The University of Minnesota Police Department is expanding its community engagement efforts to better connect with students and staff.
UMPD added two new officers to its community engagement team this fall. The move received a positive response from University professors and administrators.
Officers Ashlee Lange and Christopher Fonseca were brought on to help the UMPD build closer ties with department heads and the student body.
“Instead of being reactive, where we wait for that phone call to come to your emergency — why not be out front and with [students] in a very positive light,” said Sgt. Jim Nystrom, leader of the engagement team.
While working the community engagement “beat,” officers engage with students and staff without worry of being called away for campus incidents.
“I think that police work is changing,” Lange said. “And I think that in order to connect to different communities, it’s important to have a specialized group to do that.”
The engagement team seeks to expand on monthly and annual activities like the department’s “Coffee with a Cop” and nerf gun events. Nystrom said the team wants to add more events focused on mental health and community-building.
“Building those relationships is integral to the fulfillment of our job and making those relationships and understanding that we can’t do our job alone,” said UMPD Officer Joshua Betts, another member of the engagement team.
University sociology professor Michelle Phelps said the engagement program is a positive step toward improving perceptions of police.
But the success of the engagement will depend on how it’s implemented, Phelps said.
“If those officers really were able to create rapport with those students in a real sense of understanding and mutual respect, I think that could do a lot of good,” she said.
In addition to extra events, UMPD has established regular booths on the University’s East and West Bank campuses to engage with students and staff.
Nystrom said engaging students has been hard for officers, but added the increased presence helps them be more “approachable.”
Officer Fonseca said one of the booths, dubbed the “Police Box,” is located in Coffman Memorial Union above Starbucks.
The booth has already generated better feedback than anticipated, he said.
“A lot of people actually do want to talk to us and just talk about whatever they want,” Fonseca said. “Whether it’s crime-related things or just what is going on with school.”
Nystrom said the team plans to establish a booth in St. Paul and shift the West Bank booth from Middlebrook Hall to a more accessible location.
Betts said familiarizing students with UMPD helps form trust with students.
“We’re trying to embrace the service mentality of ‘Serve and Protect,’” Betts said.
Kevin Gerdes, director of the Masters of Public Affairs degree program in Humphrey School of Public Affairs commended UMPD for expanding its outreach.
“I think it’s critical, especially at this time,” Gerdes said. “I think there is a lot of community distrust of the police.”