Orlando Police Department: Faith-Based Partnerships, Dragon Boating, and Handwritten Notes

The COPS Office is pleased to feature the April 2016 winner of the Community Policing in Action Photo Contest: The Orlando (Florida) Police Department.  Their depiction of community policing features Orlando Police Chief John Mina with the Rev. Dr. Robert Spooney during Coffee with a Cop.

One might imagine that officers of the Orlando Police Department (OPD) spend most of their time dealing with tourist-related incidents, but with a population of approximately 265,000 residents, officers find themselves facing similar challenges to those across the nation. With the upward trend of law enforcement-related videos appearing on social media, officers in Orlando have had to adjust to the use of technology and social media as “the new normal.” Orlando Police Chief John Mina found that the coverage of incidents in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and other places created opportunity for a new type of community dialogue.

Chief Mina, OPD officers, and other local organizations began hosting community town hall meetings to respond to the community’s interest in further engagement. “We hosted about 20 meetings and they went over well. People talked, some people yelled, some people asked questions,” said Mina. “We were able to share a lot of information about how little we do [use] use of force. We got a lot of information out through these meetings.”

For Chief Mina, getting information out is just as important as receiving it. In partnership with the mayor and city commissioners, the Valencia College Peace and Justice Institute, Mina, and OPD officers created Orlando Speaks, an interactive workshop to build relationships, strengthen trust, and gain important feedback from Orlando residents. The moderated workshop groups 120 residents with 40 OPD officers (one officer per three residents) to have authentic conversations about race relations and law enforcement in the United States.

“During the workshop, one resident shared what it felt like to be pulled over at 4:00 a.m. as he was just trying to get to work,” Chief Mina said. “And I shared my story about being a young officer on patrol driving through a predominately African-American neighborhood, waving at kids and families, and hearing the parents tell the kids not to wave back at me.”

When Chief Mina heard about Coffee with a Cop, he immediately thought it was a great idea and reached out to local organizations to find out if they thought it would be valuable in their communities. After receiving positive feedback, the OPD partnered with a McDonald’s located in a predominately African-American neighborhood for their first event.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Spooney, a friend of Mina’s and an important voice in the Orlando faith-based community, happened to show up. “I didn’t invite him and he didn’t know I would be there. We just sat down and started talking. We discussed body cameras, use of force, and other local issues.” Partnering with the faith-based community is not just a nice gesture for Mina. “I keep my faith-based community tight. They all have my cell phone number and they can call me anytime. I call them all the time too.”

The same day as Chief Mina’s interview with the COPS Office, the OPD hosted its fourth Coffee with a Cop. “Today, a lady came in and explained to one of our officers that her son was killed by an officer about 8 or 10 years ago. Her son had gone down the wrong path and she felt no ill will towards the police,” Mina explained. “What’s so amazing is that the officer she was speaking to this morning was the actual officer that pulled the trigger.”

What Chief Mina took from hearing her story was that all she really wanted after her son’s death was to know what happened after the investigation.  “She just wished that someone would’ve followed up with her afterwards. We have to do better at explaining the investigation process to family members. It should be incumbent upon us to contact the family members after an investigation. We’re going to do that moving forward.”

The OPD takes community policing personally, so much so that officers have started to combine their hobbies with work. “We have a few officers who enjoy dragon boating,1 so now we have a program called Dueling Dragons. We choose kids from our neighborhoods and partner them with officers. We practice every Wednesday in the summer. No uniforms, no guns, no body armor.  All the barriers are broken down. The cops and kids even participate in races—in Orlando, Chicago, Toronto—they do very well against other teams.

“Last year, a group of officers came to me and said they wanted to start a fishing club,” Chief Mina continued. “I said ‘Perfect, you can do it, but you have to promise that you take some kids from the neighborhoods you patrol on the boat.’ The officers decided to take their boat out to one of the apartment complexes and practice fishing with the kids. Eventually they took them out on the water. Now we call it Reel Heroes and the cops and kids go fishing together often.”

Other OPD community-oriented initiatives include a program called Responsibility Matters, which connects officers with high school seniors; Midnight Basketball, Police Explorers, a mentoring program; and even a yoga program.

“I tell my officers, ‘We can’t possibly have all the answers up here. You’re out on the street and you hear about things. I can’t possibly know about all of the different programs and new technologies. I rely on you to give us ideas.’ We’re willing to try,” said Chief Mina, who just celebrated 25 years with the OPD.
“We have our issues like everybody else. With 743 sworn officers, we’re bound to make some mistakes. I tell the community all the time to tell us what’s wrong and we’ll investigate it. And you’d be surprised that I get 100 times more compliments, handshakes, hugs, and thank yous than I do complaints.  And any time we get a handwritten letter or note, I make sure that we share those with every officer in the department. It’s been hard on us lately. We rarely used to get notes, but it happens a lot now. I think that people understand that we’re a little beat up.”

The COPS Office congratulates the Orlando Police Department for being one of the 12 winners of the COPS Office 2016 Community Policing in Action Photo Contest and for its commitment to community policing.

Written with contributions from Orlando Police Chief John Mina. Photo courtesy of the Orlando Police Department. Photo taken by Linda Ridge, Orlando Police photographer.

Najla Haywood
Special Contributor
The COPS Office


1 “Dragon Boat,” Wikipedia, accessed March 14, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_boat.

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