Saturday, December 17, 2005

Community Policing

The City of Key West Police Department initiated a program last year (2004) based on Community Oriented Policing, a political philosophy more fully described in the Wikipedia article. More than just a program, the idea promotes a radically different approach to achieving public safety, one that gives more weight to crime prevention than to crime-solving. The idea to try it in Key West arose out of some problem-solving work done by Lt. Frank Sauer who was then the Community Relations officer for the police department. Sauer was tasked to the problen-solving by then-Acting Chief Thomas Fortune. Fortune had been hired to replace a notorious chief, Gordon 'Buz' Dillon who was fired in late 2003. Under Dillon's command, the police were running riot , beating suspects who had been apprehended in the back of patrol cars parked in dark alleys, arresting a newspaper publisher for reporting on an investigation of him initiated by the Dillon himself, and a variety of other offenses against the public. These things happened often enough that eventually citizens petitioned for and got a Citizen Review Board in 2002 that looks independently at charges of police misconduct.

When Dillon was fired by City Manager Julio Avael, Fortune was named acting Chief. He had been a member of the Key West deparment for almost 30 years, retiring once as Captain, second in rank to the Chief. He began the task of cleaning up his department and made some progress, ridding the department of some of the worst officers and recruiting replacements who would likely be more in tune with service to the community. Fortune had already retired once, and he was desirous of resuming that retirement. He did so in April 2005, having brought some stability back to the department.

Meanwhile, William "Bill" Mauldin, a civilian employee of the department was guiding it through a process of re-certifcation by the State of Florida, one of a minority of Florida departments to seek and achieve certification. Mauldin, with over 25 years of police experience, including a stint as chief in Blacskburg, S.C. was delving into every aspect of the department's workings and preparing commanders and staff for the certification review. He was a natural choice to replace Fortune. That choice was made in April and a transfer of command ceremony was held outside the Police Station on April 14th. It would be the first time in twenty years that a "peaceful" transition from one chief to another.

From the very outset Chief Mauldin expressed his commitment to Community Policing. He had the department organize Community Policing Council, made up of a representative and an alternate from each Commissioner District and himself. District VI, comprises Bahama Village and a portion of Old Town north of Duval Street to the City Cemetery and east to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2004 tax receipts from a special taxing district known as the "Bahama Village and Caroline Street Corridor" were diverted from other programs into a dedicated police presence in Bahama Village, an area known throughout the City for open and widespread drug dealing. The decision to commit a permanent presence to one area of town came about as a result of many complaints by residents of Bahama Village who could see that open drug dealing was rampant and who were offended by it. It made Bahama Village a good laboratory for the Community Policing idea, to see whether it could be made to work.

As you can read in the Key West Citizen article there remain some rough edges on the program. Not every resident is convinced that the police are behaving differently than before. Some think that they haven't completely caught on to the idea of officers getting to know residents, and vice-versa. In general, though, most every one acknowledges that things have gotten better. The Chief assured those present at the recent meeting that ALL of his officers subscribe to his philosophy and support the principles of CBP as strongly as he does.

The next step is for the community itself to come up with a plan to rid itself of the problems caused by some of its youth, and by outsiders from the Miami area. "It's more than a police problem", someone said at the meeting, it's a community problem. That's true, it is. We'll be paying attention and reporting as things develop.

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