You may have heard by now that the U.S. Department of Justice office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) awarded Gulfport a grant to fund one police officer position for three years. What may not have trickled out are the details on exactly how that police officer will be employed.
Conditions of the grant require that the agency dedicate the equivalent of one full time officer to working on specific, community-policing projects. While this may seem simple enough, the question on many minds is--what exactly is community policing?
First of all, this is not a new idea--Wyatt Earp practiced a form of community policing when he enforced the "no firearms" ordinance in the city of Tombstone. Essentially, anything that combines the efforts of the police with the collective desires and resources of the community they serve is community policing. The idea is based on economics, really; it is the answer to the question: "what is the most efficient way to keep the neighborhood safe?"
Actually, it may be easier to define community policing by describing what it is not. The most common misconception is that the police will take care of everything. Many expect that their responsibility is limited to reporting violations they personally observe, and that once these violations are reported, the police will handle it from there. The truth is, if everything is left up to the police, then very little is going to be accomplished. No law enforcement agency has the resources that would be required to actively pursue every complaint, crime, and incident through to resolution. In fact, police absolutely require the active participation of community members to assist in identifying and addressing problems.
It may seem at first that this is an attempt to brush aside responsibility, but the reality is that by using true community policing techniques, we can accomplish a great deal with as little expense as possible. Consider this example: a neighborhood experiences several vehicle burglaries. Primarily, the target vehicles were left unlocked and parked on a dark part of the street. In response, I could assign several officers to randomly patrol the neighborhood looking for suspicious persons, or I could assign one officer to enlist the support of the entire community. The one officer could engage the media and crime watch groups to alert residents and recommend that vehicles be locked and parked in well-lit driveways when possible. The one officer could seek out crime prevention tools from private businesses. The one officer could coordinate with the investigations unit to ensure that all cases are reviewed together rather than individually. The one officer could distribute photos of known auto burglars to local residents and businesses. The one officer could identify informal community leaders to help engage others in the neighborhood to become more involved in crime prevention efforts.
In the end, the work done by the one officer would likely have a greater impact on resolving the problem. At the same time, it would have used one-third of the resources as compared to simply assigning officers to do extra patrol. More. . . for less.
Of course, in order for this kind of work to be productive, the officers responsible must take steps to identify those in the community who are able and likely to help. They need to know and become familiar with business owners, church leaders, non-profit resources, community organizations, activist residents, government services, and any other entity that could potentially provide assistance when a problem arises. Seeking out and developing partnerships with these resources is the key to community policing. Through coordinating their collective knowledge and abilities, one police officer can do what would otherwise require three or four.
How is this all related to our COPS grant? Well, I intend to employ this one police officer in a capacity where he or she will be responsible for these kinds of community-policing efforts in what many consider to be our highest crime neighborhood--the 49th Street redevelopment area. The officer assigned to this position will focus almost exclusively on establishing and maintaining relationships with business and community leaders for the purpose of identifying and resolving crime and disorder problems. His or her work will supplement, not replace, that of the officers already assigned to this patrol zone, and I have high hopes that their combined efforts will go a long way toward changing opinions about this particular neighborhood.
The new community resource officer should be on the job by the new year. I will be making a selection and announcing the decision within the next few weeks. The officer assigned will report to Sergeant Josh Stone, who is in charge of our special enforcement team. While the primary responsibility will be the 49th Street redevelopment area, the community resource officer will also be available to help officers in other patrol zones to coordinate their own community policing activities. This will be a resource for the entire city.
Check back for updates on this topic, and as always, I welcome your input.