A Colonie police officer lets a child look through a helmet equipped with an infrared camera. (Jim Franco/Spotlight News)
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COLONIE — For the second year, town police officers invited the public to a cookout on Friday, June 9 at the West Albany Pocket Park.
It had all the fixins of any backyard cookout: A sizzling grill with burgers and dogs, plenty of beverages and desserts and games of skill, chance and otherwise.
What sets this one apart from a neighborhood barbecue, though, is it featured some pretty high tech police equipment like a drone with an infrared camera, a radio controlled robot that wander around and pick stuff up, motorcycles and police cars and, while not considered high tech still a crowd favorite, a demonstration by K9 Vader.
“They need to know we are here for them and we are part of the community. It’s so important to get that message across,” said Chief Jonathan Teale. “In the past there has been that impression that officers just ride around in cars and give out tickets and we don’t communicate with the community but that is a big part of the job and that is what we want to promote.
“It’s great to see the smile on the kids’ faces and the business community has stepped up too and donated a lot of the food and beverages and prizes. The officers volunteer their time and community members volunteer their time. It’s just a great event.”
There really isn’t a set theme to the event, organized for the second year by Lt. Henry J. Rosenzweig Jr., but rather than wear their uniforms and badges and guns and vests and spit-shone shoes, many of the cops were dressed in shorts and t-shirts with running sneakers.
“We are a part of society, and often people look at police as people who supervise society but we are your neighbors and your friends and your youth coaches,” Rosenzweig said. “Dressing like we are dressed and doing the activities we are doing and cooking and the conversations that aren’t necessarily about the worst day of your life like when we get a call. Today we are talking about the weather and sports and school ending and what the kids are excited about this summer and what they are going to do.”
The relationship between cop and community can be tenuous at times, but Rosenzweig said for a community to be truly safe, it is imperative for the two to work together.
“The interaction today is so positive. We’re playing game with kids and competing against them in a fun way and it benefits us all,” said the South Colonie High grad. “We can’t keep our community safe without them and that is what this is all about, a partnership with us and them and it’s a celebration of that because we are lucky enough to do have a great relationship here in the Town of Colonie.”
The people too, recognize the importance of that relationship and brought their children along so they too will know or learn.
“I’m trying to teach him that police officers are his friends and if he ever has a problem not to run away from them but run to them,” said John Risti, of his 6-year-old son who he brought to the party. “I tell him not to go to strangers but go to a police officer and bringing him here, to meet them is a good thing and maybe he will learn something from them.”
Town Board member Paul Rosano said he was manning the food and drink booth when some teens came up for something to drink and officers dressed like they were going to the beach handed them a cold soda.
“When they realized they were police officers they were somewhat taken aback but then they loosened up,” he said. “That’s why we are here, so the public can interact with our officers and get to know them a little bit.”
“It’s important for the kids to see this so they can go to them if he needs someone or needs some help or something,” said Kelly Keefer of her 8-year-old son. “They are normal people, you know, they are part of this community and they are there to help you if you need help.”
Ten-year-old Taylor Parry said she was enjoying the day, especially the bounce house and the ice cream and especially K9 Vader.
“The police officers help us and they teach us how to stay out of trouble and they make sure we are safe,” she said. “They are here to help us and they are friendly.”
Her mom, Kim Harrington, brought Parry and a friend to the event for the activities but also so they could see that cops are people too.
“I think this is very important to see them come out and meet the community and the people and make themselves visible,” she said. “And it’s important for the kids to see that they are members of the community too and they are not enemies but they are good guys and they are not any different than any of us except their job is to keep us safe.”
Hotdogs and hamburgers were free for the crowd but most were more interested in the police tools on display throughout the event. And nobody was more proud to show them off than Teale.
“The technology we are using today helps us keep the public safe and the officers safe,” he said pointing to the drone flying high over park and the robot that was handing children bottles of water. “That’s what the whole thing is about – keeping the public safe and the officers safe. That is what we try to do every day.”
“It’s important to show the public some of the tools we have and the equipment we use,” Rosenzweig added. “It gives people “a different sense of what is going on and how we do what we do.
Most of the new equipment is paid for through grants or through asset forfeiture money. Ask any cop about the money taken from drug dealers and others who have made profits from illicit activity and how that money was used to purchase equipment from a police officer and you can bet he or she is smiling.
And in Colonie, like other places, the equipment is put to good use. The drone has been used to search for lost or missing people, to keep an eye on natural circumstances like the ice jam on the Mohawk this past spring and has been used to get information, including photos and videos, when someone is barricaded in a home.
Colonie officers are also going to use it for accident reconstruction. Using a drone and specific software, the details of an accident can be mapped out in 20 minutes from the air compared to the two hours it takes for an officer using survey equipment while working in or near traffic.
The robot can enter buildings when there is the threat of danger and send information, photos and video, back to officers on the streets. The drone can pick things up, set things down, climb stairs and can relay an officers voice via a radio to whoever is close enough to hear it.
People love the robot and we try to get them to interact with the robots … take a bottle of water out of their hands and set of keys of the ground and it’s like a video game to them,” said Colonie Investigator Robert Willey. “It’s imperative we do that, and we show them we are not out there looking to take a life but we are looking to help people out and with the new tools the Police Department has gotten we can do that. This drone unit and the robot and we can see stuff we could not see before and that helps promote public safety and the safety of the officers.”
People love the high tech stuff but the star of the show is still the police dog, K9 Vader and his handler officer Jerry Shaw. The two put on a demonstration and Vader easily chased down another officer pretending to be a bad guy and viciously latched onto the protective arm training cover.
In the next instant, it was sitting at Shaw’s feet being petted and gawked at by the children.
“Everyone likes to see the dog and that’s kind of important to us as a Police Department to show the community what the dog does,” said Shaw, who has been a K9 officer for 15 years. ”There is some bad information out there about police dogs and are like and what they do but we try to show people but they can be sociable if they want and when they need they can go after someone too. And he understands the difference.”
Vader is Shaw’s second dog and has been a K9 for six years. This fall, the department slated to get two other dogs who will work with Vader and Shaw until the team retires.
“We want a dog that is sociable and can get along with kids and other people but who is trained well enough to know that if someone is doing something wrong, or if they have a weapon or if I have to chase someone down they can do that too,” said Shaw, perhaps not just defining a K9 officer.
There is another Community Night Out on Friday, June 22 at the Latham Kiwanis Park on Route 2 from 6 to 8 p.m.