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How a PD’s community relations unit has strengthened its police-public relationship

The department’s civilian employee duo strives to continually develop and build relationships to maintain trust – and have a little fun in the process


PSOs Jennifer Jones and Zhanna Patterson are front and center at community events such as the annual department open house, block captain meetings, National Night Out and Walk to School day.

Photo/Jeff Antenore

Reprinted with permission from Behind the Badge

By Behind the Badge Staff

From helping schoolchildren to preventing catalytic converter thefts to wrapping presents and playing Santa Claus, the Tustin Police Department’s Community Relations Unit does it all.

Dubbed a vital component of the department’s success, the civilian employee duo composed of Police Service Officers (PSOs) Jennifer Jones and Zhanna Patterson help to reinforce the positive relationship between the Tustin community and its police force and strive to continually build upon that relationship to maintain trust, develop relationships and have a little fun in the process.

On any given day, you may see Jones at an elementary school, teaching lessons about police roles in fostering a great town, or maybe you’ll see them at a monthly Neighborhood Watch meeting finding out how they can help out in a certain community.

Around Christmas, you could watch Jones and Patterson wrapping gifts that will be distributed to local children. During the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, they even crafted a monthly newsletter to stay connected with Neighborhood Watch members, and hosted Zoom meetings and a virtual open house.

“They’re a great team,” said their supervisor, Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, who also heads the Community Resources Unit that includes the Community Relations Unit. “With their temperament, they really work well together. They’re trying to help build a bridge so that kids, and the community at large, aren’t afraid of us.”

building a bridge

The Tustin Police Department has long understood the importance of connecting with the community and building relationships. Being visible in the community in a positive way has many benefits, according to the Department of Justice. For example, the Department of Justice stated when people only interact with the police in enforcement contexts, they often will develop negative associations or bias, but when community members regularly interact with officers in a non-enforcement context, such as at a community event or sporting event, their relationships can reduce bias, break down personal barriers, and build mutual trust. That trust is “essential to addressing neighborhood problems and reducing crime,” the Department of Justice stated.

These kind of events – and the relationships they can lead to – also benefit the officers, leading to more job satisfaction and a feeling of personal connection with the residents they serve. It can also lead to change, sometimes when engaged in casual conversation, police officers are clued into issues in the city they can help solve.

The Community Relations Unit is an excellent example of that community-building work.

Fetterling noted that Jones and Patterson started with the Community Relations Unit around the same time, about two years ago, and they have built upon the previous success of the Unit and have elevated it by embracing and utilizing technology to better interact with the community. One example is the Etch & Catch program. Given the prolific theft of catalytic converters from vehicles, the Tustin Police Department started partnering with local auto mechanic shops to engrave the catalytic converters with a VIN number and input that into a database. This process can be both a theft deterrent and can help find theft victims. So far, 600 have been added into the database.

“Making a bigger impact has been great for the two of them,” Fetterling noted. “I’ve seen them make the unit into something new.”

strengthening community relationships

Patterson, who’s been with the department since 2018, started as a PSO with the crime scene investigation unit, responding to calls such as traffic collisions, burglaries and abandoned vehicles. But when a community relations position opened up, she wanted a change and applied.

“Building a connection with our residents is invaluable,” she said. “This position allows us to do just that. The stronger our relationship is, the easier we are able to solve problems together, because our residents are educated on crime reporting and know who to go to in times of crisis.”

Patterson and Jones are front and center at community events such as the annual department open house, block captain meetings, National Night Out and Walk to School day.

Those gift-wrapping duties come into play in December, which happens to be their busiest joy-giving season. They’ll collect names of local children in need from their partners in the Tustin Unified School District, then collect donated gifts from their police department colleagues. The wrapping comes next, followed by a giant party with food and Santa, who distributes the gifts to the kids.

“We want the community to know we are here for them and available, despite the challenges of the past two years we all have faced,” Patterson said. “I find this position incredibly fulfilling, and I am fortunate to be in service to the Tustin community.”

NEXT: D.C.’s Special Liaison Branch builds positive police-public relations