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MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT

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."

And the officers may be more protective because they have to answer to what occurs in their neighborhoods. "My performance will be judged on my abilities as an officer," Kishell says, "on how well I handle an area. Instead of moving the responsibility up [toward the captain level], they're moving it down." District 1 commander Dan O'Hayre, who envisioned the plan, describes this process as "lowering the pyramid."

"When something happens," Lauricella explains, "the patrol officers should take it personally. It's a philosophy. For example, an officer drives around this particular precinct and is responsible for everything that happens from this street to the next, on all four sides of the area. Toward the end of his shift, a business calls and says he's been burglarized. Then that officer says, `What should I have done to prevent that?'"

Admittedly, says Lauricella, that's a tough thing to do when an officer is running from call to call all day. But another key part of the OPTION plan is that more officers are on the street at any given time, in part because of the absence of roll calls, and in part because of the shift changes.

Until a month ago, police district days were broken down into three shifts--days, nights and graveyard. But in establishing the OPTION plan, O'Hayre studied reports of calls for service and found that calls stacked up before, during and after shift changes. "Officers would milk their last call of the day," O'Hayre says, "so that they wouldn't get another and have to stay late. So the next shift comes on, and they're behind. Roll call caused a two-hour disruption, three to four times a day."

O'Hayre's solution was to do away with both the standard shifts and roll calls. One shift change, for example, used to occur about 6:45 p.m.; that's when day-shift officers would leave and night-shift officers would come on. But under the OPTION plan, evening-shift officers now report for work every half hour from 2:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. and leave after their eight-hour stints. In addition, O'Hayre created a fourth detail. District 1 now has cops working four ten-hour days (from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.) to supplement the officers during the peak crime times.

And instead of officers sitting down for fifteen-minute roll call briefings (containing information that might or might not pertain to their sectors of town), officers are now responsible for checking in with their sergeants and making time to read briefing boards.

Those changes already have had an effect on the call load, says Lauricella. According to their studies, the district has fewer calls holding than in the past. And the calls that are held end up waiting for shorter periods of time.

If the experiment works, it may be because management did not make its decisions in a void. "Every officer in District 1, from the captain to the newest officer, had input into this program," notes Lauricella. "It was molded over the course of a year based on what we thought we could or could not do." The officers were then allowed to vote on whether they wanted the program before it was presented to headquarters. "An overwhelming number of officers voted yes," Lauricella says.

Kishell was one of the minority who voted against it. It wasn't the concept that bothered him, he says, because he likes the idea. It was the change in hours and the potential disruption to his college class schedule that upset him. But when supervisors promised to be flexible, he came around. That has been true for most, if not all, of the naysayers.

"Because of the change in hours," Lauricella says, "we have had two requests for transfers out. We have over 170 officers here, so that's not bad. And because of the change in philosophy, we've had several requests for transfer into our district."

It is still much too early to tell if the program is a success, says Denver police chief Dave Michaud. "What we plan to do," he says, "is give them six months and step back to see if the delivery of service has improved or if it's the same or less. We'll assess citizen satisfaction and officer satisfaction.


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