Call it Slurpee detente:
A few youngsters wanted something cold to drink and Prince George's County police officers George Nader and Derick Waring wanted to touch base with children in the neighborhood.
"Excuse me," Nader said to the three children as they walked down Walker Mill Road on a recent morning, clutching bags of snacks they'd purchased from a convenience store.
"Have y'all gotten your Slurpee coupons yet?"
"I want one!" the three children chorused.
Waring handed the children coupons, and Nader struck up a conversation.
"Y'all live around here?"
"Yeah," said one, suspiciously eyeing the black and chrome police-issue mountain bikes the two officers were perched on. "Why y'all ain't got no car?"
"So we can be out here talking to y'all," Waring said. "It's not as easy to talk in the car."
"You got any handcuffs?" Waring pulled them out.
"You ever shoot anybody with that gun? Lemme see your gun."
"Nah, man. We can't do that," Nader said. "Why you so interested in guns?
"Where y'all go to school? What grade y'all in?"
Before the officers took off 15 minutes later, they'd gathered a mini-file of information on the children: schools, addresses, summer plans, opinions about drugs and trouble.
"Y'all don't get in trouble, right?" Waring asked.
"Not me," said one of the boys, clutching his Slurpee coupon.
"You ain't a troublemaker, but you know who the troublemakers are, so you should stay away from them, right?" Nader said.
"Why the police always arresting somebody?" the boy's sister asked.
Because sometimes police have to arrest people to help nice people like you, Nader told them.
"When y'all coming back?" the boy asked, his smile outshining the diamond stud in his left ear.
"We'll be back up here soon," Nader said. "You gonna come say hi when you see us?"
"Yeah," the boy said. "And bring some more coupons."
Slurpee coupons. Drug education coloring books. Football tickets. Basketball tournaments. They are just as much a part of the uniform now as the badge and gun in some police departments--tools of the trade for a brand of law enforcement whose goal is to forge partnerships with members of the community--even very young residents. It's called community policing.
Traditionally, police work has focused on arresting suspects as the main method of deterring crime, police experts said. But after the proliferation of violence that resulted from guns flooding major cities during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s, police agencies from Seattle to St. Petersburg to Prince George's County rethought their strategy.
Police realized they needed the public's help. To enlist residents in the effort, officers began drawing people in with a variety of programs, which came to be known as community policing or community-oriented policing.
The basic idea behind community policing is simple: Get out of the squad cars and return to a more fundamental strategy in which officers on the street work with residents to curtail illegal activity and social problems. It's preventive policing--a change from the focus solely on emergency response.
"There has traditionally been a 911 model of police response: The thinking was that the best way to solve crimes was to rush to the scene and catch the bad guy. But this is a myth," Prince George's County Police Chief John S. Farrell said. "When you look at how we solve crime, there's one way and only one way. By getting the community to share information with us. If you cannot get the community to give you information, you will not be able to effectively police."
Farrell said the drop in crime in Prince George's can be partly linked to efforts to bring police to the people. Statistics from the Prince George's County police department show that the major crimes, including homicides, rape, robbery, auto theft and aggravated assault dipped slightly from 1994-1998, mirroring a national trend.
Police in Prince George's are counting on community policing to do more by helping them establish relationships with residents that give them the power to wrest control of their neighborhoods from troublemakers. Officers also acknowledge that they are using community policing as a means to change the public's years-old perception that officers in the department are sometimes brutal and heavy-handed on the street.
"I grew up in Prince George's County, and when I was a teenager, my older brothers told me that if I got stopped by a police officer, to roll the window down a little and hand my license out," said Maj. Gerald Wilson, commander of the county's District 4 station in Oxon Hill. "There are still some people who think that it is dangerous dealing with police here because of the way it used to be."
Farrell is credited with implementing community policing on a wide scale after he became chief of the Prince George's department in 1995. The department set up areas of focus in each of the six police districts and assigned police officers to weave their way into the local fabric--getting to know the area and its residents, analyzing the specific crime problems and opening a dialogue with community leaders about how to solve the problems.
Farrell calls it "demystifying" police work.
"When people see what you are doing and why, they have much more tolerance," he said. "What we've done is open the police department to the community, and we are encouraging a relationship of sharing."
The 53-year-old man looked down at the newspaper on the front seat of his new car and "prayed to all kinds of deities" that he'd survive the encounter he was about to have with police.
Minutes before, he'd exchanged $9 for a single-use packet of heroin with a drug dealer near the intersection of Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue, at the Prince George's County-D.C. border.
He was on his way home to get high and catch up on the news when he saw the blue and red lights flash in his rearview mirror. The next thing he knew he was looking at a semiautomatic and a police officer was ordering him to "Get out of the car!"
As he stood there before the officer, the man wondered what his fate would be--whether he'd be beaten or shot.
"Hey, I had never been stopped for illegal activity other than a traffic ticket before, but I'd heard those stories," the man said. "I was scared of what might happen."
But instead of a beating, the man was politely questioned and gently handcuffed. At the Prince George's County Detention Center in Upper Marlboro, where he was charged with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance, officers answered questions about his impounded vehicle and apologized for the delay in releasing him.
During the entire seven-hour episode, nobody in blue was rude, the man said.
So the man, a father, husband, retired government employee and now convicted drug offender--who was sentenced to 10 hours of community service work and three years probation for the offense--wrote a letter to the commander of the Prince George's County District 4 station commending the officers for their behavior on that fateful day.
"I am not by nature a letter writer, so please bear with me," the man wrote. "But I feel compelled to share my experience with you. You know it is pretty near impossible to be a minority member in general and an African American in particular and not be conversant with the less than stellar perception that the P.G. county police enjoy in our community.
"The point I am trying to communicate is each and every officer I came into contact with that day was professional, courteous and even went to great length to place me at my ease. . . . One hears so many negative things about your organization that I just wanted to share my experience with you."
The man's 1995 Nissan Altima, seized when he was arrested, has not been returned and he is not sure he'll ever get it back.
Still, he wants the police to get credit for his treatment and opted to write the unusual letter.
"Hey, I did something wrong, and I have to take responsibility for that," the man said. "But the way they treated me was a pleasant surprise. They get enough criticism when they do something wrong, I just wanted to let somebody know that they treated me with respect and dignity and I appreciated it."
Ten percent of the Prince George's County police department's 1,400 officers now are assigned to community policing, Farrell said.
Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services [COPS], cited Prince George's County as a department that has "thoroughly embraced" community policing. He said the county received $2.2 million from the Department of Justice in fiscal 1997, and $9.4 million in fiscal 1998. The money came from a federal program to foster community policing that was approved by Congress in 1994, and included a provision to help pay for an additional 100,000 police officers nationwide.
Officers said the program has been as beneficial for officers as it has been for residents. Complaints from residents about police are down, and officer morale is up.
"Ask any officer why they joined the police department and they will tell you, 'To help people,' " Wilson said. "Then they get caught up in all the problems on the street. Community policing allows officers to work by helping people, which is what police officers want to do. It does not mean we are soft on crime. We're not. We still arrest people. But what we are doing now is working on two fronts, arrests and prevention, by doing things in the community that will stop some people from turning to crime."
Officers said they enjoy the direct interaction and cooperation with residents borne from bike patrols and other community policing programs.
"You really get a chance to talk to people on the bikes," said Nader, a former Metro transit police officer who trains bicycle officers in Prince George's. "In the car, you are hidden behind glass and people don't feel comfortable approaching you. The same people who ignore you in the car come up and talk to you on the bike."
The bicycles also are an effective crime-fighting tool, officers said. "These bikes can go places patrol cars can't go," Waring said. "We can get into the alleys and into the woods and catch guys who are running away from us."
Authorities said community policing also has brought businesses into the crime-fighting effort. In the police department's District 3, which includes Capitol Heights and District Heights, community officers have worked with apartment management companies at troubled complexes to evict troublemakers and clean up properties. In District 4, which includes Oxon Hill, Temple Hills and Suitland, police worked with two managers of apartment complexes to start a summer camp for young residents.
"A lot of our focus is getting the apartment owners to take the initiative because we have so many problems at some of the apartment complexes," said Cpl. James Harper, who supervises community officers in District 3.
The program of Slurpee giveaways, called Operation Chill, is funded by Southland Corp., which donated hundreds of coupons for children to receive the cold drinks at its 7-Eleven stores.
Farrell has established a chief's advisory council of supporters and critics of the department from across the county, and community policing officers meet regularly with business owners and apartment managers.
Perhaps the first progress report for the local community policing effort occurred in May, when more than 400 residents and police officers from District 4 attended a gala at the Andrews Air Force Base Officers Club to celebrate their cooperative success.
"It was a celebration of how well we had worked together," said Chiquinta Moses, president of the Briar Village Homeowners Association. "Their focus is changing, and they are more interested in working with the community to solve problems and being visible in the community as a partner."
Police said community policing has resulted in a reduction in crime in some neighborhoods. In the Glassmanor section of Oxon Hill, traditionally one of the county's most crime-plagued areas, shootings, which once occurred with frequency, are down.
"It is really based on the work the [community police] guys have been doing," said Capt. Archie O'Neil, 45, a supervisor in District 4, which includes Glassmanor. "They are taking a real interest in trying to make the community a safer place to live."
Officers in District 4 worked with the managers of the Riverview Terrace and Colonial Village apartment complexes to set up a summer camp for youths. Officers this year have picked up truants and returned them to school, purchased toys, played softball, taken dozens of children to MCI Center and Prince George's Community College for basketball games, driven children to Smithsonian museums and mentored youths weekly in everything from photography to music to the Bible.
The New York trip, in which about 40 children from Prince George's toured NBC studios and the Apollo Theater, walked along the bright lights of Broadway and got their first glimpse of the Empire State Building, was for many the first venture outside Prince George's County, Wilson said. Most went without their parents on the day trip, which cost about $80 a child. Some police officers dipped into their own pockets to pay for the trip for the children.
Sgt. Beeman Veasley unfolded his massive ex-football player frame from the chair and moved toward the 50 or so residents gathered at the clubhouse of Hillcrest Town Homes.
He flashed his trademark smile, the one the criminals who tangle with him on the street don't often see. His goal on this night was to assure them that he and the other officials gathered at the head table, including county State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson, were on their side--to empower them to regain control of their neighborhoods from troublemakers.
Young men are selling drugs on the street, littering, loitering and talking loud--creating a nuisance that annoys residents, raises concerns about potential violence and threatens property values.
Veasley, a 17-year veteran who directs the 16-officer community policing effort in District 4, was part of a program in which officers made 900 arrests and wrote 13,000 traffic citations in the first quarter of 1999. And they went into their own pockets to purchase toys for children and took 40 youths to New York City.
During the meeting, Veasley updated residents on the department's plan to increase bike patrols in the area. He urged them to set up Neighborhood Watch programs and "walking patrols" and promised to walk with them when they did.
As he concluded, Veasley paused and hoped the audience got his message.
They were the key. He's seen communities rise and fall, and most often the success stories were spurred more by community involvement than by police.
He feels a personal obligation to make them understand that.
Veasley gazes into the faces of those seated before him: the 30-something man soliciting help to start a recreation program for youths in his neighborhood, the elderly woman concerned about walking past young drug dealers down the street from her home, the enthusiastic community leader who urged residents to sign up for an anti-car theft program.
Then he preached the conclusion of his sermon:
"The community has to be involved in crime prevention," Veasley said. "You are a second set of eyes and ears for us. . . . You have to tell us what the criminals are doing. It has to be a joint effort. We need your help."
The audience applauded.
"We'd like to thank Sergeant Veasley and the other people who have come out to talk to us," community leader Chiquinta Moses said at the end of the meeting.
"We have seen things turn around, and we know they will continue to get better with us working with the police."