Police chief taking force back to basics

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Firefighter Jeremy Wetherington supervises tours of Ladder 1, a Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS vehicle at the Clifton Meadows “meet and greet” last Friday. The “meet and greets” are one of the initiatives meant to forge a closer relationship between law enforcement and the community it serves. (Contributed Photo/Lt. William Chrismon)

It’s an image reminiscent of a bygone era, of daily life in small towns across America: a uniformed police officer walking down a neighborhood street, stopping to chat with the people he knows, introducing himself to those he’s never met.  This particular image isn’t a blast from the past, however. It’s one of the ways Chief Stacy Drakeford is ramping up service to the community: by giving a familiar face to Washington police and fire-rescue-EMS.
Since he took the office as Washington’s Interim Police and Fire Services Director in early April, community outreach has been a priority, said Drakeford. His second week on the job, Drakeford started officers on neighborhood foot patrols, asking them to introduce themselves to area residents. Months down the road, the practice continues, with each officer required to patrol on foot for a period of time within his or her 12-hour shift, the time and place at the officers’ discretion.
“This profession is a customer service profession,” said Drakeford. “How can you give the best quality service you can if you don’t know who you’re helping? (We should) know who we’re serving and they, in return, know who we are and what the officers are about.”
City Councilman Doug Mercer believes this type of policing has the potential do a lot of good for the community. Mercer recounted the day several weeks ago when he looked outside his home to see a policeman speaking with his wife.
“He introduced himself, said he was out to meet the neighborhood then he went on down the street,” said Mercer. “I was very pleased to see that.
“I think it’s a great initiative because I firmly believe that what will make our policing work is if the citizens know the policemen and the policeman know the citizens,“ Mercer added.
With the help of Kimberly Grimes, WPD’s crime prevention and outreach manager, Drakeford is finding other ways to introduce police and fire personnel to the community it serves: development of a local Police Athletic League and camp; June’s exhibition basketball game and football camp held for area children, hosted by Washington native and Kansas City Chief wide receiver Terrance Copper (and 14 of his NFL friends); and most recently, neighborhood “meet and greets,” in which police vehicles, fire engines, ambulances and personnel converge on a neighborhood for a friendly visit.
Friday, July 27, the children of Clifton Meadows were treated to popsicles and watermelon, hula-hooping, coloring books and the opportunity to climb aboard the emergency vehicles at the first such “meet and greet.”
At a point in the future, Drakeford intends to rebuild The Explorers program, a coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that began 60 years ago. The program would allow young people ages 14-21 to interact with the police and fire departments, go for “ride-alongs” and get the hands-on experience of a potential career. The benefit of such a program is twofold, according to Drakeford: cultivating young men and women for future jobs within the community that they know and knows them in return, and serving as an outlet, to keep kids on the right path by giving them something to do.
For now, the next step in engaging the community comes Tuesday, Aug. 7, at a nationwide event: National Night Out, from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Beebe Memorial Park in Washington, will feature a D.J., back flip, jump rope and hula-hooping contests and free food and drinks while supplies last.
The public is invited to “America’s night out against crime” and a chance to get to know the local men and women who are here to serve and protect.
National Night Out is sponsored by Washington Police-Fire Department, Beaufort County Crime Stoppers, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and Washington Housing Authority. For information about sponsoring, donating to or volunteering for National Night Out, call Kimberly Grimes at 252-943-1715.