Solving parks/property destruction the result of problem-solving efforts
“It was Rockford’s shining night,” Police Chief Dave Jones described the evening ceremonies on Tuesday, October 10, when the entire Rockford Police Department earned the distinction of being the Outstanding Unit of all the members of the Crime Prevention Association of Michgan.
Jones made the bold move of nominating the entire department for the honor that usually goes to a committee or group of officers whose duties are dedicated to community policing. With 13 officers, Jones said every officer in the department is trained in and implements community policing practices on a daily basis.
He said community policing goes beyond outreach programs such as D.A.R.E and National Nite Out and said problem solving policing is at the core of community policing practices. If you feel safe in our local parks lately, thank community policing.
Jones described a four-prong model of problem-solving his department implemented over the course of years to curb increasing vandalism incidents Rockford faced a few years ago. With the acronym SARA, for Scan, Analyze, Respond and Assess, the long-term result are a good example of community policing in action.
Not long ago, there was a chronic problem in downtown with youth incidents of destruction and even harassment. The Ten Mile Bridge overpass was awash in graffiti. A toilet in the Welcome Center was blown up. Welcome signs to the City were repeatedly destroyed. Picnic tables, gazebos and benches were being damaged repeatedly.
“It got to the point people didn’t feel safe in our parks, particularly the fitness trail to the west of Richardson-Sowerby Park,” Jones said. He said that area had become a congregating area for drug use and dealing, profanity. “We all know kids will be kids, but when people didn’t feel safe, we felt it was time to take action.”
Jones said fighting the escalating vandalism wasn’t a quick-fix and started with a grant that allowed the department to install cameras for areas where vandalism was occurring. He then set aside some of his part-time budget to hire officers who were dedicated to park patrol during the summer. Rockford’s Department of Public Service was also enlisted. “As soon as an incident took place, they cleaned it up,” Jones stated. “If they started to feel ownership by vandalizing a bench or picnic table, we made sure the next day it was fixed and they know that is the property of the City of Rockford,” he said.
To crack down on illegal drug use and sales in the city, Jones had two officers undergo training with the Kent County drug team. Jones also hired an undercover officer who spent a summer buying drugs from teens in a sting operation that resulted in the arrest of about 15 pre-high school age youths.
Part of the challenge of stopping re-occurring incidents was that there was no way to punish underage children whose parents were not effective in controlling illegal behavior. Passing an ordinance allowing the police to bar kids from parks in the city was an important step in the fight to clean up behavior of the group causing the problems. A year ago Rockford passed that ordinance and the 15 arrested for drugs were barred and since another 15 to 20 have been banned. “If they show up, we arrest them for trespassing,” Jones described. “They challenge it, and now we have some teeth to enforce the ban.”
There are still problems with youth misbehaving in downtown, but Jones said feedback from his officers, DPW staff, visitors and even business owners prove the effort has made a huge difference. “Don’t think I’m against kids in our parks. We love to have them. That’s a big part of the charm of Rockford. There are just the few that abuse it.”
The award for community policing comes at a good time as the Rockford Police, along with the City, celebrates its 75th year in 2010. Prior to Rockford being a homeruled entity, the town had either a marshall or a constable responsible for the peace. Jones commended Historian Jack Bolt for providing a history of the department and said when Rockford became a City, Harley Peck was the first police chief. He resigned in 1930 and Lyle Ford led the department for the next 30 years until 1967 when James West followed as chief. From 1972 to 1980 Bruce Finch was chief, followed by James Peterson from 1980 to 1986. Victor Truax was the next chief, leading from 1986 to 1990. Each of those three were officers who moved up to the top rank. From 1990 to 2003 John Porter was Rockford’s Chief of Police when Jones came on board. Jones implemented the policy of community policing in the department. “It had gotten to a point where we were getting complaints every day. This effort dramatically reduced the number of complaints. It’s been very successful.”