ORLANDO, Fla. – As part of his field training, Orlando police recruit Officer Wakens Leonard was required to meet virtually with the people he will serve in his community before serving them.
“Community leaders, people who are activists with different organizations, LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter, those organizations, business owners, residents of the community, Lake Nona, Rosemont, The Willows, Parramore,” Leonard said.
One of the people on the Zoom meeting suggested that Leonard complete his reports outside of his patrol car instead of sitting inside so he can be more accessible and people can come up and talk to him.
Leonard said he now does that every time he files paperwork, placing his laptop on the trunk of his car.
It’s one of many suggestions and tips that have come out of the virtual get-together, required of every OPD recruit before hitting the street.
“A lot of people want to see more transparent law enforcement agencies, and this is a great way to have the residents be involved,” Leonard said.
Chief Orlando Rolon first required the meetings of new recruits in 2017 but had to pause them at the start of the pandemic. Late last year, he continued the meetings virtually.
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“Not only was it a win for us to have the citizens learn more about the community, we benefited from the citizens learning more about the professionalism that our officers bring to the Orlando Police Department,” Rolon said. “They’re learning about the officers, they’re learning about the backgrounds, they’re learning some of these officers have been there and done that and have come from areas where they had challenges growing up.”
Rolon said recruits have been hired from all over the country, including large cities like New York and Chicago.
Leonard, from South Florida, just turned 23 and graduated from the law enforcement academy last year.
“Especially in August, when I was coming through the academy with everything that was going on over the summer, all the rioting and protesting, I was really a little nervous going into law enforcement,” Leonard said. “I didn’t know what the perception would be, an African American male going into law enforcement, what would people see me as? But when I actually hit the streets, I have yet to have any legit negative experiences here. I have far more positive experiences than I can even count.”
Leonard said one of the virtual meetings brought to his attention a speeding issue in Lake Nona.
He asked his supervisor if he could set up a traffic detail on Lake Nona Boulevard. His supervisor agreed.
“I was always thinking that as law enforcement, we’re going to go around arresting bad guys and that’s all we’re doing, but that’s absolutely not the case,” Leonard said. “I’ve probably done more community involvement things that I have done with actual criminals.”
Wakens and another newly hired officer, Heather Ferris, currently start their mornings in The Willows off Silver Star Road -- on foot.
“I’ve had some children ask, ‘Are you going to hurt me, should I be afraid of you?’” Ferris said. “And I always tell them we’re here to protect them. And if they ever need us, we’ll come for them. And I always tell them when they leave, that they matter to me. I always leave a child with saying, ‘You’re important to me and you matter to me.’”
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