By Francisco Vara-Orta
The Los Angeles Times
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The Santa Monica Police Department on Sunday launched a revamped method of patrolling the beach-side city, a community-oriented approach that assigns officers to a particular beat for a longer period of time and reshapes decades-old beat boundaries.
Under the plan, the 8.5-square-mile city of about 88,000 has been divided into eight areas with nine or 10 officers assigned to each, said Lt. Clinton Muir, the program's manager. Officers were calling it the "Andy Griffith" approach, in reference to the popular 1960s TV show depicting small-town policing in Mayberry, N.C., where "everyone knew everyone," as Muir put it.
"In the past, an officer might be working one beat on Monday and a different one on Tuesday, and that makes it hard to really get to know a community," Muir said. So, in December 2006, "When Police Chief Timothy Jackman came in, he looked at our patrol model and thought it needed some work."
Muir said the former model dated back 50 years and wasn't the most efficient. At one point, the department had divided the Santa Monica coast and incorporated those areas into three beats. Under the new model, the beach will be one beat.
The newly drawn areas will be patrolled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and each will have assigned to it a neighborhood resource officer, a veteran whom Muir described as the "sheriff" of the beat. Resource officers will be assigned to a beat for a minimum of two years, and the officers who serve under them will be assigned for at least six months.
"We want the sheriff of each beat to be the go-to face of our department, serving as a liaison between residents and businesses," said Muir, adding that people should still call 911 for emergencies, not their resource officer, who will work mostly on longer-term problems such as blight or chronic crime.
"Our department is also going to rely on these officers on the ground, because we'll be able to go to them and ask them about what they're seeing out there in each beat community," Muir said.
Oscar de la Torre, a lifelong resident of the Pico neighborhood and president of the Santa Monica-Malibu school district's board of education, said the plan offered a chance for more stability in police relations.
"The approach seems smart because it reduces turnover and allows for better relationship-building and accountability," De la Torre said.
"We look forward to seeing more officers ask, 'How are you doing?' instead of 'What are you doing?' "
Community-oriented policing centers on face-to-face meetings between residents and police at events such as neighborhood cleanups, town hall meetings and neighborhood watch groups.
After high-profile police corruption cases in the early 1990s, the popularity of the approach resurged in departments throughout the state.
Community-oriented policing "tends to wane in popularity when crime goes up and departments start to implement zero-tolerance policies and pull out of neighborhoods," said Richard Word, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn. and chief of the Vacaville Police Department.
Nonetheless, he supports the approach. "It's like customized policing," he said. "Some may think that it's soft on crime, but it's smart policing because you're proactive and not reactive."
Other local departments also have pushed the approach. San Fernando Police Chief Robert Ordelheide two years ago instituted a successful program assigning more officers to areas of the city defined as high-crime.
And Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton believes in the "broken windows" theory, which hypothesizes that if smaller problems such as blight are reported and fixed, and if a police presence is visible, then more violent, serious crimes will be staved off.
Word praised Santa Monica's revamped plan, saying that placing neighborhood resource officers in longer stints would benefit each area because residents would know at least one familiar face. And, he said, the plan also encourages the department, consisting of 216 sworn officers, to extend the subordinate officers' terms past six months when needed.
Santa Monica Police Officer Adam Gwartz, 39, has worked with the department 17 years. Sunday he became the resource officer of northwest Santa Monica, stretching from the city's northernmost borders near San Vicente Boulevard to Montana Avenue.
One of his main goals is to "crunch the area's residential burglaries down to zero" and better connect with his beat's business district.
"There is going to be a lot of shoe leather on the streets involved," Gwartz said.
"Our officers will be out of the patrol cars and making contact with the community, face to face."
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times
Calif. department redesigns beat method