Sonora Police meet informally with locals

By Giuseppe Ricapito, The Union Democrat
Original article HERE

A common perception of police officers might suggest unapproachable exclusivity, a cinematic image of a group of uniformed men and women seated alone at a local coffee shop, their hands around steaming porcelain cups.

But with a public meet-and-greet entitled “Coffee With a Cop” at Union Hill Coffee on South Washington Street Tuesday morning, Interim Sonora Police Chief Mike Harden said he is seeking to “remove those barriers” between law enforcement and the general public.

“There’s no agenda,” he said. “It just allows members of the community to meet their department and grow mutual trust and respect.”

Between cups of drip-brewed coffee, chocolate chip and peanut butter blossom “kiss cookies,” Harden, Lt. Turu VanderWiel and Officer Scott Mallon sat around a wood-and-iron table, interacting with a steady stream of visitors.

About half dozen people showed up to meet with the police officers. But even happenstance visitors took the opportunity to share grievances and information, touching on issues from graffiti vandalism, speeding vehicles along Stewart Street and shoplifting at a local business.

Sonora City Council member Mark Plummer said it was “one of his first times” inside Union Hill Coffee, but he visited to support a staff he had learned more about first-hand since a ride-along 10 weeks ago with Mallon and Sgt. Chris Roberts.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “It is incredibly hard work and modestly paid for tremendous responsibility.”

Plummer acknowledged that the casual setting provided for a conversational tenor between the officers and the public. Most people’s interactions with officers, he suggested, were usually in circumstances that might involve a certain amount of stress.

“It’s nice to come out and support a potentially great program,” he said. “I enjoy the pleasure of their company as opposed to seeing them behind me in the mirror with some degree of angst.”

VanderWiel said this was the first “Coffee With a Cop” since Harden became chief, and it had been about two years since former Chief Mark Stinson hosted the event.

“I thought it went great. Naturally we always hope for maximum participation, but we did get some members of the community to interact as planned and I think it was very productive,” he said.

VanderWiel added that the department was planning to conduct more events at different times and locations to accommodate more people.

As people milled in and out of the shop between 9 and 10 a.m., most visitors seemed to be seeking a hot cup of coffee and shelter from the storm rumbling outside. Oftentimes, the officers would be proactive themselves, introducing themselves to the patrons and asking to hear their experiences dealing with department.

Jim Hildreth, a Sonora-area lawyer, had visited Union Hill for his morning coffee and was unaware the event was taking place. But, acting on the opportunity, he sat down next to the officers and shared photos of graffiti employing strange shapes and scraggly text he had seen throughout the area.

“That’s what’s cool about Sonora,” he said. “You can walk downtown and it’s being addressed.”

At the table, Mallon said he had visited sites where he had also seen the distinctive graffiti.

“Vandalism is popping up in multiple places, not only in the city but in the county. They are linked by similar style, a moniker, so to speak,” VanderWiel said over the phone later in the day. “The discussion was ways to address that issue and locate the responsible persons involved.”

Vanderwiel noted that graffiti had been found in the city on both public and private property, including the Terzich parking structure on Washington Street and sites on Hospital Road and Stewart Street.

Not all the instances seemed to be from the perpetrator involved in the conversation, he added.

David Wiig, 72, also stopped into Union Hill for a coffee but took the opportunity to share with the officers his observations that North Stewart Street was being treated by motorists as an “alternative freeway” to Washington Street.

“It’s like the speed limit says 20 miles per hour, but if you had a radar, no one goes 20 miles an hour,” he said, noting that it was dangerous for him to be out there walking his dog.

VanderWiel was not a part of the conversation with Wiig, he said, but noted that the department actually received more complaints about South Stewart Street from the traffic that enters in from Mono Way and Restano Way.

“Having that topic in mind is definitely something we can look at and direct some attention to,” he said.

Wiig acknowledged that the meeting gave him a unique opportunity to share an insight that may have not been previously brought to their attention.

“I’ve never seen something like this. It was a good meeting,” he said.

The event also provided visitors with an opportunity to learn about the experiences and history of Sonora Police officers.

Mallon, who explained a career in the Navy, the Army, and as a police officer in San Francisco, shared insights on issues ranging from an increasing homeless population in Sonora to the physical capacities of his daily uniform.

At one point, he gave up his chair to a guest and explained that he was “sitting in the car all day anyway.”

Taking a crouch position to ease some of the strain on his back, he noted that the standard issue belt and vest officers wear weigh more than 40 pounds.

“It’s a lot of weight, and it makes it hard sometimes,” he said, smiling.

Mallon explained that his history as a San Francisco cop made him aware of some of the migrations of transient populations to locales where they had access to services, beds and food.

He had noticed an uptick in transient-related reports, he said, and though the police department and community actors do their best to deal compassionately with the homeless community, an influx of transient population is usually associated with a rise in issues such as property crime.

“I think word gets around that they can come here and get things that they can’t find in Stockton or Modesto,” he said.

Between the issue-oriented conversation, Mallon also related that, while in the Navy around 1996, he met Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who was involved in a anti-nuclear energy protest aboard an aircraft carrier stationed in San Diego.

Harden and VanderWiel also had the opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces, with Mayor Connie Williams and City Administrator Tim Miller passing through the shop to show their support.

“I just came by to see what kind of community engagement there was,” Miller said.

Owner of the South Washington Street Grocery Outlet Arthur Schmidt also stopped into Union Hill to have a chat with the officers about shoplifting, vagrancy and arguments in his store.

VanderWiel said the “business is very proactive in working with us” and that the conversation expanded to include “similar issues around the city.”

Schmidt, who sat at the table with the officers for more than 20 minutes, characterized the department as “fast to respond” and noted that “they keep it a safe place and keep it as an enjoyable place to live.”

Owner of Union Hill Coffee Troy Carle, 33, of Twain Harte, said he was happy to provide a venue for “Coffee with a Cop,” and though the morning brought in only the “typical crowd,” he was happy to be a part of the community.

“A couple of the officers and the chief came in about a month ago,” he said, and they inquired whether he would be willing to host the event.

Carle gladly accepted, he added.

“Plus, I get this cool pin,” he said, indicating a small, round gold badge being distributed to the visitors.