By: ERICA MOSER
CENTRAL FALLS – Several years ago, a car sat parked in a driveway in Central Falls, and a person living across the street recognized it didn’t belong to any of the home’s residents, who were all at work. The neighbor called the police, who caught people robbing the house.
Central Falls Police Chief James Mendonca shared this anecdote at a “Coffee with a Cop” program to illustrate the good that can come from strong relationships between police and the community.
On Tuesday morning, Central Falls Police Department held the fourth session of its monthly “Coffee with a Cop” program at Adams Memorial Library. Mendonca and Officer Paul Savoie, a member of the department’s new Community Services Unit, engaged in robust dialogue with eight visitors on topics ranging from litter to parking to prostitution.
Diana Ferguson, assistant director of the library, said attendance at the first three sessions was sparse, and library staff was surprised by how many people attended on Tuesday.
“The idea here is to have no agenda; there’s no speeches being made,” Mendonca said. “You open up to people a little better that way sometimes.” He added that the program is a win-win, because the library is introducing the public to the police, and the police bring people to the library as well. “We actually could use a few more Gladys Kravitz’s in the city,” he joked, referencing the nosy neighbor on “Bewitched.”
Kay McGettrick, 81, had come to the library just to read the newspaper but decided to take part in the conversation with police, which ran for nearly an hour and a half. She asked about sidewalk sweepers, bike patrols, what an average day is like for police officers, community issues the new unit might deal with, and funding for the unit.
Mendonca said some of the money is derived from the budget but a lot came from grants.
Gary DeBlois, a 20-year resident of Central Falls and attendee at Tuesday’s meeting, said he had always been too busy working but recently retired and has taken a greater interest in the city.
He lives near Forand Manor, a public housing complex for elderly and disabled residents, and expressed concern that the parking lot across from Forand has “become a used car lot.” DeBlois said there are cars that haven’t been moved for two months.
“I watched these poor people come home every day, and they just kept circling the block,” he said.
Mendonca said police could put a sticker on the vehicle, and if it’s not moved within 48 hours, they’ll call a tow truck.
“Maybe someone on patrol can’t solve the problem to the full extent, but we can, because we have the time,” Savoie said of the Community Services Unit.
Central Falls Police launched the three-person unit in August, and in November, the officers spent a week with the Boston Police Department CSU. The White House has recognized Boston’s community policing efforts for its success.
The Central Falls officers were able to learn in one week what it would’ve taken them years to learn on their own, Mendonca said. The CSU officers wear gray shirts to be distinguishable from other officers and thus recognizable in the community.
Homeless advocate Florence London-Godfrey talked to Mendonca and Savoie about drug dealing and prostitution at Jenks Park.
Mendonca said the police put more patrols there, and that they discussed with the City of Central Falls a need for more events in the park to drive down crime.
Rich Sim, a regular at the library, has observed that some young women are mistaken for prostitutes. He told the story of seeing a woman being pestered by men trying to solicit her, so Sim offered to help by taking her arm and walking her up the street.
Cristina Sousa, a 27-yearold who has “seen a lot of issues” in her year living in Central Falls, expressed frustration about a different kind of solicitation: people asking for change outside the CVS on Broad Street, despite signs instructing otherwise.
She can file a complaint, Mendonca said, and the solicitor will get a warning. If the person asking for money is caught a second time, he or she can be arrested for trespassing.
“We would hope the businesses contact us and complain,” he said, “but it’s not as common as you’d think.”
Mendonca said he is a strong advocate of the broken windows theory, which says that preventing small crimes – such as vandalism – will in turn prevent more serious crimes.
“When things are small, you have to let us know and we’ll fix them. It’s easier to fix,” he told the room. “Sometimes the smallest things we can fix.”
But he said not to call about the small things on a Friday or Saturday night, when the police may be tied up with more important issues.
In general, the area of the city with the most problems is the district that borders Pawtucket on the west side of Central Falls, Mendonca said.
Despite the number of vexations voiced, there was also praise for the police department.
“A few years back it got pretty bad with drugs, but I think you guys did a great job with cleaning that up,” said DeBlois, the recent retiree.
“This has been phenomenal for us,” said Bridgett Duquette, finance manager of the Central Falls Housing Authority. “We love having contact with Paul and the others.”
Mendonca also touched on an issue that has become a focal point nationwide: police use of force.
“When it comes to use of force, we monitor that very carefully,” Mendonca said. “That information is published. It’s not a secret.”
He added that the department is going through a hiring process and trying to be more reflective of the community in terms of minority representation.
The next Coffee with a Cop is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, March 1 at 11 a.m., also at the Adams Memorial Library.
Mendonca said the series can be brought elsewhere in the future and doesn’t necessarily have to be in the library.
“We’ll go to wherever you are. We’ve learned that through religious groups,” he said. “We’re trying to kind of break down the barriers, wherever we can possibly go.”
Original story can be found in the 2/3 edition of the Pawtucket Times.