Coatesville, Pennsylvania, is the only actual city located in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and is situated about 40 miles west of Philadelphia. It is a city with both high crime and high unemployment, and a place where the effects of America’s economic downturn can certainly be seen. One thing Coatesville also has, however, is a dedicated and innovative police force. The Coatesville Police Department (CPD) actively works toward reducing crime and protecting its citizens through proactive and preventative measures that function closely with the community.
One officer who has been extremely involved in connecting with the community is Officer Rodger Ollis. After spending more than 12 years as a part-time officer with various departments, he transitioned into a full-time law enforcement role with the CPD. He serves as a community point of contact on such efforts as the Beautification Projects, the Coatesville Youth Aid Panel, and the Block Watch. But Officer Ollis does much more than just serve as a liaison. He calls his approach “unconventional.” He says he embraces evidence-based policing and has applied those same tactics in order to figuratively, and literally, clean up his city.
Officer Ollis has a strong sense of ownership of Coatesville, which he tries to instill in other community members. Coatesville is his city; he lives there, his wife works there, his children go to school there, so it makes perfect sense why he would strive to keep the city in prime condition. The Community Policing Committee hosts recurring meetings as an open forum for community members to discuss issues plaguing Coatesville. After one particular meeting, it was decided that graffiti and other signs of urban blight were some of the biggest culprits.
“People will commit crime if they think that nobody cares,” said Ollis in a phone interview. But Ollis, along with the community, worked to prove they do care. He engaged community members, both young and old, in an attempt to tackle the issue of graffiti, shoes hanging from wires, parks with broken equipment, and illegal dumping in vacant lots. He recruited John Pawlowski, among others, to help, and they’ve been affectionately tagged as the “Graffiti Busters.” The group, as a whole, covered over 1,000 gang tags throughout the city. After the group cleaned up the gang tags, the community’s outlook changed. The community no longer tolerates graffiti. There is no longer a sense of apathy, and criminal mischief is being reported in a timelier manner. After all the team’s hard work, Coatesville has designated a group of volunteers to maintain the cleanliness should any new tag pop up. More than just rejuvenating the city, the project helped to create a feeling of community ownership once again. Kids, who in the past may have been the kind who would deface property, helped go through the neighborhood and clean it up. If they were to go out and deface the neighborhood, they would be undoing their own hard work.
In the same spirit, the CPD decided that sometimes they want to recognize and reinforce positive behaviors, instead of punishing the negatives. Last Thanksgiving, Ollis and the department passed out more than 40 turkeys to active citizens who had been cited for “doing something right.” The turkeys were donated to the department anonymously, making them available to be rewards to “good” citizens. Some recipients were grateful that their actions had been recognized, and others even passed on the good deed and donated their turkey to someone less fortunate. Officer Ollis said, “Most people only interact with police because they’ve done something wrong or have been a victim, so this was a chance to make a positive contact.” This act demonstrated to the community that the police were concerned about the welfare of the city, not just about writing up citizens or arresting them. He points out that the job of a police officer is much more than simply to enforce laws—it is to become invested in the community.
The department has also worked hard to be at all community events, be a part of the community committees, and simply be seen walking the beat. Showing involvement, and being perceived as approachable has had an impact in the results all around. Information regarding open cases and suspicious activity is flowing into the police department. Investigators and patrol officers use this valuable information to solve more cases and resolve more issues. Ollis described one time when he was working in a soup kitchen and a woman, with an outstanding warrant, approached him. Her child was with her and her options were limited. Instead of avoiding him, she said to Ollis that she believed she had warrants. He walked her out to his car, looked her up in the computer system, and sure enough there were outstanding warrants. He said he recognized that she couldn’t just leave her child. He made certain that the woman and child had a meal and while doing so she made arrangements for child care. With respect, dignity, and compassion, he took her into custody and transported her to the court.
In speaking with Officer Ollis, his passion is obvious. His title of Community Policing Officer could not be more fitting for the types of outreach he has done and the invaluable accomplishments that he and his team have made. When COPS Office staff traveled to Coatesville to perform routine monitoring site visits, they were pleased to see what Ollis and his team have been doing. Coatesville has been the recipient of $192,716 in COPS funding since 2009, and it is evident that the Coatesville Police Department has a strong understanding of the importance of community policing. It is even clearer that Officer Ollis understands the importance of his role as a community member and as a Coatesville Police Officer.
External Affairs Specialist