Back in the 1920s, according to the just-published Riverside history book, the village’s lone police officer – Charlie Lange – greeted commuters at the train station, rode his bike around the village and knew everybody in town by name.
More recently that kind of personal touch hasn’t been a police hallmark although Riverside is trying to get some of the old feeling back. In early June, the department instituted a new community policing program that has cops getting out of their squad cars and walking the beat.
The goal is to forge closer bonds with residents and business owners and open lines of communication, said Police Chief Thomas Weitzel.
“We certainly hope to accomplish better police-community relations,” said Weitzel. “Residents will know these are their officers, and we’ll get contacts that officers don’t see from their patrol cars.”
Moving officers to permanent shifts helped pave the way for the program, according to Sgt. William Gutschick, who suggested the program to Weitzel in May as one of the department’s goals for 2012 and 2013.
Because officers aren’t rotating shifts any longer, they have greater ability to forge relationships with people.
“People don’t get to realize who the police officer really is,” said Gutschick. “We’re normal guys, but the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way, especially younger people.”
The plan is to have officers working the morning/afternoon and afternoon/evening shifts get out of their squad cars ever couple of weeks, visit with business owners, pop in on school athletic events and even stroll through residential neighborhoods to get acquainted and have people become acquainted with them and comfortable about approaching them with concerns or ideas.
“We’re getting neighborhoods requesting foot patrols. In areas where there are a lot of kids, the parents send us emails,” said Weitzel.
According to Gutschick, the impromptu meetings with residents and business owners can be a real help.
“You just stop in and chat … ask what they’re seeing and what suggestions they have. A lot of times, you get a pretty good idea of what’s going on,” Gutschick said. “And people like to know they’re safe.”
The sentiment was echoed by Margo Rodriguez, owner of Coveny Lane gift shop on East Burlington Street. Rodriguez said she’s already noticed the officers walking on the streets and says it makes a difference.
“I love the fact that they’re walking up and down the street,” said Rodriguez, although she hasn’t had a chance yet to chat with any of the officers. “I think it’s great.”
Patty Miglore, manager of Aunt Diana’s Candies across the street from Coveny Lane, said she hasn’t seen the officers yet, but said she favors the concept.
“I’ve been asking for that for years,” Miglore said, adding that the police presence might help control kids sometimes who use the stretch between Grumpy’s and Aunt Diana’s as a playground.
“When the hot dog place [now Empanadus] was here, it was a madhouse of kids causing trouble, running down the alley and ringing the doorbell.”
In addition to walking the beat, Weitzel said officers will also track their activities, entering them as calls for service into the log so the community policing effort can be tracked.
And in July, Gutschick’s shift – 3 to 11 p.m. – will roll out a “Coffee ‘n’ Cuffs” program, where up to five residents once a month (they’re aiming for the second Thursday at 7 p.m.) can meet with one of the officers, tour the police station, take a look at the patrol vehicles and ask questions.
“I don’t think people realize how a police department operates,” said Gutschick.