BRISTOL - It isnâ€™t often that police get the luxury to take time away from enforcing laws to truly bond with the community.
Theyâ€™re typically busy patrolling the city, looking for crime and responding to calls for service. So when one of them is afforded that kind of opportunity, they generally relish it.
Thatâ€™s the chance Officer George Franek has been given this summer with his Rockwell Park beat. Franek can be seen most days driving a John Deere Gator through the park, waving to children and families who are enjoying the splash pad, the pool, the skate park or just walking the trails, playing Frisbee golf or having a picnic. He also uses chalk to leaves positive messages on the pavement that say things like â€śHave a good summerâ€ť or â€śEnjoy your day.â€ť
â€śWe really wanted to remind people itâ€™s a beautiful park to come out to and have fun,â€ť Franek said of his summer beat.
The idea for this summer assignment spawned out of two incidents in Bristol parks that left a bad taste in the cityâ€™s mouth. These included a robbery and assault at Page Park in March and a brawl that broke out in Rockwell in April, which later resulted in several arrests. As a result, other officers have been assigned to patrol the rest of Bristolâ€™s parks, but Franekâ€™s beat strictly focuses on Rockwell.
Bristol police, under the direction of Chief Brian Gould, are very big on community policing and building a rapport with the cityâ€™s residents. Officers quite often donâ€™t have as much time as theyâ€™d like to do this, as thereâ€™s a constant need for them to respond to calls for service. The difference with Franekâ€™s beat is that, not only does he have time to play a pickup game with kids in the park or to show children all the switches and gizmos in the Gator, this kind of behavior is actually encouraged.
â€śTake the time to play, itâ€™s not just about arresting people,â€ť was the message Chief Brian Gould gave to Franek, the officer said.
â€śThis is my chance that Chief Gould has given me to make the park better,â€ť Franek said, as three children began climbing into his parked utility vehicle, honking its horn and moving the steering wheel.
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť one parent said of her child jumping into the Gator - which is equipped with emergency equipment as well as things like hula hoops, a football, bubble makers and other things for children.
â€śNo, heâ€™s fine,â€ť Franek responded with a smile.
Franek said his best interactions come when he runs through the splash pad in full uniform. He does this on warmer days and ends up drenched.
â€śI always have a change of clothes in my locker,â€ť he said, dripping wet, after engaging with half a dozen kids who were also playing in the splash pad and encouraging the officer to get wetter. Franek could be seen asking them how their day was going and giving the young ones high fives.
â€śThe kids laugh and joke and get to see an officer acting silly,â€ť he said.
Although Franek is fully equipped to respond to an emergency, he said his beat, for the most part, is more about breaking down the barrier between police and citizens.
â€śItâ€™s been great,â€ť he said. â€śPeople voice concerns, and we start a dialogue.â€ť
Mayor Ken Cockayne said he has gotten nothing but positive feedback from citizens about having an officer in Rockwell for most of the day.
â€śThis is just another part of the cityâ€™s community policing initiative,â€ť the mayor said.
â€śHaving an officer in Rockwell has changed the whole park,â€ť Cockayne continued. â€śItâ€™s a deterrent for anyone who wants to start trouble, and itâ€™s a nice way for police to engage with the community.â€ť
Gould said he wanted to curb the publicâ€™s opinion of the cityâ€™s parks and dismiss the notion that they are unsafe.
â€śI believe that our efforts in Rockwell Park will have a very positive outcome,â€ť the chief said. â€śI was concerned when I heard from some citizens that they didnâ€™t feel safe in Rockwell Park.Â The city of Bristol has made significant investments to improve our parks and it is up to us to protect these investments and ensure a safe environment.â€ť
Franekâ€™s Rockwell beat will all but end for this year when school goes back into session, as he works as a School Resource Officer, but he will still try to spend some time in the park after classes have been dismissed for the day. But for now, the officer is just focused on cherishing the opportunity he has been given.
â€śWe want citizens to feel like they can always talk to us, no matter if thereâ€™s an issue or even if itâ€™s just to say theyâ€™re having a good day,â€ť Franek said.
Justin Muszynski can be reached at 860-973-1809 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.