The wind knocked over flower pots and made it difficult to have a conversation, but it didn’t overpower the message presented on a blustery afternoon at the Naperville Public Safety Plaza: The community supports its first responders.
Naperville CAPS – Citizens Appreciate Public Safety – took to the plaza in September to launch a commemorative brick program through which residents could pay further tribute to the law enforcement officers and firefighters who make a difference. Purchasing a brick donates money to CAPS and its multi-faceted approach for recognizing and further backing the men and women in the police and fire departments.
That mission, while always important, has taken on a greater meaning during the recent tumultuous period facing law enforcement officers around the country.
“We get that it’s a stressful job. In the press, you hear so much negativity about public service, especially police officers,” CAPS Board President John Knobloch said. “In this day and age, there’s a lot of good that doesn’t get recognized.”
Across the suburbs, community-based organizations with ties to police departments have seemingly always existed in one form or another. Citizen police academies are among the most common ways residents have shown an above-average interest in law enforcement, but Community Emergency Response Team programs and academy alumni groups have developed into another key link to recognize and, at times, offer financial backing.
Members of these groups also have developed into community ambassadors.
“By just taking the (citizen’s police academy) class, you’re challenging yourself to think differently about police,” said Marcia Basciano, president of the Elmhurst Citizen’s Police Academy Alumni Association. “We’re the eyes and the ears in the community because of this program.”
But, they’re also another voice about police. Basciano points out how alums take their new and growing understanding of law enforcement to their neighbors and friends around the community. The alumni association also meets regularly to stay in tune with Elmhurst Police and has a presence at promotion and other ceremonies. In addition, the group lends practical support by volunteering to do traffic control, among other tasks, at community events and offers financial donations out of their own pockets to contribute toward equipment and continuing education costs, Basciano explained.
“I think it’s more important that we do it now,” she said of being public advocates of law enforcement.
The connection has been similar in Aurora, where Dave Bohman of the CPA alumni group said, “The alumni organization has a strong relationship with the department and helps through volunteerism and by procuring off-budget equipment as needed. The organization also provides continuing police-related education to its members.”
In North Aurora, a growing connection to the community has risen out of its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, according to Deputy Chief Scott Buziecki. The department began offering CERT training about 18 months ago to develop a volunteer base to assist in times of disaster. Three sessions later, North Aurora has 48 trained citizens, including 14 current volunteers, who are a “force multiplier” aiding the department’s efforts at community events and, as in Elmhurst, have become liaisons to inform other residents about what the police are really all about.
“There are people in the community who are looking to help,” Buziecki said. “We love interacting with these people and getting to know them outside of regular police work. It’s nice to know people in the neighborhood who know and support us. People are reminding us that they see us and are on our side. It’s reassuring.”
Over Buziecki’s 19 years, he’s seen a growing interaction with residents by the department, and enthusiasm on both sides of the partnership. Officers enjoy teaching the training classes and being part of various neighborhood meetings. Residents “really love” the chance to be involved with even routine police activity, such as handling traffic at the village’s summer festival. Trained volunteers, who must apply and go through a background check, are issued shirts and baseball-style hats that identify them when on the job, Buziecki explained, adding that they are treated with the same respect of paid department employees.
“It’s kind of exciting to them,” he added.
For officers in Naperville, the appreciation from citizens doesn’t go unnoticed, Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall offered. While the department constantly talks about the increased pressures of the job, there is a boost from knowing a grassroots community group is around to highlight the good police do for residents.
“It was just a core group of citizens who wanted to recognize police,” Marshall noted.
CAPS, which was formed by residents around 1994, focuses on doing just that. Board member Terry Klein marveled at the number of letters submitted to CAPS to point out a good job done by officers, acts that might go unnoticed because of modesty or a just-doing-my-job mentality.
“They are too humble to acknowledge it,” CAPS Board Member Rod Davidson said. “They won’t even tell their families.”
That’s among the reasons Naperville CAPS hosts an annual awards dinner for officers each spring – there’s also an event for firefighters in the fall – who “have performed exemplary acts of public service in the community” that goes above and beyond to show “a genuine concern for the welfare and well-being of all Naperville citizens,” according to the CAPS website.
“There are many more positives going on than what you hear about,” Marshall said.
The new brick program is an extension of the recognition. The purchase of a commemorative, customized brick not only pays tribute to a public safety professional, but helps raise money CAPS then uses in support of the police and fire departments.
“If we fill up all the bricks, that’s a good problem,” board member David Wentz said with a smile.
Dan Campana is a Chicago-area freelance writer and communications consultant. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.