Paducah Police Officer Gretchen Morgan
After 10 years working patrol, Paducah Police Officer Gretchen Morgan saw a developing need for greater interaction within the community than what her daily shift allowed. When the opportunity arose for her to pursue a new position as a community resource officer, she jumped at the chance to foster the relationship between Paducah’s citizens and those who police the city. A year and a half later, she is continuing to see that relationship blossom. When she’s not visiting school children or working on new programs, Morgan enjoys traveling, playing golf, reading and spending time with her husband, step-daughter and dog, J.J.
We kind of stole the idea for the “caught doing something good” program from another department we saw on social media. They were rewarding kids for doing something good rather than reprimanding them for something bad. We went to a local restaurant and got stacks of free kids’ meal rewards coupons. When it started, I saw a young man taking garbage out for his mom and carrying groceries. When people realized Officer Morgan was out looking for people doing good, then there were a lot more kids picking up trash in the apartment complexes and that kind of snowballed. The kids love it.
It’s always a nice surprise. I know a young man who was helping with an activity at Noble Park and he had taken it upon himself to pick up garbage. I caught him doing that and asked his teachers if they had told him to do it. They said he just did it. When I rewarded him, he was so surprised, but I could tell it made him feel really good.
Usually when the police show up it’s because something bad has happened. It is important to interact with officers in a positive light, and it changes people’s attitudes and perspective. It makes them think, ‘Hey, those guys are the good guys.’ A lot of times I will take a selfie with the kids and post it on our social media pages. People love a feel-good story.
I hate to say it, but you do get jaded when you deal with something bad all the time. It’s given me a new perspective to see there are good things going on here. I like to catch our officers doing good things, too.
Several years ago I started teaching DARE. I saw such a need for the positive connection between the community and the police department. Teaching DARE, I began to see those bonds develop between students, and now when I see them out, even in my plain clothes, they will say, ‘Hey Officer Morgan!” So I started on my own, with my supervisor’s permission, developing some programs for things like distracted driving and alcohol awareness in the schools. Luckily, our chief saw the need and created the community resources officer position.
In 2012, the local high school reached out to us about having a program for them, and instead of doing a typical alcohol-awareness program at prom time, I wanted to include one of my very best friends who was injured in a distracted-driving incident in 2007. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and had shown interest in going to schools to talk about it. All the stars aligned, we did it, and from there it snowballed and we have travelled all over Kentucky and to different states to share her story.
The first year Paducah police officers had baseball cards here was 1994, then again in 1998 and 2003, then it died down for several years. It kind of lost its coolness. Our local Head Start director contacted me and said she thought the kids would love to have them again, and they wanted to teach the preschoolers that it’s OK to talk to police officers, and to teach the kids good communication skills. So we started with Head Start and basically paid to have all the officers have a card and each student have a starter pack with four cards. We talked to them about how you go and introduce yourself to a police officer and develop those skills. The older kids heard about it, so we decided, together with a local restaurant, to have a competition to see who can collect the most cards in a month. Then we had kids running crazy. We had people lined up at shift change to get the officers’ cards.
It was a big success. We will probably wait a year and do it again. The kids still are talking about it. Next time we will do it even bigger. The cards have pictures of officers with their name, rank and a little bit about them. It lists their hobbies, departments they have worked for — basically anything they wanted to tell about themselves.
It’s been really cool to see our community programs grow. It was slow to start and took a while for people to get used to. For instance, I meet with high school students once or twice a month basically just to talk to them and ask how they think we could do better as a police department. Our high school students are our up-and-coming citizens. I always ask, ‘What do you guys see that we can improve, and what can we do to help you?’ Overwhelmingly, they say they want us to interact with them when something isn’t bad. Not when the drug dogs are there sniffing lockers. Not when somebody has gotten in a fight. They just want us to come in and visit with them, and that’s awesome. So I have started eating lunch with them.
I always had a community mentality, but I think when you work in patrol or as a detective, there’s so much negativity. You have to take a step out and refocus your attention that there is more to this police work. So it has really helped me develop my communication skills with the community. In patrol, you go in and take care of business and you’re out in maybe 20 minutes. With this position, I can stay longer just to talk to the business owners and people in the neighborhood about what else is going on.
I like to see the community build its trust with us. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is working. If we don’t have trust between the community and the police department, we can’t grow and become a better place to live. So when I see that working, it’s like all the lights and bells and whistles go off.