By Donald Wittkowski
Ben Dougherty, just 3 years old, paraded around in a kid-friendly paper policeman’s cap that snugly fit over his blond hair.
He already plays with toy police cars, so it came as no surprise to his grandmother, Darcy Dougherty, when Ben said he would like to become a police officer when he grows up.
“I want to save everybody,” he declared in his tiny voice.
Ben, his grandmother and his 1-year-old sister, Luci, were part of a Coffee With Cops get-together Wednesday that allowed the public to mingle with Ocean City police officers in a relaxed setting.
The idea behind the informal gathering is for police officers to strengthen their ties to the community, get to know local residents better and hear any concerns anyone may want to bring up over a cup of coffee.
“It makes me more effective in dealing with the community and learning, face-to-face, first hand, what they see as important to them,” said Officer Chris Vivarelli, a member of the department’s Community Policing Unit.
Vivarelli, a seven-year member of the department, grew up in Ocean City. Darcy Dougherty, a Linwood resident who was a speech therapist at the Ocean City Primary School before she retired, remembers Vivarelli as a student there. Dougherty remains close friends with Vivarelli’s mother.
Dougherty said she was walking around town with her grandchildren Wednesday morning when she noticed a sign at the Drip N’ Scoop shop on Asbury Avenue inviting people inside to share some coffee with police officers.
“It was very exciting to see the sign and to walk in. I knew they would love it,” Dougherty said of Ben and Luci. “Ben loves police officers.”
Beyond the entertainment value they provide for children, Dougherty believes the Coffee With Cops get-togethers serve an important purpose for the public by making police officers more “approachable.”
“I think this is a great thing for the public, especially if they know they can go to a police officer when they need help,” she said.
The laid-back atmosphere of Coffee With Cops gives residents and police a chance to socialize in a friendly environment, said Officer Mike Gray, another member of the Community Policing Unit.
“You’re not just out there pulling people over and giving them tickets,” he said.
Gray, a 17-year member of the department, noted that community policing was a major reason why he decided to enter law enforcement in the first place. He began his career as a seasonal officer in Ocean City before joining the force as a full-time cop.
Gray spent part of Wednesday morning blowing up big, blue balloons to entertain Ben and Luci Dougherty.
“Do you like Officer Mike?” Gray asked Ben.
“Yeah,” Ben replied with a smile.
Nationwide, relations between police and the public have not always been so friendly. They have been jolted by a series of police shootings of African-Americans and violent anti-police protests that have killed officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and other cities.
Vivarelli and Gray said the Ocean City Police Department maintains good relations with local residents. They pointed to the department’s emphasis on community policing, including events such as Coffee With Cops, tours of police headquarters, civic meetings, safety programs in local schools and youth summer camp.
Coffee With Cops is usually held every month or two at a different location in town. Drip N’ Scoop, a coffee, dessert and ice cream shop, served as Wednesday’s location. Sharon Idell, who owns Drip N’ Scoop with her son, Robert Idell, said the shop has hosted other Coffee With Cops events and always had a good response from customers.
“It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. It’s not like you have to go to the police station to ask questions,” she said.