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Back to Archives | Back to July 2005 Contents 

Community Policing Begins at Home:
O'Fallon's Public Safety Facility Designed for Community Relations

By John Betten, Chief of Police, O'Fallon, Illinois

t was hardly a surprise when hundreds of residents of O'Fallon, Illinois, showed up on October 10, 2004, for an open house and a sneak peak at that municipality's new state-of-the-art public safety facility. It was, after all, the culmination of a six-year process that had touched the lives of many in the community. It also marked the beginning of a new and exciting relationship between public safety officials and the people they serve.

Situated on five acres on the edge of the town's rapidly growing housing developments, the new 36,000-square-foot public safety facility houses both police and emergency medical services. The size of the facility was determined through an extensive demographic analysis ofprojected growth trends in O'Fallon's population. This analysis indicated anestimated 60 percent increase in the number of residents by 2025. Based on thepolice department's staffing history,together with anticipated advancements in technology, the planners created afacility whose size could accommodate up to 125 officers and EMS personnel, along with 53 support staff and included sufficient room for holding cells, investigations and EMS bays. It also includes O'Fallon's first dedicated community room, where groups as diverse as the Girl Scouts and the local military officers' association may now hold their meetings and celebrations.

From the moment when this new facility was first conceived, local government and police officials saw it as an opportunity to use the design and construction process, as well as the finished building itself, asvehicles to strengthen ties between public safety departments and citizens. The process underscored a new approach to community policing, one that recognizes that the need to engage the public as part of everyday business. In O'Fallon, that means inviting the community into the facility on a regular basis and making it both a community center and a police station.

Achieving this successful blend in a public project did not come easily. Police departments that are considering a similar process would do well to remember four simple rules:

  • Work on your community relationships all the time.

  • Hire smart people.

  • Get ready to invest yourself in the process.

  • Remember that you're the customer and make sure the building is what you want and need it to be.

By following these rules, O'Fallon police obtained a first-class facility that is expected to accommodate their needs for the next 25 years, and the process also generated greater understanding and respect for the police among local residents. And they succeeded in creating a more open, welcoming environment that presents the public safety function in a less intimidating light, thereby leading to greater cooperation and mutual trust between police and the public that should result in more effective community policing going forward.

Understanding the Community
O'Fallon is a rapidly growing bedroom community located approximately 15 miles east of downtown Saint Louis,Missouri. Over the past 25 years, the community has doubled in size, from 12,000 residents to more than 25,000. Estimates say the population could exceed 40,000 by 2025.

O'Fallon is a relatively safe community. The police respond to 26,000 callsa year, the EMS to 2,000. Part 1 serious crime statistics have been historically low; there have been no homicides in four years and the area averages only four robberies a year. Nevertheless, as the population has surged, so have demands for more officers and services.

When the old police station was built in 1980, its 9,000 square feet were more than adequate to house the 10 employees that served O'Fallon. By the late 1990s, however, the police department had grown to 43 sworn officers and 32 other full- and part-time staff members. The aging facility was clearly undersized and was rapidly becoming a hindrance to effective department procedures.

An added burden was the increased need for ambulance and EMS services brought on by O'Fallon's growth. O'Fallon has a volunteer fire department, so its professional emergency services fall under the jurisdiction of the police chief. Yet the EMS staff was housed in a separate facility from the police, making coordination and management a distinct challenge.

Consequently, in 1998 O'Fallon's police chief and the city's mayor began to discuss the idea of a new facility that could house both departments while meeting the public's needs for the next 25 years. That idea would finally take shape six years and $8 million later.

The Political Process
An $8 million public investment in a town the size of O'Fallon is significant. With resources scarce, the first step had to be to convince stakeholders that a new facility was necessary. Stakeholders included not just elected officials but their constituents as well. How could the department convince them of the need for this project? How could they convince citizens that a public safety facility was more important than a new school or repaved street?

Of course, the first time one has a conversation with someone it should not be about how one needs an $8 million building. It helped that the O'Fallon police had worked hard for years to build solid relationships with the community and its political leaders. Those relationships provided a foundation for selling the concept of a new facility, but it was only a start.

Over a period of several years, an ongoing effort was made to bring local opinion leaders into the old station so they could see its limitations and its condition and understand why an upgrade was important. Presentations were made to local business groups, such as the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs. Citizen concerns were considered during the site selection process. A publicity campaign was waged to communicate the need for a new public safety facility and what it would mean for the community. Local groups and outside experts were consulted to identify how the facility might be used for purposes beyond basic police work. City council members and their staff were kept apprised of developments and updated on the project's progress on a regular basis. A Web site was developed and a live webcam positioned during construction to enable residents to follow the progress on their investment.

Incorporating community space into the proposed facility helped sell the concept. At the time, O'Fallon had no other public meeting space available for local groups. The city council chambers, located at city hall, had church-like pews anchored to the floor, making that space inflexible to accommodate most other events. Parking, kitchen facilities and audiovisual equipment were also lacking. The inclusion of a space that the community could use gave the proposed facility an added appeal for a large cross section of the community.

As a result, the question for many in O'Fallon went from "Do we really need this?" to "How are we going to get this done?" That spirit of cooperation became the driving force that brought the new facility to fruition.

Location, Location, Location
The community's interest in the new facility was clearly evident during site selection. Project planners did not have to solicit community input; they got it without asking. Four possible sites were given consideration:

  • A site on city-owned land near city hall. Even though local merchants favored this site, it was ultimately rejected because it did not offer adequate space for both the public safety facility and city hall, and because a nearby parochial school objected to having a jail so close to its playground.

  • A site on public land near the public library. This was passed over after planners noted its proximity to the interstate on the northern edge of the city limits, away from most growth areas.

  • A site downtown that was also rejected after planners pointed out that the city's 500,000-gallon water tower, which bordered the site, could cause substantial flooding damage to the facility should it fall, a possibility in a tornado zone like southern Illinois.

  • A five-acre site on the edge of town, across from the new YMCA and close to several of the newer housing developments under construction. This site was ultimately selected because it offered room for future expansion, was affordable, and was unopposed by community groups.

Once a site was selected, the process turned to the design of the facility. To lead the planning and design process, O'Fallon turned to Arcturis, a full-service architectural and design firm based in Saint Louis. Arcturis's contributions were evident from the start. During an initial process known as programming, the firm met with and gathered input from a wide range of stakeholders, including elected officials, city administrators, police officers, EMS technicians, and others. They visited six other communities that had recently completed new facilities to see how they addressed similar needs and to benchmark costs and space requirements.

Through their research, they established several guiding principles for the design process that would ensure the new facility would be community friendly:

  • Making the station more open, airy and welcoming to the public

  • Providing state-of-the-art space for community meetings

  • Ensuring that community and police activities could coexist in the facility

  • Keeping the facility functional and conducive for efficient operations

  • Facilitating the cultural changes that would occur as the police and EMS departments were housed in a single facility

  • Designing the facility with an eye toward future needs and technological advancements

Arcturis worked closely with O'Fallon's police chief. The chief's involvement as de facto project manager ensured that the needs of the department, as well as the community, were paramount as the design process unfolded.

Designing a Community Space
In creating a plan for the new facility, designers faced several challenges. First, they had to create a facility that would meet the needs of both the police and EMS departments, including everything from 911 services to sleeping quarters for on-call EMS staff. Second, the facility's design had to be flexible enough to allow for future department growth and continually evolving technological changes. This meant anticipating the placement of voice and data cabling outlets in locations where they might one day be needed, assuring sources of emergency power and an uninterrupted power supply, and even positioning terminals at the property's edges to facilitate future power hook-ups and communications linkages.

The biggest challenge, however, was designing the facility as a place that the community would visit and use, without those activities interfering with the work of the police. Public safety officials wanted to create a space in which people could be comfortable and that would feel different from an ordinary police station. At the same time, it had to be done within budget constraints and in a way that would also meet the needs of the police and EMS for training and other related purposes.

To achieve these objectives, designers first focused on the building's exterior, opting for simple, clean lines that stress functionality and efficiency. The tan brick and tinted glass match the look of the YMCA across the street, giving the area a coordinated, campus-like feel. Large windows in the front lobby allow the building to glow at night, making it a welcoming beacon for those passing by.

Inside the facility, the visitor initially encounters a wide, open, and airy entrance lobby more reminiscent of a community center than a police station. Just beyond the lobby area, one can see an interior atrium courtyard, designed as a space where dispatchers, officers, and other staff might take a break or calm a suspect. The atrium's centrality and openness adds to the building's ambiance, adding a touch of warmth and color in the middle of a utilitarian space.

Also just off the lobby is the community room, a large, flexible meeting space that local groups and organizations may reserve throughout the year. The room has a capacity of 200 people and offers comprehensive audiovisual facilities, Internet access, and a small kitchen area. The area can be subdivided so that two meetings can be held simultaneously. Separate access to each half of the room is also possible, which allows the police to use part of the room for training and meetings without disturbing whatever community group may be holding a session.

In the first few months since its opening, the community room has become a popular and sought-after meeting location for area Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, rotary clubs, the chamber of commerce, the military officers' association, neighborhood watch groups, and various nonprofit organizations. Several anniversary parties and other celebrations have also been held there, although a restriction on alcohol on the premises limits some social engagements.

The O'Fallon police actively promote and encourage public use of this facility. They view it as an opportunity for positive interaction with local groups, to build mutual trust that can lead to more effective community partnerships.

Listening to Internal Audiences
Arcturis's team also spent considerable time with police officers and staff to learn what they did on their jobs and find out what they would like to see in a new facility. Their findings helped dictate such design considerations as the placement of the parking lot in relation to the staff entrance, what departments should be adjacent to each other, and how much current and future space would be allocated for different areas.

An open invitation was extended to all members of both the police and EMS departments to participate on the building's planning committee. After a flurry of initial interest, the number of participants leveled off and the group's natural leaders emerged. The process, however, demonstrated the value planners placed on everyone's input, a fact that further fueled enthusiasm and support for the project throughout the community.

Two areas that were identified as critical to efficient operations were the locker room and the investigations area. Planners placed the former close to the staff entrance, as the locker room is the first place most officers go when they arrive. The locker room was also designed for easy expansion from 75 to 125 lockers to accommodate expected department growth. Individual lockers were also equipped with multiplex outlets to enable officers easily to recharge radios, flashlights, cell phones, and other personal items.

The investigations area was designed so that detectives and uniformed officers would be close to each other, thereby facilitating the exchange of information. This area was also designed for significant future growth. By contrast, the patrol officers' area was kept relatively small, in recognition of the fact that most patrol work is done outside the building.

Hiring smart people also meant bringing in specialists to consult on specific aspects of the project. Spectrum Resources Inc. of Saint Charles, Missouri, provided professional consultation in terms of police-oriented systems, especially in the communications room, helping O'Fallon assess both current and future needs and design systems infrastructure, furniture, radios, and security systems accordingly. Arcturis engaged McLaren, Wilson & Lawrie of Phoenix, Arizona, as a peer architect with specific experience in public safety facilities. As a result of their advice, changes were made in the type of wiring used, the redundancy of systems, access to systems through false floors, and penetrations to the roof that enable easy reconfigurations as new technology might be introduced.

The involvement of internal stakeholders paid substantial dividends in other ways as well. The facility includes an abundance of interview and report taking rooms because officers were passionate about having places to take suspects, victims, and witnesses where they could work without interruption. When changes were dictated due to budget considerations, officers and staff were actively invested in helping find appropriate cuts, agreeing among other things that the station's workout room could be reduced in size since the YMCA offered an excellent weight room directly across the street.

Anticipating Future Needs
When O'Fallon residents arrived for the open house last fall, their fascination and satisfaction with the facility was evident. It was fueled, in part, by the enthusiasm that their hosts displayed for their new home. Patrol officers could walk through the facility, see a detail, and say, "That was my idea." In fact, the excitement and pride of the police and EMS for the new facility remain key factors in continuing efforts to build stronger community partnerships.

Equally important to maintaining the community's trust is the fact that the facility was designed to remain functional and efficient for the next 25 years. This is a building that can house a police department serving a community of 40,000. It is a facility that reflects forward thinking, in which future enhancements and advancements can be incorporated at minimal cost.

In government, dollars sometimes drive decisions. By using dollars wisely both today and tomorrow, O'Fallon officials have demonstrated to the community that they are worthy of trust and support. That is something that you can't pay for, nor is it something that you can legislate. But it is an invaluable asset that will continue to pay dividends for years to come.

As community policing becomes more of a force in the public safety industry, the example of the new facility in O'Fallon clearly demonstrates that effective community partnerships do begin at home, especially when that home is designed with the public in mind. ■   



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 7, July 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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