Director Melekian talks with Deputy Chief Smetana in front of a run-down store that was converted by the Racine Police Department into the newest COP House with support from local businesses, organizations, and community members.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Racine (WI) Police Department embraced the community policing philosophy and changed how the organization delivers police services. Their approach? Where crime was its worst was where the police department wanted to be. Rather than saturating officers to a crime hot spot, they moved in. Literally. “We explored the storefront idea,” said Deputy Chief Smetana, “but, we could never get what we wanted.” So instead, the police department decided to invest in the community by building its own house and setting an example for the neighborhood. Making this possible was state funding directed towards local initiatives and a partnership with the Racine Community Outpost, a local non-profit organization currently run by three retired Racine officers: Dave Voss, Marty DeFatte, and former Chief Richard Polzin.
The purpose of these Community Oriented Policing (COP) Houses is long-term stabilization by way of building relationships with the community, improving the quality of life, reducing crime, consolidating resources, and providing programming. The COP Houses have become an anchor of their community. Initially, the communities were not enthusiastic. The first House was built in a drug-infested neighborhood and was fire-bombed. But now they have become a hub of positive activity. “If we asked the community,” said Lt. Mark Esch, “we would have ten. Everyone wants one in their neighborhood.” Today there are six.
The COP Houses have served as catalysts of change, leading to improved property maintenance and lower crime. In some COP House neighborhoods crime has been reduced up to 70 percent. And, it is crime that is one of the primary driving forces behind where a COP House is located. The criteria for establishing a community policing house is based on factors such as Part I crime, calls for service, and nuisance calls for service. “After being through some years of having 18–19 homicides and shots fired,” said Deputy Chief Smetana, “calls for service are now complaints about loud car stereos.”
Being assigned to a COP House has become a premier assignment in the department, with only 12 positions available among the 202 sworn personnel. Officers go through a competitive application and interview process. They need to demonstrate their communication and problem-solving skills. “Our agency has emphasized problem-solving throughout the department. It comes from the top down and we promote qualified candidates with an emphasis on the importance of problem-solving,” said Deputy Chief Smetana. “What we look for is self-motivated officers and we give them the latitude and freedom to make decisions.” Officers realize it’s labor intensive work, but rewarding. Their focus is helping people and this is a chance for them to do that in a specific neighborhood and see the fruits of their efforts every day.
The COP Houses also serve as “Positive Alternative Centers,” providing a positive and structured environment focused on learning. The police department provides the classroom and a computer lab, while the program provides everything from help with homework to arts and crafts. Every semester students from local Carthage College volunteer their time to the program and the kids. Carthage even offers independent study credits to students who become leaders of the program—that’s how much emphasis and value they place on the partnership.
Through the establishment of the COP Houses, “the police department is closer to the community, closer to their neighbors, and cooperation is tremendous,” said Deputy Chief Smetana. “The community feels comfortable because they trust us.”
Senior Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office