Pictured: Fifth District Commander Mark Plazinski on National Coffee with a Cop Day in front of the Starbucks in the Neelsville Village Shopping Center
By Rachel Taylor, Editor in Chief
On the first Wednesday in October, the Montgomery County Police Department participated in National Coffee with a Cop Day. Events took place in each of the six districts across the county. Germantown and some of the surrounding areas are part of the Fifth District. Coffee with a Cop events allow people to ask questions, discuss concerns, and get to know their local police officers.
The Fifth District officers held their Coffee with a Cop event in the morning at Starbucks in the Neelsville Village Shopping Center. The police department tries to hold events multiple times each month at different locations in order to reach as many people as possible.
Coffee with a Cop was started in 2011 by the police department of Hawthorne, California. According to the program’s website, they “were looking for ways to interact more successfully with the citizens they served each day.” The Coffee with a Cop program is part of the concept of community policing, which focuses on police officers building positive relationships with the communities they serve.
By now, Coffee with a Cop events have been held in all 50 states. The program is also expanding to other countries, including Canada and Australia. The first National Coffee with a Cop Day happened last year and takes place on the first Wednesday of October.
Three police officers sat at tables at Starbucks and spoke with Germantown area residents who came in. One of the officers was Fifth District Commander Mark Plazinski, who has been in law enforcement for 23 years.
Born in Anne Arundel County, he became a police officer because he “wanted to help people.” However, his initial motivation was different. “When I was young, I wanted to drive a car fast,” he said. Now, being a police officer for him is more about the fact that “you really can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Plazinski spent his first nine years as a police officer in Silver Spring. Earlier this year, he was promoted to his current position of Fifth District Commander after the previous commander, David Gillespie, went on to become police chief of a department in Florida. A commander usually holds the position for four to six years. “If I mess it up really bad, it’ll be much shorter,” Plazinski remarked humorously.
Plazinski acknowledges that police and their actions can be flawed. “We’re not perfect,” he said. However, he wants his officers learn from mistakes if they happen make one.
Montgomery County is a very diverse area with residents of all ethnicities. Naturally, this leads to the topic of the intersection of race and policing. About racial profiling, Plazinski said that “it’s not an effective way to fight crime.”
“Our chief wouldn’t tolerate it,” Plazinski added. In a 2016 interview with Bethesda Magazine, Montgomery County Chief of Police Thomas Manger said “You want a police department that’s reflective of the community we’re serving. In Montgomery County, that’s a tall order… We’ve made great progress in terms of the diversity of our department, but we’ve still got a ways to go.” Manger has been able to double the number of Latino officers on the force since becoming chief in 2004.
Plazinski said that multiple steps are taken in order to prevent racial profiling done by Montgomery County police officers. The department is careful about which people it hires, trains its officers, and holds them accountable.
Most contacts with civilians go well, and as police, “we serve all the people,” Plazinski said. Because of this, it’s important for the community to trust police officers and have confidence in them. Coffee with a Cop helps with this, although the department has done other forms of community outreach for years. “We’re all just regular people, we’re members of the community,” Plazinski said about the county’s police officers.
There are challenging aspects of being a police officer, such as the “demanding hours” away from family and the potential of violence on the job. Not many people’s jobs involve that element, Plazinski said. Officers must have familiarity with many areas, including criminal and civil law, as well as practical skills like driving and handling their weapons. They also face the task of making life and death decisions in stressful situations.
Plazinski described the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas as a “horrific event,” but he believes that the Las Vegas Police Department is well trained and responded to the event in a professional manner. “It’s moments like that” when Plazinski is most proud to be a police officer, owing to the valor of police officers sacrificing themselves for others.
Police should be neutral on gun control and leave politics to other people, Plazinski believes. However, a less armed society would be easier to police, he conceded. Regardless, it is up to the community to change the laws if they feel the need. Police officers are just enforcers of the laws that exist, Plazinski said. The reality is that officers “police an armed society,” so they must do what they can to mitigate the associated risks.
Jim Brown, the Fifth District’s Deputy Commander explained the concept of the “thin blue line.” It represents the position of law enforcement as the separation between the majority of law-abiding citizens in a society and the smaller number of criminals. As a police officer, part of the job is to “deal with difficult people,” Plazinski said.
In recent years, there has been a slight increase in hostility towards police. Plazinski recounted one incident that occurred while he was speaking outdoors with other officers. A teenaged girl he had never met walked by and said that she hoped he would get killed. The girl’s statement shocked him, but Plazinski thinks that he wouldn’t have been able to change her negative opinion about police officers.
Community members who attended the Coffee with a Cop event brought up their concerns about drug use in Montgomery County to the officers. Compared to other areas like Baltimore and western Maryland, overdose deaths in the county are low. However, “we’re not in a bubble,” Plazinski said about the county. The area is still affected by drug use and crime.
Opioid addiction often begins with prescription painkillers, which can be very potent. Deputy Commander Brown recalled a time when he had taken legally prescribed painkillers yet felt that he had gotten high from them. Regarding marijuana, Plazinski believes that it isn’t good to encourage people to smoke it, especially young people.
Save a Life Montgomery is a community forum that will be held October 21 at the Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg. Its purpose is to educate the community about “medical, legal, and behavioral issues and supports related to opioid and substance abuse.” In order to prevent substance abuse, people need to hear stories from other people they can relate to about the dangers of opioids, the officers noted.
The officers also discussed the issue of gang activity in the area. Recently, additional prosecutors and police were hired to deal with gang-related crimes. The problem is the criminal activity associated with gangs, such as drug dealing and human trafficking. Gang activity has decreased in Germantown because police have been proactive in combatting it, so people are going elsewhere (such as Gaithersburg and Frederick) to commit gang-related crimes.
Plazinski has a good relationship with Kevin O’Rourke, the founder and editor of the Germantown Pulse, a local news website. He calls O’Rourke to share information related to the police’s ongoing investigations that can be publicized in the Germantown Pulse. Plazinski likes that there is a free press in this country and thinks that O’Rourke is an honorable journalist.
The police department would be willing to hold a Coffee with a Cop event at Montgomery College to reach college students in particular. They are willing to talk to the community – all parts of it, college students included. Coffee with a Cop events are important because people need to have non-confrontational interactions with police. Positive interactions with the community are something that “recharges our batteries,” Plazinski said.
A video slideshow of photos from the various Montgomery County Police Department’s National Coffee with a Cop Day events can be seen here. The second photo in the slideshow depicts the Germantown event with Commander Mark Plazinski and Deputy Commander Jim Brown.