Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Ernest Hooper: 'Coffee with a Cop' holds different lens to law enforcement

On Wednesday morning, the safest McDonald's in all of Hillsborough County sat on the corner of W Kennedy Boulevard and Dakota Avenue.

Guests entering the restaurant were greeted by no less than a dozen deputies and other officials from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. McDonald's of Tampa Bay arranged the "Coffee with a Cop" sessions at seven different area locations.

They handed out coffee, worked the drive-through and a few even went in the kitchen and attempted to make an Egg McMuffin sandwich.

"It's pretty cool," said Tampa's Brenda Maldonado. "I've never seen anything like this happen before."

Robby Adams, owner/operator of McDonald's operator Casper's Company, said the goal of the event was to help the community realize those in law enforcement are real people, too.

"I think it's important because it's not always been the easiest relationship," Adams said. "This is considered a safe ground, an American institution, and law enforcement can come in and feel welcomed and reach out to people."

The impact of such encounters can't be underestimated in an age where scrutiny of law enforcement has never been greater. In a broad sense, it's fair to ask for greater accountability from the police, but that act shouldn't be viewed as a lack of support. Both can be done.

And the one-on-one conversations that took place at McDonald's on Wednesday offered a view of the officers through a different lens.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Maj. Willie Parker Jr., heads the office's community outreach division. We talked quite a while about his 37 years — yes, 37 — with the department and his dedication to the community.

A Tampa native, Parker shared how his deep roots allow him to walk into any community and find friends. He graduated from Blake High School during the final days of segregation in the 1960s, and his outgoing nature created relationships back then that have lasted a lifetime.

Now his reach bridges divides throughout the county, and in his current role, he oversees a variety of events that create connections with people. HCSO Charities will host a sporting clay event on Oct. 13 that will benefit the USO and Cristo Rey High School, and it's sure to draw supportive residents.

Later this month, the office's black, Hispanic and Indian councils will hold an awards banquet.

"It all helps keep a good relationship with the community," Parker said.

During our discussion, my appreciation for Parker's devotion to public service couldn't help but rise. The Navy veteran started as a detention deputy in the department and rose through the ranks, working in a variety of divisions while earning the needed higher education degrees.

Yet, he remains humble and approachable. He takes the job seriously, but not himself.

It's difficult for me to imagine anyone coming away from a talk with Parker without a greater appreciation for the work of law enforcement. And in a crisis, there's no doubt that Parker would serve as a needed voice of reason.

These days, those voices have never been more valuable. People of conscience are right to call attention to the inequities of our judicial system and the moments when the work of police appear to be too heavy-handed. In those times, however, the community needs to hear from a trusted and familiar voice — like Parker or Marilyn Alvarez, the Sheriff's Hispanic liaison who will be honored Saturday as the Hispanic Woman of the year.

At the age of 67, I'm not sure how much longer Parker will be one of those voices. But it's clear he's earned a level of respect that shouldn't be taken for granted.

That's all I'm saying.

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