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Reaching Out, Reaping Benefits

Police Point to Progress From Improved Community Contacts Unit Surveys Residents, Businesses on Concerns Major and Minor

By Karin Shaw Anderson, The Dallas Morning News

Sgt. B.W. Smith would rather make friends than enemies.

But for most of his 27 years with the Balch Springs, Texas Police Department, he was on the confrontational side of meetings with residents.

"I've been here long enough to see all the bad stuff," Sgt. Smith said as he strolled up the walkway to a house on Honeysuckle Drive.

He paused after knocking on the door to reflect on the changing times.

Sgt. Smith is now on a different mission as part of the department's new Interactive Neighborhood Policing unit.

For several hours each late afternoon, he and Officer Larry Smith go door to door, chatting with residents and getting tuned in to the concerns of the neighborhood. Another pair sets out earlier in the day, seeking responses from business owners.

"It's refreshing to hear nice comments," Sgt. Smith said. "Now, when we go talk to someone, it's about something positive that's going on."

Residents are asked to fill out a short survey rating crime in their neighborhoods and indicating their biggest worries for their community.

"There's no problem that's too small or that we won't look into," Sgt. Smith said.

One resident complained about the height of her neighbor's grass. Another woman complained about loose animals wandering in the area. Sgt. Smith vowed to contact code enforcement and animal control agencies about both issues.

Since the program was launched two months ago, several more dramatic problems have been resolved, including eliminating a drug house from one neighborhood, Sgt. Smith said.

"If we'd done this 10 years ago, there's no telling where we might be today as a city," he said.

The meetings are never rushed - Officer Smith spent the better part of an hour talking with 81-year-old Raymond J. Cranshaw about crime the man had seen over the years.

"If we just dropped off the survey for them to fill out later, we'd miss the opportunity to talk to them and really find out what's going on," Sgt. Smith said.

"We want to make friends with the kids and let them see us this way," he said, "because most of the time, when they meet a police officer, it's because of a negative event."

During the school year, officers visit schools to present information on safety issues.

To connect with children during the summer, the unit has events at apartment complexes where many children are home alone while their parents work.

"We try to hit briefly on a variety of different subjects because we get a wide variety of ages," said Diane Mendez, a civilian member of the unit who partners with Officer Christi Parker.

Ms. Mendez recently helped hand out trading cards featuring officers' pictures and 911 information to youngsters gathered at the Ambassador Place apartments.

"Anything we can do for those kids, we want to do," Ms. Mendez said. "We want to make it so they're not afraid of the police."

Children sometimes are more honest than adults, she said.

"We've had kids raise their hands and say, 'My dad does drugs. What should I do?'" she said.

Other children have reported being sexually assaulted after learning about safe personal boundaries.

"It's good for us to know what those issues are," Ms. Mendez said.

Back on Honeysuckle Drive, Sgt. Smith stopped to talk to 7-year-old J.D. Underwood and 11-year-old Phillip Baur about fighting with each other.

After several minutes of stern discussions about consequences, the boys signed a pact, promising to work out their differences without throwing punches. Their mothers expressed relief.

After visiting 13 homes in two hours, Sgt. Smith and Officer Smith were satisfied with their progress. Most of the troubles reported on the street were minor.

The two will randomly pick the next neighborhood to survey after Officer Smith returns from three weeks of training with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog will become the unit's fifth member.

"It's a slow process, but this is going to be a great thing for our community," Sgt. Smith said.

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