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So. Calif. Police Getting a Better Beat on Streets

Chief's Community-Friendly Slant Has Netted Positive Feedback So Far

By Marisa O'Neil, The Los Angeles Times

COSTA MESA, Calif. — When an elderly Costa Mesa resident called the Police Department to complain he hadn't seen a police officer on his street in years, Chief John Hensley took down the man's address and sent the local beat cop to his door the next day.

"I wanted to put a face on the police officer for him," Hensley said. "I want to go back to the day when people knew who their local beat cop was."

Since Hensley took over the department last March, he has focused on that customer-service approach to law enforcement and tried to make the officers more visible in the community.

Like many other police departments, Costa Mesa has been gradually shifting to what's known as community-oriented policing. But over the past year, Hensley has broadened its scope from something done by only a few officers to an approach he hopes every officer will take.

Community policing, in many ways, is a throwback to the early days, when officers patrolled their beats on foot, got to know the local residents and shopkeepers by name and listened carefully to their concerns about problems in the neighborhoods.

Police departments shifted from that approach with the advent of patrol cars and radios, often distancing themselves from the very people they were to protect. But now more police chiefs, such as Hensley, are bringing back some aspects of the earlier approach with community-oriented policing.

That approach was so important to Hensley that he asked the City Council to endorse the approach, which it did in a proclamation.

Many chiefs on these beats

Since then, the department has been integrating new programs into its crime fighting and prevention, as well as starting new ones. One of those changes is assigning an officer to the same shift in the same beat area to give the officer "ownership" of the beat.

They're encouraged to get out and walk the beat, whenever possible, to talk to residents and business owners and to troubleshoot problems.

"Each officer is chief of police of his own beat," Hensley said.

The approach seems to be making a difference in the quality of life issues, like stolen shopping carts, illegal street vendors and transients, many officials and residents say.

"Feedback has been good," Mayor Gary Monahan said. "People enjoy getting to know the police. And the better relationships people have with the police, the more often they call police and have safer neighborhoods."

Hensley was first exposed to community policing when he was a lieutenant for the Manhattan Beach Police Department. He used it extensively when he served as chief in Cypress.

It works well in Costa Mesa, he said, because the city is generally safe to begin with. People worry more about quality-of-life issues than major crimes.

"When I see people in the community, they talk to me about parking issues, day laborers or gang members," he said. "Rarely do people mention robbery or burglary."

That doesn't mean the Police Department ignores those crimes, he said.

But rather than rushing from one call to the next, officers take the time to listen to people and find out the reasons behind the problems.

"I've seen a big change in community issues," Costa Mesa resident Mike Berry said. "They're not out there arresting bank robbers and the Lindbergh kidnapper, but they're out there enforcing the ticky-tack stuff that's not fun but needs to be done."

Berry, who has been an outspoken critic of the department in the past, said he's noticed a difference in the past year.

In the past, he said, officers might dismiss calls to dispatch as unimportant or low priority.

"They would try and talk us out of it," he said. "Now they take the call and respond or don't respond, but they don't try and talk us out of it."

Not totally new on the streets

Community policing isn't a new approach in Costa Mesa. Under former Police Chief David Snowden, the department had what's called a Problem-Oriented Policing program. Each of the city's three areas had an officer assigned who would take on the bigger, more time-consuming projects typical of community policing.

Now, with the "Community Oriented Policing Problem" solving philosophy, each officer is expected to function as a problem-oriented policing officer.

"This chief has really made it everyone's responsibility," said officer John Gates, who had served as a problem-oriented police officer. "He has given us the training and encouragement and said this is how we're going to do police work, like it or not. I think in the end we solve a lot more of the city's problems because every officer [has that approach]."

That includes new computer software developed while Hensley was chief in Cypress. All officers will soon have the new software, which allows officers to track problems and have logs of activity taken so other officers can offer suggestions.

Sometimes, problem solving has little to do with crime fighting, Gates said.

For example, he said, one apartment building was having problems with a group of teenagers being loud and unruly and tossing trash on neighboring yards. When police showed up, they'd run into an apartment and hide — something that would end the call for officers taking a traditional approach.

But some conversations with neighbors, a call to the apartment manager and then to the children's parents stopped the problem and stopped officers from having to go to the same address over and over again.

Not always an easy sell

Selling community policing to officers, many of whom got into law enforcement for the thrill and not for what they may view as social work, is a challenge, Hensley admitted.

"I don't have 100% buy-in," he said. "I didn't expect it. But I do have a cadre of individuals who see the benefits and they're selling it to the rest of the department."

Some officers, used to being judged by the number of arrests they made or tickets they wrote, worried that taking extra time on calls would mean those numbers would go down, Gates said.

Now they're realizing that their new chief is more concerned with problem-solving than statistics.

The approach seems to be working and seems to be lowering crime in the city, Hensley said.

The department is seeing more calls, Berry said, but it's more a reflection of residents' willingness to call the police than an increase in crime.

"I've been very happy with the progress to date, but we're not finished," Hensley said.

He intends to get special enforcement officers and detectives involved, too. And as more officers get used to the approach, he wants to evaluate what works and what doesn't.

And, he said, he wants to hear from the community.

"Sometimes [police] think we know everything and know what's going on in your neighborhoods, and we don't," he said. "You do."

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