Community Police

Casper Police Sgt. Joey Wilhelm reads over a briefing at a change of shift meeting Thursday. The department plans to hold public briefings once or twice a month as part of a new community initiative.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune

Customers who walk into Metro Coffee on Wednesday morning will find a few baristas, an assortment of customers lounging on couches and team of Casper police officers.

Police won’t be there expecting trouble, however. They’ll be holding a daily shift change briefing, when officers who are clocking out hand over the reins to the next shift.

They hope community members will join them.

The briefings happen twice a day — at 6:50 a.m. and again 12 hours later. Normally, they take place a few blocks away in the dim basement of the Hall of Justice, where at least seven officers and a sergeant sit around a table. During the sessions, officers are updated on the last shift — whether police are looking for a violent offender, a stolen car or a runaway teen — before hitting the streets. From time to time, a sergeant might update officers on policies and procedures or give a quick tutorial on tactics.

Starting Wednesday, the briefing will be conducted once or twice a month in a public setting, when people can watch the process and interact with officers. The public briefings are part of a larger effort to bring the police department closer to the community it serves, Interim Chief Steve Schulz said Thursday.

“First and foremost, all these officers are community members,” Schulz said. “We’re all here to live in the community.”

‘Our Community’

An initiative called “Our Community” was announced Thursday by the police department.

Along with the “community team briefs,” the initiative includes intermittent foot and bike patrols downtown, participation in National Coffee With a Cop Day and more frequent appearances at community events. The effort also focuses on being more sensitive to the needs of domestic violence and sexual assault victims. The department recently opened a new “soft interview room“ to help victims feel safer while talking to investigators. Officers are also receiving new training for interviewing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Schulz said he hopes the new campaign will help make citizens more comfortable interacting with police officers, which he said will help the department effectively fight and deter crime.

The changes come amid a national period of strained tensions between police departments and some communities. High-profile police shootings — primarily involving people of color — have sparked major protests in larger cities. Police and their unions, meanwhile, say they are under fire from a public that doesn’t understand the difficulties of the job.

“We don’t wanna see that — the police against the community, the community against the police,” Schulz said.

In addition to the “Our Community” initiative, police have taken other steps to encourage more communication between the department and the community it serves. It recently rolled out online forms for citizens to submit compliments and complaints regarding officers. Police have also stepped up their use of social media to communicate with the public.

Amanda Huckabay, a City Council member who has frequently been critical of the police department, said she is heartened by the initiative. The increased focus on sensitivity to victims and transparency from the department will help build public trust, Huckabay said.

“This opens the door for real conversations,” she said. “How (the department) was previously being run was more punitive and militaristic.”

A tumultuous time

Last fall, sexual assault victims began showing up at City Council meetings to criticize how their cases were handled by police. In the spring, morale problems at the department became public. Finally in May, the city dismissed then-Chief Jim Wetzel without explanation.

The city is in the process of hiring a new chief, who should be in place by the end of the year, City Manager Carter Napier said. Schulz said he has applied for the permanent position.

Things have changed since Wetzel’s departure, Huckabay said. She said she believes morale and camaraderie in the department have improved, which she said is at least partially due to Schulz’s leadership.

“He’s doing a good job,” she said.

Napier and Schulz have met on a regular basis since Napier came on as city manager this summer. Although Napier said he did not direct Schulz to implement the new program, the city manager thinks it lines up with his philosophy.

“The community and the department are not effective without each other,” Napier said.

The city manager’s office has narrowed the field of candidates for the chief position from 45 to about 20, and Napier said he expects to interview five finalists in October before coming to a decision. He said he would prefer to hire from within the department.

Building in community

Police spend most of their time on duty taking calls, meaning officers only see citizens when they’re making arrests or otherwise enforcing the law. That can have a negative effect on police-public relations, Schulz said.

Additionally, staffing shortages in the department can make it difficult for officers to talk to citizens in non-enforcement settings, Schulz said.

However, by building set times into officer schedules for public interaction, police will be able to get to know citizens better, making them more comfortable coming forward, Schulz said.

Residents who don’t get up by 6:50 a.m. Wednesday can meet officers at four other coffeehouses later that morning for National Coffee with a Cop Day. Blue Ridge Coffee, Pour House, Java Jitters Espresso and Crescent Moon Coffee shop will all host officers from 7:30 to 9 a.m.

But the community initiatives’ success is dependent on participation from the community, Huckabay said. The hard work of police, City Council members and sexual assault survivors will be for naught if the people don’t show up to meet officers.

“Will people take the opportunity to be part of this change?” Huckabay asked. “I hope that they do.”

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