The past month, Devyn Keith has spent so much time riding along with Huntsville Police officers and meeting with HPD leadership, he joked that “I feel like I could be deputized.”
It’s partly education for the first-term Huntsville City Council Member from District One, and it’s partly to build a foundation for an initiative he unveiled this week to “increase the connection” between the community and the Huntsville Police Department.
“It’s crucial,” Keith said, “that we treat this as a two-way street.”
He placed some of the responsibility on his constituents, many of whom attended a town hall meeting Monday evening at the AAA School.
“If we’re asking the police department to do something better they’re going to ask how, ” Keith said. “What we should do as citizens is turn around and say how can we help you do it?”
As Keith said, “There are people in my community who have had negative experiences with the police department.” However, he introduced the event by saying he was “not here to bash police” and the purpose was “to make a good department better.”
Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray, who was joined at the meeting by several of his key aides (as well as by Mayor Tommy Battle, City Administrator John Hamilton and District 5 Council Member Will Culver), was in agreement with that purpose.
“I was … comfortable. I didn’t have any fear because somebody gave me a title four months ago, but I want everybody to feel that way when they talk to by police.”
As McMurray told the group, his department’s biggest challenge is “the balance between crime prevention and community engagement.” McMurray said that officers often find themselves spending the majority of their time responding to service calls, making it challenging to spend additional quality time with residents.
However, McMurray pointed out that Huntsville Police Department officers spend considerably more time in training than the state average before going onto the street. The annual training time is also well above average. HPD has a number of Community Resource Officers and is involved in programs such as Neighborhood Watch and the nationally recognized Crime Stoppers program.
The idea of community policing had long been percolating in Keith’s mind and was a platform in his campaign. This town hall meeting was prompted by a February incident in which a police officer questioned Keith while responding to a crime in his Terry Heights neighborhood.
As Keith said at the time and reiterated on Monday, “That police officer did exactly what his protocol taught him to do.”
Keith spoke about a program in Racine, Wisconsin, called Community Oriented Policing (COP) Housing. The city, with state and private funding, has purchased homes in older, high-crime neighborhoods and uses them as outposts in which officers work, relax and encourage community interaction. In some areas, crime has dropped by 70 percent where this program has been implemented.
He also introduced a S.M.A.R.T. proposal that includes:
S – Specific: To identify communities with the highest percentage of police interaction and to identify officers who drew more complaints, as well as those who are particularly skilled in social interaction. This policy would pair the two officers together with the end goal of a more socially conscious department.
M – Measurable: To evaluate the money spent on community policing and to assess the amount of manpower needed; Keith recommended an increase in the number of patrol officers and their pay.
A – Accountability: First, to call for citizens to join neighborhood watch programs and, second, for police to provide monthly reports on confirmed complaints and, finally, for public reports from the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council.
R – Recruitment: To hire a recruiting director, increase the pay to a competitive figure, create an educational incentive and have a program that “introduces cadets to communities before they have a badge” or begin training.
T – Technology centered: To create a publicly accessible database with crime statistics that can be used by HPD to gauge policy successes and failures, and a strategic use of closed-circuit TV for surveillance in high-crime areas.
Councilman Culver voiced his support for the program and Mayor Battle said he welcomed further conversation to see which are most feasible proposals to put quickly into action.
As Keith reflected on the evening of his encounter with police, he lifted one more goal.
“I was … comfortable. I didn’t have any fear because somebody gave me a title four months ago,” Keith said. “But I want everybody to feel that way when they talk to by police.”