The Casper Police Department recently navigated a rough patch in which it faced criticism for its handling of sexual assault investigations and the public airing of morale problems. The difficult period culminated in the dismissal of Chief Jim Wetzel for reasons the city has not disclosed.
At that point, the department was faced with two choices: It could retreat inward, eroding the relationship between the public and the police, or it could embrace the community and work to strengthen that connection.
Police leaders made the right choice – to reach out – and they are demonstrating that with their actions. The department has recently launched an initiative that highlights the importance of building relationships with the public as they work to make our city safer. It’s called “Our Community,” and it includes a few elements:
Officers are now conducting some shift change briefings at local coffee shops, so the public can attend to find out what’s going on, and sometimes patrolling downtown on foot and bike, so community members can watch and interact with them. The department has also opened a new “soft room” specially designed to host interviews of sexual assault and domestic violence victims and help them feel more comfortable reporting crimes. Officers will also receive new training for conducting those interviews.
The department has also created online forms so people can leave compliments and criticisms of officers. And officers are also showing up at more public events, creating opportunities to meet and interact with citizens.
All this positive action contrasts sharply with the situation in other cities, many of which have experienced a high-profile distancing between police and the public. Leaders here have made it clear that that’s not the outcome they’re seeking.
“We don’t wanna see that — the police against the community, the community against the police,” Interim Chief Steve Schulz told the Star-Tribune.
It’s heartening to see our department take a different approach and actively seek to improve how it interacts with members of the Casper community. We hope the person selected to be the department’s new chief is just as invested in maintaining that relationship.
After all, it is inherently not an easy one. Members of the public and the police officers who serve them often interact at difficult times – when people have either been accused of wrongdoing or are the victims of a crime. The new initiative aims to add positive interactions to that list. People can get to know an officer better over a cup of coffee, for example, or ask a question of an officer patrolling a downtown street on a bike.
But the positive benefits aren’t just one-way. Police officers, too, routinely encounter members of the public at low moments. These interactions have the potential to shift perspectives on both sides and build trust between officers and the community.
That trust is critical when it comes to addressing and deterring crime. It fosters a better, safer community for everyone. Casper police are to be congratulated for deciding to embrace the community they serve and putting in the hard work that requires.