2017-11-24 / Community

SoPo PD invites you to become a Cop-for-a-Day

New program aims to increase collaboration between public, police
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Richard Matthews doesn’t need to rely on his expertise as chairman of the South Portland Board of Education to know there’s a traffic problem around Brown Elementary School. Every day, after his neighbor goes to work, he helps out a friend by walking his first-grade girl to school, and he sees it for himself.

“It’s amazing to see, the cars are just flying through,” he said on Monday. “The same is true over to Mahoney (Middle School). The people are just racing from one light to the other.”

To date, however, a fix to the problem has evaded school officials. The department cannot afford to post a full-time crossing guard at Brown, Matthews said, and the state won’t allow installation of speed bumps along Highland Avenue by the building, given that it’s a main evacuation route from the area in case of a communitywide disaster.

But then Matthews saw a social media post made by Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department, and he knew a solution might be in sight.

That post was an invitation to take part in a new Cop-for-a-Day program, in which residents can work side-by-side with a police officer for anywhere from a few hours to an entire shift. But this new initiative is more than just promotion of the department’s existing ride-along program – a courtesy most often taken advantage of by criminal justice students at Southern Maine Community College, in which participants get to watch police officers in action. The new Cop-for-a-Day version is meant to be a collaborative exercise, between police officers and city residents, in which officers not only demonstrate what their day-to-day job is like, but also get a chance to commiserate over issues and concerns of those they are sworn to protect and serve.

“We aim to not only identify and address problems, but to give our officers a clearer idea of the public’s perception of the issues on their beats, while giving the public a better understanding of what the police are doing, or can – or cannot – lawfully do, to address such issues within our city,” Clark said.

Matthews didn’t have to be asked twice. He jumped at the chance.

“I’m hoping that maybe by riding with a police officer, we can figure out a way to stop the speeding by Brown, the speeding by Mahoney, the speeding by Skillin (Elementary),” he said. “All these schools are on main roads and people are just flying though. We are so fortunate in South Portland that we haven’t had somebody killed, really, or even hurt.”

Matthews is scheduled for duty on Nov. 28. He hopes to learn exactly what goes into guarding the city and its youngest residents from harm. Rather than merely complain about the issue, he wants to see firsthand what police officers go through, what they experience, and what restrictions they operate under to better understand why so many people are able to speed by schools with seeming impunity. Matthews hopes to communicate back to concerned parents his experience as a Cop-for-a-Day. Maybe he can impress upon the officer the need for greater enforcement, whatever other duties have to be juggled to make that happen, but maybe he’ll learn enough to know that it’s not just a matter of blue lights in action and, using what he learns, and working with parents and others, a solution might bubble forth from the community, given a greater understanding by all of the many dynamics in play.

One thing he wants to test, Matthews said, is to see if the officer can run data to find out if he’s right about one niggling concern he has – that the recent change to later start times for city schools has actually pushed more students onto the streets at peak commuting hours for workers and college students, in a hurry to get to the job, or that first class.

“What I want to understand is exactly what a police officer is thinking in particular school zones,” he said. “We do all kinds of things in the schools to keep the kids safe, but we can’t protect them on the street to get there. People talk about reducing busing, to have kids walk more, but if we can’t get the kids there safe, what’s the sense of not putting them on buses?”

“It’s all about communication,” Clark said. “That’s the key, just sitting down and having a conversation. And not by email or text message, but face-to-face, to have somebody actually sitting next to the officer on the beat, pointing out, this is what I’m seeing on a daily basis.”

In that regard, Clark quotes Sir Robert Peel, founder of the British metropolitan “bobbies” and considered the father of modern community policing. “The people are the police and the police are the people,” Peel was known to say.

“It’s kind of that, breaking down any barrier of us vs. them,” Clark said. “There should be no distinction. We all want to make South Portland a better, safer place to live.”

Clark stressed that it’s not just elected officials and business leaders who are being targeted to be ad hoc cops. Any member of the community is invited to apply to be a Cop- For-a-Day. “We as the police want to make this a community in which everybody feels safe, whether it’s a crime that’s being committed, or something else. It really doesn’t matter to us,” Clark said.

There are a few limitations in the new program. A bit of a background check will be done. Police want to assure they’re not riding around with someone who has an outstanding arrest warrant, after all. The prospective community cop will need to sign a standard liability waiver, and while bringing a phone is encouraged – to call for a ride in case the officer needs to drop his citizen partner at a corner to respond to an genuine emergency where it would not do to have a civilian in tow – the taking of photos and video will be discouraged.

But otherwise, applications will be handled on a first-come, first-serve basis, scheduled as soon as an officer is available who regularly works the neighborhood where an issue has been identified. The volume of applications also may impact rotation, as there can be no more than one Cop-For-a-Day out on the streets per shift, and citizen observers are generally limited to one ride-along every three months.

“This is a bit like the ride-along program, but what we are looking for here is community members who have a particular issue or problem that they think we can help them with,” Clark said. “That’s where the difference is. This is an opportunity for police to work directly hand-in-hand with the public we serve for greater problem solving.

“We go into this understanding that not every issue that’s going to be brought to us is a crime. Probably most of it isn’t,” Clark said. “But maybe we can figure out why, if there have been complaints filed with us before, why something remains an issue.

“We try to deal with quality of life issues, too,” Clark said, “and by talking things through, something can be figured out when it’s not just us showing up in the moment trying to keep the peace, and trying to keep things from escalating to the point where a crime is committed.

“Police officers wear many different hats during a shift, for sure,” Clark said, “but we often solve the problem in the moment, and we don’t necessarily have the opportunity to resolve the underlying problem that is going to continue on for that person. That’s what we are trying to get at by inviting community members to be a cop for a day.”

“The benefit of community policing is mutual respect. We want people to be engaged enough to want to be involved,” Clark said. “And I can’t think of any better way to depict a partnership than to have somebody right there in the car next to the officer – to say, OK, for the next hour, or eight hours, you are my partner, let’s see what we can do to solve this, whatever it may be.”

With his shift on the horizon, Matthews said he’s thankful for the opportunity.

“I know they can’t be everyplace all the time. I get that,” he said. “And I’m not looking to do a night shift and go chasing after the bad guys. But I am thankful for the opportunity to see up close and personal what really goes into meeting what I know are the same goals I have. I mean, who doesn’t want to keep kids safe?

“I would encourage anyone who cares about South Portland, who thinks they can maybe bring to light something the police may not have thought of, or who must wants to help make South Portland as it can be – even greater than it already is – to pick up the phone and make the call,” Matthews said. “I did the minute I heard about this. I think it’s just an absolutely fantastic idea.”

To participate in the South Portland Police Department’s Cop-for-a-Day, contact Lt. Frank Clark by emailing francl@southportland.org, or call 799-5511, extension 7242.

SPPD Wants You

To participate in the South Portland Police Department’s new Cop-for-a- Day, contact Lt. Frank Clark by emailing francl@southportland.org, or call 799- 5511, extension 7242.

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