By Michael Jones, Chief of Police, Suwanee, Georgia
|Officer Elton Hassell (far right) participates in a neighborhood PACT meeting.|
Photo by M. Michael Farr
ven after a decade of unprecedented growth, the city of Suwanee, Georgia, is still a relatively small community of over 16,000. However, with an influx of residents and businesses over a 10-year period, the city, and the Suwanee Police Department (SPD) in particular, faced the prospect of losing a sense of community and the close, small-town relationships with and among residents.
City service providers and residents alike were feeling the pressures and growing pains that frequently accompany such dynamic development. In a place where citizens felt free to drop in on the police chief unannounced, it was difficult to face the fact that this small town was in fact becoming a small city.
Calls for Service
As Suwanee grew, calls for service increased dramatically, and officers became increasingly isolated from the residents they protected. In just one year, the number of calls for service jumped by nearly 4,000, or about 14 percent. At this rate, if the increase in calls for service continued unabated the SPD would soon have been forced to operate on a strictly reactive basis. The department would have been unable to maintain its traditional, smalltown open communication and its positive relationship with the community.
|Suwanee, Georgia: By the Numbers|
|30||Miles from Atlanta|
|45||Police employees (36 sworn, 6 communication officers, 3 civilians)|
|46||Percentage of residents with bachelor’s or advanced degrees|
|53||Percentage of officers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees|
|500||Acres of parkland|
|Sources: www.suwanee.com/economicdevelopment.factsfigures.php; Suwanee Police Department|
An analysis of the department’s call-for-service data indicated that the vast majority of calls were coming from neighborhoods, not businesses or public areas. Residents in one particular neighborhood called the police department every day to share concerns about speeders, potholes, and an array of quality-of-life issues.
Seeking ways to make a difference and to improve communication with Suwanee residents, the department decided to use an institution already in place for community outreach: homeowners associations. The SPD believed that if its officers could make contact with residents in a regular, structured, and meaningful manner, both groups could work together to solve problems and enhance the quality of life in Suwanee.
For these reasons, the department developed Police and Citizens Together (PACT), a program through which a specific officer is assigned as a personal liaison to each Suwanee homeowners association and neighborhood. This program enables Suwanee police to realize meaningful relationships with residents and have a widespread impact on the local quality of life. This approach to community policing allowed the SPD to remain proactive and connected to its community.
At first blush, the idea of setting up a conduit through which police officers and residents can interact on a regular basis does not appear a compelling concept. But by taking advantage of an already established network of homeowners associations, the SPD was able to encourage community involvement and harness the power of relationship building.
Police and Citizens Growing Together
PACT was established in January 2002 as a means of encouraging community residents to help maintain the quality of life within their own neighborhoods. The focus that first year was in getting the program established in just a few neighborhoods. The neighborhood that had been calling the police department every day was the first to hold a PACT meeting.
After identifying subdivisions that would likely have a deeper interest in establishing closer ties to the SPD and enhancing the quality of their neighborhoods, the department contacted those homeowners associations to ask for a place on the agenda at an upcoming neighborhood meeting. For the first neighborhood meetings, the police chief, the deputy chief, and the officer assigned to the neighborhood attended, demonstrating the commitment of department leadership as well as that of the assigned officer to the success of the program. Subsequent meetings were attended by assigned officers only.
|Sergeant Chris Robinson, on Bike Patrol, |
chats withcommunity residents at a
community event, held atTown Center Park.
Photo by Jason Braverman
Feedback from residents of the pilot neighborhoods helped the department to understand what issues are considered “triggers” and what information is of interest to residents. Not surprisingly, residents are interested in the amount and types of crimes occurring in the vicinity of their neighborhoods. This information is provided regularly at PACT meetings.
For the PACT program to be successful, both residents and officers need to buy into the concept. At the program’s inception, the deputy chief conducted training with the officers to outline the chief’s clear expectations and vision. The SPD made a dedicated training and community relations sergeant responsible for continuing the communication and expectations for PACT and also provided the additional training. The training covers how to establish rapport with residents, conduct a neighborhood meeting, and incorporate a community policing philosophy into everyday policing practices.
In PACT’s first year of full implementation, 25 meetings were held in Suwanee neighborhoods. In 2008, Suwanee officers conducted 94 PACT meetings attended by 1,181 residents.
How PACT Works
Through PACT, each Suwanee homeowners association and neighborhood has its own police officer—a name and a face with whom residents can become familiar, create a rapport, and build a relationship.
PACT liaison officers are required to hold meetings three times each year with their neighborhoods. Residents and PACT officers get to know one another at homeowners association meetings. By seeing and interacting on a regular basis, officers become more familiar with residents and stay current on such matters as resident news, which homes are vacant, who may need additional assistance, and which vehicles do not “belong” in the neighborhood. Although patrol officers are always responsible for the neighborhoods to which they are assigned, which they frequently visit as part of their regular patrols, the PACT program extends officers’ contacts to residents whom they may not normally engage during a routine day.
In addition, encounters are extended when PACT officers engage residents in communications to build rapport while patrolling through the neighborhoods. Residents come to think of the PACT liaison officer as “their” officer, someone always available and ready to listen and help, regardless of the nature of the problem. To ensure this availability, officers are provided with voicemail, business cards, and e-mail addresses. A link to PACT officers and/or PACT-related information is posted on the City of Suwanee Web site (www.suwanee.com) as well as several neighborhood associations’ Web sites.
Officers and residents work together to address quality-of-life issues in the neighborhoods of Suwanee, often resolving problems before they become criminal issues. Such issues might include speeding through the neighborhood and other unsafe driving behaviors, theft prevention, speed hump requests, and graffiti. By staying visible in their neighborhoods on a regular basis and accessible to residents in nonemergency situations, officers come to know the residents on a personal level and the issues that are of concern to them. Both officers and residents become proactive rather than reactive in their approach to local problems, which enables better problem solving. Residents feel that someone is listening and considering their information important and that they are empowered to make a difference in their own neighborhoods.
|Sergeant Chris Robinson speaks with a driver |
about a traffic violation as part of
the Suwanee Cares program.
Photo by Jason Braverman
Through this method of communication, officers come to be seen as effective resources and even friends or honorary neighbors, not simply law enforcement figures to be called on in times of crises. PACT officers have received invitations to social gatherings within their neighborhoods; several have even participated in subdivision Halloween parades and family-oriented holiday festivities.
Through PACT, residents obtain information that helps them to take measures that will protect their property and families and limit their victimization. Should a crime occur, residents who are active in their neighborhoods are more likely to provide better-quality information to officers. In turn, if residents notice a problem in the neighborhood, they can request a PACT meeting with their officers. Officers can, in turn, request that residents look out for suspicious activity and contact them directly should residents see anything amiss.
As one resident expressed the PACT concept, “PACT is like having a brother-in-law who is a doctor. Rather than having to go to the doctor and get all worried about something that might happen, you can call this guy. You can say, ‘Here’s what I’ve seen. Is it something worth worrying about?’ [The PACT officer] is an advocate for you at the police department and can walk it through the channels. But if it’s something you just need to go home and take a nap for, he’ll tell you that, too.”
Perhaps the two major ongoing challenges related to the PACT program are officer attrition and citizen apathy.
Residents invest significant time and energy in establishing a rapport with a specific officer. Should that officer leave the SPD, residents will sometimes be disappointed and feel as if they are losing a personal friend. Ultimately, though, the strong relationship established by the officer who is leaving will serve the next PACT liaison well.
On the other hand, while it cannot be substantiated with data, it is believed that PACT has provided some incentive for officers to stay in Suwanee. Because officers are encouraged to be problem solvers and to see issues through to a conclusion, they come to enjoy a sense of empowerment in and ownership of their assignments.
At times, it has been difficult to persuade busy residents to meet with officers in a neighborhood meeting forum three times annually, as required by the PACT program, especially when residents do not have a particular issue or concern. By putting responsibility on officers for ensuring that PACT meetings happen and that relationships are maintained, Suwanee has been able to persevere through “slow times” in the neighborhoods.
PACT’s primary goal is to establish a better working relationship between Suwanee police officers and residents. Both parties need to work together to be proactive, not reactive, in maintaining and enhancing the quality of life in Suwanee.
Another goal is to manage the calls for service. As hoped, Suwanee’s calls for service have decreased since the record-setting level of 2001, the year before PACT started, even though the city’s population has grown by 5,000 residents in that time. The department was successful in decreasing calls for service over five consecutive years when compared with the number of calls in 2001.
By taking measures to halt a spiraling increase in calls for service, the department gives its officers time for problem solving. By working proactively with residents to address issues of concern (not necessarily criminal in nature), officers are empowered to assist directly and residents do not feel the need to make repeated calls for service.
A further goal of the program—one that reflects the goals of the department as a whole—is to help keep Suwanee’s crime rate low. Today, owing in part to the implementation of PACT and other community policing efforts, Suwanee’s crime rate does not reflect the same growth as its population rate. For example, Uniform Crime Report Part I crimes totaled 455 in 2004, whereas the totals for 2005 and 2006 were 416 and 431, respectively. Even though the numbers have increased since then, that increase has not kept pace with the population growth.
Besides achieving the intended goals, PACT has had at least one unexpected positive result: the department has received fewer complaints about its officers. Such complaints have steadily declined in the years since PACT was implemented.
One of the most significant outcomes of implementing the PACT program is the statistical proof it provides that community policing is not soft on crime. Although the SPD may have a soft spot for community building, it is proud to be tough on crime. Data bear out the department’s belief that through community policing, more crimes are solved, and an untold number prevented.
The PACT program required no new budget lines or hard funding; however, it does require a professional investment. Staff realignment and training are needed to ensure that officers have the skills and the time necessary to move beyond simply reacting to calls for service and interact with residents, obtain feedback, and solve problems in the field. In addition, Suwanee officers are allowed to work additional hours if needed to manage community concerns.
What to Expect
The steady growth in PACT participation levels and the decline in calls for service underscore the importance of commitment and patience in implementing successful community policing programs. Tangible results cannot be obtained overnight. Programs like PACT require a period of time to be fully implemented and embraced.
Regionally, the SPD has already shared this program with other local law enforcement agencies who are interested in establishing similar connections in their communities. Since the keys to the program’s success are finding a good fit between officer and neighborhood, the level of commitment throughout the department, and officers’ willingness to allot personal time, PACT is a program that any police department can implement.
PACT is a broad-based community outreach program that can be effective in helping an agency to manage effectively and respond proactively to community growth, increasing calls for service, and crime rates. Through PACT and other community policing programs, the city of Suwanee has generated goodwill and loyalty among its residents and developed effective working relationships with both residents and business owners. Through participation in PACT and other initiatives, residents come to possess a true understanding of the added value of a professionally managed, community-focused police department and of their own roles in helping to maintain a high quality of life in their communities. ■