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ODU Community Policing Effort Focuses on Crime Prevention, Building Relationships

Damaso Medel & Symone MerchadoCPO Damaso Medel and student patrol aide Symone Merchado

At Old Dominion University, an ongoing police department initiative aims to prevent crimes while strengthening positive connections between officers and the community, both on and off campus.

University police have redefined their focus from a response-driven approach to a broader strategy of improving the effectiveness of the department through problem-oriented policing. This has changed the way the department operates - from administrative priorities to the actions of the officers responding to calls for service - with the common goal of improving efficiency by identifying contributing factors that lead to crime or other incidents. These factors are then analyzed and used to develop and implement solutions.

This change has directly influenced the day-to-day activities of the ODU Community Policing Unit (formerly the Crime Prevention Unit), which is now taking the lead in implementing the change with community stakeholders.

ODU's Crime Prevention Unit was reorganized into the Community Policing Unit approximately a year ago and currently consists of a lieutenant, sergeant and two specially trained police officers. Additionally, the services of 20 ODU Student Patrol aides, who are paid part-time members of the police department, are being utilized in support of the unit's objectives.

While all ODU police officers are expected to problem solve, ODU Community Policing Officers (CPOs) serve as liaisons between the department and the community, implementing strategies to address a wide array of issues that threaten public safety or negatively affect security on and around campus. CPOs actively partner with community stakeholders, the department's investigative unit and members of the patrol unit in gathering information to analyze problems by identifying contributing factors and implementing appropriate remedies.

"Incidents don't occur in isolation," said CPO Damaso Medel. "By identifying and reviewing the contributing factors we're able to put a plan in place to prevent other incidents before they rise to the level of criminal behavior."

The ODU Community Policing Unit differs from the department's regular patrol and investigation divisions in that its officers focus on preventing crimes through educational outreach and proactive services. In addition to Medel, the unit includes Lt. Keatha Boone, Sgt. Dondi Jordan and the Student Patrol aides who, among other duties, help facilitate ODU's "SafeRide" escort service.

Boone said all of the ODU police department's officers should build community policing into their daily duties; however, CPOs are specifically committed to proactive problem solving and partnership building on campus and within the broader community.

"The impact is measured in a reduction of criminal activity both on campus and within surrounding neighborhoods, in addition to building trust and a positive relationship while continuing to promote safe environments," Boone said.

The police department's efforts are readily apparent. A quick look at campus crime statistics reveals that from 2011 through 2012, robberies are down 71 percent, burglaries have declined by 35 percent and motor vehicle theft is down 28 percent.

ODU Police Chief Rhonda Harris said the police department's successes have been aided by a university administration "that is very supportive in getting us the resources we need."

The effort is ongoing. Harris said factors that invite criminal activity vary and can range from deteriorating personal relationships to inadequate street lighting, tree overgrowth or a house that frequently has parties.

"Officers working the streets are the backbone of any police agency," Harris said. "Through their interactions with the community each day, they really have a tremendous amount of insight into the underlying factors behind why an incident occurred and, oftentimes, they have great ideas toward potential solutions to deter it from happening again. We're just actively working with that information."

As part of its outreach efforts, the Community Policing Unit also provides the following services at no cost to members of the community:

  • Giving safety presentations on topics geared toward on- and off-campus concerns. Seminars can also be designed to meet the needs of the community. Examples include: personal safety, protecting electronics from theft, responsible drinking, spring break safety and off-campus party concerns.
  • Promoting the safekeeping of personal items frequently targeted for theft, such as electronics and bicycles, by encouraging the use of tracking software for electronics and the use of U-Locks to secure bicycles.
  • Managing "Adopt a Cop," a collaboration between the police department and Office of Residence Life that aligns police officers as liaisons and mentors to students in the residence halls.
  • Managing SafeRide, the student escort service that provides students, staff and faculty with a safe alternative mode of transportation after hours to locations on campus and nearby.
  • Identifying potentially vulnerable areas of a residence by conducting a thorough survey of the interior and exterior. A written report is provided to the property owner and/or tenant to assist in communicating concerns so they can be addressed.
  • Facilitating Vacation Watch, which provides extra patrols at the request of homeowners and tenants while they are away for break or vacation.
  • Providing business safety surveys on the interior and exterior of commercial buildings (on/near campus), with an emphasis on proper lighting, security and surveillance systems and related training for employees.

Community policing officers, such as Medel, also frequently attend civic meetings to discuss crime and nuisance-related issues in neighborhoods surrounding campus, including Lambert's Point, Larchmont and Highland Park, where there is a mix of residents, many of whom aren't directly connected to ODU. Other outreach efforts involve meeting with student groups to discuss alcohol awareness or other common issues and providing safety tips to new and returning students and their families at the start of classes.

Medel advises ODU students, faculty and staff to "try to consider safety first" in everything they do.

"If you see something, say something, report it. We try to keep that model for everything, every lecture we do, because it makes sense," he said. "If you see something, no matter how minor, please let us know right away. We'll make the determination if it is something that needs to be investigated."

Medel said a large part of his day-to-day job involves building trust and encouraging community members to be crime prevention partners who are willing to engage officers, call 911 if there is an emergency or use the department's "Silent Witness" online form to report a concern anonymously.

"I think I'm very personable with the students when I do my presentations, so that way they can feel, 'I want to talk to you. I want to tell you what is going on. I think you are the type of person who will listen to me,'" Medel said. "A lot of the students may have had an encounter or a bad image of police for whatever reason. This is where community policing comes in. This is where I relate myself to their problems and listen to them. They're looking for that one person who can take the time to listen to their concerns, and that is what I do."

That role, at times, has extended to helping students with projects and even advising a fraternity on how to get back on track after running into trouble, Medel said.

Symone Merchado joined the department as a Student Patrol aide in 2009 while working toward an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and women's studies. She is now a patrol aide supervisor and pursuing a master's in humanities.

"I think it (community policing) is very beneficial to students and the campus," she said. "It's an opportunity to assist with protecting our own campus and to literally be the eyes and ears of police officers."

To learn more about the Community Policing Unit and specific services available to the university community, visit the ODU Police Department website.