WAYNESBORO, Ga. -- Yolanda Hart wants her son to grow up thinking of the police as his ally, not his enemy.
“People around here have a hard time trusting the police,” she said. “But I want Jamal to think different.”
Hart, a resident of Magnolia Acres, in the past a high-crime area for Waynesboro, said her 3-year-old son often will play catch with one of the patroling officers who drop by a few times a day.
“They (the officers) are good about talking to the kids,” she said.
Her opinion is why Waynesboro Police Chief Alfonzo Williams says his community policing initiatives are working.
After taking the post in February 2011, Williams said he immediately put programs into place that directly resulted in a drop in crime in the area. Some of those include putting more officers on patrol, creating a citizen’s police academy and a citizens on patrol program.
“We had an aggressive plan,” he said. “We came in and worked that plan.”
According to a 2011 Annual Report from the department, robbery dropped 62 percent from 2010 to 2011. Burglaries were down 37 percent and assaults were down 21 percent for the same time.
Ward 2 City Councilman Herman Brown, the chairman of the public safety committee, said the drop in crime in Waynesboro has been obvious since Williams took over.
“I can tell by looking through our paper crime is down,” said the 5-year council member. “The reaction from the citizens has been overwhelmingly positive.”
When Williams became chief, the first thing he said he did was restructure the department.
The agency underwent a “massive restructuring,” including the hiring of a new assistant chief, investigative supervisor, housing authority police officers, road patrol officers and a housing authority supervisor. He also assigned two K-9 units to existing officers and hired one part-time traffic officer.
Before Williams took over, Waynesboro had two officers on at all times. Now it has four to seven.
“Stepping up the number of patrol officers has helped,” said Officer Antonio Burton, adding the Waynesboro policemen are more apt to do what needs to be done if they have readily available backup.
Five officers left when Williams took over, and Brown said he knew there were some people who were upset with the restructuring of the department. However, he said after it was done, he noticed there were less officers who called in sick.
A few months after Williams became chief, “the officers told me they liked coming to work now,” Brown said. “They said it was enjoyable.”
He also said he has seen an increase in the number of officers around town, and patrolling areas that were not being covered before.
Once the internal department issues were worked out, Williams focused on his community oriented policing and problem solving, or COPPS, initiative.
One idea Williams immediately put into place was the citizen’s police academy, which he said is for people interested in law enforcement but never had time to pursue it.
The department held classes for one hour a week for 10 weeks, each class focusing on a different area including Georgia law, criminal investigations and shoot-don’t shoot training exercises. After completing the course, Williams’ hope is the citizens will go back to their neighbors and friends and share what they learned. Through the relationship forged with officers during training, Williams hopes more people will become aware of crime and suspicious activity and will be helpful to law enforcement in the future.
“We want to show the people of Waynesboro we are totally transparent,” he said. “They can come through the doors or call us anytime.”
The citizens on patrol program is one Burton said has been a big help for the patrol officers.
Volunteers are put through a training class where they are taught basic police skills. When they graduate, they are allowed to check out the citizens on patrol car, which is clearly marked, and ride around any part of the city they choose. When they spot suspicious activity, they call an officer.
“They can see a lot we can’t,” Burton said. “People don’t duck and hide from the car because they don’t think they can do anything. That allows us to come in and find things we wouldn’t normally find.”
Overall, Williams said he is satisfied with the direction the department is headed. He said he will continue focusing on community policing and interacting with the citizens of Waynesboro.
“We have restored the public’s trust,” he said. “Moral is up, pay is up for the officers and we have remained fiscally responsible by reducing overtime. Plus, crime is down significantly.”
Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey agreed Williams’ approach seems to be working. He said his deputies are now rarely called in for backup.
“It’s a lot easier on us,” he said. “He has been more proactive than reactive. You can tell the difference.”