A sweeping "cultural shift" is coming to the Manassas Police Department in the next two years as part of a new Community Policing Plan, which would put officers in closer contact with residents through a host of programs.
The plan, unveiled Monday night at the City Council's regular meeting, calls for a new brand of policing that its designers say would emphasize aggressive and proactive policies to create a bond between police officers and residents. The plan outlines a new direction for the department that is focused on prevention rather than reaction.
"The ultimate goal is to get the police officers out of their cars and into the community for direct contact with the citizens," said Capt. Don McKinnon, who prepared the new policy and presented it to the council Monday. "We want to begin some real meaningful neighborhood problem-solving."
Much of the plan is centered on neighborhood-oriented teams of officers, who will be assigned exclusively to one of five areas within the city. Preliminary framework proposals indicate that teams of six officers and one detective would be assigned to each area and would be responsible for maintaining close personal contact with residents and with establishing a police presence in the neighborhood.
Manassas City Police Chief John J. Skinner said the the plan has his full endorsement, citing it as an important way to "establish a philosophy between the police department and the community."
Skinner said the plan will allow police to engage "in productive problem-solving discussions to ensure that we are resolving, for the long term, many of the problematic issues that we have generally been only reactive to."
In addition to attending community meetings -- including homeowners association and community organization meetings -- officers will walk neighborhood streets and talk with residents. According to the plan, officers will be given quotas for the number of contacts and introductions they make with residents for each 28-day period and they will be encouraged to pursue "extensive" alternative patrol methods, including foot and bicycle patrols.
"What we believe is best for this city is that we get out into the neighborhoods and start participating and being contributors to problem-solving so that we are there before the problems even raise their heads," McKinnon said. "We're looking for proactive policing in its simplest form."
City Council members praised the new approach. Council member Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R) said he thinks police "hit a home run" with this plan, and colleague Ulysses X. White (R) said he was pleased with the effort.
"This is a direction that I've always thought we ought to be moving in," White said.
The idea took root last year, after Skinner became chief and police officials began to evaluate policing programs. The current plan outlines a two-year strategy for full implementation of the new approach, but McKinnon said it could take longer to have the program up and running.
About two-thirds of the department already has completed a training course designed to help officers acclimate to community policing. Representatives from the Richmond-based Virginia Community Policing Institute have been providing background for the officers and preparing them for what could be a drastic shift in their approach to their jobs.
Manassas police officials hope to complete a community assessment survey this fall and could assign officers to each of the five neighborhoods -- based on the boundaries of the five elementary schools in Manassas -- as early as November. McKinnon said he hopes to have officers walking the streets by year's end, when the new policing strategy will officially debut.
By spring, according to the plan, police officers should begin attending community meetings and mingling with residents, with full implementation of the plan scheduled for March 2001.
The community policing effort is not based on outside examples but instead looks inward: Much of the policing effort will be based on apparent successes the department has achieved in the Georgetown South neighborhood.
Community policing efforts began in Georgetown South in 1992 in response to the high crime rate and general disorder that police say was rampant in the area. Police say that their efforts have reduced crime significantly and, for the most part, reinvigorated what was a dilapidated community. Cutting crime there virtually in half over the last seven years is a function of close ties to the community, McKinnon said.
Instead of relying on such a reactive response, however, police hope that their new course of action will prevent other neighborhoods from experiencing the problems that hamstrung Georgetown South for so long.
"It is unusual for community policing to reach out to the `good' neighborhoods," McKinnon said. "We don't see a lot of community policing in the good neighborhoods, but in order to keep them good, we think that we need to go into the community and work with them to head off any problems."
Staff writer Libby Copeland contributed to this report.