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Petaluma Police launch community-oriented policing program

Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 2:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 2:07 p.m.

Reinstating a full-time police officer at Petaluma High School and getting officers back to having a closer, more personal relationship with the community are just some of the changes taking place under a new community policing plan initiated by new Police Chief, Patrick Williams.

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On Tuesday, Petaluma Police Officer Dan Miller talked with a resident about a homeless encampment near her residence.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier

Williams, who started in August, has been a long believer in the method of community-based policing, which he put into practice at his former Desert Hot Springs department.

Lt. Mike Cook, formerly a patrol lieutenant who was recently assigned to oversee the new initiative, said that the department is restructuring itself to expand services and better reach the community, despite no increase in budget or staffing.

“We're trying to get back to officers knowing the names of the community members they serve,” said Cook, who grew up in Petaluma and can still remember when he was a child and knew all the officers in town by name.

Another change consists of breaking the city's four police areas, or beats, into 15 smaller districts and assigning patrol officers to those districts for two-year terms in an effort to better connect officers with community members and better identify crime trends. The department will also attempt to recruit 100 volunteers in 100 weeks and hold community meetings with officers every six months.

One of the primary ways the department is looking to become more involved with the community is by restoring a presence on the high school campuses in town. Three years ago, the department cut its three positions at local high schools. Dave Rose, director of student services at Petaluma City Schools, said that bringing back an officer is a welcome move.

“We're extremely excited about this,” said Rose. “Having that lifeline to the police department is crucial for our students and can help curb issues before they become major problems. It is also a deterrent for the kids against negative behaviors.”

Rose said that Officer John Antonio will begin a full-time post at Petaluma High School on Jan. 7, with the hope that when the city's budget rebounds, additional student resource officer positions will be added at the other campuses in Petaluma. Rose added that the chief made the decision of which campus would receive the first student resource officer.

According to Cook, placing an officer on the high school campus requires having one less officer patrolling the streets. He added that patrol officers agreed to work that much harder to cover Antonio's previous workload, in order to bring back this much-needed service.

“We've been begged to bring back this position and we feel that it's worth it to the community,” said Cook. “That connection on the campuses was such a benefit that we decided we had to find a way to make it work.”

Cook added that splitting an officer's time between campuses has proven ineffective in the past and said that it will be his job to find additional funding over the next year — be it from grants, donations or other funding sources — to have an officer at each of Petaluma's other high school campuses. Rose said he will also be working on securing additional funding.

The department has also divided Petaluma into 15 districts and assigned two officers to each district for two-year terms. Currently, the city is divided into four beats, with patrol officers assigned to one of the city's four quadrants on a daily basis.

Under the new system, while officers will still patrol one of those four large beats daily, they will also be assigned to one of the 15 smaller districts and take a much more hands-on approach to monitoring their specific areas.

“Having two officers assigned to smaller districts for longer terms gives those officers more ownership over their areas,” said Cook. “They can identify crime trends, become more known by the citizens, and really find out what's going on in that area — much more than they can when they are just covering one of the city's larger beats.”

The department will also be asking community members and residents from each district to attend a larger community meeting twice a year, to meet with officers and keep them updated on issues of significance.

While expanding services without expanding the budget is a great idea, pulling it off won't be easy. That's where community involvement comes in. Williams has issued a challenge to Cook: Recruit 100 volunteers in 100 weeks. That's quite the task, given the fact that the department currently has just 15 volunteers.

Cook said that he will be meeting with Fremont's police department, which has approximately 200 volunteers, to gather ideas. “Volunteers can be an invaluable asset and do everything that falls through the cracks when you are short staffed,” Cook added.

The department will also be restoring its reserve officer program for the first time in two decades. When the state changed the requirements for reserve officers 20 years ago, forcing volunteer officers to graduate from the police academy before they could serve, Petaluma lost all its reserves.

Cook said that the stricter regulations killed their program and that they haven't tried to recruit reserve officers since then. But now, under Williams' guidance, the department will be looking to supplement its paid force with unpaid, part-time, but fully trained, officers.

So far, the feedback from the rank and file executing Williams' plans has been positive. Detective Paul Gilman, president of the Petaluma Peace Officers Association, said that based on what he's heard from fellow officers, things are going well. “The officers I've talked to seem really excited about it,” Gilman said. “I think we're moving in a good direction.”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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