MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT

THE POLICE DEPARTMENT GOES LOCAL IN NORTHWEST DENVER.

Officer Bob Kishell is cruising slowly past Faith Lutheran Church School when a young woman dashes through the rain and sleet to reach his patrol car. "Hi, Robin," Kishell says, as he rolls down his window. Robin speaks hurriedly, hugging herself against the cold. A man has been skulking in the bushes of the school grounds across from her house, she tells the officer. He's been out there 45 minutes, watching the kids on the playground. Her mother, she says, called school administrators to warn them.

Kishell thanks her, and Robin runs back to the warmth of her house. Kishell had already heard about the blue-clad stranger --one of the teachers had phoned Denver police dispatchers a short time earlier--but he is grateful to Robin and her mother. This is what it's all about. Neighbors helping police and police helping neighbors. And it is precisely the kind of interaction Denver cops hope to reinforce with a pilot program being tested in police District 1, located in the northwest quadrant of the city.

The OPTION plan (Orienting Performance Toward Improvement Of Neighborhoods) is an old philosophy with a new twist. It marks the return of the "cop on the beat," officers who are responsible to and for a given area. It means that patrol sectors are defined by neighborhood boundaries, and that the police will actively seek relationships with neighbors and neighborhood groups. For cops, it means an end to roll calls and three-shift days. For residents, it means more cops on the street during peak crime times. And maybe, just maybe, it will mean a drop in crime.

The plan was instituted just one month ago and is still being fine-tuned. It has required radical changes in management and attitudes. But if it works for northwest Denver, police officials say, it could be expanded and perhaps instituted citywide.

In the Sixties and Seventies, says Division Chief Tom Sanchez, big-city police departments began centralizing their activities by commanding from headquarters. Cops became more specialized, and street officers were divorced from their regular beats. In Denver, the police department superimposed itself over the city, defining districts and precincts without regard to neighborhood boundaries.

The result, Sanchez says, is that administrators made blanket policies from ivory-tower headquarters without considering the wishes and values of specific neighborhoods. Officers patrolled neighborhoods without getting to know the good Samaritans from the bad actors; they had no ties to the area and no personal stake in seeing that the neighborhood flourished. In addition, the skyrocketing crime rate left officers no choice but to race from call to call, with no time to spend on crime prevention.

The OPTION program, whose hallmarks are crime prevention and decentralization, is an attempt to re-establish those neighborhood ties. One key to that is community resource officers (CROs). The other is the officer on the street.

CROs attend neighborhood meetings and take complaints about nuisance properties and suspected drug houses and act as liaisons between the residents and other city agencies. Formerly, two community resource officers were assigned to District 1. Under the OPTION program, the number of CROs has been increased to five. They are aggressively pursuing nuisance ordinances to shut down or seize problem properties, and they are providing patrol officers with updates on trouble spots so the street cops can concentrate efforts there.

District 1 supervisors also have assigned teams of officers to work specific areas on a regular basis. "We want to instill in them a vested interest to see that things go as well as they can," says Lieutenant Gary Lauricella. "They're not in your neighborhood one night and downtown the next night." In addition, administrators hope to lower officers' call loads, making them more available to chat with residents and businesspeople and giving them more of a feel for the people they serve.

The plan hasn't brought an immediate and magical end to the problems plaguing northwest Denver. In fact, the neighborhood around Aztlan Recreation Center has experienced a recent upsurge in car vandalism and auto theft, says recreation coordinator Geri Martinez. "If they have more patrols, I sure haven't noticed it," Martinez says. "One of the residents from Quigg Newton [low-income housing units] had her car stolen in broad daylight. The manager chased [the thieves] down and held them, and it took 45 minutes for the police to show up. If we'd been in another area, I'm sure they would have been faster. But because we're low-income, they don't rush."

If there's a plus side to it, she notes, it's that police have promised to meet with local residents to discuss the issues. Local officers have scheduled a meeting later this month with representatives from Aztlan and Quigg Newton.

In "new cop speak," this method of law enforcement is referred to as "community policing." But to Kishell, a twenty-year veteran, it means turning back the clock to "old-time police work."

"What it boils down to," says Kishell as he pilots his patrol car across the midsection of the Berkeley neighborhood, "is that you take care of your area. You try to be more proactive than reactive. You get to know the businesspeople, get to know the bad guys. If you're possessive of it, you tend be more protective of it."

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