FRESNO, Calif. — The toddler had just finished having his face painted bright red and white when he barreled toward Jerry Dyer, Fresno’s broad-shouldered chief of police. Dyer, his bald head reddening after several hours in the sun, bent to catch the boy.
“You having a good time?” Dyer asked with a smile, as the child’s mother whipped out a phone to take a photo. “When you get a little bigger, I want you to grow up to be a police officer.”
Not long ago, the Hispanic residents of this gang-ridden neighborhood in Southwest Fresno would not have voluntarily spoken to a police officer, much less attended a police-sponsored block party and taken photos with the chief. But over the past decade, a sustained policing initiative marked by community meetings, Christmas gifts and dozens of neighborhood events has fundamentally altered police-resident relations.
At a time when other cities were aggressively arresting people for minor crimes, a strategy known as “zero tolerance,” officials in Fresno chose a different path. They embraced the softer community-policing ethos popularized under President Bill Clinton, which emphasizes partnerships and problem-solving instead of mass arrests.
Fresno officials say the result has been a significant drop in gang-related violence — and inoculation against the kind of angry protests over police brutality that have rocked Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, Mo., and other American cities over the past year.
“Our community has been completely transformed,” said resident Carlotta Curti, 66, who moved to Fresno for college and never left. “The fact that these officers are out here, with these kids, every week, makes the difference.”
Nationally, the effectiveness of community policing has long been in dispute. A broad study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that the programs may do more to increase citizen satisfaction with police than to reduce crime.
But the study also found that, in many cities, community policing has been more buzzword than implemented policy. And other experts note that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal funds for community policing dried up and the focus of domestic law enforcement shifted to homeland security.
“Most of these programs just faded away,” said Samuel Walker, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In Fresno, police say they are fully committed. And city officials insist community policing has made the streets safer while improving perceptions of police legitimacy.
“We didn’t have protests in Fresno last August, and September and October. And that’s not by accident,” said Mayor Ashley Swearengin. “It’s because there has been such consistent and constant work between law enforcement and the community.”
A sprawling city set in the almond groves of California’s Central Valley, Fresno still has its challenges. The recession has lingered longer here than in many places, and the city is plagued by a major methamphetamine problem as well as one of the highest per capita homeless rates in the country.
In Southwest, an economically depressed stretch not far from downtown, police say street gangs remain a major cause of violence, including a spike in homicides last year. But armed assaults and robberies have plummeted since the community policing program began, dropping from 202 in 2003 to 134 last year — a 33 percent decrease.
These days, Southwest boasts a new school building, a new mixed-income housing development and a Family Dollar store that ranks near the top nationally for selling fresh produce.
It was the gangs that first drew Dyer’s attention to the neighborhood. In 2002, Dyer summoned Greg Garner, one of his most respected officers, and asked him to take on a challenging assignment: captain of the Southwest District.
A Fresno police officer since the early 1980s, Garner had a reputation for developing deep, trusting relationships both inside and outside of the department. Now, Dyer hoped he could do the same in one of the city’s most troubled communities.
“This area was leading the city in violent crime,” Garner said. “We knew we had to figure out a way to figure out the real causes of crime, the quality-of-life issues, and be seen as a source of help — not just the people who show up to make arrests.”
Garner began by assembling a new unit, funded in part with a federal policing grant. He handpicked five officers, including Oliver Baines, a young black officer who had grown up in Los Angeles and expressed interest in community policing.
As a teen in L.A., Baines had been pulled over time and again as he drove to and from work after school. That experience convinced him that the best way to fix Southwest was by rebuilding the community’s trust in law enforcement.
“We drank the Kool-Aid on this community policing stuff,” Baines said.
They reached out to local clergy, then hit upon the idea of a block party to build relationships with the young kids then being drafted into ranks of the city’s street gangs.
The first party was an awkward event; residents were skeptical. But the officers kept at it. And as they strengthened their church relationships, the parties drew more people. Before long, police said, they began seeing renewed cooperation even in the toughest neighborhoods.
Baines recalled a fatal shooting in 2006, when a woman was caught in the crossfire in an area then under control of the Dog Pound, a notoriously violent gang.
“Everyone in the community knew who did it,” Baines said. “But most of the time, no one will say anything.”
So Baines was shocked when police got a call from a tipster — someone who now trusted them enough to take a risk. A Dog Pound member was quickly arrested for the killing.
“That would never have happened a few years before,” Baines said. “And a few weeks later, we had a block party there and we began disbanding that gang.”
Success bred success, and officials found ways to maintain the program — now known as the “Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life” initiative — even after the federal grant money ran out in 2005. Since then, police have partnered with local and national community groups, such as YouthBuild USA, a national organization that puts young people to work building affordable housing.
“When you respect and empower the young people, they want to build a bridge,” said YouthBuild USA founder Dorothy Stoneman. “It makes them want to improve the community, and that always includes police-community relations.”
Under the partnership, the parties have multiplied, from just one or two annually to more than 20 a year. Today, there’s a police block party almost every Saturday throughout the spring and summer. And the parties are now planned by teen volunteers who gather at police district headquarters for regular Tuesday morning meetings.
Volunteer Ismael Barajas, 24, who used to hang out with gang members, said the program has changed his view of police.
“Each time, when I used to see a cop, I’d feel nervousness,” he said. “Now I want to become a police officer.”
With the teens taking charge, police are free to man the grills. At a recent block party in the parking lot of a nonprofit community center, small children munched popcorn and tossed bean bags while teens hung out in groups, gossiping and horsing around. Dyer, the police chief, was one of half a dozen officers wading through the crowd — and the only one in uniform.
The others, clad in jeans and T-shirts, dished out hot dogs and showed off a police cruiser, lifting smaller children into the driver’s seat. Nearby, a detective danced with a young girl as Cherrelle’s “Saturday Love” poured from amplifiers.
In 2013, Garner moved on. He is now chief of his own department in nearby Selma, where he has begun hosting similar community events.
As for Baines, his faded blue police jacket now hangs in the corner of his City Hall office. After 11 years on the force, Baines was elected to the City Council in 2011 and now serves as council president.
“The narrative around the city is how dangerous and violent Southwest is,” Baines said. “But there’s a lot of promise here, and I’m proud of what we’re doing.”