Prineville police give away gift certificates during certain contacts as part of program to enhance community relations

 - Prineville residents were given gift certificates to local businesses during contacts with citizens performing helpful tasks like shoveling snow or during minor traffic stops.

For many people, getting pulled over by a police officer is a bit nerve-racking.

Some might wonder if they were speeding or perhaps question whether their taillights or other legally required vehicle equipment is in good working order. They might nervously wait to find out if they will get a ticket or not.

Such was the case for a small number of local drivers who found themselves waiting at the wheel this past month as Prineville officers checked their license, registration and insurance. Only these drivers got an unexpected and pleasant surprise as the ordeal ended. Some got a gift card to a local coffee shop. Others were offered a Subway or Bi-Mart gift certificate.

The Prineville Police Department enacted their Random Acts of Kindness program last winter around the holidays. After a successful first outing, the department chose to continue it a second time this past month.

"If there is a violation, like somebody has a taillight out, rolls through a stop sign or goes a little fast … when the police officer contacts them, they do what they would normally do ... then instead of giving them a citation, they offer some surprise benefit," explains Sgt. James Peterson.

Prineville Police Captain Larry Seymour is quick to clarify that the program is applied only to non-egregious violations. Ones that might harm others — such as driving while suspended or uninsured or driving reckless or well beyond the speed limit — end per usual: with a ticket.

The idea for the program was prompted by a donation from a local business owner, Dr. Paul Slater, who wanted to provide money to the department to improve police relations with the community.

"A lot of people's perception of the police is just what they see in the (national) news, and that's not the way it is here," Seymour said. "We do have good community support here."

This support has come from a conscious effort by the department to focus on the public's perception of law enforcement and what locals think about police work in general.

"Facebook has been a big part of that as well as some of the programs we are doing," Peterson said. "There are a lot of different things we are trying to do so that we don't just have that image of pulling people over and taking people to jail."

Peterson went on to stress that the police department still focuses diligently on curbing criminal behavior and arresting and incarcerating people who break the law or harm others.

"But we also want them to know that we're human and that we care and that we live here and are part of the community, too," he said.

With that ideal in mind, the department used Slater's donation to fund gift certificates that officers were then free to hand out randomly as they saw fit. Sometimes, they did so during traffic stops, while other times simply involved police reaching out to someone working hard to help others.

"We would go down the street and see somebody shoveling sidewalks along the street," Peterson offered as an example.

Seymour acknowledges that during traffic stops, people seem ill at ease as an officer makes contact, and it was no different with the few selected for the Random Acts of Kindness surprises. But he is hoping the program will encourage more positive feelings about interactions with local police from that point forward.

"You can kind of see in the people's faces that at first they are a little leery," he said, "but that is exactly the reason we are doing this."

Peterson agrees, and noted that people seem to appreciate the program and how it aides an overall effort by the department to create a more positive relationship with the community.

"I think it is a big leap forward," he said.

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