C.O.P.S. fight crime with badge, bike and cellular phone
In Waverly, Fla., on the steps of a local church, a 23-year-old is selling crack cocaine to a 17-year-old youth. Across the street, an alert neighbor calls the C.O.P.S. In Crystal Lake, a suspicious car is loitering near an elementary school playground. A concerned citizen phones this information to the C.O.P.S.
In North Combee, a businesswoman comes home from work, places her purse on the hood of her car and walks next door to pick up her two children from the babysitter. In that moment, her purse is stolen. Once again, C.O.P.S. is called.
These three instances were not 9-1-1 emergencies. They were critical, however, to the citizens of Polk County, Fla. In each case, Community Oriented Policing Stations (C.O.P.S.) were contacted directly through cellular phones, and specially-trained community officers responded immediately.
“The cellular phone is one of the best tools for law enforcement, especially in a rural county such as ours. Otherwise, you might have to drive 10 miles to find a pay phone,” says Sergeant Thomas Porter, C.O.P.S. supervisor, East Division.
In 1993, the first Polk County C.O.P.S. program was organized in Lakeland through a public-private partnership between the Polk County Sheriff’s Department and AT&T Wireless Services. Since then, the program has spread to other Polk County communities including Bradley, Willow, Oak-Fuller Heights, Highland City, Eaton Park, Crystal Lake, North Combee, 10th Street and Washington Avenue. “For the first time, residents can talk directly by phone to an officer they know for non-emergencies rather than going through the regular police dispatcher,” says Sergeant Lee Wiley, C.O.P.S. supervisor, West Division.
In addition to the cellular phones, bicycles have played an important part in community policing. When a citizen wants to report nuisances, code violations, suspicious activity or non-emergency crimes, the police officers can respond quickly by hopping on their bikes and checking out the problem.
“In the warmer weather, the bikes are a natural,” Wiley says. Besides emergency lights, sirens and radios, the bikes also have a phone holder identifying the Polk County Sheriff’s Department on both sides.
Before cellular phones, an officer would have to leave the crime scene to find a pay phone in responding to a citizen complaint. Police car radios are often busy since so many officers are trying to use the line. Fighting crime is important in Polk County. Carrie Allen, Waverly neighborhood leader, has memorized all the C.O.P.S. cellular phone numbers. “When you call for domestic violence or some other incident, they are here in less than five minutes. Selling drugs has definitely been cleaned up in Waverly. I refuse to have them sell drugs on my streets — so I am definitely using the phone,” says Allen.
Education is also a key to the success of cellular phones and reporting crimes. North Combee citizens hold regular meetings to become more aware of crime prevention and to give out business cards with cellular numbers.