Taber Burgess, 12, has always wanted to be a cop.
Inspired by the law enforcement service of his grandfather and his uncle, he arrived at Shnoogs Cafe & Espresso in Sonora on Monday morning with questions about how to make that dream come true and “keep the tradition alive.”
“Since I want to grow up and be a cop, I wanted to learn what it takes to be a cop and what training I need,” Burgess, a Sonora Elementary School student said.
Seated next to Tuolumne County Undersheriff Neil Evans, Burgess asked about bulletproof doors on patrol cars, department issued firearms, and what kind of grades were needed to pursue a law enforcement career.
Evans said the doors are bulletproof, that officers can get their own gun in addition to the one issued by the department and good grades are required to make in into the force.
Burgess said that he left the conversation knowing more about the physical training and academic focus required to “protect the local people.”
“I learned about everything that cops do for us and why they do it,” he said. “I wanted to be one before, but now I know more about what I need to do.”
Evans said student outreach events familiarized kids with law enforcement and overcame some of the intimidation a young person might feel in their presence. Some students, like Burgess, just made conversation and connection move along more smoothly.
“He’s a regular Tuolumne County kid, they all are,” Evans said. “It’s a bubble up here and we like to keep it that way. We really understand it’s different here and we really appreciate it’s different here.”
Dozens of students and parents packed the coffee shop on Monday morning for “Cocoa with a Cop,” the brainchild of a local girl who asked the Sheriff’s Office to host an outreach event specifically for youth.
“Kids can’t drink coffee. Kids like cocoa and they can get that instead of coffee,” said Jessica Reiben, an 11-year old home-schooled student.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and the Sonora Police Department have previously held events known as a “Coffee with a Cop” to promote community outreach and answer questions from the public.
Reiben said she was inspired to write a letter to the Sheriff’s Office about the event because she was concerned about the multitude of officer-involved shootings this year. Her hope was that conversation could promote cooperation and avoid those tragedies.
“I wanted them to be more social with their community, especially to law enforcement. These kids are our future, so hopefully this can make a better future for everyone,” Reiben said.
Ronil Singh, 33, a police officer in Newman, was shot and killed on Dec. 26 and Natalie Corona, 22, a police officer in Davis, was shot and killed on Jan. 10.
Reiben said she wants to be a K9 trainer. She has already begun to practice training with her Australian shepherd and border collie mix, Luna.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Bill Pooley said every student was not as comfortable with law enforcement as Reiben. When a Sheriff’s Office patrol SUV pulled up to the sidewalk by Shnoogs Cafe, one of the kids asked if they were “going to go to jail,” he said.
“We want them to know, we’re not the people that are going to take you to jail. We’re the people that are going to help you,” Pooley said.
Other law enforcement representatives said they were moved by the kids who overcame their reticence toward law enforcement to talk with the officers and deputies.
Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said even though “some of them are scared, people want to break that barrier.”
One girl appeared shy and intimidated because of a previous law enforcement contact with her family, he said.
“She felt better after being able to talk to us. She could surmount her anxiety. That was cool. That will stick with me.”
But oftentimes it’s the law enforcement gear and toolkit that usually bridges the gap with students, VanderWiel said.
Marley Mabry-Peterson, 8, a Summerville Elementary School student, said her favorite part of the event was seeing how a deputy turned on the flashing red and blue lights and siren inside of the patrol vehicle.
Heidi Fulton, 11, a Chinese Camp Elementary School student, said her favorite moment (after the hot chocolate) was knowing how the different buttons inside of the patrol car worked and seeing the metal screen between the deputy and the detainment area in the back seat.
“That was cool,” she said.
Fulton said she shared information about the school safety plan at Chinese Camp Elementary School and her interest in reading.
“I learned how you can improve situations and make it a better community,” she said.
Evans said he was a student resource officer at Jamestown and Columbia Elementary Schools approximately 15 years ago. Some of the kids he knew as students at those schools came into Shnoogs Monday morning with children of their own, he said.
“The more you can be a part of a school and part of a community the better. The more contacts we can have with people that are willing to talk to us the better,” he said.