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Programs get police, residents on same page

SUWANEE - Kathleen Walls, a retired beauty salon owner, sat on the passenger side of a Suwanee police car on an early March evening. Swirling blue strobe lights made the outdoors look like a movie scene as Officer Shannon Hitchcock approached a vehicle. Walls watched through the patrol car's windshield and her arms began to tingle.

"It's scary when you approach a car, you never know what's inside," said Walls.

This traffic stop was calm and routine. Officer Hitchcock took the driver's information and both cars went on their way. For Hitchcock, it was just part of a night's work. The moment's experience, however, added immensely to Walls' education. She was about to graduate from Suwanee's Citizen Police Academy, one of many programs being adopted by city police departments designed to forge a union between police officers and citizens.

Police officials perpetually evaluate ways to most effectively serve the people with whom they are charged to protect. Many residents of Gwinnett County's cities are becoming aware of the most recent changes through local police-sponsored programs such as PRIDE (Parents Reducing Incidents of Driver Error), a two-hour course created to reduce the number of teenage driver auto accident, or Citizen Police Academies, weeks-long courses that give average citizens limited police training. These programs are part of a philosophy called "community policing," based on the premise that the quality of life can be improved by educating the public and constructing alliances between the police force and the community.

In the first half of the 20th century, most U.S. towns and cities had regular policemen who walked neighborhood beats. Police operations changed somewhat in the 1960s. The local policeman on foot was replaced by an officer in a patrol car. With the windows rolled up to conserve heat and air conditioning, and communicating primarily with other officers by radio, the officer was further isolated from his charges.

The relationship between police officers and citizens in many communities went into offensive/defensive mode. Rather than viewing the police officer as a friendly, local helper, many people tended to avoid the police because they didn't want to get a traffic ticket or some other form of punishment.

But that is changing. Many police officials assert that a strong relationship with local citizens is crucial to effectively fight crime and keep the peace. Today, many police forces around the nation are actively working to rebuild that relationship by using the philosophy of community policing, and it has a strong following in Gwinnett's city police departments.

Of Gwinnett County's eight cities that operate independent police departments, six employ some community policing programs: Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee. Loganville Police Chief Mike McHugh did not reply to requests for information for this story.

Only a corner of Braselton, population 1,200, lies in Gwinnett County. The rest of the city spreads across Barrow, Hall and Jackson counties. Home to Chateau Elan, Mayfield Dairies and Road Atlanta, Braselton is just beginning to experience rapid growth, and the Police Department is changing to meet those new demands. Braselton's department doesn't yet offer any community police programs, but is exploring SALT (Seniors And Lawmen Together) and Triad, both created to reduce criminal victimization of seniors, Capt. Javier Garcia said.

To effectively establish bonds with individual citizens means putting police officers in as many public arenas as possible. In community policing programs, many police officers use their communicative skills to serve as teachers who educate children, teenagers and seniors about crime and misconduct specific to their age group.

Costs

The annual cost to each police department depends on how the department calculates it, but it appears to be minimal. Both Lilburn and Norcross police officials estimate their departments spend approximately $100,000 per year on citizen police programs, determined by the officers salaries, benefits and amount of time devoted to community policing. Others state that, because community policing is part of the officers duties, there is little or no actual additional cost.

"Most of the programs we have in place are regular duty assignments; therefore, they represent no additional cost," said Snellville Chief Roy Whitehead. "Bicycle, P.R.I.D.E. and K-9 are handled as regular duty as is the community liaison officer. The Explorers and Citizens Police Academy are volunteer programs and mainly self-sustaining. A.D.A.P (Alcohol and Drug Awareness Program in which teenagers participate before they are licensed to drive) is an extra-duty job paid for by the state, but we house it here and handle the administrative portion."

Lawrenceville Police Department officials said they spend less than $300 per year to support their programs.

"The ADVANCE program is one officer, Officer Mark Dau, who teaches the program during his regular working hours," said Darya Smith, Lawrenceville police administrative secretary. "It is done in conjunction with the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, so the only other cost we have associated with it is that we pay for trophies for the kids who win the poster contests in the schools we handle."

Suwanee's chief, Michael Jones, declared his department incurs no cost due to community policing programs and they actually save the city money.

"At Suwanee, all funding is from local revenues," said Jones. "The COP philosophy is department-wide, it is not a program like DARE, ADVANCE, bike officers, or foot patrols. COP is a way of thinking, being a problem solver and being pro-active instead of reactive. The optimum standard is to provide a police officer time to perform all of his/her functions. The best situation is for an officer to have one-third of his/her time for answering calls, one-third for administrative functions, and one-third for general patrol (COP). If an officer has the appropriate time to perform all three of these functions, an officer has time to perform community policing. Because of these factors, we are probably saving funds."

Results

These programs undoubtedly bring police officers back into daily contact with the people of their communities. Do they actually help lower the crime rate? Most programs in place locally are just too new to give a definite answer.

"There is no way to ascertain the impact these programs have had on our crime rate," said Lawrenceville Police Chief Randy Johnson.

Calls for service in Suwanee dropped less than one percent from 2003 to 2004, while the city's population rose from 8,725 in 2000 to 11,500 in 2005. Jones attributes part of the reason for that drop to the community policing philosophy.

"Each call for service costs $100.71 to answer," he said. "We figure that by the officer's salary, benefits, fuel costs, wear and tear on the vehicle. And as the population increases, we should have to ask for funding for another officer. Because the calls for service are not increasing, we don't have to. That saves Suwanee about $50,000 per year in an officer's salary and benefits."

Spread across the county, the numbers themselves can be inconclusive. In Duluth, where the Police Department offers at least nine community policing programs, the rate of calls for service jumped 245 percent from 2003 to 2004, while the population grew from 23,500 in 2003 to 25,700 in 2005 (from Duluth's Comprehensive Plan Update).

Lilburn police offer three programs, yet calls for service dropped five percent from 2003 to 2004. Tyler Thomas, Lilburn's public information officer, said the drop in calls resulted from having less police officers on the force.

"The reduction that we experienced was a result of reduced manpower," Thomas said. "We had fewer officers on the road which resulted in less self-initiated activity. This naturally brings down the total number of calls for service. We are now back up to full strength and expect the calls for service to increase as the self-initiated activity increases."

The manner in which numbers are gathered and reported is being upgraded, too. Norcross became the first police agency in Georgia to gain N.I.B.R.S. (National Incident Based Reporting System) certification from the FBI and Justice Department. Norcross crimes in 2003 were reported differently than in 2004.

"This replaces the old Uniform Crime Reporting program and better details and tracks crime leads," said Norcross Capt. Brian Harr. "In 2003, under the U.C.R. system, only the most serious crime from an incident was reported, which resulted in incomplete crime reporting. In a case where a suspect captures a female in a carjacking, then murdered her later, only the murder would be counted under the U.C.R. system, because it was the most serious offense. The N.I.B.R.S. reporting system captures all crimes from an incident, which results in the appearance of an elevated crime rate in 2004. At the end of 2005, our comparisons will be more accurate and valid."

All Gwinnett's city police departments, except Norcross, use the U.C.R. reporting system, although Snellville is approved to change to N.I.B.R.S.

Regardless of any conclusions deduced from numbers, Lawrenceville Chief Johnson said programs forging alliances between police officers and citizens are bound to have a productive effect on the community.

"As for the impact on morale, I believe it has a positive benefit for both the officers and the participants," Johnson said. "For example, the Explorer program offers participants, aged 14 to 21, an in-depth look at law enforcement as a career. The officers receive the respect, and sometimes admiration, of the participants. The participants receive the benefit of positive role models in their community."

Kathleen Walls said Suwanee's free seven-week citizen police academy was definitely worth her time.

"It gave me a lot of insight." Walls said. "I learned how powerful meth is and that people on it are borderline. But I enjoyed it, and I appreciate the opportunity. It was a real thrill to ride in a police car."