A Downtown police district is a natural extension of the community-oriented approach the Boise Police Department has developed since the early 2000s, Chief Bill Bones said.
Community policing focuses on building relationships with the public, business leaders and other key groups, not only to improve officers’ responses to crimes already committed, but to fend off future offenses and circumstances that allow crime to crop up.
District-based policing makes sense in that context because, for law enforcement purposes, it essentially turns a big city into several smaller cities. Instead of a rotation of unfamiliar detectives and patrol officers, a few officers stay in constant contact with the people who live, work and play in a district. They get to know each other. The idea is that innocent people are less intimidated by cops and therefore more likely to report problems, while criminals are quickly identified and monitored.
“It says to a potential offender down there that the police are, literally, right here,” said Andrew Giacomazzi, a criminal justice professor at Boise State University. “Even though I may not see a cop right around the corner, I know that there’s a district here in this particular area. Cops are going to be there, writing reports. They’re going to be meeting with community residents, whoever they may be. And there’s an easy way for them to deploy in a really quick, very timely manner out of a district-based setting, versus a police officer who may be simply on random patrol.”
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A NEW CULTURE
In the 1990s, when Bones was a young officer, the Boise Police Department had an image problem. Officers were involved in a string of shootings, and the public’s trust in the department plummeted.
The city hired a community ombudsman to conduct independent investigations of complaints against officers. Don Pierce, chief from 2000 to 2004, and Mike Masterson, who replaced Pierce, began moving the department toward community policing. They assigned officers to geographic areas, designated neighborhood contact officers, formed a crime prevention unit, and pushed information sharing between the department and the private sector.
Gradually, confidence in the department returned. Police leaders believe a commitment to community policing has played a role in the improvement.
Academic studies have concluded that district-based, community-style policing increases the public’s satisfaction with their law enforcement agency. But is it all good feelings, or are there tangible results, too?
A study published in December in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found a need for further research.
“In particular, there is a need to explicate and test a logic model that explains how short-term benefits of community policing, like improved citizen satisfaction, relate to longer-term crime prevention effects, and to identify the policing strategies that benefit most from community participation,” the study’s authors concluded.
Bones and the police department have the right idea, Giacomazzi said, largely because Bones’ predecessors developed a culture within the department that embraces community-oriented policing.
“Just having the district substation, or whatever you want to call that, by itself doesn’t do a heck of a lot,” Giacomazzi said. “But the Boise Police Department has a 15-year history with community policing and problem-solving. And in the context of furthering community policing, problem-solving models, going to district-based policing is a really good thing because it puts police officers in closer proximity to the constituents they serve, puts them in closer proximity to the calls they’re receiving.”
WHERE IS THE DOWNTOWN DISTRICT?
For years, leaders of the Boise Police Department wanted to move to district-based policing. They envisioned three separate districts of roughly the same geographic size.
Bones changed that approach after taking over for Masterson, who retired in January. He wants to use a Downtown district as a prototype to work out the kinks – new ways of filing paperwork, different command structure, etc. – for future districts. Bones isn’t sure how many future districts he’ll form.
Bones hasn’t set exact boundaries for the Downtown district yet, either. It’s likely to fall somewhere between State and Fort streets on the north; Broadway Avenue on the East; the southern edge of Ann Morrison park and the BSU campus on the south; and Whitewater Park Boulevard on the west.
That’s about 5 percent of the city’s land mass. And it’s the source of about one-quarter of the police department’s calls for service, Bones said.
“Over time, the idea is that by doing this, we drive those numbers of calls for service down while we build a better relationship — interactive, two-way relationship — with the community,” he said.
The disproportion of calls merits the special attention of a district, Bones said, but there are other factors. Downtown presents a variety of law enforcement challenges that other areas of the city don’t, he said.
Bones should know. When he was captain of the department’s patrol division in the mid-2000s, he created the Downtown “bar team,” a task force of officers who specialize in dealing with the problems that arise from nightlife. Today, the bar team has about six officers.
Besides carousing, Downtown is home to big business, lobbying firms, government offices, nonprofits, museums, restaurants and residents. Each group has specific needs. Julia Davis and Ann Morrison parks, two of Boise’s biggest, present a different set of problems, partly because dozens of special events are held there each year.
“Having a stronger police presence Downtown, just from an event standpoint, is very, very attractive to our department, so we’re highly supportive of it and see it as a value-add to our customers,” Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.
HOW WILL IT WORK?
Officers will be reassigned to the Downtown district, Bones said, so payroll shouldn’t be a major additional cost. He expects to hire at least one civilian staffer to help run the office.
The district’s station building will be the biggest cost, Bones said. The district will need 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space somewhere in the service area. Bones expects it to cost $2 million to $2.5 million if the city buys from a private landowner. A few city-owned properties close to Downtown might work. Bones said he’ll base his decision on whether to use one of them or something else on a variety of factors, including cost, location and compatibility of the space.
Bones said he’ll probably assign 15 to 25 officers to the district.
The bulk of that staff would be a team of patrol officers, along with one or two detectives and school resource officers. Specialists, such as victims services and forensics experts, will stay at department headquarters in West Boise.
Bones said he’ll ask for volunteers who want to work the Downtown district. He expects plenty of officers will step forward.
“And I have a feeling that, in some cases, it’ll be competitive,” he said.
Some of the Downtown officers will walk beats on foot. Others will be on bikes and, possibly, electric scooters. Bones hopes getting them out of their cars will increase contact with people Downtown and improve the relationships that community policing relies on.
The barriers between districts won’t be absolute, he said. Downtown officers will respond to calls outside the district and vice versa. When emergency calls come in, the closest officers will respond, Bones said.
OFFICERS AS MARKETERS?
Like Masterson before him, Bones talks about interaction between officers and the public as customer service. He wants officers Downtown who want to help people, who enjoy giving directions to tourists, chatting with a shop owner and ushering a nighttime reveler into a cab.
Karen Sander appreciates that philosophy. Sander is executive director of the Downtown Boise Association, a nonprofit that manages the Downtown Boise Business Improvement District. She said the police department already has a good team of officers Downtown, and moving to a district-based approach will improve it.
“I love the idea of customer service because it’s about our community,” Sander said. “I don’t see it as any different than good customer service in any industry. I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
Holloway said the police department’s service model complements what he’s trying to accomplish at Parks and Recreation. He wants people who frequent parks to think of officers as friendly people, not people to be avoided.
“Because the public contact they’ll be having will be tremendous,” Holloway said. “And they want to make that a very positive experience for everyone they come in contact with. Chief Bones doesn’t want to look at this like it’s an enforcement opportunity. I think he’s looking at it like this is an interactive opportunity to show that the police force is very customer-oriented.”
Besides making people feel good, Bones said, a helpful approach by police officers gives the city an economic development tool.
“How do we facilitate growth, development and the special events?” he said. “When people come into town and they see, ‘Oh, there’s no graffiti here,’ that draws businesses to build here, and they see that quality of life. ‘Oh, this is nice. This is a fun place to be. I feel safe at midnight walking back to my hotel room,’ or ‘I can go for a walk on the Greenbelt. I can’t do that in my home city. I’d like to bring a business in here or move my family here.’ We think that police can contribute in a big way to ensuring the quality of life.”