Local police reach out to the community
By J. Chambless
Trooper Easterling and Station Commander Michelle Swantner of Pennsylvania State Police Avondale meet a mother and her children at the 'Coffee With a Cop' event. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
The road to improved relations between
the community and the police begins here, with a handshake, a cup of
coffee and a relaxed conversation.
On the morning of April 30, Pennsylvania State Police Troop J from Avondale sponsored “Coffee With a Cop,” part of a nationwide program that brings police and their communities together to increase understanding. The event, held in the coffee bar area of the Christian Life Center in New London, was the first event of its kind for the troop.
“It's an opportunity to sit down and talk to members of the community and build relationships,” Easterling said. “We encourage our troopers to get out of the car and talk to people. As far as the State Police, we cover all the townships that don't have their own police departments. Our area can be more rural, more spread out. We want to be approachable. Trooper Reginald Easterling, Jr., organized the event at the request of Avondale Station Commander Michelle Swantner. The church site was chosen because it's near the camp used for Camp Cadet each summer – a program where area youth can enjoy summer camp under the guidance of police officers. Last summer, the weather was bad for the graduation ceremony from the camp, so the church opened its doors, and the pastor gladly welcomed the police back again for this week's meet-and-greet.
“A lot of times, police meet people at their worst situations, so we're trying to come up with an opportunity to meet over a cup of coffee and talk about whatever they'd like,” Easterling said. “Ninety percent of society is made up of good people. But we run into that other 10 percent more. We just try to meet people where they're at, and have a good relationship with everybody.”
Lieutenant Swantner said a similar program is held once a month in Coatesville. “I got stationed in Avondale at the end of June of last year,” she said. “Trooper Easterling is my community service officer. I said we should try to do this program and start getting out into the communities. And he made it happen.
“Chester County has a very diverse community,” she said. “This is a way of starting, by meeting maybe the families who attend the church here, and then get it out by word of mouth.”
Swantner has been in law enforcement for 24 years, and said she is acutely aware of the shift in public attitudes toward the police, particularly in the wake of arrests that turned tragic, and their instant spread on social media. Many communities have a policy of not talking to the police, which only exacerbates the crime and other problems in those neighborhoods. “In my years of being in law enforcement, times definitely have changed,” she said. “The respect that we used to get is not there as much as it was. But as Station Commander, it's great to receive an email or leter thanking police for what they did.”
Swantner cited a recent 911 call from a grandmother in the Oxford area who was taking care of her daughter's children, ages 4 and 9, when the 4-year-old, who is autistic and non-verbal, was distraught and unable to calm down. The grandmother called the Avondale barracks in desperation, but Corporal Timothy Greene responded to the scene and saved the day by opening the sippy cup that the child wanted. That may seem like a misuse of police efforts, but the incident has gotten widespread social media coverage.
“It was a good experience for the 4-year-old and the 9-year-old,” Swantner said. “The mother was very thankful and called us on Monday to thank us. She also put a message on social media, thanking Corporal Greene. He told her, 'These are the things that make our day.' When you get to do something to put a smile on someone's face, it's wonderful.”
Also at the morning program was Laurie Shannon-Bailey, the founder of a new organization, the Coatesville Area Juvenile Alliance, a faith-based group that is seeking to mentor at-risk teens in Coatesville in conjunction with other counselors and probation officers. Officers from Troop J are involved in the group, which began organizational meetings last fall. The group is deciding which young people will be the focus of the program, she said. Hopefully, the program will be up and running in the next few months, adding another layer of guidance to young people – some of whom may have already been arrested for minor offenses – as they seek a better path.
Shannon-Bailey said, “I see positive energy in the city, but we have a lot of challenges. There is little or no quality recreation for the youth. It's a huge problem. It's hard to convince a business owner to come in, because the market is not there yet. We'd like to have a restaurant, we'd like to have more than one coffee shop.”
The monthly “Coffee With a Cop” programs in Coatesville are going a long way towards smoothing tensions in the city, she said, adding that a March basketball game between officers and young people was a great ice-breaker. The public attitude toward police “is getting better,” she said. “We're better than we were, and these kind of events are a big help. We want to have more conversations about what people are concerned about.”
One of the people who organized the basketball game was Todd Hood, who was sharing coffee with the officers in New London on Monday. He's part of the Bridge Academy in Coatesville, and attends Providence Church, which is involved in guiding the city's youth. “It feels good to give back,” he said. “I grew up in the system, spent a lot of time in jail, a lot of time in the streets. I'd like kids to open their eyes and see that it's not the way to go. What turned me around was my sobriety from alcohol. I visit a couple of rehabs each month and try to share my story. I'm about to celebrate 22 months sober, and it feels amazing.”
Trooper Kelly MacIntyre, who co-directs Camp Cadet each August, said that when she is able to meet people who are not in a crisis, the conversations usually turn to “their kids,” she said. “They tell me about their family, how their day is going. They'll ask me about what I do on patrol. My favorite thing is to talk to people about their kids.”
Late in the morning, a few dozen 3- and 4-year-olds from the New London Christian Preschool, which is based at the church, came over to see the police officers. Easterling and MacIntyre explained what they carried in their belts, what their jobs are, and reassured the children that the police are here to help.
One young boy raised his hand and told Easterling, “My daddy likes your TV show.” Easterling laughed and thanked him, not going into the fact that he is not on “Cops.”
“We love kids,” he said. “We want you to come over and talk to us when you see us. You are all good boys and girls, so you don't have to be afraid of us.”
One boy raised his hand and said, “When I grow up, I want to be a police officer.”
“Well, that's great,” Easterling said, smiling.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.