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Police agencies conducting more outreach to heal community disconnect, reduce crime

  • 5 min to read
Police agencies conducting more outreach to heal community disconnect, reduce crime

Summerville Police Capt. Douglas Wright talks with residents during Coffee with a Cop even on Oct. 3.

Local police departments are gearing up for a new year of outreach events after 2018 proved to be an eventful year.

Summerville Police Chief Jon Rogers recently compiled a list of the programs and charities his agency organized last year. He said the record serves as a guide for 2019 planning.

According to Rogers, tried-and-true events like Coffee with a Cop are of course included in the lineup, along with annual ones like No-Shave November and the Christmas Outreach. Then there are the unforeseen opportunities that pop up, allowing his team of officers to serve the community in other surprising ways.

But the agency doesn't just stop at local aid; For example, Summerville officers had a chance for charitable acts in Horry County last year. After Hurricane Florence flooded parts of eastern South Carolina, officers collected and delivered two tractor trailers filled with supplies.

While outreach initiatives aren't the top priority for law enforcement - Rogers said his department responded to 104,965 calls for service last year - they happen in the limited free time between calls and don't go unnoticed by the public.

Such acts also contribute to crime reduction, Rogers said. Officers' interactions with community members reduce crime long-term, though police officials find it hard to quantify that belief.

“I can’t print out a piece of paper and tell you what it’s done,” Rogers said. “I think the way that we can show that it’s working is the support that we as a town get from our community.”

Nearly daily officers engage with residents in a variety of ways, from playing sports with neighborhood youth to eating ice cream with students at schools and surprising families in need with Christmas presents, according to Rogers.

Healing 'the disconnect'

In Moncks Corner, the 34-officer police department organizes at least two to three outreach events per month. Chief Rick Ollic said over 100 people attended a recent cookout in the Shannonwood neighborhood. He praised the effort as evidence of improved relations between the community and police, since in the past residents in that area often avoided law enforcement.

Police agencies conducting more outreach to heal community disconnect, reduce crime

Moncks Corner Police Chief Rick Ollic, center, helps prepare food during a monthly cookout in the Shannonwood area of town. 

“They weren’t calling for service, or calling in tips," Ollic said. "They just weren’t getting involved. But (since the outreach) we have seen (residents) taking ownership in their community; we are seeing good results.”

Ollic became police chief in 2015 but is a seasoned law enforcement official. He spent 29 years with Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, and over that period he said he's witnessed a changing mindset from the community about police.

“When I first came here, I felt like that law enforcement had a disconnect with community and that was because of incidents throughout the nation, and some within the Lowcountry,” Ollic said.

His challenge was to move the community forward in a way that would repair the disconnect.

“In order to be effective in policing, you’ve got to have extra eyes and ears and you’ve got to have citizens that believe in the agency,” Ollic said.

His officers started cooking out in neighborhoods and providing free meals for residents. The food events gave his officers a chance to mingle with people; and slowly, it started to work.

“Amazingly, that’s the beginning of trust and building relationships,” Ollic said.

In addition to the monthly cookouts, officers eat lunch with students at local schools, host summer camps, Coffee with a Cop hangouts and turkey dinners. Last summer, the Moncks Corner Police Department even gained statewide recognition when they received the Municipal Achievement Award for community outreach.

Time to be proactive, not reactive

A North Charleston native, Police Chief Reggie Burgess was already familiar with his city when he took over as police chief in January 2018.

“I grew up here, went to elementary school, high school - attend church here,” Burgess said. “The majority of people in my core family live here. My roots are in the dirt in North Charleston. I’ve been around most all of these communities and know a lot of the folks that live in these communities.”

Burgess boasts 30 years of law enforcement experience and said recently he noticed his department had become more reactive than proactive. He said it was time to create a better partnership with the community - one that's unique in its racial diversity, heavily populated with African-American, Caucasian, Latino and Asian residents.

“With different cultures come different situations,” Burgess said. “We need to make sure that we are diverse in our enforcement efforts.”

Burgess said because the city is separated into several distinct neighborhoods, when people ventured into areas outside their homes,  it created “altercations and squabbles.” To resolve the issue, Burgess and other officers decided to spend more time outside their patrol vehicles playing with youth.

“We created basketball teams in all those neighborhoods and brought the teams into different neighborhoods so they can get to know one another,” Burgess said.

The law enforcement leader credited its all-girls Powderpuff football league as one of the police department's most popular athletic outreach programs. Burgess said school resource officers serve as coaches and also provide free transportation. They not only pick up the players but also provide a pre-game meal and cookout during the game.

After observing the success of the police department program, other schools also want to get involved in Powderpuff. But the benefits of the program extend beyond the game. Burgess said the SROs have also helped several of the girls get into college.

An overall focus on building better relationships with city youth has helped improve the community, according to Burgess. Open dialogue with residents has been another successful approach for police.

“I believe listening to the community has really helped us,” Burgess said. “Roll calls, peace walking, the Cop Athletic Program, mentoring programs - all of the programs that we do in our communities have helped us develop a relationship in the African-American community.”

And listening have not only led to an increase in attendance at department-sponsored social gatherings but also crime tips.

“Who can really help us to reduce crime?” Burgess said. “We realized that it’s the community.”

'Times change, communities change'

Summerville Police Chief Jon Rogers said outreach initiatives today are completely different compared to when he started his career in the '90s.

“There wasn’t really any. ...it wasn’t because we didn’t want to do it, it just wasn’t done,” Rogers said. “Times change, communities change.”

He said it’s been an important paradigm shift in law enforcement. In the past, police officers would simply “go and handle the problem.” But now, there’s more focus on helping the community in a variety of ways.

“What I tell people when I’m interviewing them is that (that) type of stuff is our legacy,” Rogers said. “It’s important that people understand that when they (get hired) that we are going to be involved in the community.”

And that community is growing - fast.

“Thirty-eight people are moving to the Tri-county area each day, when you start looking at those numbers," Rogers said. "Our community is constantly changing."

He said it’s important for incoming residents to see a strong police force that’s also active in the community.

Rogers said outreach efforts do help officers learn more about the community they serve; but for him, it’s also about changing the way residents' perception of the uniformed men and women. He said it’s about humanizing police officers.

“These folks are humans, and they are subjected to some horrific events that they have to see,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to put a human behind the badge.”

With 113 officers in the department, Rogers said he's constantly hearing suggestions about potential outreach opportunities and that it was his officers, not him, who contrived several of the department’s most successful events.

“We’re wide open - that’s one of the neat things about getting everybody involved,” Rogers said. “We’re willing to turn on a dime to try something new.”