PORTLAND – Officer Karl Geib says building relationships with residents and businesses in Portland’s West End is nothing new, but giving everyone access to his e-mail address and cell phone number has made it easier to keep his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood.

“I get a lot of e-mails from people, a lot of phone calls to me from citizens,” said Geib, who is senior lead officer for the area.

Geib also is part of a patrol team — on Friday, he was responding to calls from Congress Street to the Old Port — and so he can’t focus solely on partnerships and problem-solving.

But Geib soon may be able to focus solely on the West End.

Police Chief James Craig says he is committed to expanding the senior lead officer program to full time.

“Improving the quality of life and addressing neighborhood issues, that’s going to be their full-time job, but we want it to be an orderly transition,” he said of the senior lead officers.

The expansion of the senior lead officer program and the creation of a new community policing center in East Bayside show that the neighborhood policing initiatives that began 16 years ago in Portland continue to thrive, say community activists and leaders.

Some worried that the city’s commitment seemed in doubt last month when the City Council cut $50,000 from a $200,000 Community Development Block Grant request to fully fund four community policing coordinators, the staff that operate the community policing centers in the West End, Parkside, Bayside and Munjoy Hill.

Police and city officials say if anything, the city is increasing its commitment to strengthening ties between neighborhoods and police.

When patrol functions were making it hard for senior lead officers to focus on their neighborhoods, Craig instructed them to spend two hours at the start or end of each shift focusing on their neighborhood.

Craig said his goals for community policing in the coming year include devoting all of the senior lead officers’ time to cultivating community relationships and problem-solving.

The Police Benevolent Association, which represents patrol officers, has expressed concern over the thinning of patrol teams even as the calls for police service are growing.

However, the city received grant funding for six new officers to replace the lead officer positions.

Craig says a plan to cut four vacant police positions for budget reasons will be offset by reassigning four officers from Peaks Island to the mainland patrols.

The senior lead officers will still respond to emergency calls and interact with patrol teams as they work to address neighborhood concerns, Craig said.

“Community policing is a philosophy the entire Police Department has: working in partnership with the community,” he said.

Craig’s plans also include having the seven senior lead officers for each section of the city as well as the youth services officer, report directly to him.

The community policing coordinators will help implement problem-solving strategies and serve as a focal point for community input, Craig said, but he doesn’t expect the neighborhood centers to serve as substations with police officers stationed there.

“I want officers out in the community, walking foot beats, attending meetings and talking to businesses and residents,” he said. Coordinators support that function by serving as liaisons with the Police Department, organizing community-building activities like park cleanups, helping residents identify and access city services and helping lead officers implement crime-reduction strategies.

Craig also wants to expand participation in Neighborhood Watch programs in the coming year and soon will be hiring a community justice advocate, someone who will work with prosecutors, police and residents using legal tools to improve neighborhood safety.

Recognizing the importance of community relationships in policing is not new to the city or the police force.

Portland became an early model of community policing in 1994, when it opened its first community policing centers in Parkside and Munjoy Hill. There, health and social service workers joined with officers on crime prevention.

Over the years, the department has had a community policing unit, then was encouraged by the U.S. Department of Justice to instead have all officers engage in community policing.

Craig’s plan, launched in Octobor, calls for senior lead officers to focus on community relationships so they know the issues confronting different neighborhoods, and then to enlist the efforts of fellow officers as well as residents and businesses to address those problems.

Craig says the city remains committed to the community policing centers and the work done by the civilian coordinators, even though it seemed in jeopardy last month.

The City Council voted 5-4 to shift $50,000 in Community Development Block Grants that had been recommended for community policing to a social service agency instead.

That raised the possibility that one of the policing centers might have to close.

However, City Manager Joe Gray quickly assured residents and councilors that portion of the program could be paid for from the city’s general fund.

The number of community policing centers is actually growing. A $102,000 federal grant will pay for the creation and staffing of a center in East Bayside for two years with the potential for grant funding in the future.

Alex Endy, president of the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization, said the Munjoy Hill community policing coordinator and senior lead officer attend association meetings and are connected to the community and its issues.

“You don’t have to do a whole lot of background work, a whole lot of explaining,” he said. “You feel confident the police are on your side, know what’s going on and are following up on it.”

Endy said the neighborhood wants to build on that to improve the area’s image.

“We have this perception problem, the East Bayside is this dangerous ghetto, which is not the case at all,” Endy said.

“It seemed appropriate to combat this image to have a community policing center that is based here,” he said.

Neighborhood leaders look to the community policing coordinator to help stimulate recreation programs for young people and other strategies that help crime prevention, he said.

Officer Dan Knight, senior lead officer for the Midtown area, has been involved with community policing since the city’s first centers  opened 16 years ago.

“In the long run, it boils down to the same thing, and that’s relationships with businesses and the people on the beat and getting to know what the problems are,” Knight said.

“As senior lead officer, I feel like I’ve had a little more time to get involved and get to know people better, whether it’s the folks at Preble Street or some of the businesses on my beat.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]