Firefighters and police officers are trained to be at their best when conditions are at their worst.
They often interact with people under highly stressful conditions at crashes, crime scenes and fires. Not so Aug. 2 at the Oberlin police station.
About 75 people gathered with firefighters and police for burgers and soft drinks while music played and children drew in coloring books and had their faces painted.
The local gathering was part of annual National Night Out celebrations, an anti-crime, community relations event that began in 1983. Oberlin has been participating since 2009.
By meeting in an informal, relaxed atmosphere, firefighters and police hope to build relationships and empathy. That’s especially important for police, who unlike firefighters are sometimes in adversarial positions with residents.
The get-together, which included youths from the Police Explorers, was the second for Oberlin police chief Juan Torres. He is celebrating his first anniversary as chief and continuing to introduce himself to residents.
Torres has also done walking tours on Pleasant Street, downtown, and at Kendal at Oberlin. The interaction is part of efforts by police to be seen as partners with residents rather than occupiers.
“You’re creating relationships and you get to know people,” Torres said. “When that stressful situation comes, you already have a relationship.”
Oberlin is a low-crime city that before the fatal shooting of resident Steven Davis in November hadn’t had a homicide since a 1999 stabbing. While Oberlin doesn’t have the level of tension between police and residents that is common in bigger cities like Cleveland, Torres said police work is similar in all communities.
“The difference here is we have to do more and we have to be hands-on because we have less personnel,” Torres said of the 19-officer police force. “Every officer wears different hats than a big department that has specialized units addressing issues in the community.”
Torres said building relationships is especially important with questionable uses of deadly force by police being caught on video. Examples include the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014 and the shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., last month. Torres said the high-profile killings by police nationally can make local relations tougher.
“That’s why these events are very important,” he said. “So when there’s a crisis, we already have built those relationships.”
Violence against police nationally also has a local effect. Torres said the targeted killings of five officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge unnerved Oberlin officers.
There are roughly 725,000 police officers in the U.S. — that includes state and local police and sheriffs deputies — according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Last year, 130 died in the line of duty (those deaths include crashes and illnesses as well as homicides), according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website. The number of deaths is about 0.01 percent of all officers.
Nonetheless, Torres said it’s understandable that killings of police anywhere are scary for officers everywhere.
After the Baton Rouge and Dallas killings, Torres had Oberlin officers ride together rather than alone in cruisers for about two weeks. Commanders emphasized the need for officers to always wear their bulletproof vests when on duty and to wait for backup when responding to calls other than routine complaints.
Torres stressed that the measures were strictly precautionary and Oberlin is a safe community where police usually give and get respect.
Resident and event participant Roger Perry agreed.
Perry, 49, said he grew up in Oberlin but lived in Cleveland for 17 years and Lorain for two years before returning in 2004. He said interactions between police and the public in Oberlin, a city of some 8,300 residents, are far more relaxed than in Cleveland, which has about 385,000 residents.
Perry said interactions are usually friendlier when officers and residents are familiar.
“It can defuse things before they get started,” he said. “It’s just completely different when you get to know somebody.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | News-Tribune National Night Out in Oberlin included a cookout by police outside the South Main Street station.