WOODLAND PARK, N.J. - Cub Scout Pack 31 hosted a "Pizza with the Police," an event which focused on community policing with officers of the Woodland Park Police Department on June 16. The event adhered to relaxed social distance guidelines, and was presented in-person to Cub Scouts and their parents at the American Legion, located at 410 Mount Pleasant Avenue. It was also offered via Zoom telecast.
Community policing, also referred to as community-oriented policing, is a police strategy that focuses on building ties and working closely with the community in order to foster the public's trust. Many events have been scheduled in recent years to help foster a positive relationship between police and the local community it serves.The aim of the recent presentation was to give children some clarity towards the role of police, with respect to the image of police depicted by recent protests throughout the country that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, including three other officers in connection with his death.
Lieutenant Erik Luker was the guest speaker, along with Officer Omaira Carino, who gave first-hand perspectives on the role of police and duty in the community. Officers Justin Castro and Fina Matranga, who are among the newest recruits to the police line-up, also shared some of their recent experiences.
Luker specifically spoke about the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment's freedom of speech and the right to assemble, He also discussed the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unlawful searches, adding that police officers do not set out to violate anyone. He also emphasized the amount of training they undergo before officially becoming officers.
"We have to have a lot of training because the number one thing is that we don't want to violate somebody's rights," he explained. "If we're here to serve the community, it doesn't make sense to violate that trust."
Luker said that today's role of a police officer is looked upon more as a career than a job.
"More and more officers are getting educated," Luker noted. "I teach a class at the Passaic County Police Academy, so training and getting educated are very important."
Carino was recently trained as a LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs), a new program similar to the previous DARE program and is spearheading law enforcement education in the local school district.
She added that the advent of body cameras and dashboard cameras have been instrumental in investigating with police incidents.
"The cameras are there to protect police and anyone else involved in an incident that police respond to," she said.
The officers then each shared recent experiences of calls they responded, such as ambulance calls, motor vehicle accidents, disputes, and even locating missing pets. They also explained the protocol of what happens when they may need to make an arrest.
Luker then asked those in attendance if they felt crime has increased or decreased in recent years, adding afterwards that the crime rate has gone down in the borough.
"It's been down over the past 20 years," he said. "Woodland Park is really a safe town. It's safer than the national average."
Luker said the recent coronavirus pandemic have put police on the front lines of dealing with the crisis, where police have had to respond to a higher amount of people who have been sick and needed help..
"If people thought signing up to be a cop was tough enough, imagine dealing with this global pandemic. They were there ever single day, leaving their families, children, to make it better for all of us," he further added. "That's the definition of a hero to me - being able to limit the amount of problems we have. Much of it is due to the bravery of patrol officers and I want to thank them."
A question and answer session was then held with the scouts and their parents after the presentation. When Luker was asked about the main thing that he wants kids to always remember about police, he responded that "police are there to help."
"We are here to help and to serve the community," he said, with Carino, Castro and Matranga echoing his sentiments.
He also added that he understands the frustration by protesters regarding recent incidents but reassured those in attendance that each officer of the WPPD truly care about those they serve in the community.
"Every officer here cares about every one of you," he told the Cub Scouts and their parents.
John Brost, Cub Master of Pack 31, said that the Cub Scouts really appreciated the opportunity to meet some of the police officers and have a chance to speak with them about the role they play in town.
"It's always great for the Cub Scouts themselves to be able to ask question directly and have their own concerns be addressed. The officers did a wonderful job answering the children's questions," he said.
Brost also said that the officers have expertise in subjects that the boys learn about through the Cub Scout program.
"This event let the Cub Scouts dig a little deeper in those areas and see how the same skills they learn are practiced by police," he added. "We thank Lieutenant Luker and the WPPD for spending time with Pack 31, and we look forward to meeting with them again."