Connecting cops with the community: A PD's community relations unit's commitment to its residents
When it comes to swinging for the fences, the motto in the Community Relations Unit tends to lean toward the "no idea is too big" mindset
Reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge
By Cindy Arora
On the second floor of the Bakersfield Police Department, one will find the office of the Community Relations Unit, where staff is often hard at work coming up with new ways to connect with residents.
Coffee with a Cop, Christmas baskets, canned food drives, and a few team members have even taken up puppetry in order to take on the McGruff Puppet Program, which introduces young children to law enforcement.
When it comes to swinging for the fences, the motto in the Community Relations Unit tends to lean toward the “no idea is too big” mindset, which has proven a successful formula.
The unit continually finds itself on the local news making headlines for community happenings that neighbors love to hear about. In the last couple of years, the unit was part of coordinating an engagement proposal, held a party for a 95-year-old resident turning in her driver’s license, and pivoted the police department’s popular Halloween event into a drive-through during the pandemic that was so well attended it created a traffic jam in downtown.
For Carina Ortiz, Community Relations Unit supervisor, coming up with ideas to engage the community requires a certain amount of creative freedom. Sometimes it works and sometimes it can go awry.
Either way, you take your wins and hope for the best, Ortiz said.
“We are liaisons for the department and engagement is a big part of the job, and that’s not just with the residents, but also with other organizations from Bakersfield,” Ortiz said. “It’s always a great feeling when we create an event that connects with the community. You can just feel it, it’s electric and the entire department feels it.”
Ortiz has been a part of the Bakersfield Police Department since 1998 when she became a cadet and started working for the PAL (Police Activities League) Program. She was in college, and her experience with law enforcement up until that point hadn’t been positive.
“When I first got this job, I was a little guarded … my view of law enforcement was not the best. I had grown up in an area where our relationship with law enforcement was limited and I didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” she said. “By working at the PAL center, day in and day out, I began to see police officers working with youth and being committed … I knew I had become a part of something bigger than myself.”
Ortiz worked in the Community Relations Unit for a few years before she left to work for the Housing Authority. But her years working with the Bakersfield Police Department had given her a taste for work that felt gratifying.
“It’s a bit selfish, but you really start to like how it feels to do good things, and in this unit that’s what our job is all about,” said Ortiz. “We plug into the community and find out what they need from us.”
These days, Ortiz oversees the unit, which is made up of nine staff members: Didi Zamora, Ynez Contreras, Noemi Perez, Janeth Jimenez, Edwina Tripp, Alysen Gelinas, Athena Skapinakis, Rachel Rivera, and Darian Hensen- Garcia.
Each one of them grew up in different parts of Bakersfield and each has different career backgrounds and life experiences, making for a diverse team.
Contreras started out as a Police Explorer in 2012 and became a permanent part of the Community Relations Unit in 2018.
“I love the high-stress, high-energy rush of what we do,” she said. “We are free to be creative here and the possibilities are always endless. We have our staple events that are part of the job, we do presentations where we talk about retail crimes or proper installation of car seats … I myself do a lot of media outreach and we all work on updating our social media, taking pictures, uploading them and sharing it with the community.”
Ortiz said being a part of the community relations team requires being able to think quickly on one’s feet and not always knowing how to do something but having the flexibility to figure out how.
“There’s a lot of YouTube University,” Ortiz said with a laugh. “Everyone learns as they go. If they don’t know how to do something, they figure out watching videos, or someone else on the team knows how.”
Edwin Tripp enjoys the camaraderie that comes with being part of the unit, and the feeling of being a part of something as important as the Bakersfield Police Department, without the police uniforms.
“A lot of what we do is collaboration. Sometimes we just sit down at a round table and go crazy with our ideas,” she said.
“We have a lot of autonomy, but for the most part we do what we are allowed to do, and we always ask ourselves, ‘what’s the root goal here?’ and it’s getting to know the community better,” Contreras said. “Our mission is to get to know the community, so we do what we can to make that happen.”
Each community specialist is assigned to a part of town, and they tailor programs to meet the needs of the neighborhood.
Janeth Jimenez was hired to oversee the metro zone, where her fluency in Spanish helps her connect with the residents. She handles personal safety, teen dating violence, business watch, McGruff, and over the summer she launched a Pan Dulce with the Cop program held at local parks.
“Having our faces out there is very helpful,” said Jimenez. “I grew up in the area, so I know that Metro is very high in crime and very low in reporting. There’s a lot of gang activity and people distrust the police and are worried about retaliation.”
“We try to fill that gap with ‘hey, we are here to help you,’” said Athena Skapinakis, who worked for Assemblymember Assemblyman Rudy Salas before joining the Community Relations Unit. “Our goal as a department is to have a safe community. It’s not us and them, it’s us together. We try to explain to our residents that our officers live in Bakersfield, they have the same investment in the community that we do.”