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Back to Archives | Back to June 2006 Contents 

Geographic Policing Initiative in Roanoke

By Aisha Johnson, Education Information Specialist, and Greg Staples, Lieutenant, Roanoke Police Department, Virginia

n the 1990s the Roanoke Police Department began moving toward a community-policing concept by assigning officers to specific districts and charging the officers with becoming familiar with the residents and crime problems in their assigned areas. To facilitate this process, crime analysis capabilities were enhanced and Neighborhood Watch groups and community civic leagues were established. Since then, the community-policing concept has evolved in the department and among residents to eventually become Roanoke's Geographic Policing Initiative (GPI). The Roanoke Police Department launched the GPI on September 1, 2004, to enhance the police service to the community.

The Situation
In the last year, the department has noticed many positive changes brought about by the Geographic Policing Initiative. The GPI has removed administrative barriers to assignments and fostered an improved working relationship with citizens.

Prior to the initiative, the Roanoke Police Department operated in a system of time period patrol supervised by a lieutenant and sergeants. When officers ended their shift, the unresolved problems were left for the next shift to handle. This practice made it difficult to respond comprehensively to complex problems involving groups of people or entire neighborhoods.

Before the Geographic Policing Initiative, the Roanoke Police Department created a small community policing squad called the Community Oriented Policing Effort, or Cope, Unit to deal with ongoing issues within the community. This squad consisted of officers who concentrated on large-scale problem solving initiatives. The Cope officers completed many projects with excellent results and the news media reported on many of their successful efforts. Soon, every neighborhood was clamoring for specialized attention from the unit, and the unit could not keep up with all the requests for personalized police service. When the unit was working in a neighborhood on one side of the city, it was difficult for them to provide effective service on a request across town. Staffing restrictions prevented the unit from providing this specialized attention and many citizens felt slighted when they could not get a Cope officer to assist with their problems. This led to citizen complaints that some neighborhoods received little or no attention from the unit.

It was apparent that the department's patrol methodology needed to change. In the chief's eyes, the time was right to revise the department's operational methodology and policing philosophy.

Geographic Policing
The department's basic commitment to community policing calls for a geographic decentralization, greater reliance on problem-solving approaches, and flexibility in responding to problems by the patrol force and creating a greater sense of joint ownership of neighborhoods and communities among police officers, business owners, and residents. The Geographic Policing Initiative facilitated the community policing approach by removing the barrier of reliance on the traditional shift-based and zone-based assignments, which compromised the department's ability to work with the community.

The GPI enabled police to break down the role of the police officer in relation to the community. Through the initiative, community policing has been integrated into every unit in the Roanoke Police Department. Geographic policing allows the department to fulfill the community's request for personalized, tailor-made service.

Redistricting for Better Service
All officers are involved in resolving quality of-life and community policing issues. Under geographic policing, Roanoke is divided into four police response zones.

Zone Commander: A lieutenant serving as a zone commander supervises each zone. Working under each zone commander is a community resource officer, four sergeants, and patrol officers. The zone commander oversees all patrol functions in the zone.

Zone Sergeants: The sergeants are responsible for day-to-day supervision of zone personnel. Patrol officers concentrate on specific problems in their assigned zones, crime problems Improves delivery of services to residents of Roanoke Increases accountability and responsiveness Meets management goals and objectives Customizes the police response to each citizen concern while community resource officers facilitate community policing and problem solving initiatives throughout their zones.

Police Officers: All officers are required to become familiar with the citizens in their assigned zones, as this familiarity helps officers identify problems and work to solve them before they become larger problems. Officers recognize that spending time in their assigned zones and speaking with citizens at Neighborhood Watch and community civic league meetings helps them identify problems. Prior to geographic policing, it was difficult for officers to articulate an issue occurring on their watch or during their time period shift because they seldom had all the information. Officers have now developed the attitude that if a problem is occurring in their zone it is "our problem."

Sense of Ownership: The Geographic Policing Initiative has instilled a sense of ownership and responsibility in patrol officers and their supervisors. Police officers and home and business owners share the unique responsibility of managing the quality of life for the city of Roanoke. Citizens feel empowered to express their concerns through direct interaction, and officers spend more patrol time proactively addressing concerns about crime. Citizens are no longer apt to watch helplessly as problems occur in their neighborhoods. They realize they have a stake in their communities and enthusiastically assist officers every day.

Zone Success
The GPI has been the police department's single most effective strategy to improve quality of life and fight crime. During the formative stages of the initiative, police believed the plan would provide opportunities for each zone commander to create tailor-made responses for the unique problems of each zone. This projection has proven to be accurate.

Zone 1, the southeast section of the city, encompasses the downtown business district as well as several diverse neighborhoods of varying income and education levels. Property crimes are the top issue for this zone. The improved department-wide communication brought about by the GPI directly resulted in the arrest of the perpetrator of a string of church burglaries. The school resource officer in zone 1 learned of the crime spree from her lieutenant and later overheard some suspicious conversation at school concerning the crimes. She told the geographically assigned detective what she had heard. The detective took this information, and with the assistance of the SRO, identified the suspect and eventually placed charges.

Zone 2, the northeast section of the city, is characterized by large industrial areas, gas stations, and major roadways. The most prevalent issue facing the officers of zone 2 is the theft of gasoline. Gas stations in zone 2 experienced 26 drive-offs, in which motorists drove away without paying for their fuel, during the first quarter of 2004. During the same quarter of 2005, the total number of drive-offs increased to 123. The lieutenant in this zone created a comprehensive response to combat this problem. He garnered the support of the fuel station owners and the resulting coordinated attack has increased the number of these crimes cleared by arrest some 400 percent over last year.

Zone 3, the southwest section of the city, is a mixed-income area characterized equally by lower income neighborhoods dominated by rental housing as well as many neighborhoods of high income families. In the lower income areas, illegal narcotic sales and prostitution are prevalent. With the autonomy to place zone officers at the times and places most needed, the zone commander worked cooperatively with the vice unit to provide additional officers to arrest prostitutes and the people who solicit them. As a result, Operation Red Light has netted 164 arrests related to prostitution offenses. The emphasis placed on this particular problem has fostered an improved relationship with the permanent residents of the area and significantly increased the quality of life.

In zone 4, the northwest section of the city, a disproportionately high number of calls for service originate in apartment complexes and lower income housing. Many of these calls concern complaints about quality-of-life issues. In response, the zone commander has created the Residential Quality of Life Initiative, which will involve the efforts of the police, the apartment complex owners, the residents, the city administration, and the federal government. These partners will identify strategies for enhanced communication between ownership groups, the removal of problem residents, the appropriate use of private security, and improved training for housing unit management.

Parity of Workload
Before the Geographic Policing Initiative, the patrol districts were severely unbalanced in terms of the number of calls for service. This caused officers in some areas to be too busy to provide special attention where it was needed, while officers in other parts of town had ample time to address the issues in their patrol district in a comprehensive and timely manner. With some careful study, the department crime analyst created a changed patrol district map, and the new district alignments significantly reduced the workload disparity. Prior to the realignment, the northwest area of the city received 281 percent more calls for service per year than the northeast area. The realignment reduced this disparity to a mere 18 percent.

Response Time: In addition, the department anticipated that the Geographic Policing Initiative would significantly reduce response times to emergency calls. Over the four month period of December through March 2005 response times to emergency calls decreased from 6.35 to 3.91 minutes.

Schools: The department also anticipated that improved communication between the School Resource Officers and the patrol officers in each zone would contribute to improved conditions and safety for the children attending school. Because of the geographic policing initiative, patrol officers visit the schools during routine patrol, have lunch with students in the school cafeterias, and use meeting rooms at the school for various purposes. The extra emphasis placed on school safety by the zone commanders, school administrators, and patrol officers has reduced crime incidents at the schools significantly. Specifically, at the city's middle and high schools, for the 2004-2005 school year, incidents reported by the SROs decreased by 21 percent.

Citizen Satisfaction: The department's monthly telephone survey of citizens who experienced contact with the police reveals that the regular communication between the same officers and community members has increased the performance level of officers. Overall, scoring on the survey indicates a 4.2 percent improvement.

GPI Revitalized COP
Overall, the Geographic Policing Initiative has revitalized the Roanoke community policing approach. Residents receive a more personalized form of service and are eager to assist the department as needed. Zone commanders under the new geo-based formula are available for consultation on all issues related to their geographic area of assignment. Citizens have a contact person that can be counted on to serve their needs, and patrol zone restructuring has increased the officers' and citizens' familiarity with each other. In addition, response times to emergency calls have been reduced, and citizen satisfaction with the service they receive from responding officers has increased. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 6, June 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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