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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
“It was a perfect moment,” said Lt. Nick Williams of the South Fulton (Georgia) Police Department (SFPD).
The little boy had shyly approached to say he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. So Lt. Williams deputized him with a gold foil badge, declaring him “officer for the day.” After congratulating him with a fist bump, Williams told the child that his job as officer for the day was to serve his community.
This remark reflects a principle that Lt. Williams, an officer in the Special Services Unit, strongly believes in. This principle was also demonstrated in a recent incident with a panhandler.
“I’m a solution-based person, so instead of making his situation worse, I told him to get in the squad car, then contacted some local businesses to see if they could help. Walmart donated a shirt, slacks and shoes, so we could upgrade his appearance. I took him to a barber for a shave and haircut too, then to restaurants, where I helped him fill out job applications.
“Everybody needs help sometimes,” says Lt. Williams. “This is what community policing is all about to me, helping one another. Locking people up isn’t the only solution to problems.”
This belief is embedded in the culture and operations of the SFPD, a new department that serves South Fulton, a city in the Atlanta metropolitan area that was incorporated from Fulton County in 2017, and currently serves a population of almost 100,000.
Among the first changes made after the department was launched was the beat redesign, done at the request of Chief Keith Meadows, who asked Georgia Tech to do a study of the department’s seven beats. After looking at all the data, such as crime and calls for service, the study’s team recommended that the beats be expanded to 18.
“This not only reduced response time but also reduced each officer’s workload and territory,” says Captain Hattie Cotton-Tukes, Commander of the Community Policing in Special Operations Division. “So patrol officers could get to know the citizens and business people and be more proactive than reactive to their needs. It gave them the time to really practice community policing,” she says, adding that this is a philosophy the department has embraced through its training and programs as well.
Says Captain Cotton-Tukes, “Through programs developed by our Community Policing & Park Rangers Division, we’ve maintained communications with business owners and residents during our transition from Fulton County with few interruptions. One that has been very successful over the years is Neighborhood Watch, and we have grown the program by five percent since the transition. At a recent Neighborhood Watch kickoff, we signed up 58 new communities.
“We offer training for starting a watch to all of our communities, as well as continuous communications about safety, and it’s really made a difference,” she adds. “People used to hide what was going on. Now, they call us. And we keep the watches informed too, letting them know what we’re doing in their neighborhoods, or nearby. It’s a two-way street.
“It improves not only the safety but the overall quality of life in these areas too. People are looking out for each other more, especially for the kids who are home alone while their parents are at work,” she adds.
Those community relationships and intelligence gathering opportunities are reinforced through an SFPD program called Let’s Talk.
“Our Coffee with a Cop program was successful, but we couldn’t continue it during COVID,” Captain Cotton-Tukes says. “So we started a virtual program in which community members, neighborhood watch groups, business owners, and others can talk to us about any issue or concern.
We provide a conference call number or a Zoom link, with times for reserving a session. Residents and businesspeople can also come into the department to talk if their group is five people or fewer.”
Another innovative SFPD program is Adopt a Cop, which started with one senior citizen who worried about going into stores during the COVID pandemic.
She called Chief Meadows and asked if he could help. He said yes, and soon one of SFPD’s officers began delivering groceries to her. They built a relationship and she “adopted” him. Now they are very close and often chat on the phone. The department even gave her a “drive by” birthday celebration, with sirens and lights.
Since then, several other officers have joined the program. They gave one lady a shirt that said Police Grandmother on it and now she calls all of them her grandchildren. These officers pick up food and medicine for their “adopted grandparents” and check in on them regularly.
The SFPD also collaborated with the City Manager’s Office to unveil the Citywide Chaplaincy Program (CCP) in 2019. A nondenominational program, the CCP supports the spiritual and emotional needs of SFPD employees and families as well as the residents of South Fulton City.
Captain Cotton-Tukes is very proud of the SFPD’s collaboration in CCP, which is guided by Pastor Warren Henry. “The chaplains, who are of different faiths, and are not preaching any particular religion. But they know how to offer comfort and guidance in times of crisis or tragedy. Through them, we are providing outreach and support to people in need—in our own department as well as in our communities,” Cotton-Tukes notes.
She is also proud of the SFPD’s success in recruiting women. “They now realize that law enforcement can be a career, not just a job. They won’t be limited to patrol at SFPD; they can move up to be a detective, work in the narcotics or gang unit, and up into the command staff.”
Chief Williams agrees that this has a lot to do with the SFPD’s recruiting success. “A lot of our female officers have risen through the ranks,” he says. “When women see this, they know they would be appreciated here. And that there’s opportunity to grow.”
“We don’t have any unit that is just male,” he adds. “We even have female SWAT team members and female drone operators, and we advertise this in our recruitment efforts.”
The department has hired 142 employees since it was inaugurated in 2018 and, with all of its 127 staff members working together, has accomplished a great deal in just three years. Services, programs, and outreach have also been expanded, leading to a 17 percent reduction in overall crime.
While acknowledging the role that the SFPD’s workforce played in this accomplishment, Captain Cotton-Tukes attributes much of the department’s success to community input and collaborative problem-solving strategies.
Adds Chief Williams, “We let recruits know that community policing is not a specialized unit here, that all officers and staff should adopt its approach, because we are ultimately a customer service department.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
Photos Courtesy of South Fulton Police Department.
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