ATHENS, Ga. - Their duty is to protect and serve, so what does dressing up like Santa, waiting tables for tip money to buy toys and walking neighborhood streets have to do with being a good police officer?
Everything, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which highlighted Athens-Clarke County police's Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving program in the current edition of In-Sites, a magazine published by the department's crime prevention arm, the Office of Justice Programs.
"Imagine a successful, proactive police department, one that involves all levels of law enforcement management and strong community leadership," the magazine says. "The police force in Athens, Ga., does more than imagine it - they practice it."
The magazine goes on to explain how, since Athens-Clarke Police Chief Jack Lumpkin introduced the concept of community-oriented policing nearly 10 years ago, it has evolved so that individual officers now are "chiefs" of their beats, responsible for resolving quality-of-life issues and reducing crime.
"Officers make concerted efforts to inform residents of their availability and involvement," the magazine says. "They attend neighborhood meetings and offer their cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses. In return, the community recognizes the value of having a police presence in the neighborhood and law enforcement's willingness and ability to solve problems and improve residents' quality of life."
Chief Lumpkin said the recognition makes him proud for the officers, but steadily declining crime rates and growing community participation in crime fighting already has validated the concept he introduced after becoming police chief in 1997.
"We have heroes every day doing something that may not be a front-page news story, but they are out there helping a citizen," he said.
When officers aren't trying to rid neighborhoods of drug dealing or cut down on car break-ins and other crime, Chief Lumpkin said, they are attending neighborhood and business meetings to learn what the problems are. If the police can't help, he said, officers will refer residents to other government departments that deal with quality-of-life issues such as dilapidated houses and abandoned cars.
"There's been a cultural change by the citizens and police, and we have moved into partnerships in many areas of the community," Chief Lumpkin said.
"It's the broken-window theory," Assistant Police Chief Alan Brown said. "If you don't fix the windows and allow things to get out of hand, then criminals have the perception that the community is in disorder, and they feel empowered to go ahead and commit crimes."
The program encourages officers to spend more time out of their patrol cars, mingling with the people they protect, Chief Lumpkin said. They form relationships that allow residents to feel more comfortable passing along information.