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Coffee with a Cop

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.”

Stony Brook University students grab a cup of coffee with campus police officers during Coffee with a Cop Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Instead of handing out tickets, officers at Stony Brook University were handing out free food.

Stony Brook University police officers and students mingled over pastries and coffee on campus Oct. 4 as part of a nationwide effort to better connect officers with the citizens they serve.

Half a dozen members of the university’s police department spoke with passing students as well as faculty outside the Student Activities Center on a number of topics, from current events to police training to food, during the college’s second “Coffee with a Cop,” an initiative that began in 2011 in Hawthorne, California and was adopted by local districts last year.

Community relations team Officer Joseph Bica answers a student’s questions. Photo by Kevin Redding

“This is a great way for students to get to know a police officer as an individual,” Eric Olsen, assistant chief of police at Stony Brook University said. “The media largely groups cops as one thing and it sort of dehumanizes them. We think this is a great concept.”

Community relations Officer Jared King, a former patrol officer who regularly pulled people over and made arrests, said he was excited to show off a more down-to-earth side to the police force.

“Nobody really knows the nice side of police work, which is interacting positively with people during the day, walking the beat, meeting and talking with people,” King said. “Here, we get to meet everyone during the day and talk about what’s going on on campus, address their questions, whatever they bring to the table.”

Jhinelle Walker, an anthropology major in her second year, made the rounds to each officer and asked several questions, even asking about their uniform colors. She commended the event for “bridging a gap.”

A student and Stony Brook University campus officer have a discussion during Coffee with a Cop. Photo by Kevin Redding

“I think this is a wonderful idea because often there’s a miscommunication that comes between people in the community and police officers,” Walker said. “We have to understand they’re regular people with lives. Here, students get to know who they are, what they do and can clear up misconceptions.”

A mechanical engineering major, Sagardeep Singh, said, “It’s good to get to know the cops better. They’re just trying to do their job and want to get familiarized with us students.”

Patrick Bazemore, another officer, fielded questions about recent national events and how he became an officer.

“I love dealing with people,” Bazemore said. “Everything is about communication and interaction. That’s how you move forward in life.”

This event is far from the department’s only outreach to the campus community,Olsen said. Officers regularly take part in a game night with the students and hold a one-credit citizen’s police academy, a course designed to provide insight into the daily functions and responsibilities of law enforcement personnel.

“It’s great to know how the students think of our cops,” Olsen said. “We always need to get input from people to know if we need to improve or change. And it’s a pleasure to do this style of policing.”

Suffolk County 6th Precinct's Community Liaison Officer Will Zieman talks to sisters Natalie and Katherine Byrnes at the Coffee with a Cop event in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Suffolk County police officers recently paid a lengthy visit to Park Avenue Plaza in Miller Place — not to make arrests, but to make friends.

Three members of the 6th Precinct mingled with residents of all ages at Crazy Crepe Cafe July 13 for “Coffee with a Cop,” a monthly initiative that gives police officers and community members a chance to meet one another, discuss concerns, or just share a coffee and some laughs.

Sisters Natalie and Katherine Byrnes received badge stickers after meeting with members of the 6th Precinct at the Coffee with a Cop event in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Originally launched in 2011 in Hawthorne, California to better connect officers with the citizens they serve, the concept was adopted by each of Suffolk County’s precincts just over a year ago.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to approach the police in a nice, calm setting,” Community Oriented Police Officer Enforcement unit Sergeant Walter Langdon said. “Usually when we have interactions with the public it’s when dealing with something bad or stressful. [Coffee with a cop] is a way for them to see we’re not just here to arrest people, we’re here to help people and give them advice any way we can.”

Community Liaison Officer Will Zieman called the initiative a “homerun” for residents.

He said discussions with them ranged from suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, to the county’s heroin problem, to future employment with the police force.

“It’s a unique forum and it’s unconventional by prior standards in a sense because time isn’t always there for us to have that extended conversation with people,” Zieman said. “So here we can engage on a totally different level, and it’s really cool and we see incredible results from this.”

Suffolk County 6th Precinct’s Community Liaison Officer Will Zieman and Crime Section Officer Dena Miceli talk to residents about issues, concerns or anything else they’d like to talk about at a Coffee with a Cop event hosted by Crazy Crepes in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

With crayons and junior police badge stickers in hand, Zieman knelt at a table to chat with 7-year-olds Natalie and Katherine Byrnes, who asked him what it took to be a police officer.

“The most important thing right now is everything you do in school and how you behave and interact with people matters,” Zieman told the Miller Place elementary students. “School is super important, because they go back to your schoolwork, check report cards and want to know what kind of students you were, and if you pass that process, you can become a police officer.”

When Zieman gave them free passes for a police event at Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Mount Sinai next month, the girls beamed.

“I thought it was awesome,” Natalie said with joy after meeting the officer.

Rocky Point resident Debbie Donovan, who wandered into the cafe for lunch with her kids not knowing about the event, said it was a great idea.

“I think people need to see the presence of the police and this takes away the distance, the fear, the intimidation and the stereotypes for both kids and adults.”

— Debbie Donovan

“I think people need to see the presence of the police and this takes away the distance, the fear, the intimidation and the stereotypes for both kids and adults,” said Donovan, who wanted to speak to the officers about escalating drug problems in her community.

“Unfortunately, Rocky Point is changing and not for the better, especially on a particular side of town,” Donovan said. “It’s hitting way too close to home. I do see police more visible than I recall growing up, which does provides a sense of security.”

Her 11-year-old daughter Rhiannon said she likes that the police interact with the community.

“To some people, cops are just, ‘you did this, so you’re going to jail,’ but cops here want people to enjoy themselves,” she said.

Sixth Precinct Crime Sections Officer Dena Miceli, a plainclothes cop who explained to Rhiannon and her brother Jake about daily tasks on the job, said it means a lot when kids show an interest.

“If we can make some kind of difference in their lives and be a positive role model, that’s really all that we can ask for,” Miceli said. “This is such a helpful thing not just for residents, but for us also.”

Suffolk County 6th Precinct’s Community Liaison Officer Will Zieman, Crime Section Officer Dena Miceli and COPE Sergeant Walter Langdon talk to kids, like Jake and Rhiannon Donovan about what cops do in the area. Photo by Kevin Redding

Zieman said through the initiative, the department aims to collaborate with any and all local businesses and elected officials within each precinct to try to expand community involvement as much as possible. When he reached out to Crazy Crepe Cafe on a whim, manager Nick Mauceri was immediately on board.

“We love getting involved with the community in any way and this is something different than we’ve ever done before,” Mauceri said. “The conversations and exchanges are so personable and relatable, it’s great to see.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) worked alongside the 6th Precinct to make the event happen.

“The best resource for our law enforcement are the residents and they need to understand the police are here to help them,” Anker said. “Communication ties the fibers in our community and this is a great way to encourage people to create a relationship with our police.”

The next “Coffee with a Cop” event will be held at Smith Haven Mall Aug. 3 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. All ages are welcome. Visit www.facebook.com/SuffolkPD/ for more information.

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