisory Board, a group consisting of residents that, among other things, serves to enhance police-community relations.

The department organizes additional events, such as a bicycle rodeo during the Rifle Rendezvous, and strives to have a presence at other events, including the Rifle July 4 parade and Garfield County Fair.

The habit is not unique to Rifle.

Coffee with a Cop,” which originated in Hawthorne, California in 2011 and has since spread across the country, made its way to Glenwood Springs earlier this year.

And in Silt the police department recently created junior police academies for third- to eighth-grade students in the Re-2 school district.

Response to the weeklong program, the first of two sessions starts next week, has been overwhelming, Silt Police Chief Levy Burris said.

The department created a waiting list to manage the demand.

In the same vein as other outreach efforts, the academy is intended to foster a relationship between law enforcement and the community officers police. More specifically in this instance, the goal is to demonstrate to children that police officers do not exist for the sole purpose of punishment.

“I’ve always advocated for education and part of that is making (children) understand that law enforcement is your friend and they’re somebody you can turn to and seek them out,” Burris said.

Challenges to community engagement

Philosophically, this approach to policing is not new, but the methodology continues to shift as aspects of law enforcement evolve.

In the days before squad cars and radios, officers would walk a specific beat, which provided an opportunity to engage with the public on a personal level.

“Community policing … use to be the norm then in the ‘50s. When we started to get patrol cars and radio cars and cities started to get bigger we kind of migrated away from that,” Dyer said. “And so community policing can’t just be a program you have, it really has to be a culture and a philosophy that goes throughout the department.”

Technological advances combined with limited personnel resource have made that more difficult.

“Almost to some degree we’ve encapsulated ourselves in mobile offices and we forget that we’re here to serve the people … “ Burris said.

An increasing call volume with limited patrol officers adds to the challenge.

The largest barrier to community engagement is not philosophical but logistical.

“It’s not challenging in the respect of getting the officers to want to do it, you know, because generally police officers they go into that profession because they want to help people, so typically they are pretty person-oriented,” Dyer said. “The challenge is the logistics of it because they’re working shift work so they can’t do things on a regular basis.”

Those hurdles have led to what Burris called a more organized approach to engaging with the public. The Silt department works with the local Boy Scouts on several different projects and, like other departments, has officers at community events including the summer concert series.

In Rifle, Dyer said the department is working on creating a community calendar so patrol officers are aware of events and can stop by to grab some face time when timer permits.

Even with the challenges, Burris, whose law enforcement career has included tenures with the Rifle and Glenwood Springs police departments and the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, said the engagement between law enforcement and the local communities here is far greater than elsewhere.

“It’s important that people understand and recognize that … we have some of the same issues and problems that other parts of the country do,” Burris said. “But overall our face time far exceeds what other agencies do and we strive to make sure that continues to happen, because it is important for people to understand that we are human … and they have a face to the name, if you will, rather than the uniform.”

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