Winning back public trust a priority for Winston-Salem police

by Keith Barber

Winning back public trust a priority for Winston-Salem police

The voice of Winston-Salem police Officer Barbara Jones came through loud and clear on Sgt. Eric Montgomery’s walkie-talkie. “Fantastic! Thank you, Sarge,” Jones said. Minutes earlier, Montgomery had located a 61-year-old man who was reported missing by one of his neighbors. Montgomery found the man safe sound at a friend’s apartment off Old Lexington Road. “Thank you for checking on me,” the man told Montgomery. Jones had responded to the neighbor’s call on the evening of July 2. She arrived at the man’s home to find the doors locked and his house dark. Jones attempted to call the man’s home phone, rang his doorbell and knocked on his door, but got no answer. Jones then turned to Montgomery, her supervisor, for advice. “When’s the last time someone saw him?” Montgomery asked during the cell phone conversation. “Do you have a full name for the girlfriend?” Montgomery then departed the city yard after fueling his police cruiser and made his way over to Jones’ location on the south side of Winston- Salem. On the drive over, Sgt. Montgomery, a 15-year veteran of the force, shared his thoughts on how the department’s new deployment strategy has helped lower the city’s overall crime rate by nearly 7 percent in the past year. Montgomery, who once served as host of the police department’s cable-access television program, “Behind the Badge,” explained that the new deployment plan has cut the city’s three patrol districts in half and put more officers on the street at peak hours. The increased visibility of Winston-Salem police officers deterred crime, he said. Crime statistics released last month by the department reveal that the city has experienced an 18 percent drop in violent crimes, a 14 percent reduction in property crimes and a 2.4 percent decrease in lesser offenses, known as “part two” crimes. The total number of reported crime incidents in Winston-Salem decreased by 6.7 percent during the first five months of 2009 as compared to the same time period in 2008. Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham, who took the helm one year ago, said he implemented the new deployment strategy and put his officers on permanent shifts to help build communication and trust with the community. Cunningham admitted that highprofile cases like that of Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated in 2003 after spending 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of newspaper editor Deborah Sykes — a crime he didn’t commit — have shaken the public trust in the department. “With trust, it takes a short time to lose it and a long time to rebuild it,” Cunningham said. “Yes, there’s history in law enforcement in this community. We’re either going to continue that history or change it.” Rebuilding public trust spurred Cunninghamto hold a number of public forums throughout the city last year when he rolled out the department’s new deployment plan. Also, the department has renewed its efforts to attract minority applicants, Cunningham said. “We’ve sent letters to more than 400 churches in search for good, diverse candidates,” he said. “It’s a very slow process. The big problem is trust.” Montgomery pulled into a church parking lot around 10:15 p.m. on July 2 and spoke with a police officer who was hosting a young African- American man on a ride-along. Montgomery, who is also African American, explained the young man was a police officer candidate. He said the department is much more diverse than when he started in 1994, but acknowledged minority recruitment still poses a major challenge. He said it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason why the department struggles to recruit minority applicants, but acknowledged the Darryl Hunt case did not help the department’s efforts. Cunningham said minority recruitment is one of the focuses of the department’s outreach efforts, which include more effective dissemination of information through its website, using seized assets to sponsor youth programs, and taking a “broken window” approach to law enforcement. Cunningham explained the broken window approach as focusing on quality of life issues that affect all residents rather than implementing a “zero tolerance” strategy. “If the police department focuses only on crime, we’ll have a law enforcement focus rather than a police service focus,” he said. The chief said another focus of the department is to steer at-risk youth into diversion programs. “Kids are always going to do something. One mistake shouldn’t determine the rest of their lives by giving them a criminal record,” he said. Sgt. Tom Peterson, a 14-year veteran of the force, said one of his primary goals is to build trust between the community and the police. “If you communicate and treat people with respect, you’ll earn trust,” he said. “You learn very quickly in this profession that communication is everything — your ability to show compassion and comfort and still perform the duties you have to do — that’s a skill that comes with experience.” With all the information-gathering tools at a police officer’s disposal — laptop computer, incar video camera, two-way radio and cell phone — there’s no substitute for an open, honest dialogue with the community, Peterson said. “The reality is, we cannot come out here as officers and do this job alone,” he said. “We rely on citizens to be involved and come forth with information. We need that cooperative effort.” Cunningham believes if the department could attract more black and Latino applicants, it would have a profound impact his officers’ ability to do their jobs effectively. “It’s human nature. We have more comfort with someone who we feel has a shared experience. Race is a big factor in that,” Cunningham said. Sgt. John Morris, a 12-year veteran of the department, attributed the recent drop in crime to permanent shifts and smaller coverage zones. “Crime is about opportunity,” Morris said. “With smaller beats and more officers on the street, that cuts down on opportunity.” Cunningham, Peterson and Montgomery all said they could not imagine doing anything else as their career. Montgomery pointed to Officer Jones’ professionalism in dealing with the missing person call on July 2, and the happy ending that resulted as the best part of his job. “Service is high on our list,” Montgomery said. “We pride ourselves on trying to help people. That’s what makes me feel good when I go home — that I helped somebody.”

Sgt. Eric Montgomery of the Winston-Salem Police Department speaksby cellphone with a fellow officer on July 2. Montgomery said thedepartment’s focus is as much providing services to citizens as it ison law enforcement. (Photo by Keith T. Barber)