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  • Writer's pictureiCare Community Magazine

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken J. Mascara - Connecting with our Community

Connecting with our community is a strategic priority for the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. Since taking office in 2001, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken J. Mascara has maintained that community engagement is critical to monitoring the pulse of what’s happening in the community as well as building bridges with residents. Over the last several years he has encouraged deputies at all levels to engage in activities that create lasting, positive relationships with residents of all ages. This has included a renewed approach to everything from crime prevention efforts to kids in schools to how patrol deputies interact with neighborhoods and businesses.

Last year alone, the agency’s Community Engagement Unit made more than 40 presentations to more than 1,500 residents on safety tips, community resources and agency services. Their efforts have also led to a more organized and strategically effective process for how the agency engages with the community, serving as the centralized point for all community requests and launching an online request form that residents can complete when seeking to use the agency for events and programs. This form is located on the agency’s website under the Community Programs section.

Anchoring this commitment to engage with the community is the Neighborhood Watch and Citizens Observation Patrol (C.O.P.) programs that enlist targeted neighborhoods with specially trained and dedicated volunteers. The C.O.P. program includes 17 units across the county with more than 230 members who annual volunteer more than 18,000 hours to keep their neighborhoods secure. Additionally, the Neighborhood Watch Program spans 27 neighborhoods and 18 homeowners’ associations throughout the county with residents who meet monthly to learn about safety tips and keep a watchful eye on each other’s homes.

Over the last 20 years, the agency has continued to innovate and launch new programs such as Project L.O.S.T. for residents with cognitive disorders, S.A.F.E. training to provide self-defense skills and Code RED Active Shooter Response Training for businesses and non-profits throughout the county.

Seeing a gap in services for the very vulnerable population coping with the effects of Autism, Alzheimer’s and dementia, Project L.O.S.T. (Locating Our Survivors Timely) was launched. Project L.O.S.T. helps to address the growing number of missing person incidents that often lead to physical searches, extensively drawing on manpower and frequently ending in tragedy. Project L.O.S.T. not only reduces resources expended during searches, but more importantly, the risk of injury or death to the client. Project L.O.S.T. is a partnership between Alzheimer’s Community Care (ACC), Project Lifesaver International (PLI) and Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders (FAU-CARD). Using a locator bracelet that emits a radio frequency to a tracking device, 62 residents have been banded by the Sheriff ’s Office. Additional residents have been banded by the Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie Police Departments with all three law enforcement agencies sharing in the ability to track and locate when called upon. Much of the program’s ongoing success is the result of home visits conducted every 60 days to ensure the band is still functioning and to change batteries. It is in this time spent together that resources are bridged, but more importantly a trusting relationship is built between first responders and a very fragile and vulnerable population in question.

The agency’s Citizen’s Academy is offered twice each year (April and October) to members of the community who want to learn more about the Sheriff ’s Office. The 10-week program exposes the participants to every function of the agency and boasts hands-on sessions for driving, shooting and other tactics. The Teen Driver Challenge, made possible by the Florida Sheriffs Association, is for teen drivers to learn defensive driving skills and is offered almost every month, consistently filling each time it’s offered.

Through the School Resource Deputy Unit, summer camps have also been launched to teach sportsmanship, teambuilding, water safety and other life skills. Pop Up Park Parties bring deputies into local neighborhoods with old fashioned fun. Held each month throughout the county, the parties feature music, games, sports, crafts and food. Pop Up Park Parties are designed to introduce deputies to the neighborhoods they serve and bring community resource partners such as the Health Department, HANDS Clinic and CareerSource to share services.

With the goal of reducing tension between youth and law enforcement and build trust between both groups, the Deputy-Youth Dialogue program was established to pair law enforcement deputies with youth from all walks of life. Through a six-hour session held once each quarter, deputies and youth converge in one room for open and honest discussions on perceptions as well as similarities and differences and their own hopes and goals for the future. The session concludes with a role-reversal scenario where the youth become cops and the cops become kids and simulate a traffic stop.

The Christmas holidays are always a popular time with the agency to give back and touch a life in a way they might not otherwise experience. Annual Shop-with-a-Cop events provide an opportunity for more than 60 youth to go on a $100 Walmart shopping spree with a deputy. Also, during the holiday season, Operation Goodnight Lights takes place at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center’s pediatric ward bringing Santa for a surprise appearance to patients spending Christmas in the hospital. This year, the Santa Cop initiative was born, filling more than 400 bright red Christmas bags with toys, books, gift cards and more. Bags were distributed throughout the agency to deputies with the charge to find kids and surprise them with a bag. The result was overwhelmingly positive with deputies from patrol, school resource, investigations and civil all randomly stopping kids they encountered and surprising them with Santa Cop bags.

Following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Active Shooter Response classes were established to provide businesses, churches and other organizations practical response solutions should a shooting incident take place. In addition to this, S.A.F.E. and R.A.D. classes are a combination of academic and physical self-defense familiarization programs that affords women an opportunity to enhance personal defense.

All of these programs and services are part of the agency’s growing engagement with the community, making a difference in the lives of many and effectively illustrating that cops don’t just put handcuffs on you, they help, encourage, mentor and serve.

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