Suffolk County 6th Precinct officers build bridges between cops and community

Suffolk County 6th Precinct officers build bridges between cops and community

Sixth Precinct community liaison officer Will Zieman and COPE officers Casey Berry and John Efstathiou visit monthly civic meetings and engage in community programs. Photo by Kevin Redding

In areas patrolled by the 6th Precinct, the sight of a police car has become more comforting than daunting for residents this year. That’s largely thanks to the efforts of Suffolk County Police Department officers Casey Berry and Will Zieman, who spend their days bridging gaps between cops and the community.

In just the last few months, the dynamic duo have supplied clothes and food to homeless residents, brought holiday cheer to struggling families, helped young kids with their homework and taught high schoolers how to cook healthy meals. The two also bounce between nine civic association meetings each month where they listen and try to find solutions to concerns and complaints raised by residents.

“Work doesn’t feel like work,” said Zieman, 34, smiling from ear to ear. “Everywhere we go we have an opportunity to make a difference that’s going to be beneficial to everybody. Each day we get to pay it forward.”

Casey Berry participates in a Police Unity Night. Photo by Kevin Redding

Berry, 39, who takes part in monthly Nerf battles with local kids at Sky Zone in Mount Sinai and hosts community fishing trips, said she especially values the impact they have on youth.

“It’s immeasurable when we go to these events and they say ‘Officer Casey!’ and come running up to hug my knees,” she said. “That’s going to be a 15- or 25-year-old one day that might have a problem, and I hope my relationship with them will then positively affect their relationship with law enforcement for years to come.”

Both former patrol officers, Berry and Zieman — a Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or COPE, officer and community liaison officer, respectively — took on their new roles within the precinct in recent years as a way to better connect with the public they serve. In doing so, they strived to make patrol officers’ lives easier and their interactions with residents more effective by breaking down barriers and quelling divisions between the police and public.

“Will and Casey genuinely care about the job they’re doing and clearly enjoy it,” said Sgt. Kathleen Kenneally, the executive officer of the SCPD’s Community Relations Bureau. “They’re very open to having transparent conversations with community members. There’s certainly a strife going on nationally [between cops and civilians] that causes questions in our community and they’ve made a point to engage and answer sometimes difficult questions.”

Berry said there’s always an initial guardedness among residents at events with them, no matter their ages, and it’s the unit’s job to put people at ease.

“Once they see the person behind the uniform, we can really see and feel the shift,” Berry said. “We’re not just the uniform, not just that person they may have had a negative experience with two weeks ago or whatever. I think that can all get dissolved by more human interaction.”

“Work doesn’t feel like work. Everywhere we go we have an opportunity to make a difference that’s going to be beneficial to everybody.”

— Will Zieman

During big events like Coffee With a Cop and National Night Out — nationwide community-police bonding initiatives — Zieman chats with people about “unmasking misconceptions,” he said.

“It’s a two-way street,” Zieman explained. “Not every police officer is the same and not every person who looks a certain way or dresses a certain way is the same. People become more open with us quickly. And within our events, we always try and make it a priority to reach out and explore development with communities that are hesitant to interact with us.”

Keith Owens volunteers at St. Michael’s Recreation Center in Gordon Heights and has been a longtime friend of the officers, who host fun activities with youth groups there. But Owens said many of the teens at the center weren’t too interested in hanging out with Berry and Zieman at first, as they have had negative experiences with police in their past.

“They were asking the officers questions in the beginning, like, ‘Would you shoot us?’ and ‘Why do you have a gun?’,” Owens said of the kids. “But now they’re asking me, ‘Is Officer Will coming by today?’ The youth are telling me they feel more comfortable around law enforcement. Will and Casey go above and beyond for them — it means the world to me.”

Pastor Anthony Pelella of Axis Church in Medford, where the officers host their cooking workshop and coat drives for residents in the winter, said the officers make a huge difference in the community.

“They’re really outgoing and their personalities are wonderful — it’s contagious,” Pelella said. “We’re so blessed here in the 6th Precinct to have officers like them. They’re really making a difference … you just have to see Officer Berry on her knees looking at these little kids, embracing mothers, she’s just so loving and helpful toward them.”

The two officers joined the force in 2010 with backgrounds that prepared them perfectly for their current jobs.

Will Zieman at a recent Coffee With a Cop event. Photo by Kevin Redding

Berry, who grew up in the Commack area in a family of police officers, always knew she wanted to be in a helping profession and served for several years as a social worker in an outpatient mental health clinic. She was also an instructor in the police academy before switching to the COPE unit.

Zieman, for as long as he can remember, wanted to either be a teacher or a cop. The William Floyd graduate eventually received degrees in childhood and special education at St. Joseph’s University and taught for a number of years within the Sachem school district, teaching fifth grade in the elementary school and math and English in the middle school. When he took the police test, for a second time, and did well, he had some soul-searching to do, he said.

“I thought, would I be able to live out the rest of my life without regretting not taking the risk?” Zieman recalled. “In both professions, you have the ability to right certain wrongs and guide people in the right direction. Being a community liaison officer gives me the ability to tie it all together.”

The pair, along with new 6th Precinct COPE officer John Efstathiou, are tasked with being as innovative as possible when it comes to creating events that engage the community. Many of their frequent initiatives include hosting tours of the precinct for members of the Girl and Boy Scouts; giving food, clothing and other nonperishables to those in need in a mobile food pantry; and helping the senior community get rid of expired medications.

A recent pilot event, headed by Zieman and in partnership with 6th Precinct Cops Who Care and Heritage Harbor Financial Associates in Port Jefferson Station, provided 40 low-income families the opportunity to get professional holiday photos taken free of charge.

Nicole Tumilowicz, the director of events at Sky Zone, said both officers are invaluable.

“With the state of the country right now and police relations in general, I think the two of them just really embody what it is to be an approachable, relatable police officer,” Tumilowicz said. “They’re really hands-on and their attitude toward life makes it easy for people to relate to … if anybody needs the help of the police, these two people would be the ones you’d want to go to.”

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