Putting compassion into the challenge of police work

The police step into emotionally supercharged and stressful situations. Often only after a motor vehicle accident, home break-in, act of vandalism, medical emergency or family dispute plunges someone into an emotional tailspin will they have a conversation with a law enforcement officer.

This is the basic nature of police work and it’s what makes police-community relations so fragile, so easily crumpled, and yet, so important to foster. In southeastern Connecticut, we are fortunate so many local police officers handle these delicate situations with composure and work diligently to improve the relationship between public and police.

In Waterford, for example, officers discovered humor goes a long way to connecting them with the public via the police department’s Facebook page. Waterford police, as do many departments, understand that social media can be an effective vehicle to disseminate important public safety information.

Lt. Marc Balestracci, one of those responsible for growing the department’s page to more than 14,000 likes, told a Day reporter that grabbing the public’s attention is key to getting them to help spread the word about topics ranging from road closures to helping identify crime suspects. Humor is a particularly effective way to accomplish this.

When the department posted a warning against drunk driving on New Year’s Eve, for example, police also added this message as a suggested New Year’s resolution: “Convince Chief (Brett) Mahoney to give a raise to his Facebook people.”

“This is just another way for us to try and connect and get people to realize we’re normal people with a very unusual job,” Balestracci said about the use of humor on the Facebook page.

Humor is not appropriate in many emergency situations, however. Just two examples of astute handling of such incidents came to light locally when both Norwich and New London officers were recognized by members of the public for the special sensitivity and compassion with which they handled two tragic incidents.

One of these occurred just two days before Christmas. New London police responded to a home where a woman had a heart attack that proved fatal. While the family dealt with that tragedy, police also discovered there was an outstanding arrest warrant for one of the woman’s sons. Doing their duty, they arrested the young man.

Officers returned to the home the next day, however, with a gym bag stuffed with basketball equipment, gift cards and money for the woman’s 12-year-old son whose world no doubt collapsed on Dec. 23.

Police Capt. Brian Wright said many department members pitched in to contribute to the effort to support the boy. Equally as important, the boy’s brother, who had been arrested, said: “They (police) showed their sympathy on the scene that day. It’s not that they wanted to do it (make the arrest), but they had to do it, and they made that very clear.”

In another recent incident in Norwich, a mother who took an emotional gut kick in November when she found her 32-year-old son dead in her home from a fentanyl and cocaine overdose recently also praised officers who responded to that tragedy.

“These officers did not judge us for what happened. They treated me and my family with respect, compassion, for what we were going through,” the mother wrote in a Facebook post publicly praising the police. “They made this whole horrible incident a little bit easier for me.”

It’s human nature to criticize rocky personal interactions. These days, such venting usually occurs in the public sphere on social media. At a time when it’s common for police-encounters-gone-wrong to make public splashes, it’s also important to recognize not only that police serve a vital role in keeping our communities safe, but also that most police officers display sensitivity, deep respect and keen human insight when dealing with people in distress.

“We come into people’s lives at their absolute lowest,” Norwich Officer Zachary Desmond said in response to the praise received for the way the fatal overdose was handled. “To be able to leave that person better than we found them is our main goal.”

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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