- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - When Margaret Hicks saw Dover police Master Cpl. Jeff Davis at a coat giveaway, the city resident excitedly went up to the YouTube sensation and asked to get a picture taken with him, to which he obliged.

It didn’t faze the 25-year-old mother of two that Davis wore the same uniform as another officer who was charged - and acquitted - of kicking a man in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking him unconscious. To Hicks, Davis represents good officers who work in the community wanting to help and know the people they serve.

“I saw the police officer and I recognized him,” she said of Davis, who along with Dover Officer Krista Roosa, was at the Boys and Girls Club of Simon Circle for a coat giveaway. Hicks said she wanted to take a picture with Davis so she could show her friends. “I don’t believe that every police officer is bad.”

Davis, the Dover cop who swept YouTube by storm in January by lip-syncing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” is perhaps one of the department’s best community ambassadors. His video was going viral at a time when relations between Dover police and people in the community appeared strained, especially among minorities.

The divide was widened by the release of another video that showed Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV, a white officer, kicking a black suspect in the head during a 2013 arrest. In August, a Dover officer shot a 21-year-old man.

The deterioration in relations is not unique to Dover.

Anger over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore - all at the hands of police officers - has led to the Black Lives Matter movement, protests and even rioting.

In Wilmington, people angry over the September shooting of Jeremy “Bam” McDole by four officers has led to calls for the resignations of police Chief Bobby Cummings, Mayor Dennis Williams and even Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn.

But the good deeds police departments do throughout the year usually do not get the attention that the “bad” events do. Experts say officers should make sure these positive activities will resonate with the community.

For example, following the disclosure of Webster’s video and an officer-involved shooting, Central Delaware NAACP President La Mar Gunn said there was a lot of public back and forth between the community and police that was only creating bad feelings. So Gunn met with Dover police Chief Paul Bernat and started efforts to create a bridge between the two groups.

“Instead of allowing tensions to continue, we’ve started dialogue to talk about, not just incidents of white officers abusing minorities, but the issues that are plaguing the black community,” Gunn said.

The first thing they agreed to do was have a block party where officers would play basketball with residents. The October block party was followed in November by a pre-Thanksgiving feast at Holy Trinity Church. The fellowship dinner was a partnership between the NAACP branch, Dover police and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

There are promises of more events to come.

“Two events don’t build trust,” Gunn said. “But what they do is work toward the effort.”

Dorothy Dillard, chair and associate professor of Delaware State University’s department of sociology and criminal justice, said research shows that the most effective efforts to improve relations are multifaceted and address officer selection, training and accountability.

Dillard said that today’s attempts to stem the divisive relationship between police and minorities is rooted in the early 1990 efforts to establish community policing.

“Regardless of these variations, at the center of community policing is establishing mutually respectful relationships between the police and the community members,” she said. “Many of the initial efforts were short-lived or failed primarily because the time, resources and commitment to establishing a partnership was not achieved.”

Over the past five years, Dillard said the federal government’s commitment to improving police-community relationships has re-emerged. The U.S. Department of Justice, primarily through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, provides training, guidance and funding.

“Effective efforts to improve relationships between the community and the police also involve a genuine and influential role for the community,” she said.

Trust is something that’s going to be needed, especially after police announced this week that after Webster was acquitted of criminal assault charges he would be back on the police department payroll. He remains on administrative leave.

“Now we are taking steps backward because people are saying ‘Can we trust?’ ” Gunn said. That’s why it is important to continue developing that trust with ongoing dialogue.

“It has to be long-term and it has to be things that strike a chord, that kids and families can relate to,” he said. “We have to build connections.

“We can’t just show up and be gone.”

Although new outreach efforts have been performed by Dover police since the Webster video surfaced, Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said community outreach is something police have been performing all along.

“We’ve done a lot of things that we’ve done informally, off the cuff kind of things,” said Hoffman, a Dover police spokesman. This includes officers on patrol giving kids basketballs or buying them a baseball bat or glove.

While these things happen quite often, he said that it doesn’t always get the spotlight.

“It’s a difficult thing to publicize when we are doing something nice because sometimes it backfires and people say ‘Well that’s what you’re supposed to be doing,’ ” Hoffman said. “We don’t want to look like we’re pumping ourselves up.”

And in events that police publicize, there is sometimes no coverage. In 2014, Dover police put on the Second Annual Holiday Heroes program to help children in need and no media outlet covered the event. This past year, some media covered the Dec. 16 event, which helped 33 children thanks to the department raising almost $1,500 through online and personal fundraising efforts.

Because of that lack of coverage, Dover police have taken to placing a lot of this work on social media, including its Facebook page.

“I don’t think a lot of the community necessarily sees that on the social media,” he said. “So we’re missing that chunk of news coverage or attention.

“That’s not why we do it. That’s not the reason for it. But should that story be told? Yeah, I think so.”

It benefits all sides to know how police are interacting with the community in order to build bridges, he said.

Many police departments and officers work to build trust with their communities beyond the headlines.

In December, when a car drove into a house in Bear leaving the home uninhabitable, several New Castle County police officers took it upon themselves to give the family a prepaid Visa card.

In Wilmington, Cpl. Josh Wilkers was working an overtime shift at a charity event held at Style Barber Shop to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Following the event, Wilkers approached shop owner Vincent Strano and donated the money he earned during the shift.

“It’s extremely important to have situations like this and for people to see that there are really goodhearted, kind, giving police officers out there that are making a conscious effort to be part of the community,” Strano said. “It’s showing people that they care.”

Strano, whose event raised more than $2,800, said it was important that light be shed on good things police officers do for the community. “I know it’s not just this event,” he said. “Cops aren’t just there to catch the bad guys. They’re there to make relationships with people and they are here for us.”

The climate of policing today is increasingly more challenging, said Sgt. Andrea Janvier, a city police spokeswoman. To build connections, Wilmington police have created efforts to reach into the community and offer more than just policing. Some of these efforts include book-bag handouts at the beginning of the school year, jacket giveaways that began this month for various local charities and the Book ‘Em Cops and Kids Literacy Initiative which was started by police Sgt. Gary Tabor as a way to help kids on the East Side read. The program was later adopted by the department.

“Through our relationship-building efforts, many described above as well as our continued police work, we hope to bridge any gap in the community,” Janvier said. “We acknowledge our efforts need to be maintained, however, we believe that policing is just one aspect of the crime in our city. There are several other social, and economic issues that must be addressed.”

Patrolman David Schulz, who organized a pancake breakfast at West Center City’s William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center on Dec. 19, said events like his are needed to promote positive police interaction.

“We are trying to show everyone that we are people, too, and we do care,” he said, adding that police detectives are hampered by distrust by residents who often know who pulled the trigger in any number of the city’s shootings. Schulz is part of a community policing unit charged with walking West Center City’s streets to build bonds with residents.

“We want to try to provide the community with a sense that we are here for them to make it easier for them to work with us,” he said.

Sue Johnson, who brought a few grandchildren to the pancake breakfast, said she hopes the police officers’ motivation is to show a different side than what kids mostly see.

“Kids do need to see that most police officers do want to help,” she said. “Most of what kids see from police is not positive.”

“Kids have to grow up and see there are good officers and bad officers, but most officers want to help,” said Mary Craig, with her one-year-old grandchild on her hip. “You have kids that are afraid of police officers with all the killing on television. (Police) have to reach out.”

“If they do things for children, any little thing will benefit the children and will also benefit (the police),” Craig said.

Reporter Xerxes Wilson contributed to this story.

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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