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San Diego's Trailblazing Example

Friday, September 1, 1995

Community policing demands that both police and citizens accept responsibilities. The community's contribution can take many forms, from setting up community watches and getting landlords to screen potential renters to cleaning up vacant lots, reporting suspicious behavior, and making sure teenagers don't roam the streets. If citizens don't take responsibility for the safety of their own community, the police can do little to help.

San Diego's bold effort to involve citizens in public safety is unheard of among big cities. One San Diego official related this story: "I told a group of our officers that we were planning to have civilian volunteers take crime reports and collect evidence in cases of petty thefts. About three-quarters of them were nodding their heads, saying, 'Yeah, that makes sense.' If I tried that in New York or Chicago, they'd laugh me out of the room."

At San Diego's Eastern Division police headquarters, a group gathers around a conference table regularly to discuss better ways to patrol a certain neighborhood. But these blue-shirted peacekeepers aren't police officers. They are gray-haired volunteers of the Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP), a major component of San Diego's commitment to neighborhood policing.

"The partnership between the community and our department really works," says police captain Dan Berglund. In addition to 272 sworn officers, Berglund's division relies on 115 senior volunteers, 20 reserves, and 40 other resident volunteers. "Their influence in their own community has been extremely beneficial," says Berglund.

Neighborhood policing requires a fundamental change in the department's operating philosophy. The police shift their attention from rapid response to putting more officers out on regular beats, where they can help the community solve public-safety problems. Neighborhood policing also entails much greater use of volunteers and soliciting the concerns of the citizens. In the language of Tom Peters, neighborhood policing means "getting close to the customer."

San Diego uses volunteers in a wide range of nonconfrontational situations, such as towing cars, collecting evidence (including fingerprinting), and checking on the homes of absent neighbors. Instead of assigning a uniformed officer to spend, say, 45 minutes writing a report for a petty theft, San Diego uses volunteers trained at the police academy. This frees up officers for problems that require their special skills. "So long as volunteers are given meaningful work, and welcomed as a partner in the process, I will have an unlimited number of people in any community in this city to do that," Berglund said.

The SDPD is unusual in its openness to citizen input and volunteer assistance. Admittedly, San Diego is blessed with many retirees. Although it's the sixth-largest city in America, San Diego's police force has a small-town feel. In most big cities, powerful police unions would oppose the use of community volunteers for police work. But San Diego welcomes them.

This tolerant culture, which took years to develop, is due partly to Police Chief Jerry Sanders's deep commitment to community policing. San Diego is the first large city to adopt a department-wide approach to community policing. Nearly every SDPD police officer belongs to a team assigned to a discrete geographical area and charged with developing a close relationship with that neighborhood. "We are using persuasion rather than coercion to get people on board," says Nancy McPherson, who served as San Diego's neighborhood-policing coordinator before moving on to the Seattle police department.

Police departments customarily resist community policing because cops fear they will become social workers rather than crimefighters. The department dispelled that idea early on. After getting to know the residents on their beat, two San Diego cops trained in neighborhood problem-solving learned that a gang had taken over a particular section of an apartment complex. Through close relations with the building's law-abiding residents, they gathered the evidence needed to obtain search warrants. The bust that followed -- complete with SWAT teams and swarms of patrol cars -- put an end to the worry that neighborhood policing was soft on crime.