“The citizens are our eyes and ears,” said Lt. Lewis Blanchard, of the Community Services Division.
The initiative is an addition to the office under newly elected Sheriff Richard Roundtree. Less than two months into the new administration, the Community Services Division is already changing perceptions.
Roundtree said he’s already getting a great response from residents who are seeing more police involvement.
“The flagship of my administration is getting the sheriff’s office back to the community,” he said.
On Jan. 30, the sheriff’s office made its jump into social media with a Facebook page. The office is among the last law enforcement agencies in the area to adopt such an approach. Within two days, the department was already receiving tips.
Blanchard called it a “work in progress,” but already the page had more than 1,000 “likes.”
“We’re in a digital age,” he said. “There’s hardly anyone under 30 who isn’t (on Facebook).”
The page asks for crime tips and posts photos of wanted suspects, but also posts news about the department, including employee awards and the involvement efforts in the community.
Blanchard said the page not only gets information quickly out to the public but also provides a means to seek information on noncrime issues, such as job inquiries.
The Facebook page is only a steppingstone to creating a Web page, separate from the city of Augusta’s Web site, that would offer information on safety tips or public watch programs.
The goal is to have a section on the site where employees can log in to review an online bulletin board of special duty assignments and other announcements, perhaps including birthdays, anniversaries or prayer requests.
The department is looking into programs in which residents can choose to receive texts, calls or e-mails on crime alerts. The Community Services Division also has plans to reach all ages of the community to better explain the workings of the sheriff’s office.
Another new sheriff’s office program is a Citizens Advisory Board, in which 13 people chosen to serve for one year will begin 11 weeks of Citizens Police Academy classes.
During the weekly classes, they will learn about police work. Blanchard said the participants will get the opportunity to shoot at the training range, drive a car on a track, participate in ride-alongs, and see SWAT and bomb team demonstrations.
The 13 members were chosen based on recommendations from the mayor, Augusta Commission and chamber of commerce. A high school senior was chosen from recommendations by the county school superintendent.
After training, the board will meet monthly.
Later classes will be available to residents who wish to learn more about the sheriff’s office. Participants are required to pass a background check. Blanchard said students will be charged only for a shirt to wear to classes.
Roundtree said spots are filling fast for the remaining two classes this year. He hopes to have at least four each year.
For the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, 21 employees from every division of the department have been chosen to meet at least once a month to discuss topics involving the department. Three policy changes resulted from the first meeting, and another change is being considered, Blanchard said.
Community members also may join the Reserve Deputy program. Aiken and Columbia counties have been using reserves for at least 15 years to provide extra manpower without crushing the budget.
Reserve deputies, who must be certified by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, will be required to volunteer at least 30 hours a month. Though the reserves will have the same requirements and authority as other deputies, they will be volunteers.
Blanchard said the first reserves, who won’t officially hit the streets for several months, will be former Richmond County deputies. Later, the sheriff’s office hopes to include those with previous law enforcement from other agencies and the untrained public, which will attend an academy for training.
The Explorer program, which has not begun locally yet, will seek out people ages 16-20.
The program, which is available in career fields across the country, will educate and involve local youths on police operations and build interest in future careers in law enforcement.
The program will educate the youths, who will be outfitted with uniforms during meetings, on everything from law enforcement history and laws to arrest procedure and criminal investigations. The youths can participate in ride-alongs, national events and community service.
Roundtree said he’s planning events for the summer to get deputies face-to-face with members of the community.
“We just want to be out in the public, not sitting behind desks,” he said.