The Department of Justice recently announced the recipients of this year’s Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing, a national award given to law enforcement officers for their efforts in community engagement.
In the sixth annual award ceremony, 19 law enforcement officers and deputies from 15 jurisdictions across the United States were recognized.
The award, presented by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on June 5, acknowledges individual state, local and tribal officers for their exceptional efforts in community policing, with each recipient demonstrating active engagement with the public they serve in the areas of criminal investigations, field operations or innovations in community policing.
“Every day, law enforcement officers across the country are asked to respond to some of the most difficult, most dangerous, and most traumatic moments that our communities face,” Garland said in a statement. “Today’s awardees exemplify the very best of the noble profession of policing.”
According to a press release from the DOJ, the department received nominations for nearly 200 individual officers, deputies and troopers from 49 states, representing various agency types. The award winners were selected through a review process involving national law enforcement stakeholder groups and different components within the DOJ, ensuring a comprehensive evaluation.
Representing a mix of small, medium and large agencies across the U.S., the recipients’ work ranged from creating and running programs for marginalized youth and senior citizens to solving cold cases and resolving potentially dangerous situations peacefully.
Sergeant (formerly Detective) David A. Benjamin from the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia was honored for playing a crucial role in the investigation of Anjelica “A.J.” Hadsell’s disappearance, working tirelessly with various agencies over seven years to bring the case to its just conclusion.
Detective Christopher Crawford from the Maine State Police Department was recognized for his efforts in solving a sexual assault case, using innovative investigative strategies and maintaining communication with survivors and their families.
Detectives Kimberly Laster and Maria Llovio from the Sarasota Police Department were honored for their comprehensive investigation into the sexual assault and murder of two unhoused women. Their dedication and pursuit of justice led to the arrest of a dangerous suspect.
Detective Erik Whitlock from the North Richland Hills Police Department in Texas was acknowledged for successfully resolving multiple bank robbery cases and identifying the suspect responsible for shooting an officer in a traffic stop, following a decade-long investigation.
Detective Ezekiel Sisneros from the Monte Vista Police Department in Colorado received recognition for his work in pursuing federal criminal charges against a local drug dealer. According to the DOJ, his collaboration with federal agencies resulted in multiple arrests and the seizure of drugs and firearms, enhancing community safety.
Oakland, California, Police Officer Pedram Farhang was honored for his innovative approach to collecting and disseminating critical law enforcement information, including creating a weekly department-wide document containing photos of suspect vehicles and brief descriptions of the past month’s crimes, which led to the apprehension of two murder suspects in 2022. Using similar creative efforts in the Crime Gun Intelligence Center, Farhang assisted in generating leads and identifying suspects or suspect vehicles in more than 50 violent crimes across the San Francisco Bay Area. In a single overtime shift, he located a vehicle stolen in a carjacking at gunpoint, apprehended a gang member linked to several recent crimes and located a vehicle used in a series of armed robberies — resulting in three arrests and the recovery of three “ghost” handguns.
Harris County, Texas, Sheriff’s Deputies Tanya Garcia and Esteban Hernandez received the award for their response to a challenging call in which a police officer and military veteran was armed, intoxicated, and suicidal. They were able to de-escalate the situation with empathy and transport the subject safely to the hospital for treatment.
Patrolmen First Class Demetrius Amos and Mackenzie Handel from the Pocotello Police Department in Idaho were recognized for their bravery after responding to a domestic violence call in which a man was threatening a woman and a child with a gun. When the suspect turned his rifle on the officers, Amos was gravely wounded, and Handel was injured after placing himself in the line of fire to protect the trainee officers who had accompanied him to the scene. Handel was not only able to direct additional responding officers to the subject, who surrendered, but also to guide a trainee in providing emergency medical care for Amos and himself.
Officer Sheena Shelton of the Forest Park Police Department in Georgia was recognized for her in response to a call in which an irate, suicidal woman was threatening her husband with a rifle. Keeping a cool head and calm demeanor, Shelton maintained phone contact with the woman for several hours and finally convinced her to surrender peacefully.
Officer Marc Navarro of the Los Alamitos Police Department in California was honored for embracing the concepts of community-oriented policing in nearly every aspect of his work, including successfully persuading the city to increase funding for protective gear for police and receiving numerous expressions of gratitude from citizens for the caring, personalized service he goes above and beyond to provide.
Innovations in community policing
When she returned to her own high school as a school resource officer, Officer Grace Albritton of the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida created “Grace’s Closet,” a resource for students who lack school supplies, hygiene items, and adequate clothing and shoes. The Albritton also mentors and advises a half-dozen student clubs and organizations and was named the Pinellas County School Board’s School Resource Officer of the Year in 2021–22.
Oakland, California, Police Officer Jimmy Pittman II operates the OK Program of Oakland, a collaborative mentoring and leadership development program for Black male teenagers that focuses on developing critical thinking skills and promoting academic excellence. The middle and high school program rewards academic performance and good citizenship, facilitates a weekly study hall and even provides food to families as needed.
Officer Yessenia Diaz of the Miramar Police Department in Florida was honored for her dedication to helping senior citizens stay aware of and avoid predatory scams. Her creative solutions include a Safety Bingo presentation that helps older adults learn important safety lessons in an interactive way, and a fashion safety show with a red carpet runway featuring police, city officials, uniformed delivery services and others to teach older adults how to distinguish legitimate uniforms from fraudulent ones and how to verify the identity of someone who knocks on their door.
Tallahassee Police Officer Henni Hamby was recognized for her community engagement programs devoted to public safety for people of all ages, including a personal safety and empowerment program for elementary school children, a car seat check program for parents, and programs for seniors.
Officer Michael Peale with the Broken Arrow Police Department in Oklahoma was recognized for creating a program in 2019 to facilitate communication and foster relationships with the Spanish-speaking community, despite not speaking Spanish himself. Since the program was founded, the department has received more reports of minor crimes while witnessing a decrease in violent crimes within the Hispanic community.
Groton, Connecticut, Police Officer Heather M. McClelland was honored for initiating her agency’s therapy dog program, in which she and her canine partner, Chase, provide support to community members, fellow officers and law enforcement in other jurisdictions. In addition to addressing officer mental health and supporting crime victims, she has organized community events including the Special Olympics Torch Run and Penguin Plunge, food and toy drives and a drug takeback day. McClelland also organized the Cops and Comfort Dogs Symposium in Groton, which brought together numerous law enforcement officers and their canines from other states.
Congratulations to these officers for exemplifying the best of community policing by dedicating themselves to making a positive and lasting impact on the public they serve. The award emphasizes the importance of law enforcement’s partnership with communities to enhance public safety.