Police and faith-based organizations joined forces in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Saturday as part of a national initiative to foster community relations.
The events are part of National Faith & Blue Weekend, Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, which aims to create safer, more inclusive communities by connecting Long Island's law enforcement officers and residents, police officials said.
In Suffolk the police department’s seven precincts partnered with religious institutions to offer a variety of activities, including a unity walk, art festivals, food drives, community service projects, and roundtable discussions with clergy.
Plans were similar for Nassau at locations in East Meadow and Westbury where demonstrations by various police units, including Emergency Services Unit, K-9, Mounted Unit, and Arson/Bomb Squad, followed by giveaways distributed by NCPD Explorers.
"It’s just a family-fun, friendly way for the community to interact with the police," said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. "And part of our ongoing initiative to really engage the community with the police and just make the relationship and the trust [between the two] that much better."
In Copiague at Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, activities included a community service project to clean up two parking lots, art festival and food and clothing drives.
Virginia Llanos of Lindenhurst was among a steady stream of people who came to drop off donations. Llanos was accompanied by her daughter Bella Barrezueta, 10. It's an excellent opportunity to get to know police officers and learn about their job, Llanos said.
"I'm a community person," Llanos said. "It's to help the community out and just meet the officers. I know they are going through a hard time; trying to get that bridge is important."
Suffolk County Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, agrees. She came to the Copiague event from a clergy roundtable held in Huntington as part of the day’s mission of improving community relations.
"The idea is if we can bond with the faith community and do things with the faith community and the parishioners, that exponentially builds the relationship between police and the community," said Mention-Lewis, who oversees the department’s community relations bureau. "Conversations in the nation on some level for some have undermined faith in blue, so by doing faith and blue we’re hoping to rebuild and reaffirm faith in blue."
At St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Westbury, a crowd of about 60 people — many of them children — oohed and aahed as Nassau County police officers performed a series of demonstrations showcasing what it’s like "on the job."
The show stealers? Officer Steel, a black and tan German shepherd in the department’s K-9 unit who showed the crowd how he grips bad guys with his bare teeth, and Officer Geoff, a chestnut-colored horse who loves munching on powdered doughnuts.
"No one has ever asked me for permission to pet my police car," Officer Frank Ressa of the department’s mounted unit, said addressing a group of kids standing just a few feet away from him as he rode Geoff.
"But when I’m with Geoff, it’s hard for people to resist and I don’t blame them … so, if you see us out there make sure to come by and say hi."
Horses make police officers more approachable and can change the dynamic of an otherwise hostile situation, Ressa said.
"Plus, it just makes for a more pleasant interaction with the public," said Ressa, who’s been with the mounted unit since 2005.
Friends and neighbors Maritza Robles, 29, and Livia Benitez, 40, both of Westbury, said they attended the event together after finding out about it in a Facebook group aimed at the area’s Hispanic community, "Comunidad Hispana Westbury."
As the two looked on, Robles’ children, ages 4 and 7, screamed with excitement about the event’s giveaways: blue-and-white foam footballs, bags of Lays potato chips and dulce de leche doughnuts.
"It’s good, it’s a really good thing, of course … it’s something we need more of," Benitez said in Spanish about the effort to unite everyone in the community.
Back in Copiague, Officer Russell Aue, community liaison for the First Precinct ,spent some time with Bella Barrezueta, chatting with her and taking a photo. He said the event was a good way to help build trust.
"Police officers sometimes, you only see us when they call; this is something different," he said. "We’re here just to have regular conversations to show we’re just like them, we have a job to do and we’re not just there when you have a problem."
Bella was sold on the concept and said she was happy to attend the event.
"It was really cool, and I like police officers because they help the community," she said.