With everyone relaxing on couches, sipping coffee and sharing their mutual frustration with LED headlights, the only things that separated the police from the community Wednesday morning were the badges and uniforms.
Law enforcement officers and peninsula residents were gathered at the Ammo Can coffeehouse for candid conversations over freshly brewed coffee.
The Soldotna Police, Kenai Police and Alaska State Troopers organized the community outreach program — aptly named “Coffee with a Cop” — as an opportunity for citizens to discuss their questions and concerns with officers without needing to fill out a form or flag down a patrol car.
Several representatives from each police department were present at the event, including Soldotna Chief Pete Mylnarik, Kenai Chief David Ross and Captain Maurice Hughes with the Alaska State Troopers. Around two dozen members of the community visited the coffeehouse during the scheduled time, each with their own areas of concern.
Some people asked for clarification about traffic laws; others wanted to know about the departments’ hiring and recruitment processes, and a few simply came to tell the officers to keep up the good work.
“I really appreciate what they’re doing here,” said a man who attends church with one of the officers. “I’m just here for support.”
One man had with him a number of photos and documents related to a specific case that he felt was mishandled by police and other agencies. While not directly involved, he has nonetheless been fighting passionately for months for justice in the case. He used the meetup as an opportunity to air his grievances directly, and many of the officers present took the time to listen to his story and look over related documents and case files he brought with him.
Capt. Hughes spoke about the importance of officers getting to know the community they are sworn to protect and serve. “People knowing you makes the job a lot easier,” Hughes said, and explained that people more readily trust and respect the officers when they know them on a personal level.
Officer Mike Zweifel also spoke on the concept of respect and said that with regards to policing, respect has to be a two-way street. “The way we approach people makes all the difference,” Zweifel explained. He used as an example the issue of ATV riders creating dust clouds in the summer that reduce visibility on the highways.
While technically not illegal, the dust clouds can still cause dangerous road conditions. Zweifel said that he has approached ATV riders and politely explained to them what happens when they kick up too much dust. Most of the riders, according to Zweifel, were not even aware of the problem. No citations were issued and no one was arrested, but the riders were more conscious of their actions and the roads became a little clearer as a result.
People who were asked felt that the event was beneficial and productive, and the citizens have encouraged the officers to do more events like it in the future.
• By BRIAN MAZUREK, Peninsula Clarion