Return Of The Neighborhood Beat Cop

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Phoenix Park, formerly known as Franklin Villa, is a maze of pastel-colored fourplexes and brick townhouses.  Two years ago this south Sacramento housing project was the most dangerous neighborhood in the city. 

“Oh, this was really rough in the summer in here, it used to be really rough.”

Sergeant Greg Smyth is the lead Problem Oriented Policing, or POP officer in Phoenix Park.  He commands a group of four officers whose sole duty is to patrol this one-mile by one-mile housing project, where some five thousand people reside.  Today, he’s walking his beat through the once feared streets…something unheard of two years ago.

“I remember when I was a new officer I’d come in here and it wasn’t uncommon to see somebody, you know, come in here on a murder, layin’ on the yard dead.  The older officers say, ‘Hey, this is really bad, this is rough’. And pretty soon it was well known throughout the whole department, even when you’re a new officer, that this is one bad area.”

Things are different now in Phoenix Park.  Kids play in the street.  People walk through the neighborhood without fear.  Gangs, drug dealers, and prostitutes no longer loiter on street corners.  Two years ago the neighborhood was at the breaking point.  In an effort to weed out the violence that plagued the project, POP officers began the controversial tactic of evicting problem tenants.  Sergeant Smyth justifies the evictions, and by doing so highlights what makes a POP officer different.

“Whereas a regular police officer will respond to a house, they’ll respond over and over again.  Drain not only taxpayers dollars, the resources of the community, and all the neighbors are upset. Whereas we go to the house and we say, ‘OK, we’re coming to your house one time, we look at what the problem is, we come again—we’re not the problem, the neighbors aren’t the problem, you’re the problem. We might not be able to put you in jail, but you don’t need to live on this street.” 

Some critics contend that evictions aren’t the answer.  They say that rather than solve the problem, they’re just moving it around.  South Sacramento city councilwoman Bonnie Pannell isn’t fazed by the criticism.

“We have moved the problems to other parts of the city, but you know something I really don’t have a problem with that.  When you had as many homicides in a community as there were in Franklin Villa we had to do something.”

Evictions aren’t the only reason Phoenix Park is safe now.  The POP officers worked hard patrolling the streets, arresting violent felons, and breaking up gangs.  But on top of fighting crime, they were also fighting preconceived notions about their intentions in the community.

“For a long time there was a lack of trust for the police.”

Jackie Rose with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency—which administers the project—has worked with Franklin Villa now Phoenix Park for thirteen years.

“No one in here wanted ‘em in here and when they did come in here it was always for something very negative. They were in here trying to do their jobs, but at the same time the community didn’t look at them as being something positive.”

The POP officers had to revamp their image if they were going to make a difference.  They set up their police station in an old condo in the middle of the project.  As Sergeant Smyth walks up to the station he reminisces about what it was like when they first moved in.

“When we got here this whole place was overrun by drug dealers, so we decided to just move in next door to ‘em.  So we take over the neighborhood, and it has worked, because now near our office is the quietest part of town, and nobody’s hangin’ out, but before it was the worst part of town.”

Long-time resident Jimmy Hicks lives next to the converted police station.

“You get to looking at it and you see for yourself without ‘em it goes back to the Wild Wild West. You understand what I’m sayin’? A lot of folks are really happy they’re here in the community. You know what I’m sayin’? It helps a lot.”

While winning over residents like Jimmy Hicks is important, Sergeant Smyth and the other Problem Oriented Policing officers know that repairing the negative image of the police is most important when it comes to the children.

“Until we got rid of a lot of the element here we couldn’t reach out to the kids because the kids were too scared to come out of the houses and the police were the enemy and the police arrest their Mom arrest their Dad.  And now they see that the police aren’t the enemy, and so we have a lot more kids coming up to us now.”

These days a good deal of the officer’s time is devoted to the kids.  They help with boy scouts and girl scouts.  They organize bike helmet giveaways.  They hand out stickers and rub-on tattoos that the kids collect. 

As day becomes night in Phoenix Park things are calm and quiet until Sergeant Smyth is mobbed by a group of little girls.

[Sergeant Smyth talking with kids]  “Alright, I’ll get you one, you want a sticker? ‘yeah!’ I know you guys love these. ‘Stickers!’ I’m glad you guys are in girl scouts, I didn’t know you all went, all of you guys? ‘Yeah’ Alright girls see ya. ‘Bye, bye, bye!’” 

Ben Markus, KXJZ News.