Good policing often can start with just a casual conversation.

Sgt. Mark Ficcadenti says simple, candid discussions helped him connect with members of St. Paul's East and West African communities. On Wednesday, Ficcadenti's outreach efforts were recognized when he was named St. Paul police officer of the year.

"You can tell people all you want about how the system works for them, but until they see it …

It's just making them feel good," Ficcadenti said.

The department's Western District has a high concentration of East and West African immigrants. Ficcadenti said police were able to connect with community leaders and address smaller, quality-of-life issues such as graffiti and broken car windows which helped build trust.

Last year, Ficcadenti organized events that exposed the immigrant community to the department. One was the East African Junior Police Academy. The program allowed young adults to learn what it was like to be a police officer and helped enable dialogues about interactions with law enforcement.

Ficcadenti joined with leaders of mosques, community centers and schools to find candidates for the academy. Next week, the department plans to host the East and West African Youth Summit, which will give young adults a chance to learn about job opportunities and programs they can take advantage of during the summer.

During the awards ceremony, police and city officials remarked that with the recent national climate in which community relations between police and especially minority communities has been strained, being an officer isn't easy.

"Across this country, our profession is under fire. … Cops feel like we've been punched in the gut," said St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus.

But in his speech, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman voiced his support for the department.

"Every day you make me proud," Coleman said to the room of officers and their families.

Other award recipients

Sgt. Daniel Zebro was named detective of the year for his investigative work in 2014, when he helped lead a case in which authorities say enforcers hired by Mexico's biggest drug cartel kidnapped and tortured local teenagers to try to recover stolen drugs.

Angela Anderson and Amelia Jensen both were honored as civilian employees of the year. Anderson was nominated for her guidance in helping the department through its transition last year to a new timekeeping and payroll system. Jensen, the police research and grants manager, obtains funding for staffing and projects, and last year, the department was awarded more than $1 million in funds under her direction.

Sgts. Jeremy Ellison and Nikkole Peterson were finalists as a team for detective of the year for their investigation on cellphone robberies that expanded to robberies and violent crimes in other cities. They also were involved in taking down a multimillion-dollar crime ring that trafficked stolen and fraudulently obtained cellphones.

Diana Conway was a finalist for civilian of the year for her work as the administrative support for investigators in the homicide/robbery unit where she is responsible for answering phones, maintaining various databases and providing customer service to witnesses, outside authorities, victims' family members and others.

Officer Jon Sherwood was a finalist for officer of the year. The nearly 30-year veteran was nominated for his efforts mentoring younger officers as well as his outreach work with youth at the Arlington Hills Community Center.