Community policing: Where do we go?


First Posted: 6/22/2008

LIMA - A decade ago, the Lima Police Department was in the process of an extreme makeover centered around the concept of community-oriented policing.

Millions of federal dollars flooded departments across the country, including hundreds of thousands landing in Lima. The Police Department took advantage and hired 10 officers. A grand plan created police offices in the community and put officers there full time to work with residents to solve problems.

The plan was a hit and residents, especially those who benefited firsthand, were thrilled.

Earlier this year, the shooting death of an unarmed woman inside her home by a Lima police sergeant created a firestorm of anger against police. The city hired a consultant to help figure its way through the storm while trying to learn how the agency could better serve the public.

The result was a series of "stakeholder roundtable meetings" to gather information and mostly learn what residents want from police. The end result came back with five top recommendations led by a request to reinstate community-oriented policing.

Where did community policing go

Community-oriented policing disappeared in the minds of many people way before this year, going back to when the department pulled its community officers in early 2002 and shifted back to a call-driven reactionary model of policing.

The switch was not what the department wanted but what had to be done because of budget woes, Lima police Maj. Kevin Martin said.

The year before community officers were removed, terrorist struck the country, moving financial priorities to homeland security. Since that time, the country has been in an economic struggle, including teetering on the brink of a recession. The Police Department took a major financial hit that resulted in nearly 20 jobs disappearing.

Police maintain they still have community policing and stick by its philosophy. That philosophy, however, does not have the visibility of having an officer in the community, meaning residents no longer see community policing.

One of these residents is Hope Neighborhood Association President Bill Jackson. When the neighborhood had its officer, people had a familiar face to turn to in a time of need, Jackson said.

"When you had someone focus on one area, he or she is going to do all they can to make sure the results turn out positive," he said.

Martin said community policing and the philosophy is still strong even without officers assigned to specific areas. The department still sends officers to neighborhood association meetings and Chief Greg Garlock is quick to credit the community with helping police solve crimes.

Still, Jackson said, it's not the same.

"I think that is saying they still would like to carry on, but I don't think it's in place. I think it's their vision. I don't really think that it's in place when they say it's their philosophy," he said.

What the community wants

During the stakeholder meetings, people conveyed a number of ideas that focus on community policing, not just community officers, said Joseph Thomas Jr., the president of JET Consulting, which facilitated the meetings and issued the report.

Those ideas included seeing officers walking the beat, talking to people, walking through the parks and stopping by businesses instead of just responding to calls, Thomas said.

"One group got so specific and said we want our officers to speak to us. This came from a white female and she said we want the officers to speak to us and not drive by and act like we're not there," Thomas said.

Too often, the measurement of officer productivity involves looking at arrest numbers or the number of tickets written, he said.

"Why don't we measure how many times an officer came in contact with a group of people or walked through a park?" Thomas said.

Martin said changes in the department cost money or mean reallocating manpower, which could affect the way officers respond to calls, including slower responses to non-emergency calls such as vandalism complaints.

Jackson doesn't understand why the department cannot take an officer from a shift who already is working somewhere and assign the officer to a specific area just as it was when the city had community officers.

"I can't understand the need for so much additional funds to do that. When you have an officer in an area, he is still on call to go someplace else even if he's a COP officer," he said.

Another reason Jackson said the city needs to make due with what it has is the lack of money. A tax increase would not go well with the public in the hard economic times people are facing, he said.

The biggest problem now is a little or no communication because residents do not have a familiar face to turn to, Jackson said.

"That solved all that. People got to know who their officer was and the officer knew what was going on in that area," he said.

Why community officers worked

Dave Gillespie once was assigned to the Northwood Maplewood station on Brower Road as its community officer. He loved the job and the residents in the area loved him equally. The work was very rewarding, he said, explaining he would not only recognize a problem but work to find solutions.

"You and the residents, that's all you did. Determined what the problem was, figure out ways to deal with it and get it done," he said.

If given the chance, Gillespie, who is assigned to the PACE team and spends much of his time today fighting the war on drugs, said he would jump at the chance to be a community officer again. So would some of the other community officers, he said.

That familiar face is important, Jackson said. He remembers that, when the department had community officers, he would frequently see the officer on his street just passing by. Today, weeks go by without seeing an officer and it's never the same person, he said.

Having that police presence in a neighborhood not only develops a bond with the community, but it also scares away part of the criminal element. Some criminals just want to avoid police and part of doing that is being where an officer is not, he said.

"If the criminal knows that an officer is assigned and patrolling the area, I think their tendency to commit crimes would be less," he said.

The department still sends officers to neighborhood meetings and Garlock always is quick to credit people in the community with working with police to solve crimes. In 2002, the department created its Proactive Crime Enforcement Unit, or the PACE team for short.

Gillespie said the PACE team is part of community policing.

"PACE is a great reincarnation of the community-policing program with the exception we don't have that day-to-day contact with the residents," he said.

Changing public perception

Changing public perception comes through education, Thomas said. Many things police do that often are seen as offensive are derived from police procedure, not something that is racially motivated, for example, Thomas said.

Thomas used a traffic stop as an example. Police always have one hand on their weapon as they approach a car. That is part of police procedure for officer safety since traffic stops can be one of the most dangerous, unexpecting situations for an officer, not something motivated by another reason, he said.

"Approaching a vehicle with your hand on your gun is what we train officers to do," he said. "A lot of people see something and think it's negative and don't understand that's what police officers do."

Martin knows the department has a public-relations problem that needs attention. The department is taking steps to fix that, including trying to educate people on police procedure. The department also plans to answer the public's demand for a return to community policing, he said.

Gillespie said officers still care very much for the community and want to make it better, but the call-driven method doesn't allow much time to stop and mingle.

"I hear that comment that the officers up here are different. To me, they don't understand the officers are handling 12 to 15 calls per shift and don't really have the time to stop and talk to people. It's not that they are being rude or not waiving, it's just they don't have the time," he said.

How does the department transform

Thomas' report is a starting point, but how the department changes is up to the city administration, police and the community.

"Chief Thomas' report, as I see it, was kind of a springboard. It was to help identify some of what the public wants. Now we have to go forward and determine how we give the public what they want," Martin said.

Martin said Lima Mayor David Berger is taking this matter seriously and is committed to better serving the community, as is the department.

Berger said he is in the initial stages of digesting Thomas' report, which he has read twice. Berger wants to dissect the report, then form a plan. Exactly how that will play out, Berger said, is too early to tell. He wants to take the next month to form a clear understanding of what the report says.

"Where we go from that point is very unclear," he said.

The mayor said a lot of people have voiced concerns since the January death of Tarika Wilson on Third Street.

"Now it's a matter of paying attention to the voices and figure out what we do," he said.

The mayor called the reaffirmation of community policing one of the most positive aspects of the report.

Gillespie would like to see community officers return and the PACE team stay in full force. After serving in both capacities, he said community officers, who have a finger on the pulse of their neighborhoods, could quickly recognize problems such as a recently established drug house and use PACE to solve it.

Jackson said the department needs to do something to bring back its community officers. Today, when an officer responds, it's a different person each time.

Jackson, who lives on the city's south side just off of East Second Street, may not have the plan for the department to follow but he is certain there needs to be change.

"This is the way I look at it: If you're doing things a certain way for X amount of years and you're not getting positive results, I think it's time to try something different," he said.

Accountability

Gillespie occasionally runs into the residents he worked with and hears how much he is missed. He tells them all is not lost.

"I try to remind them just because I'm not here you don't have to stop the work we were doing," he said.

People need to take ownership of their neighborhoods and do their part to self-police their neighborhoods, Gillespie said. He cited Jesse Lowe, whose sign and visual campaign against drugs along with his urging of community involvement has been a hit.

"If we had a Jesse Lowe we could put in every neighborhood, this would be a better city. He inspires others to get involved and take ownership in their neighborhoods in a positive way to try to root out the problems," he said.

The mayor or the police chief are not the only people who can solve problems, Berger said. There has to be a residential effort to make it work, he said.

"There are others this report called out. The question is, how do those individuals and organizations get involved?" he said.

Jackson agrees and said accountability also sits with the community, which people need to realize and take to heart.

"I think we have problems both ways. We want them to do their job right, but we also have to look at the community and make sure people in the community are not doing things contrary to law," he said.