A conversation between City Manager Lorie Tinfow and Benicia Police Chief Erik Upson about transparency in local government has led to a special report on local crime that Upson is giving to the Benicia City Council in March, which will combine statistics, trends and challenges.
Upson also will cover community involvement, which he said is essential if Benicia is to remain a safe community. While the chief is keeping the report close to his vest until the Council sees it, he offered a preview of some elements.
“Engagement—no question that’s probably our greatest strength, community involvement and its relationship with the police department,” he said, calling Benicia “an amazing community that’s involved, that wants to be involved and is supportive of police.” Upson often says Benicia has 28,000 police officers, referring to the city’s population. “There is no separation between the police department and the community. They are one.”
The department regularly opens its doors to members of the public in the Benicia Police Citizens Academy, a multi-week, concentrated version of police officer training. “People rave about it,” Upson said. Participants “explore aspects of the department most people do not imagine. We always get positive reviews.” Upson welcomes names of anyone who wants to take the next course.
At one time, the department organized Coffee with the Cops, chat sessions in a relaxed setting. Now those informal chats happen nearly every day. Upson encourages officers to get out into the community and make connections. “It’s very powerful,” he said. The department regularly releases its police activities, including through social media.
“The work we’ve done with social media has opened people’s eyes to the great work that is making the community safe,” Upson said. “There are a lot of great things happening, and people were not aware of it until we took to social media. It was an eye opener for folks, and it certainly helps our partnership to grow.”
One Benicia Police encounter made national news. In 2016, officers answering a report of a suspicious person learned that Jourdan Duncan (see our story on Jourdan, June 2018, Beniciamagazine.com) then 19 and with no working car, walked two hours daily from his Vallejo home to his job at Pro-Form Laboratories in Benicia. First, one officer gave Duncan a lift home. Then the department, through local companies, bought Duncan a mountain bike to ease his commute. “What makes me proud is not that one event, but that our officers are doing stuff like that every day,” Upson said. “It does not always catch media attention or exposure, but it’s a part of who they are and how they think.”
Upson’s report won’t all be rosy. Benicia struggles with property crime; which, according to Citydata.com, far outnumber violent crimes, which are low. The numbers presented by Upson have come from statistics police must keep and send to such other agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The chief has put the records into a digestible format so the public as well as the Council can better understand local crime trends. The report will show how changes in California and other laws present challenges to officers.
“It’s the reality we’re dealing with. We don’t create law. We enforce law. We do our best job to keep the community safe within the laws that exist,” Upson said. “My staff are taking it in stride, working within the new framework to make the community as safe as we can.” Upson will give his report to the City Council at its meeting at 7pm March 5, at Benicia City Hall, 250 East L St.