Crime

An Oakdale officer gets out of his patrol car and makes a difference for his town

An Oakdale officer makes a difference for his town

Officer Rick Plath of the Oakdale, California, Police Department enjoys engaging with the public during his patrol shifts. The Modesto Bee rode along with him on Thursday, May 9, 2019.
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Officer Rick Plath of the Oakdale, California, Police Department enjoys engaging with the public during his patrol shifts. The Modesto Bee rode along with him on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

Officer Rick Plath patrols Oakdale with the concept of “community policing” in mind.

It means walking up and engaging with people — at parks, festivals and other friendly venues — rather than just reacting to crime.

Plath still has to deal with the not-so-nice element, such as a man Thursday who texted his ex in violation of a restraining order. The officer told him by phone to lay off.

This happened near the start of a ride-along that Plath provided for a Modesto Bee reporter and photographer. We had heard via social media about his devotion to community policing and arranged for a first-hand look.

The afternoon was slow enough to allow a visit to Dorada Park in the north-central part of town. Platt greeted a few children and let each press the siren button in his patrol car (one quick burst, so as not to wake nappers). He left the kids with small stuffed animals and police badge stickers.

“I like it because it’s putting you out with a lot of people,” Plath said. “... We’re trying to bridge that gap with the citizens and kids.”

Many departments in Stanislaus County and beyond have adopted community policing. The idea dates to the walking beats of 19th century law enforcement and saw a revival in the 1970s amid tensions with the public. The U.S. Department of Justice has an office devoted to it, offering grants and training.

The approach works well at the Oakdale Police Department because of the city’s small size, Lt. Jerry Ramar said. The 30 or so sworn officers protect a population of about 24,000.

Community policing happens at crowded events, such as the Oakdale Rodeo last month and the Chocolate Festival next weekend. Officers carry it out at Neighborhood Watch meetings and the annual National Night Out in August.

Plath, 49, combines an outgoing personality with a knack for social media as he goes about his work.

“I am proud member of the Blue Line,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I support all law enforcement and the United States of America. I also believe that all lives matter, not just one group, race, gender or religion.”

Plath has been with the department for about four years and previously was a sheriff’s deputy in San Joaquin County. He mainly does traffic enforcement and, during the ride-along, stopped one driver for missing a stop sign.

Traffic stops give officers a chance to check license and registration against police records. They can learn whether a car is stolen or an occupant should be arrested on a warrant. Plath let his dispatcher know his location in case Thursday’s stop did not go smoothly.

He and Ramar noted the controversy over officer-involved shootings around the country in recent years. Officers who do wrong are a minute part of the total, they said.

Plath said community policing can relieve the stress of the job. The worst parts, he said, are domestic violence and child molestation cases.

“It’s uncalled for, and it’s very sad,” he said. “I’ve seen some pretty bad things that most people would think could never happen to anybody.”

Nothing like that occurred on the ride-along. Plath did get a call about a small grass fire just south of downtown, handled by firefighters he beat to the scene. Dispatch told him about a stolen-car case that needed follow-up later in the day.

That left time for more fun. Plath parked at Red Park, in the southwest part of Oakdale, and made a few more young friends. Among them was 5-year-old Leah Smith, a delighted siren sounder.

Her mother, Sonia Smith, likes this kind of policing too.

“Sometimes there’s a misconception about what these gentlemen do for us,” she said. “It’s great that they’re doing this.”

Other fans have praised Plath on the Oakdale Area Incident Feed page on Facebook.

“Officer Plath is awesome!” wrote one. “I love to see how he is changing the relationship (between) OPD and the citizens of Oakdale. When the kids he has been kind to grow up, they will have a different view on police officers than teenagers and young adults do today!!”

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