"Hey Moms, how are you?" Alexandria police officer Francesca Evans asks, greeting resident Bernice Scruggs by her nickname during a patrol through the Andrew Adkins public housing complex.
Around the corner, two preteen girls sitting on their bikes wave happily at Evans, who has promised to take them to the movies soon. Next she runs into another neighborhood pal, a beaming 2-year-old who invariably asks her during each visit: "Are you going to shoot the monster?"
Alexandria police officer Francesca Evans drives through the Andrew Adkins project where she lives and patrols as part of the city's residential policing program.
(Photos Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
"No, but I'll catch him for you," Evans says to the exuberant toddler she calls "my little boyfriend."
"He always blows me a kiss, and I give him one back," Evans says, the thought making her smile.
If the 34-year-old officer comes across as a neighbor, it's because she is.
Evans moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the public housing community in North Side this summer as part of the city's residential policing program. Under the program, police officers live in public housing communities or residential complexes that include federally subsidized housing known as Section 8. City officials say that the 12-year-old program has been popular and successful, citing an overall decrease in crime and a stronger trust in police among residents of the communities. Evans is one of five residential police officers, or RPOs, with the department.
It takes a certain dedication for an officer to volunteer to live where he spends his workday, said Sgt. Jesse Harman of the department's special operations team and Evans's supervisor.
"It's a real sacrifice, and it's not for everybody," Harman said. "Police officers are no different from other people -- most want to leave work and go home."
For Evans and other residential officers, down-time at home after work is likely to be interrupted by a knock on the door from a neighbor complaining about anything from noise to an argument or a drug deal. For residents, the officers are not just the police -- they are a neighbor, a social worker, a liaison between the community and the city.
The residential officer program is part of larger community policing efforts that took off 15 years ago after police departments realized they had to come up with new ways to combat growing crime problems and create trust in those neighborhoods that historically have feared or resented their presence.
The modern-day rebirth of community policing began in the late 1980s, when departments started moving away from patrolling neighborhoods solely by car, said Gilbert Moore, a spokesman for the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
"Police departments began engaging the public in their own protection through communicating with them," said Moore, adding that police wanted to underscore what caused crime in communities instead of just reacting to it. With federal, state and city funding, departments began to establish numerous forms of community policing that included walking the beat through neighborhoods, bike patrols and the officer-next-door programs.
Like teaching, the police officer's job has become more complex and demanding. Today's officers must learn myriad skills to deal with a wide range of problems in communities wracked by poverty, drugs and despair, officials said.
In addition to their regular duties, residential officers also deal with quality-of-life issues. They encourage residents to pick up garbage and keep their surroundings clean. They will help them deal with government bureaucracy to address housing and maintenance problems, and they will refer them to social service agencies for health and personal problems. The goal is not only safety, but self-sufficiency as well, Harman said.