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The Beat : 'Happy, Helpful Policeman' Nurtures Community Ties on Foot Patrol

September 24, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

Officer Charles J. Cooper rarely catches a thief and hasn't conducted a criminal investigation in more than two years. Nevertheless, the 17-year veteran of the Glendale Police Department is probably the most recognized officer on the streets and one of the most valued on the force.

As Glendale's only foot patrol officer downtown, Cooper's daily visits with shopkeepers and friendly banter with residents have set him apart from his colleagues.

"He comes in and talks with the customers and gives advice to us about what we do about our shoplifters and what we do about our street people," said Peggy Leibeling, manager of the Brand Boulevard Salvation Army thrift store. "He's a happy, helpful policeman and he's great."

The former vice detective with the inviting grin and unorthodox uniform of casual shirt and shorts is the first Glendale officer assigned to full-time foot patrol since the late 1940s.

Boulevard Beat

While his colleagues cruise Glendale in cars, on motorcycles and overhead in helicopters, Cooper spends five days a week trekking the length of north Brand Boulevard in downtown Glendale and Honolulu Avenue in Montrose.

A folksy officer with a sturdy build, Cooper, 49, believes this more traditional approach to police work can improve police relations with the public and help reduce crime.

"It gives people a chance to ask a lot of 'what if?' questions," said Cooper. " 'What if someone walks out of the store without paying for an item? How can you help me from becoming a victim of crime?' The whole thing is an educational process."

His daily routine includes chatting with merchants, engaging in conversation with passers-by and, in general, helping anyway he can. If the city is hosting a parade, Cooper says, he'll pick up a hammer and nail together a bleacher. If a shopper locks his keys in his car, he'll borrow a wire coat hanger from a nearby shop and unlock the door.

Contact With Citizens

"I'm like a liaison between the shopkeepers, shoppers and the city," Cooper said. "People have to have verbal contact with the department, but it's hard to talk to a police officer in a car who's just whizzing by."

Recently, a frantic young mother sought Cooper's assistance after she inadvertently locked her keys and her baby inside her car.

"The mother was panicked. She was flipping out," Cooper recalled. "But the baby was fine."

Another time, a man asked for the officer's assistance in identifying a strange animal hidden in the branches of a Brand Boulevard tree.

"The guy was standing under the tree and feels something drop on his head," Cooper said, trying to contain a laugh. " 'Officer,' he says to me, 'at first I thought it was a bird, then I looked up and saw a big rat in the tree.' "

The creature, it turned out, was a drooling opossum.

"Possum slobber," Cooper said simply. "It's the natural thing for a 'possum to do."

Old-fashioned foot patrols fell out of vogue throughout the nation during the late 1940s and early 1950s when patrol cars gave departments far more mobility. Patrol territories expanded from several city blocks to several square miles. But, during the 1960s and 1970s, police officials noticed that diminished contact made officers less familiar with residents, said Glendale Police Chief David J. Thompson.

"We began realizing that we failed to keep in touch," Thompson said.

In 1982, Glendale reinstated a part-time foot patrol beat in an attempt to re-establish a more casual and friendly link between the Police Department and community, the chief said.

Boston and New York are among the other cities nationwide that revived foot patrols in recent years. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department, which never dropped its downtown foot details, assigned officers to foot patrols in the San Fernando Valley.

In Glendale, as elsewhere, the merchants took to the idea.

"It gives you some kind of tradition," said Barkev Peltekian, owner of a Brand Boulevard photography store. "If you have a policeman in the street talking to people it's nice . . . and you always have that sense of security that there is a policeman in the street."

Full-Time Patrol

Such reactions prompted Thompson to expand the beat to a full-time patrol in 1985, the year Cooper assumed the post and proved himself a natural for the job.

Cooper prefers a casual approach to his work.

"Coop the Cop," his favorite nickname, is printed across the calling cards he hands out to shoppers. His nameplate reads: "Officer Chuck."

On his daily route, Cooper waves at merchants through shop windows and calls out greetings to passers-by.

"When I first started, it was really weird," he laughed. "Most people wouldn't talk to me, and some of them wouldn't even look at me. Then, after being out here a few weeks, I got some waves from people in cars and finally, 'Hey officer, wanna cup of coffee?' "

A former steel mill worker, Cooper moved his wife and two children from their home in Danville, Ill., to Glendale in 1965. The steel industry had soured and he was looking for a new job.

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