There’s gold in them thar black cowboy hats
It came to my attention recently that a bit of a kerfuffle was simmering at the Winters Police Department, and my “column topic” antennae began quivering with joy.
I’m all about the kerfuffle.
The topic? Cowboy hats. Specifically, the patrol officers wanted to wear them, and management gave them the kibosh.
Kerfuffle and kibosh!
Oh, joy! Be still, my ruckus-raising little columnist’s heart!
Apparently our retiring police chief refused to allow the snappy black felt Stetsons, and the new interim chief approved them. The reaction at City Hall was along the lines of discovering dog poop on the sole of your shoe. Apparently the cowboy hat image isn’t consistent with the new “brand” for Winters, for which both the mayor and city manager state that at least a million dollars has been spent. In other words, Winters has become a carefully cultivated PR package, approved by a small handful of people, and it didn’t include cowboy hats.
The police officers, however, either didn’t get the message about the official Winters image, or just didn’t care, and for a couple of weeks, were seen around town in the hats, receiving hearty enthusiasm from community members. That right there is a small miracle. It’s time for a little “Come to Jesus” chat about police/community relations in Winters. We’re all talking, but nobody’s willing to say anything, so I guess I’ll fall on that sword: our police officers haven’t exactly been the most popular guys in town for quite some time. Sure, we don’t have the racial tension and hostility of many other towns, but the public’s perception of our PD has eroded over the last few years.
We’ve all either heard the stories or experienced it: drivers pulled over for trivial things, like tinted windows, not stopping for precisely two seconds at stop signs, not using a blinker while turning, not dimming headlights quickly enough. And why? People believe the PD was making excuses to pull people over to fish for drunk drivers.
Now, nobody should be driving drunk. Period. But when people start getting pulled over for blinkers and headlights after leaving a local establishment where alcohol is served, and it happens over and over, a pattern emerges. There’s a fine line between being proactive or predatory, and our PD crossed it, too many times, with too many people. Just ask some of the local business owners about this. You’ll get an earful.
A friend of mine — lovely, average, middle-aged gal — was pulled over because her factory-tinted windows were allegedly too dark. As the officer leaned in to discuss this transgression, he glanced around inside her vehicle and asked if she’d been doing anything he should know about — “fishing” to see if she’d been drinking. She hadn’t.
It was 11 a.m., people.
Anybody who starts drinking at 11 a.m. will do something far more obvious than drive around with tinted windows.
Then there was the Davis woman who declared at a city council meeting that she’d never come back to Winters again, even though she loved our restaurants, because she was treated so horribly by the Winters PD: She ran a stop sign that was obscured by trees, at a corner where the street lines were so faded they were barely visible, and had photos to prove it. They ticketed her anyway. Another visitor from San Francisco wrote a letter to the editor awhile back, also nabbed for tinted windows while he was lost on a back road. He came to town to scope out business opportunities, and based on his negative interaction with an officer, he said he and his San Francisco money wouldn’t return.
The complaints continued to pile up until the city council and staff could no longer ignore it. People were just tired of our cops acting like power-hungry jerks. The “badass” behavior is not the history of this town, and it’s not appropriate for a community of this size. The message apparently got through: complaints subsided. The PD even started holding “Coffee with a Cop” outreach meetings, and it seemed like police/public relations were slowly turning a corner.
And then they got the hats.
People went full-on geek-squeee over the hats. They’d see the officers wearing them and — get this — they’d smile. Ain’t nobody been smiling much about our officers lately. By sheer serendipity, the hats did more for the PD’s image than a thousand coffee chats could have.
Sadly, only two weeks after getting the hats — which the officers purchased with their own money, mind you — they were ordered to take them off by the same interim police chief who approved them. I spoke with Chief Kriens, and he insisted that it was his call. However, I know for a fact that both the city manager and mayor were/are vehemently opposed to the hats, and told him so. OK, so Kriens made the final call. But would he have made that call without pressure from those who sign his paycheck? Only two weeks after approving the hats, when he didn’t have a problem with them then? I don’t buy that — do you?
Besides the whole “cowboy hats don’t fit our carefully polished new image,” our mayor told me the hats project “an unfriendly image.”
Really. I think the bulletproof vests, batons, tasers, handcuffs and guns do that, but OK. That said… what image does their baseball cap project? Little League? The baseball hats are juvenile and lame, and inconsistent with the seriousness of the job. But those black cowboy hats. Given the tender young age of most of our officers, is it creepy to say they’re really sexy? And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
I posted a photo of an officer wearing the hat on the Winters Express Facebook wall and asked people what they thought. Our wall blew up with support and enthusiasm. Moreover, a spirit of support for our officers became evident. Given how the community has grumbled about our PD for quite some time, I’d say that’s nothing short of a miracle.
But… they’re just hats! What the heck?
I have no answer for that. Sometimes things in Winters don’t make any sense. People eat steaks at the Buckhorn beneath stuffed dead animal heads, our biggest party celebrates an earthquake, we built a million dollar swimming pool designed to accommodate a water polo team that we don’t even have and we’re tearing up our natural creek habitat and driving the wildlife away so we can build a nature park. Don’t ask me to make sense of this town. But if black cowboy hats make everybody happy and improve the public’s perception of the local police, that’s PR gold.
Or you could throw coffee chats. Lots of them.