As she cruises through Spokane’s West Central neighborhood in her patrol car, Officer Traci Ponto doesn’t wave at children.
Instead, Ponto, the neighborhood’s police resource officer, smiles and throws two fingers in the air, flashing a peace sign.
“It’s something I started doing because waving didn’t always work. They wouldn’t wave back at me,” Ponto said. “They look at you so warily when you drive by. These black and white cars can be so intimidating.”
In neighborhoods like West Central, with its high rates of poverty and crime, many children grow up with a dim view of law enforcement. Ponto flashes the peace sign in a bid to gain their trust.
“When their two little fingers go up, that’s how you know you’ve got them. You’ve got them to trust you a little,” she said. “That makes it all worth it.”
Ponto, 50, joined the Spokane Police Department in 1994. She’s been a neighborhood resource officer for 11 years, the last eight in West Central. She also covers the North Central neighborhood, and has won accolades for her involvement in both communities.
“We really think so highly of her, and I think the whole neighborhood does,” said Allison Smith, a volunteer at West Central’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. “They just think she rocks.”
Ponto can barely remember a time when she didn’t want to be a police officer.
“When I was a little kid living in east Wenatchee, I had a state trooper living down the street from me, and I just thought he was the coolest dude in the world,” Ponto said. “Really, from the time I was 16, I’ve known I wanted to be a cop.”
So she moved to Spokane after graduating from high school and enrolled in the criminal justice program at Spokane Community College. While studying there she volunteered for the police department, fielding low-level calls to get a taste of real police work.
Now she serves in a special role. As a neighborhood resource officer, she has rapport with dozens of residents and landlords who own buildings in West Central.
“They take pictures. They email me tips,” Ponto said. “They do the foot work because they understand that, in order for me to do my job, I need support and cooperation.”
Ponto uses that network to monitor so-called nuisance houses – addresses that frequently attract criminal activity or have junk and garbage piling up in the yard. Sometimes that results in the eviction of a drug dealer, or the city acquires enough evidence to board up the house. Sometimes Ponto works with the resident to fix the problem.
“I like to think I’m fair,” she said, “and I think most of the folks down here would say that I am fair.”
Ponto enjoys working with neighbors on a friendly, first-name basis.
“This is what it’s about,” she said. “As a neighborhood officer, you’re wanting to get rid of your nuisance houses and your problems and your drugs, but the community outreach part of it is absolutely the icing on the cake.”
During her 23 years on the force, she’s fired her gun only once while on duty – at a pitbull that charged her as she and other officers searched a nuisance house about a decade ago. The dog survived, she said.
The police department’s spokesman, Officer Shane Phillips, called Ponto a “rock star” and said she rarely turns down an opportunity to help people.
In 2014, for example, Ponto and her husband built a fence for a West Central resident whose home had become a target for burglaries.
And last week, a local man gave $500 to the police and asked them to do something nice with it – a “secret Santa” kind of gesture.
Ponto knew exactly what to do with the money. She called several landlords, who helped her identify four low-income families that could use some extra money around the holidays.
On Thursday, three days before Christmas, Ponto visited each family and hand-delivered a $125 Wal-Mart gift card. All the recipients gasped in surprise. One father was so grateful he cried.
Wendy Johnson said the gift card would enable her and her husband to buy presents for their two young children – something they feared they wouldn’t be able to do.
“This is just a huge blessing for my family,” she said. “I always tell them police are your friends and they’re here to help, and this just reinforces that.”