WESTERLY — For Officer Howard Mills, previous interactions with a local resident named Gilda have been trying, to say the least.
As the community officer and a former detective with the Westerly Police Department, he has had the unfortunate task of assisting Gilda following six separate home burglaries, each which involved valuables including jewelry and family heirlooms being taken.
The two were all smiles on Thursday morning however, sharing conversation about Mills’ daughter and Gilda’s grandchildren as the two caught up during Westerly’s second Coffee with a Cop event at the McDonald’s restaurant on Granite Street.
“This is what it’s all about,” Mills said. “For many people, they see us in uniform and think of our roles as officers. These kind of events allow us to connect on a more personal level, to ask them about their families and connect as more than officers, but as members of the community. It lets us show that when we take off the badge, we are parents and citizens like anyone else.”
Mills, Police Chief Richard Silva, Capt. Shawn Lacey and several other members of the Westerly Police Department took time from their schedules to join the public for the second Coffee with a Cop event, something that Silva said he hopes will become a periodic program to provide a more direct connection between local police and the public.
Discussions on Thursday did include crime in town, a natural topic when officers are present, but were dominated more by weather, families and trips to Florida. Silva himself spent time engaged with John “Shorty” Terranova, a 97-year-old World War II veteran, as Shorty described his experiences on the beaches of Normandy, covering to avoid fire from German adversaries.
Silva said that was the whole point of attending — for officers to put themselves out there and to get to know folks in the community.
“It’s about learning from our citizens and hearing what they are all about,” Silva said. “This is a program that has had widespread success and the main goal here is to build relationships.”
The program is based on a concept developed in 2011 by officers with the Hawthorne, Calif., Police Department. According to a website dedicated to the initiative, the goal was for officers to use a cup of coffee to break down barriers between themselves and citizens they serve.
Silva said both events in Westerly have been held at McDonald’s so far, thanks in part to an active and generous staff, but noted he has reached out to several other businesses in hopes of hosting such events more regularly. The long-term goal, he said, is connecting with all aspects of the community.
The next Westerly event will be held on Feb. 26 at Savoy Bookshop and Café at 10 a.m., the department announced Thursday.
Terranova praised their efforts, saying he’s enjoyed each of the first two events. He said it is efforts like these that make him proud to be from Westerly.
“I’ve been saying it all morning and its true, we’ve got the law on our side today,” he said with a laugh.