Community Policing in Rockville and Vernon

In the late 1800’s in America, the establishment of a police force was something every community carefully considered. This was because law and order was something that the citizens acted upon as they saw fit, and an organized police force might interfere with the way the citizens wanted to govern themselves. If there was a crime, and a suspect was identified, the citizens handled things in whatever manner they felt was justified. This was the only kind of policing system they were used to, which came from the English heritage and culture brought over by immigrants.

The crime prevention and night watch system that was slowly being utilized in America was the early foundation to the American Policing structure we know today. This concept was rooted in the principles brought over from England, established under the authority of the Metropolitan Police Department of London by Sir Robert Peel. He was the founder of the principles of modern policing, which were based on a widely touted and successful system of the police working with the citizens for the greater good. Sir Robert Peel established the principles of policing in 1829, and his 7th principle stated: “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

This principle captures the essence of what makes a good community, and that was where the citizens were as equally invested in what was happening around them on a daily basis as the police. Community Policing has been long been a part of the Rockville and Vernon Police Department mission , well before the term Community Policing became popular. The foot patrols and hiring of Rockville residents as police officers made being part of the community easy. Officers were out on foot every day, meeting the residents, merchants, and visitors. It wasn’t until the advent of officers patrolling by car, that a disconnect began between police and the public. The patrol car certainly allowed officers to respond rapidly to emergency situations and motor vehicle crashes. It also allowed for easier traffic stops, prisoner transports and patrolling large areas of town. However, it hindered the officer’s ability to engage in regular, personal interaction with the public. Over time, residents and the patrol officers stopped connecting on a regular basis. Had it not been for the walking beats in Rockville, which lasted well into the 1980s, the feeling of community may have been lost forever.

Once the two police departments consolidated, efforts were made to provide those extra services a small town needed by making a fulltime position dedicated to educating the public on emerging crime trends. That position, Crime Prevention Officer, focused on providing residents and businesses in town with security plans to help prevent them from becoming the victims of crime. The Crime Prevention Officer worked with many organizations and groups in town, to help make the entire Town of Vernon safer. The position eventually oversaw more than 100 neighborhood watch groups throughout the entire town. This was in conjunction with the McGruff Crime Dog campaigns to Take a bite out of crime, and to remind people they are just as important in preventing crime as the police. Being a good neighbor was an important part of being part of a strong community.

Officers had to think of ways to engage with the public. They created bicycle safety courses for youth, played in after school basketball games and coached sports. For many years, the Police Department participated in safety town, a summer program sponsored by the Vernon Junior Womens Club to teach young children traffic safety rules. It was not the job of one officer to be connected to the community, it was everyone’s job. Every officer did his part to help build the trust and respect needed to do the job well.

In the early 1980s, the need for Juvenile Officers brought about the creation of one full time and one part time Juvenile Officer position. Harry Delisle was the full time Juvenile Officer and Mark Weston was the part-time officer. In April 1981, Officer Mark Weston made the first of many presentations to the first and second grade students of Vernon Public and Parochial Schools, in a program called Juvenile Awareness. The focus of the program was to allow the young boys and girls the opportunity to get a first hand look at the life of a police officer, both on and off the job. The students heard a talk on what a police officer did but also saw slides of Officer Weston off duty with his family. This was purposeful, and helped show the kids he had a normal life just like them. The program expanded the following year to include emergency reporting, stranger danger, pedestrian safety, bus safety, and the dangers of chemicals and poisons.

In the early to mid 1990s crime, violence, and drugs became part of the daily lives of the residents of Rockville. This was an epidemic throughout most every area of the United States, and Rockville certainly experienced its fair share. This led to a greater focus of police resources in the Rockville section of Town, and the loss of attention in the sub-urban and rural areas outside of Rockville. A Police Sub-Station was established on Ward Street in Rockville. It started out being shared with Kid Safe, a youth group program. The building was in disrepair, and in need of renovations.

Officer Dave Johnson served as the Crime Prevention Officer,the prelude to the Community Police Officer position, from 1993 until his retirement in 1997. The department, with the support of the community, had the sub-station renovated and became a place officers could work from to maintain a continuous presence in the Rockville area. As Crime Prevention Officer, Officer Johnson helped establish the After School Program and the local Police Athletics League, which would meet in the lower part of the former Zahners on West Main Street. The PAL program was a late afternoon to early evening program targeted at older teenage kids. They would participate in computer programs, boxing, and weight lifting. The program was run by volunteers and overseen by the Crime Prevention Officer. In September of 1998, Officer Karol Dombek became the Rockville Community Police Officer. The working hours changed from just day shift hours to both days and evening shifts paperwork, and working Tuesday through Friday from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. to cover the busier hours in Rockville. One of the first measures instituted by Officer Dombek was the consolidation of the many block watches into a single watch group named the Six Street Block Watch.

Prior to this consolidation, each street had its own block watch, which was ineffective and time consuming, especially with all of the individual meetings and agendas by each group. This freed up valuable time so Officer Dombek could be out on active patrol. Officer Dombek was also instrumental in helping the Town of Vernon, and the Vernon Housing Authority recognize the need to revitalize the Village Street area. Village Street had become entirely run down and numerous homes were vacant and so badly damaged they were uninhabitable. This eye-sore promoted vandalism, squatters, and drug problems. The traditional methods of patrolling were proving difficult, because the gang members and criminals could easily spot a patrol car and avoid detection. Officer Dombek floated the idea of patrolling Rockville from a bicycle. He presented the idea to Chief Rossmy, who supported the venture and received the approval to move forward with the endeavor from the Town Council. The Vernon Housing Authority provided the financial support to get the bike patrol up and running. They donated $2,000 toward the purchase of the bicycle and the equipment needed to operate it. The first police bicycle was a police model Cannondale. Officer Dombek was the first officer in the department certified to use the bicycle on patrol. He took a week long course, hosted by the West Hartford Police Department, which gave him a certification through the International Police Mountain Bicycling Association. Officer Dombek used the mountain bicycle for patrol from April 1st through November 30th each year until his retirement in 2002.

Once the position became vacant in early 2005 a gang presence started to be noticed in Rockville again. This was something that was thought to be obsolete. Based on intelligence gathered, it was determined Bloods and Los Solidos gang members were recruiting in Rockville. Unfortunately, due to manpower shortfalls, the CPO position continued to remain vacant for several more months. Officer Charles Hicking was selected to be the Community Police Officer beginning on December 3, 2005. During the nine months of not having a CPO in Rockville, the “Six Street Block Watch” stopped meeting and was in shambles. Officer Hicking’s first priority was to spend the winter months going door to door in the Rockville area, getting to meet the residents, and handing out over 500 flyers inviting everyone to a new block watch group named the Greater Rockville Neighborhood Block Watch (GRNBW).

Officer Hicking invited Bryan Flint, a “Six Street Block Watch” member and website creator, to invest his time in helping the newly established block watch program get off the ground by using social media. The group met for the first time on March 1, 2006 in the cafeteria of the Florence Mills Apartments on West Main Street.

By April 26, 2006 the block watch had a full board of directors in place and the By-Laws had been written and voted upon. Though the authority of the group still rested with the Police Department, committees were established to provide community involvement. The newly established block watch consisted of 38 members from the Rockville area and they met on a monthly basis. On August 1, 2006, the Greater Rockville Block Watch group, with the support of the Vernon Police Department and numerous local businesses, hosted the largest National Night Out event they had ever attempted. The event took place in Talcott Park and included a live band, McGruff the Crime Dog, a VPD K-9 demonstration, a magic show, a karate demonstration, kids games, basketball contests, raffles, and local business informational booths. It was estimated more than 1,500 people attended the event, which took place on a beautiful 90 degree August evening. The block watch has hosted the National Night Out celebration annually since 2006, and it has only grown in size and attendance. It was celebrated on Central Park, right in the center of Downtown Rockville, on the first Tuesday of August each year.

In July of 2008, Officer Hicking was selected to be an undercover officer with the Connecticut State Police - Statewide Narcotics Task Force. The CPO position went vacant for one year, but luckily, due to the dedication of the block watch members, the Great Rockville Block Watch group persevered and carried on with their mission. They received occasional assistance from the Vernon Police Department through the efforts of Lt. Hardy, who would be a guest speaker and attend their monthly meetings. During the summer of 2009, Officer Chipman was made a Community Police Officer, but unfortunately because of manpower issues, by September of 2009 he was brought back to patrol and the position again went unfilled. This led the Greater Rockville Neighborhood Block Watch group to rework their by-laws and become entirely self governing. This was the greatest decision ever made by the membership, as the group now flourished under their own independent leadership. They also decided to change their name to the Rockville Community Alliance (RCA), to broaden them beyond being solely a “Block Watch” group. They created a fully interactive webpage, which has helped support all of their endeavors. The RCA has been supported by numerous Rockville groups and businesses. Because of this support, they have been able to host numerous events throughout the year, such as: Rockville Clean Up Days, Miss Greater Rockville Scholarship Organization, Spring Fling Fair, July in the Sky – Downtown Rockville Venue, Rockville Festival, Rockville Winterfest, and of course the National Night Out Celebration.

Officer Chipman again served as temporary CPO during the summer of 2010, but then the position went vacant for more than a year. In late 2011, the Rockville area began to see a spike in violent crime and a minor gang presence was popping up again. In January of 2012, Officer Hicking completed his undercover narcotics assignment and the patrol ranks were finally at a level where the Community Police Officer position could be filled again. So, in May of 2012 Officer Charles Hicking and Officer Robert Marra were selected to serve as partnered Community Police Officers. Together, they established a permanent presence in Rockville, working solely out of the Ward Street Sub-Station.

They conducted daily foot patrols both in uniform and in plain clothes. When not on foot, they drove together in both marked and unmarked cars, all in an effort to quickly get a handle on the growing problems in Rockville. Working together, they concentrated their efforts in the sections of Rockville where the most calls for service were being generated. They were able to identify the troublemakers, and eliminate the problems through enforcements efforts. In addition, they became an active part of the Rockville Community Alliance group and an important part of the Neighborhood Advocate Program. In June of 2012, with the number of intoxicated people making the Town Green and public parks their daily drinking spots, Officer Hicking and Officer Marra drafted a change to Town Ordinance #111, to include language which prohibits merely being intoxicated in public parks, and town owned property (Town Ordinance #295). This draft was presented to the Town Council in July of 2012 and approved. In September of 2012, the Vernon Police Department could only support having one Community Police Officer. Officer Hicking returned to patrol and Officer Marra was selected to become the Vernon Police Department’s Rockville Community Police Officer. Officer Marra started attending the afterschool program at Maple Street School. This was to develop positive relationships with the youth (K-5), so they could see police officers as their friends. Officer Marra also began to promote bicycle helmet safety, getting the Vernon Police Union to fund the purchase of more than 100 bicycle helmets to be given out to the kids in Rockville. In January of 2013, Officer Marra was selected to be the next Undercover Officer assigned to the East Central Narcotics Task Force. Officer Thomas Van Tasel was immediately selected to be the next Rockville Community Police Officer.

Officer Van Tasel expanded the programs at the Maple Street School, and created a curriculum to run alongside the staff. He taught classes to the elementary aged kids, promoting a positive atmosphere, and teaching them about important safety matters. He also received funding to purchase pamphlets, lesson plans, bicycle helmets, and Halloween safety items to provide to the children. Officer Van Tasel worked with the Rockville Community Alliance, the Neighborhood Advocate Program, and the Vernon Community Network (VCN), serving as an executive board member with the VNC. Through the Neighborhood Advocate Program, Officer Van Tasel helped organize many events in Rockville, to help strengthen the neighborhoods and make Rockville a better place to live. Officer Van Tasel also organized and ran the Citizens Police Academy in 2014. In April of 2014 Officer Van Tasel was selected to be a Task Force Officer (TFO) with the DEA New Haven District Office – Tactical Diversion Squad. Officer Mike Patrizz was selected to be the Rockville Community Police Officer on April 22, 2014.

Officer Patrizz continued teaching at the Maple Street after school program. Aside from teaching many safety related topics, Officer Patrizz also engaged in physical exercise with the kids, including playing kickball. Officer Patrizz regularly worked with Paula Plante, the director of the Kidsafe Teen Center on Prospect Street. Officer Patrizz would attend the night events at the Teen Center, to work with Paula Plante and build relationships with the kids from the Rockville area. The Teen Center was in need of a new basketball hoop, so Officer Patrizz convinced the Vernon Police Association to donate the money toward the purchase of the new basketball hoop. Officer Patrizz was an active member of the Rockville Community Alliance (RCA), and he assisted them with planning several different events, which took place in downtown Rockville during the summer of 2014. In January of 2015, Officer Patrizz was assigned to the East Central Narcotics Task Force. Due to police personnel shortages, the CPO vacancy was not immediately filled.

In July of 2015, Officer Aaron Grechko was named CPO for Rockville. Ofc. Grechko has been off to a great start, bringing new ideas to the surface and making positive connections with the residents of Rockville. He also helped organize events outside of Rockville, bringing the community policing program to all of Vernon. He will prove to be a valuable asset to the program and a constant positive presence to Rockville.