"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?"
"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.
"The point of the program is not to have an officer indefinitely assigned to a neighborhood, but rather to get the neighborhood to a point where they don't need the officer there," Harman said.
There are also the small but significant gestures that they do that win over a community: fixing a bike, getting someone to repair a backed-up sink, giving someone a break.
"That makes a big difference," said Sgt. Jose Garcia, another supervisor for the Alexandria program. "It's little things like that they never forget."
So far, the residential policing program appears to be a success, city officials said.
"It works for us. We're urban, we have urban issues, but at the same time, it's a small town. People know each other and each other's business," said Amy Bertsch, spokeswoman for the Alexandria Police Department. "Having an officer in the community is critical."
Statistics show crime has dropped in areas where officers have moved in. Since the program's inception, violent crime in communities with residential police officers has decreased by 52.2 percent, said Mary Garrand, supervising crime analyst with the department. Property crimes have dropped by 33.8 percent, and most nuisance crimes decreased by 14.4 percent. Drug offenses had the largest decrease: 60.3 percent. Liquor law violations, including drunkenness and disorderly conduct, rose slightly, but officials attribute this tougher enforcement to the residential officers' presence.
The residential officers, who do not pay rent, do take certain safety precautions in their homes. Bertsch said there has been only one serious incident involving a residential police officer -- the officer's patrol car and personal vehicle were set on fire two years ago at Crestview Commons in West End. The officer was transferred, she said.
In order for the officers to be effective, they have to gain residents' trust. Officer Gerald Ford, 35, has been living at the James Bland homes in North Side for six years -- the longest of any of the residential police officers. From the beginning, Ford showed his neighbors that although he was a police officer, he was going to be upfront with them.
"I made it quite clear that if they didn't break the rules or do anything wrong, there would be no problems," he said. "I was always straightforward, and people knew I was going to be fair about things." And if they did break the law, Ford would tell them, "it's not personal, it's business."
Residents were also willing to help Ford. He recalled an incident that occurred shortly after he moved in. A man knocked on his door looking for two "dubs" -- street slang for crack.
"I told him to have a seat, I'd be right back," Ford recalled.
Ford returned to the door with his badge, gun and handcuffs and arrested the man, who broke down in tears. It was clear that residents had sent the drug user to Ford's door, he said.
Andrew Adkins residents still speak with great affection of Evans's predecessor, Jim Klock, who left in January.
"Wait, wait, I want to show you something," Mary Williams, 40, said during one of Evans's recent patrols. She ran into the house and returned with two autographed studio head shots of Klock -- pictures that adorn many residents' homes. Klock, 28, left the force briefly for a stint in Hollywood, where he landed a small role on the soap opera "Passions," which became "must-see TV" at the housing complex. He is now a detective with the Stafford County Sheriff's Office.
"This is the first thing I look at when I wake up and the last thing before I go to bed," said Williams, looking fondly at the pictures.
Residential officer Jesse Meekins remembered visiting one Andrew Adkins apartment and seeing side-by-side photos of "Jesus, a cross and Jim" on the wall.
Although she has been at the complex just a short time, the easygoing Evans has already won fans.
"She's very approachable -- we can talk to her," said 19-year-old Shyree Carter.
Resident Javaun Dixon, 18, was quick to agree. "Yeah, she doesn't hassle us like the other police do," he said, casting a wary eye in the direction of a group of officers standing at a distance. "She's very friendly."
While she appears to be easygoing, Evans can be firm when necessary. On one recent day she confronted a nonresident who had been barred from the property because he threatened another officer. During the exchange, the man referred to her as "honey."
"I am not honey. I am Officer Evans," she said tersely.
He was subsequently arrested for trespassing and released on a summons.
Although the officers win over many residents, they know that there are those who remain leery. As Ford joined in a barbecue recently at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, which is near the James Bland homes, a woman came up to him and gave him a hug.
"I know people think I'm a snitch, but I don't care," the woman said. "I have friends who are police officers."
For the five officers, who are also at Hampton Court in West End and Arlandria, the job can take its toll, because they they rarely get uninterrupted time off. They also inherit whatever quality-of-life problems the residents face.
"If they have a problem with cockroaches, I'm going to have the same problem with cockroaches," said Meekins, who lives at Crestview Commons. "It's not 'they,' it's 'we.' "
It's that mentality of "we" that Evans said she is ready to embrace -- the good and the bad.
"Home is what you make it," Evans said, repeating what her mother always told her while growing up in public housing in New York City. "This is now my community."