Before leaving the tent set up by West County SWAT in front of the Westminster Chick-fil-A, one of the kids quickly turned around to give Officer Mike Gradilla a hug.
“It’s stuff like that – that’s what it’s all about,” said Gradilla.
This kind of outreach is one of the reasons Westminster Police Department officers spent a recent Saturday morning meeting and greeting members of the public in front of a Chick-fil-A restaurant. The Aug. 26 event was part of a partnership with the restaurant to encourage community interaction with the local police department.
“It’s truly where our heart is – to serve our community,” said Chana Warnock, marketing director at the restaurant.
With a background in nonprofit work, Warnock said it’s important to her and the restaurant owner to offer community events like this that anyone can attend.
“Anyone can participate, regardless of what their circumstances are,” she said.
The West County SWAT truck was hard to miss, parked directly in front of the restaurant. Next to it was a tented area where passersby could stop, see, touch and even try on impressive gear used by SWAT members. And, of course, WPD’s popular police K9 Pako was on hand (alongside his handler Officer Travis Hartman) for both kids and adults to pet him. He wasn’t shy about rolling on his back for them either.
“Pako and SWAT are the two most popular things we have in the department right now,” said Commander Mark Lauderback.
He said the community seemed to be very enthused about the Saturday event. Though it was set to run from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., “people were walking up at 10 o’clock,” he said.
Not only do events like these give the community a chance to get to know their local officers, but Lauderback said the officers love to come out as well.
Indeed, the SWAT officers invited anyone walking by to come to the tent to learn about their gear, which included a battering ram to get through doors, a grenade launcher, ballistic helmets, riot shields and tactical vests, as well as tour the SWAT vehicle. They answered questions, helped kids and adults put on the gear, and posed for photos with them, too.
Gradilla, who is the newest member of the SWAT team and has been an officer at WPD for four years, said the agency wants to be accessible to the community and dispel some of the fears that may exist.
“We want the children to actually like to talk to us,” he said.
Amid smiles and “thank yous” from both adults and children, the interactions seemed nothing but positive.
“Just as much as they get something out of it, I get something out of it, too,” Gradilla said.
Westminster Chick-fil-A owner Blake Wohlgemuth said he was grateful to have the officers at the event.
“It’s great to see the community interact with the police officers,” he said. “I really think it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”