Police renew yearly effort to connect with campus

This week, officers held the first of two yearly Coffee and Donuts with the Cops events.

Nick Wicker

The past summer has been a trying time for police departments nationwide, as well as those in the Twin Cities.

In August, Ferguson, Mo., broke out in riots after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a young black man.

In the same month, a local online video went viral and showed part of a January incident in which St. Paul police officers used a Taser on a black man in the city’s skyway as he waited to pick up his children from day care.

While much of the fallout from recent racially charged incidents has been directed at local police departments and their community relations, University of Minnesota police say they haven’t felt that criticism.

According to Deputy Chief Chuck Miner, the end of summer events didn’t impact campus sentiment toward officers largely because a majority of students were gone until the start of the fall semester.

Chief Greg Hestness, who declined to comment about the climate in Ferguson, said UMPD works pre-emptively to build bridges in the community — a critical move, he said, to avoid any potential escalations of violence.

Hestness said the department actively reaches out to the Minnesota Student Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Black Student Union, among other groups.

“So one day, if we have an incident that causes some controversy towards the department,” Hestness said, “maybe we would get the benefit of the doubt until the facts come out.”

During the second week of school, UMPD officers followed their mission to foster better community relationships by inviting student, faculty and staff passersby to join them for free coffee and donuts.

On Wednesday, a horde of officers including Hestness and Miner greeted students with smiles at the morning event held near Amundson Hall.

Miner said the semiannual “Coffee and Donuts with the Cops” event breaks down barriers between police officers and the campus they serve.

“It’s a chance to let students know that we’re not always the bad guys there to give you a ticket for something,” he said. “It shows students that we’re friendly guys as well.”

Microbiology senior Alex Smith, who grabbed coffee and a pastry at Wednesday’s event, said he thought the giveaway made his interaction with police more personal.

“Otherwise, they’re just guys in uniform patrolling and you don’t ever get the chance to talk to them,” he said. “This is really cool, plus I needed the coffee this morning.”

Fostering respect in the community

The University Police Department has received less than 20 complaints of misconduct since 2008, Hestness said.

Of those, some false complaints have been cleared up after viewing video footage captured by cameras in police vehicles, Miner said.

In spite of the vehicle-mounted cameras’ success, Hestness said, the department doesn’t currently have any plans to invest in officer-worn ones.

“Money is one factor — and lately we’ve been putting our money into cameras and lighting and access controls on campus rather than body cameras for police officers,” he said. “I definitely think it’s worth looking at.”

The low number of complaints can also be accredited to how the department trains its officers, Hestness said.

He said in a relationship similar to that of a master carpenter and apprentice, UMPD trainees learn from senior officers how to interact with the University community in a respectful and amicable way.

After a monthlong orientation and a year of probationary fieldwork where trainees are accompanied at all times by a senior officer, new hires become familiarized with the campus and its students, Hestness said.

In their day-to-day duties, the officers interact with a diverse student body and community, including international students. Their accrued experience has steered the department away from controversial racial issues, Miner said.

But a healthy relationship between campus and its law enforcement staff requires renewed efforts every year, Hestness said.

“I’ve found our students to be pretty receptive and respectful and easy to get along with,” he said.