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‘Jamaica Hill’, Florida sees big drop in crime

Jones Town-born police chief celebrates successes after two years

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor -- Special Assignment allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, April 08, 2014    

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ANDREW Smalling, the trail-blazing Jones Town, Jamaica-born police chief of Lauderhill, Florida, nicknamed Jamaica Hill after its dominant population, is happy with the way crime is trending — downwards — in the third year of his tenure.

In the first two years after he swore on his 95-year-old grandmother's Bible to protect the city, Lauderhill has seen an impressive 14

per cent drop in crime, noticeably in violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault involving use of weapons.

Smalling, a well-read policeman who also lectures once a week in Criminal Justice at the Broward College in Florida, was sworn-in for the second time as chief of police in September 2011, 11 years after becoming the first black to be appointed top cop in the neighbouring city of Lauderdale Lakes.

The veteran cop of 28 years may have left Jamaica at age eight, with little memory of the sprawling slums of troubled inner-city Jones Town, Kingston, where he was born 52 years ago. But he is surrounded by Jamaicans in this teeming city of 70,000 people and must deal with the best and the worst of them. More importantly, he seems to be getting the better of the situation.

As he is wont to, Smalling came home last month to celebrate his birthday with his Jamaica-born wife, Pauline, who works as an administrative assistant in the Broward County Sheriff's Office and with the Broward Courthouse.

Smalling doesn't know if his spectacular success in the crime statistics is a suggestion that Jamaicans in Lauderhill want to see another Jamaican do well. But he is happy with the way things are going, he told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

"In the first year of my tenure, overall crimes went down by five per cent — September 2012 over September 2011 — and the second year — 2012 over 2013 — it declined by nine per cent. It's important to note that within that overall 14 per cent decline, violent crimes went down by 24 per cent," he said.

Smalling attributes much of the success to his 140-strong police force's emphasis on intelligence-driven operations and insistence on accountability of the command staff for crimes in their area of responsibility.

'We have divided the city into north, central and east districts. Each district has its own crime profile. It is very noticeable that certain types of crime seem to take place more often in certain districts. For example, in one area there is a predominance of property crimes; in another, crimes related to business and in another, crimes against the person.

"With this knowledge, we are able to deploy our forces in a more intelligent and effective way. This approach makes it possible for us to be proactive in preventing some crimes," said Smalling.

He noted that the Predictive Policing Programme designed in California for crime analysis had worked very well in Lauderhill. The programme makes it possible to gain information on crime trends going back several years and for planners to see where crime is likely to occur.

"Criminals are creatures of habit, we know that. So based on the statistics, we place our officers where the crime is most likely to happen. Our patrols are assigned to very specific areas rather than having them moving about randomly. We more specifically target the patrols according to the time of day or night, weekend or public holidays or when schools are out and more truants are on the streets," Smalling said.

"It is very preventative. When criminals see the police right at the time and place where they would have struck, they often don't bother," the police chief said, adding that with financial and human resources not what they used to be, intelligence-driven policing had become more critical in the fight against crime.

Smalling's police force has beaten Jamaica to the introduction of body-worn cameras, using technology to fight criminals. Currently, two sergeants — one in the day and one at night — wear body cameras as part of an initial experiment before outfitting the entire street force.

"We believe this will be very helpful, especially in establishing the credibility of the department. It will respond to criticisms from the residents about the behaviour of officers while on duty and in use-of-force incidents. I look at it as not only protection for the citizens but also for the officers, because many of the complaints and criticisms are quite frivolous," said Smalling.

As a key measure, Lauderhill police department is increasingly more dependent on community policing. "This is a big one for us. I always tell my guys that although we still have to police the community in the traditional way, we have to remember that we are also part of that community. When people call us they are looking for solutions. Most of those 911 calls are from people who need our help.

"Very often we are the first to be called when people are having problems. I want my team to have it in their hearts that we are here to make the community better and to help to improve the quality of life of the people," he said.

Smalling believes that that approach has reaped much success for his department. "When I just got here, there were some serious trust issues, both on the side of the community and on the side of the police. We have been able to bridge that gap to a large extent, even though there is still some work to do in that respect. We have seen where residents are more willing to give us information on criminal activities."

He gave the example of a young woman who was shot in a crossfire as two gunmen had a shoot-out while she was taking her baby from a day-care centre. With information from the community, cops were able to nab the shooter within two days. This also helped the image of the police because the incident had attracted massive press attention.

Smalling said since the start of 2014, there has been no homicide in his city. Last year there were four, another sure sign of the improving situation.

He suggested that traditional policing would continue in tandem with new strategies. "The policy is not going to change in respect of knowing who your bad people are and focusing your effort on them. Generally, it's only two per cent of the population that causes crime in the community.

"My officers in the districts attend all the homeowners association meetings to hear their concerns and focus on those concerns. We have established an anonymous tip line using text messaging so that residents don't have to send information to our police system but instead through an organisation called Texas Tip 411. This is routed anonymously to police anywhere in the country and we have no way of knowing where the information is coming from."

Smalling said the text messaging programme works well with the young and so is heavily pushed in schools. At the same time, there has been an increase in school resource officers who work with the kids in painting murals on community buildings and in organic gardening — planting fruits and vegetables — to teach them responsibility. During those sessions, the students get to open up to police officers about home life and their aspirations. He notes that his resource officers have been able to achieve a great deal without more resources.

The chief said his department has also been reaping dividends from its Citizens Academy which works with volunteers one night

per week for three hours to train them about police work, get a bird's-eye view of the operations and develop mutual trust between police and community.

"The residents get to develop an understanding of the challenges we face as they interface with our specialised units such as SWAT, criminal investigation units and patrols. They also get a ride-along with the patrols to see their actual operation. Out of that we often see a real change of perspective. At the end of that, we give them further training and then put them in police uniform and a marked car (but no weapons) to patrol their community," said Smalling. "Their job is to observe and report to the police what they see."

The Citizens Academy, which is additional to the Neighbourhood Watch Unit — that is run by the community with the help of the police — reports not only on crime, but graffiti; loiterers; dilapidated buildings; garbage pile-up and the like.

Smalling has worked with the Jamaican police on introducing the school resources programme here and is full of praise for Commissioner Owen Ellington whom he describes as "a very intelligent, strategic and professional police leader".

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