Winning the fight|More work coming in battle against crime, vows chief

Published 5:13 am Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Contributing Editor

The reported crime rate in Washington declined by 25 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to statistics released by the Washington Police Department.
Police Chief Mick Reed credits that reduction to several factors, including Project Next Step.
“Project Next Step is showing positive results in our original mission components,” Reed said.
Those components are reducing unlawful activities in a targeted neighborhood and receiving support from residents in that neighborhood, he said.
“We’ve seen an across-the-board decrease in crime citywide,” said Reed, adding that success “puts more pressure on us.”
“We are going in the right direction. … There’s still a whole lot of work to be done,” he said. “We realize this is just for one year.”
Project Next Step is proving successful because of the support it receives from the community and city government, Reed said. The City Council and city manager have committed resources to help make Project Next Step successful, Reed said.
Project Next Step, funded by a grant authorized by the Governor’s Crime Commission, is designed to identify criminal activity in a targeted neighborhood.
The project identifies individuals involved in unlawful conduct and presents a unique manner to deal with them. If successful, the intervention eliminates overt criminal activity while bringing city and community resources available to alter the individual’s lifestyle, according to project spokesmen.
As part of the initiative, coordinated by the Washington Police Department, several people are confronted by their families, neighbors and community leaders in an effort to change their unacceptable behaviors. Those targeted by Project Next Step receive invitations — or “call-ins” — to meetings where the confrontations take place.
“Leading up to the call-ins, we do a round-up,” Reed said.
The latest round-up involved 64 people with 102 charges, felonies and misdemeanors between them.
For the latest call-in event, the district attorney’s office authorized the department to offer the program to five people. Four of those five people were located.
“All four accepted our offer,” Reed said.
About 25 community and local government leaders attended the latest confrontations, which were held at the Washington Housing Authority office on West Ninth Street.
“The mayor was there,” Reed said, as were City Manager James C. Smith and Councilman William Pitt.
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and district attorney’s office had representatives there.
Police officials believe the confrontations are effective.
“The participants are definitely affected — one at a time,” said Lt. William Chrismon, a division commander. “I’m sure it affects the people around them, including those who are supporting them.”
April Corbett, Project Next Step coordinator, also has no doubts the program works, in part because of its supporters.
“It’s huge,” Corbett said about the influence of community leaders in spreading the word about the program and the importance their roles with Project Next Step are to the program’s success.
“They are recognized for being in Project Next Step,” Corbett said.
That community support is vital to Project Next Step being able to carry out its mission, Reed said.
“This program is absolutely useless without the community’s support,” Reed said.
The fact that calls for service were up and crime was down in 2009 is evidence the public is buying into community policing and Project Next Step, Reed said.
Project Next Step also depends on the department’s employees to make it successful, according to the department’s leadership.
Chrismon said the efforts by patrol officers to increase their presence on the streets and following up on incidents is a major reason the program is working. The patrol officers’ contact with residents of a targeted neighborhood helps provide the residents a better sense of security and the officers with a better understanding of what activities are happening in that area, Chrismon said.
That results in the community and police department receiving benefits from the improved relationship between the two parties, he noted.
Reed also credits “a lot of hard work by the men and women of this department” in helping reduce the crime rate and making Project Next Step successful.
“I think our members are taking pride in the positive steps,” Reed said.
Project Next Step’s goal is not to relocate criminal activity in the city, Reed said.
“We’re not moving a problem. We are trying to fix the problem,” Reed said.
A $191,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department is helping the department further its efforts to fight gang and illegal drug activities in the city.
The grant funds allow the department to dedicate an investigator to follow up on intelligence and information collected by the department as a result of Project Next Step.
“It is going to allow us to take Project Next Step and add to it the ability to investigate, prosecute and prevent gang-related activity,” Reed said in a brief interview last fall. “We are trying to stay ahead of the curve. The gang issue is a concern in all communities. This is our effort to stay ahead of the curve in our community.”