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Brattleboro Police use coffee to build bridges

Department reaches out to community by bonding with caffeine

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Police officers Ryan Washburn and Adam Petlock greet people entering Bruegger’s Bagels off Canal Street.

“Welcome, can I get you a cup of coffee?” asks Washburn, his dark sunglasses propped on his forehead.

Washburn and Petlock head up a new community outreach program for the BPD called Coffee with a Cop. Banners announcing the event stretch across the store’s entryway and hang in its window.

The two-hour, early-morning affair on May 14 drew a crowd that grew and shrunk in number with people’s morning routine.

Coffee with a Cop (CWAC) is designed to give community members time to speak with officers, ask questions, and voice concerns on neutral ground.

Most interactions people have with police officers occur under clouds of distress. Citizens have few opportunities to simply chat with police officers in their community and ask questions, said Brattleboro Police Capt. Michael Fitzgerald.

Last week marked the BPD’s first CWAC event.

CWAC is a national program. Chief Eugene Wrinn heard about the program last fall and asked for volunteers. Washburn and Petlock stepped forward. The two officers attended a training in New Hampshire in late 2013.

According to Fitzgerald, the main concept of CWAC is “no agenda” and to help “break down the mythical wall” that often hangs between a town’s police force and its citizenry.

For a police department to remain strong, it needs community support, said Fitzgerald. For a community to remain vital, it needs a strong police force.

“And sometimes that gets lost,” said Fitzgerald of the symbiotic relationship between a police department and the community it serves.

Citizens should feel free to ask officers anything at the coffee events, he said.

An important component of CWAC is follow up, said Fitzgerald.

The officers will take the comments and questions they receive back to the department, said Fitzgerald. The department will then develop an action plan and follow up with citizens so they know a result came from their comments.

BPD hopes to conduct regular CWAC events at different locations around Brattleboro, he said.

That morning, Fitzgerald’s conversations focused on introducing himself to people.

“You can actually sit down and talk,” said Fitzgerald, adding that a small community such as Brattleboro needs personal connections.

Many people wanted to chat about the Red Sox, he said.

CWAC started at the Hawthorne (Calif.) Police Department at a local McDonald’s. The HPD sought to improve communication, trust, and relationships with the local community members.

HPD Sgt. Chris Cognac wrote on www.coffeewithacop.com of the first event, “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.

“They had issues such as graffiti, parking, fraud, and elder abuse. Some wanted to know why they had been traffic-stopped and others wanted to tell us that they wanted to get rid of a No Right Turn sign,” Cognac continued. “They were all glad that we were there and repeatedly thanked us.”

“Most never had dealings with the police before and were worried that the concerns they had were not ‘big enough’ for us to worry about,” wrote Cognac. “We assured them that all issues within the community are important to us.”

According to Cognac, after an article about HPD’s Coffee with a Cop events appeared in COPS Dispatch in January 2012, the program spread quickly to include more than 175 communities in 36 states.

Washburn grew up in Brattleboro and feels he knows a lot of the community members. He has served two years at the BPD. Prior to Brattleboro he served three years in the Wilmington Police Department and is a Navy veteran.

CWAC caught his attention because “it’s nice to get everyone to meet each other.” He wanted other officers who are new to the area to have the opportunity to build community relationships.

He described all the comments he had received as positive. One community member had a bike road-safety question. Washburn answered the query and also provided the cyclist with a small blinking light to aid nighttime visibility.

There are problems, such as drugs, in Brattleboro that the BPD needs the community’s help to solve, said Washburn.

“We need pieces of the puzzle to put together,” said Washburn, then added that community members often have the missing puzzle pieces.

People need to feel comfortable with the police to come forward with questions or information, he said. He said that he hopes such events will help “break down the barriers between the community and the police.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #255 (Wednesday, May 21, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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