Originally created 09/14/03

Aiken officers say relationship with residents prevents crime



AIKEN - Aiken Public Safety Capt. Richard Abney stands in a neighborhood ball field on Abbeville Avenue, attired in shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt, showing underprivileged children how to swing a baseball bat.

"Keep your shoulder in a straight line," he tells the pre-teens encircling him at home plate. "Stay on your back foot - it's all balance and quick hands."

Down the street, Janie Smith, a resident of the Smith-Hazel community for four decades, can take a walk without stepping over garbage and liquor bottles strewn in the gutters. Five years ago, before public safety officers targeted this area for improvement, it was very different.

"It's like chalk and cheese," she says of the difference. "Before they came in here it was pretty rough. People speeding through here, fighting, drinking. It's quiet now."

These are the fruits of the changing face of law enforcement - community policing - which places almost as much emphasis on taking children to movies, leading neighborhood cleanups and holding block parties as it does on drug roundups and DUI checkpoints. It's been in Aiken longer than in most cities - at least 15 years, according to the chief of public safety - and crime numbers keep going down in a town that had relatively low crime to begin with.

"It's not a program, it's a process," says Lt. Mark Farmer, the commander of the eight-officer Police and Community Together team. His officers patrol six designated zones of Aiken on mountain bikes instead of patrol cars, which they say makes them more approachable.

"We've seen a large change (in police tactics). It's not like when you were watching Adam-12 on TV," Lt. Farmer said.

Indeed, while patrol units remain an indispensable component of law enforcement, it's the "broken window" theory first advanced by criminologists in the early 1980s that has increasingly taken hold in formerly down-and-out neighborhoods.

According to the experts, one broken window begets another.

"The broken window theory basically says if you let places go and don't make repairs, then you give off the impression that no one cares what goes on in the community, and you leave room for all kinds of criminal activity," said Danny Baker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.

By putting officers back on the beat and having them interact directly with residents, law enforcement can provide neighborhood solutions that don't require handcuffs, says Aiken Public Safety Chief Pete Frommer, who inherited the community policing concept from his predecessor, Carrol Busbee.

"They're not out there to just lock people up. They're out there to solve problems," Chief Frommer says.

That may entail helping senior citizens get their garbage hauled off, or getting a heater started on a cold night, he said.

While the entire department adheres to the community policing concept, the PACT teams go where crime rates see the biggest spike. That includes areas such as Smith-Hazel, Governor Aiken Park, Han Village, Crosland Park and Kennedy Colony.

Officer Ricky Brown has been with Aiken Public Safety for 15 years and can remember when Han Village was a drug haven.

"A car would pull up, and it wouldn't be three seconds before someone would be beating on the window wanting to sell you drugs," Officer Brown said. That was before community policing was widespread, when, according to Officer Brown, police "kind of forgot about the people and were just (responding) from call to call."

It was an era when police were known for saying things like, "If I have to come back here, somebody's going to get locked up," Officer Brown says with a smile.

Now police go and stay in the area, helping fix up the "broken windows" - literally and figuratively.

The first steps involve helping set up a neighborhood association to empower the people, then encouraging them to clean up their streets.

"Drug dealers look for areas that are run-down, dirty and nobody cares," Officer Brown says.

Mrs. Smith remembers when vandals would break her car windows and the windows at her home.

"Once (police) came in here, they didn't do that anymore," she said.

The work with youths is a mechanism for cementing police-neighborhood relations with an eye toward the future, Capt. Abney says.

"It's another way to bridge the gap between the police and the community," he says. "These kids are going to be grown-ups real soon, and you're going to see them eventually on one side or another, so you might as well make a good impression."

The numbers bear out community policing's lasting effect. From 1998 to 2000, the last years in which data are available, four of seven major crimes saw steady decreases in Aiken.

"It does show results," Mr. Baker said.

Said Mrs. Smith, "It's worked."

Impact: The city of Aiken's Police And Community Together team, using "community policing" concepts, has held block parties, spearheaded neighborhood clean-ups and taken underprivileged children to movies. This, they say, has lowered crime rates.Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395.