NJ police connect with communities amid social distancing

The efforts range from drive-by birthday parties and XBox Live tournaments to pizza and online events

George Woolston
Burlington County Times

BURLINGTON COUNTY, N.J. — While working from home is not an option for law enforcement in Burlington County during the coronavirus pandemic, police departments are taking extra steps in protecting their officers from getting infected with the disease.

Those steps include taking reports over the phone or online for non-emergent matters, as well as keeping a safe distance away when officers are required to go on calls.

Bordentown Township Police officers play Xbox online with township youth on March 27.
Bordentown Township Police officers play Xbox online with township youth on March 27. (Photo/BTPD)

The precautions, while they protect officers, also hinder many departments where positive interactions with the communities they serve is a top priority.

As a result, police departments across the county are finding new, innovative and necessary ways to continue to connect with the communities they protect and serve in a time of social distancing.

The efforts range from holding Xbox Live tournaments, to drive-by birthday parties, buying hundreds of pizzas and arranging for and delivering meals to the community's children in need.

It's the side of "to protect and serve" often hidden in plain sight, but community policing is essential in times of great crisis, officials said.

In Burlington City, about 58% of city students come from an economically disadvantaged background, according to Department of Education data. At some schools, all students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

So when it was announced schools would be closed until April 20, the Burlington City Police Department partnered with the city school district to make sure students would still receive the much needed meals. The partnership is part of what is called the "City Strong" Initiative.

The police department has delivered 662 meals a week since the schools closed on March 16, Burlington City Chief of Police John Fine said, to anywhere from 120 to 150 students a day who may be unable to make it to the schools where meals are being handed out.

"Everyone sees the protect, but we don't often get to show the serve," Fine said. "With kids out of school, they need this service and we provide that."

Fine added that not only does the delivering of meals ensure students are fed, but it also creates a routine for the students in uncertain times and allows for officers to form relationships with the city's youth.

As a "direct result" of the initiative, juvenile crime in the city is down since schools have been closed, Fine said.

"What I'm very happy about is juvenile incidents are low," said the chief. "Without the school district and without help from food service workers, this wouldn't even have been possible."

Other police departments have come up with ways to connect with their community's youngest residents too.

"This virus has been a real obstacle," Bordentown Township Police Chief Brian Pesce said. "We're trying to be creative and innovative with how we can still connect with our community. I think we've done a good job of thinking out of the box."

On March 27, the police department held "Xbox with a cop," inviting local gamers to play Madden and Star Wars Battlefront with some officers.

"The officers really enjoyed it, and it's another way to build rapport with our young people," Pesce said.

The department has also helped the Bordentown Regional High School recognize students who have been working hard during the school district's transition to online learning.

The department's school resource officer, Adam Edwards, drove to each student's home to deliver a gift card and give them a shout out on their intercom.

And over the weekend, officers surprised five-year-old Lorenzo Mancuso on his birthday after his party was canceled due to the social distancing measures put in place by Gov. Phil Murphy.

"All these programs officers enjoy. It helps balance out stressors of the job, helps build trust, rapport and positive relationships," Pesce said. The department plans to hold a virtual workout Friday.

And would it surprise you that a police department in New Jersey found a way to connect with its community members via pizza?

Last week, the Evesham Police Department supported the township's local businesses and connected with township families at the same time.

The police department, in partnership with Evesham Police Foundation and 14 township pizzerias, paid for 400 pizzas for township families.

"We want to bring a level of calm, bring back the sense of community to get through this together," Evesham Police Chief Christopher Chew said Friday.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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