BRATTLEBORO—The breakfast crowd fills The Restless Rooster Cafe on Elliot Street. Det. Ryan Washburn of the Brattleboro Police Department greets people coming through the door.
Washburn, along with fellow officer Adam Petlock, have spearheaded a community outreach program called Coffee with a Cop (CWAC) for almost two years.
Most interactions between police officers and the public occur during a crisis. CWAC provides an opportunity to speak with officers and ask questions outside of tense or heated situations.
This morning, on Dec. 18, Washburn has taken question from community members on motor vehicles, the Police-Fire facilities project, complaints about speeders through neighborhoods, and the Red Sox.
“Red Sox all the way,” he says with a smile.
CWAC is a national program. Former Chief Eugene Wrinn heard about the program in 2013 and asked for volunteers. Washburn and Petlock stepped forward.
CWAC started at the Hawthorne (Calif.) Police Department at a local McDonald’s. That city’s police sought to improve communication, trust, and relationships with local community members.
On www.coffeewithacop.com, Hawthorne Police Sgt. Chris Cognac wrote of the first event that “8 a.m. came and nobody was there, so we nervously waited. About 8:15 it happened — an almost never-ending swarm of people came in to talk with us.”
The atmosphere surrounding Brattleboro’s sixth CWAC is relaxed. People sit with officers or detectives. A man in a grey sweatshirt shares concerns about drug issues in his neighborhood with Petlock and Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS) Police Social Worker Kristin Neuf.
At the department’s inaugural CWAC at Bruegger’s Bagels in 2014, the event’s tone felt more hesitant. People stood in the shop’s door asking each other what had happened? Why all the police?
The officers looked back, also nervous.
Almost two years later, and the Restless Rooster’s customers stop and chat. More members of the BPD are on hand to answer questions.
Washburn notes the program’s progress.
Early on, people felt shy, he said. Now they ask questions and discuss issues.
The officers were nervous at first, Washburn continues. Now they’re more open when speaking to people at CWAC.
A good sign for a program designed to get the public and police talking to each other.
In addition to Bruegger’s and The Restless Rooster Cafe, McDonald’s, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and The Works Bakery Cafe have hosted CWAC events.
Washburn has completed his first year as a detective with the BPD. Before becoming a detective, he spent six years on patrol in the BPD and Wilmington Police Department. Before becoming a police officer, he served four years in the military.
“It’s been a learning curve,” he said. Officers on patrol interact with people for a limited time. Detectives dive deep into investigations.
Washburn said he’s learned a lot in the past year, especially working on a recent homicide case with the state police.
“That’s been good and bad, if you know what I mean,” he said.
It’s important to have hobbies and a strong social network to provide “a mental cool down” after long days investigating intense cases, he said. Washburn plays a lot of sports.
Officer Petlock, the second officer behind the BPD’s CWAC, likes the casual conversations with members of the public.
“People often see police as robots,” Petlock added. “These conversations help show we’re human, too.”
It’s rare officers get to just talk to people, he said. But here’s the thing, the department won’t solve crimes without the public’s help.
Two newcomers to the two-hour coffee and discussion event were Det. Greg Eaton (six years with law enforcement) and Officer David Cerreto (seven years’ experience as an officer).
Cerreto spoke enthusiastically about CWAC and other community-building tools the department has launched, mostly, under Chief Michael Fitzgerald.
Community programs give officers on the street more tools to assist the public, Cerreto said. They also make officers’ jobs easier.
“It just makes plain sense” for law enforcement to maintain community relationships, he said.
Cerreto also praised the police social worker program, a second community support initiative that places a social worker from HCRS at the department.
The police social worker collaborates with officers on calls involving mental health, substance abuse, and social service issues.
“It’s extremely important,” he said.
He also joked that“you notice there’s no doughnuts. Not for me at least.”
So no doughnut jokes allowed?
“Oh, jokes of any kind are always allowed,” Cerreto laughed.
Eaton said he appreciated the opportunity to get out from behind his detective’s desk and interact with people.
Events like this humanizes officers and builds confidence and trust, Eaton said. Hopefully, people will feel more comfortable reaching out to the department for help or with information.
When asked how his first year as a detective is going, Egan — one of the lead investigators working on a Dec. 14 robbery at People’s United Bank on Main Street — answered, “Busy. Very busy.”
Det. Lt. Michael Carrier, stood watching the conversations, coffee in hand.
Oh, the stories that this 32-plus-years veteran of law enforcement like Carrier could tell. He smiles and chuckles at the remark.
Carrier has served 14 years with BPD. He said he has also worked with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, and as a special investigator based in South Carolina.
Investigations are a process of assembling puzzle pieces, he said.
At the start of an investigation, all the detectives have are these little pieces of information, Carrier continued. Piece by piece, they bring the information together to reveal the full picture.
The major crimes Carrier said he deals with in Brattleboro link to drugs.
People in the grip of an addiction take drastic measures — measures they may not have taken otherwise — to placate the addiction, he said.
This economy doesn’t help, he continued. People lose their jobs, they have a family to support, and they make bad decisions.
“Sometimes this is all they are, is a bad decision,” Carrier said of the calls that law enforcement responds to.
He supports Vermont’s attempts to divert nonviolent offenders from jail into treatment programs or other restorative justice programs.
“They’re not 100 percent perfect,” Carrier said. But the criminal justice system needs alternatives and people with addictions need treatment.
First and foremost, however, he added, “You can only be rehabilitated if you want to be rehabilitated.”
People coming back from addictions must “stick with it because it’s a lifelong process,” Carrier said.
Carrier also mentioned a change he’s seen in how community members confront conflict.
In the past, he said people talked, or yelled, or sometimes threw a punch to resolve their differences.
“Now. people use guns or knives. Which is really unfortunate,” Carrier said.
Fitzgerald stands against the wall near the coffee carafe during a brief moment of quiet. Community members have engaged him in conversation all morning.
At the first CWAC, the officers didn’t know what to expect, Fitzgerald said.
“There were these two groups that wanted to talk to each other, but didn’t know how,” he said.
Over the past 18 months since Fitzgerald stepped into the role of chief, he has seen officers relax into CWAC. Community members have grown more comfortable attending and asking questions.
Today, community members have asked him about the Police-Fire Facilities Project, procedures, homelessness, the department’s role in dealing with mental health issues, and the New England Patriots football team.
He grins and his face lights up, “It’s just getting better all the time.”
The short, candid conversations officers have at CWAC provide valuable information, he said. Not all of the conversations are about crime. Many focus on quality of life issues.
Fitzgerald said the officers at today’s event will make a point of following up with the people they spoke with to answer questions and to check in.
In 2016, Fitzgerald looks to bring the CWAC model to centers serving young people such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Brattleboro and local schools. He said he hopes kids will become as comfortable interacting with officers as the adults attending CWAC.
According to Fitzgerald, all the BPD staff are behind the outreach programs.
“They want this to succeed,” he said.