TPD hopes summertime conversations lead to better relationships

Deputy TPD chief Tonja Bryant-Smith (left) answers questions from Jessey Ulcena.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

During the next month, officers from the Tallahassee Police Department hope to be doing a lot of talking on matters that they hope will bring change to the communities where they work.

An initiative that TPD is calling Summer Cool Down with Cops kicked off last Thursday outside of Walker/Ford Community Center. The idea, said deputy TPD chief Tonja Bryant-Smith, is to find out the best way to police communities around the city.

Engaging the community is one of the initial steps, she said. The Cool Down with Cops events replaced Operation Safe Neighborhoods that the agency put on for several years. The concept required officer knocking on doors to talk with residents.

This time, TPD is going to the neighborhood for conversation over snowballs.

“We want the people to meet us where we are and we have a different type of conversation,” Bryant-Smith said. “You come talk to us and do something totally different. Snowballs and free stuff usually brings the people to us, then we are going to have a conversation.”

The series of community meetings will run every Thursday until the final one July 29 at Sunrise Place Apartments on Texas Street. The next one is scheduled to take place in the Killearn neighborhood at 4476 Shannon Lakes Drive.

During the gathering near a playground area at Walker/Ford, Bryant-Smith made time to engage Jessey Ulcena in a conversation. He had plenty of concerns, including why he had trouble getting details about the event.

However, he said he got most of what he wanted out of the opportunity to meet officers.

His biggest takeaway was “getting to interact with the (officers) and how they want to go about making this community a little bit safer,” he said. “I just want to understand about when it comes down to a foot presence and speaking to the different citizens and not looking at us as a threat.”

Ulcena suggested that TPD meet with residents weekly, saying it could become a stopgap to juvenile problems in the communities. 

Paula DeBoles-Johnson, who serves on the TPD Citizens Advisory Committee, was just glad for the opportunity to be out interacting with officers.

“I think that often people focus on the negative things that are happening in our city,” she said. “There is a lot of good happening here. We have a lot of bright and talented children. When we are talking about an opportunity like this; a safe space where people can come get some snowballs and we can just chat about what’s going on and there is no pressure.”

She went on to praise TPD for reaching out to neighborhoods at a time when there has been many deadly encounters between Blacks and law enforcement officers across the country.

“They must continue to do it,” she said of the gatherings that will take place during the next month. “We are never going to get anywhere if we only point the finger and we only show up when there is trouble.”

Renese Johnson showed up in the sparse crowd at Walker/Ford with her daughter. 

“I hope that these events open up the line of communication and make the community comfortable with the police officers,” Johnson said. “Not all police officers are bad. There are a lot of good police officers that are good out there.”

Meeting with police officers in a social setting has an upside that could alleviate the fear that some community members have about telling of crimes they may have seen in their neighborhoods, she said. Talking or “snitching,” would “help a lot with the crimes,” she said.

“If you see where somebody is dealing drugs and you have children out there then when the cops show up don’t disappear.”