WALKING TO A NEW BEAT by Ellen Donker
It’s Friday evening and Starbucks is abuzz with the usual activity of a coffee shop. Patrons order drinks, people hover in conversation, and students work away on their laptops. Amid the hubbub, four Maplewood police officers are chatting everyone up. If it weren’t for their uniforms, they’d blend in with the rest of the crowd. But they’re here with a mission: to forge relationships by simply getting to know people in the town. Called Coffee with a Cop, this is the first of many events that the newly-formed community service bureau plans to hold.
Assembled just four months ago, it’s been Deputy Chief Albert Sally’s dream for years: to have a dedicated unit whose goal is to get to know residents, be a resource for them, and bridge the gap between the Police Department and the community it serves. The need for community policing, as it is also called, became increasingly urgent last summer with the removal of the police chief amidst a police brutality scandal. Knowing the department needed to repair its relations with the community, the newly-appointed chief of police, James DeVaul, gave Sally his wish.
Sally wasted no time and, together with DeVaul, hand-picked the officers to work in the community service bureau, ensuring that it was as diverse as the community it serves. According to Sally, you can’t put just anybody in this job. “It takes a certain person who wants to be out there getting to know business owners and residents. You have to have a passion for it...you have to want to do it.” He appointed 16-year veteran and lifelong Maplewoodian Detective Sergeant Michael Palmerezzi as the leader of a team whose other members are Detective Steven Gyimoty and officers Matthew Jones and Chian Weekes-Rivera.
In the past, patrol officers were already doing a form of community policing but it was difficult to get to know people if they had one ear to the police radio while trying to hold a conversation. And it was likely that they could get pulled from their community work to attend to other pressing needs. By contrast, notes Palmerezzi, “Now this unit is strictly dedicated. This is what builds the trust with the community.”
To run an effective bureau, Sally consulted with the lieutenant in the Montclair Police Department who has been leading a similar operation for many years and has figured out what efforts contribute to a successful program. Gyimoty explains, “Our unit took Montclair’s policing model and replicated it. Bloomfield has helped a lot, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up the phone to ask them [Montclair] questions.”
Palmerezzi has assigned members of the group to be responsible for different zones. Currently, they are meeting with business owners to introduce themselves, secure emergency contacts to update their system, and address concerns. He comments, “What makes it easier is once the officers start passing their cards out, the owners know who to call if they have any questions or concerns…rather than calling the [police] desk to rectify the situation.” Adds Weekes-Rivera, “Having a friendly face and just seeing the same guy helps. [Then people can say] ‘I know a cop. I know who I can go to.’ Unfortunately, [people think] we only show up when things are bad. We want to change that whole thing.”
The bureau is also sponsoring many events, including Coffee with a Cop, to reach as many residents – both adults and children – as possible. Palmerezzi laughs when he says, “I’m effectively an event planner.” Then he reels off a string of upcoming activities – everything from movie nights to Junior Police Academy to Teen Pool Night. He and the team make their own flyers, post them around town and online and recruit businesses to provide food, music, bouncy houses, magicians, face painting, space and more. Palmerezzi looks to the younger officers to manage the unit’s social media and keep their eyes open for new activities. Rumor has it that a Lip Sync Challenge may be in their future.
Besides running events, the officers do a lot of work with children, talking with them in the Hub and the Loft afterschool programs about whatever topic is on their minds as well as the fun stuff such as playing ping pong and video games. As Weekes-Rivera says, “I’m not too old to hang out with the kids.” The officers go into the younger grades and present the L.E.A.D. program (Law Enforcement Against Drugs), designed to deter youth from drug use, drug-related crimes, bullying and violence. And they’re recommending that the school district add the PATT curriculum (Police and Teens Together) to the Driver’s Education curriculum to open up conversation between teens and law enforcement so they can better understand, for example, what happens at a traffic stop and why police officers use certain tactics.
The bureau also mixes with the senior population, holding seminars to raise awareness about crime safety tips, the latest scams and online safety. They urge family and friends to make the police aware of seniors living alone so they can arrange to have a key to the home should a relative living outside the area call with concerns.
Certainly, the unit faces challenges with changing the public’s perception, but their enthusiasm for their work is off the charts. Just one conversation with the officers makes it clear they love what they’re doing and are constantly thinking of new ways to interact with the public. Weekes-Rivera comments, “Whatever you guys need, we’re just ready to rock ’n’ roll.”
When asked to articulate the unit’s mission, Sally doesn’t hesitate. “It’s to improve communication and trust between law enforcement and the community by creating and participating in positive programs. Then he puts it in practical terms. “I go to the barber shop on Irvington Ave. I was sitting in there for 40 minutes just talking. I’ve been there so many times, no one’s like ‘Here’s the police. No, that’s just Al.’ That’s the kind of relationships we want.”
The community service bureau is looking for ideas that will help the police be a better resource to the community. Please share yours with Detective Sergeant Mike Palmerezzi at MPalmerezzi@twp.maplewood.nj.us.