Police around the U.S. are trying out a new role in their communities this summer: Mister Softee. Officers in small-town Salisbury, N.C. and Columbia, S.C. are sending officers in ice-cream trucks to hand out free treats, joining other good-humored cops from Cleveland to Milwaukee, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Salisbury police gave out ice cream to 200 children and 75 adults last week on the department’s maiden voyage to At The Cross Ministries. “I had kids running everywhere to get to the ice-cream truck,” said Pastor Debra Ellison. “It was great for the community, and especially our kids, to see the police other than when there is trouble.”
The ice-cream initiative comes after highly publicized police shootings in many cities have eroded trust between neighborhoods and police. Justin Bamberg, a lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, a black man fatally shot in the back by a white South Carolina officer in 2015, said reaching out with ice cream is a step in the right direction, but “we can’t just talk about fixing things anymore. We’ve actually got to start seeing some action.” Ice cream and other community-oriented policing efforts focus on preventing crime rather than just responding to it. Police departments have a long history of community outreach, with baseball youth leagues and school antidrug programs. Many are experimenting with “coffee with a cop” sessions, choirs, impromptu dance-offs and backyard Slip ’n’ Slides. The effectiveness of such programs is unproved compared with strategies like putting more officers on foot patrol. Some cities are seeing violent crime increase. “Ice-cream trucks are not intended to lower violent crime rates,” said Jim Bueermann of the Police Foundation. Rather, they are intended to bridge skepticism between communities and police, he said.