Police shortage takes toll on community outreach
Debra Lovelace carries a golf club these days when she ventures out for walks in her Denver Park neighborhood in Frayser.
The club is the 30-year resident’s defense against any trouble she may encounter.
“It is secluded up here,” Lovelace said. “Our police officers that used to be up here all the time aren’t around here like that anymore and I miss that.”
The officers are members of Memphis Police Department’s Community Outreach Program or COP, the department’s community policing program.
“The COP program helped us start our neighborhood association,” said Lovelace, president of the Denver Park Neighborhood Association.
“Feeling like Mayberry”
Community policing has been a way for MPD to reach out to communities and neighborhoods for the last two decades in the city.
MPD’s first community policing programs were launched back in 1994 with the department’s Community Action or CO-ACT units.
The CO-ACT units included 16 substations in neighborhoods and was a way for officers assigned there to offer community outreach.
With declining staff and older facilities, the police department revamped the CO-ACT program in 2011 into a new community policing model that is in use today.
The Community Outreach Program or COP has officers assigned throughout the city and not to one specific neighborhood like in the past.
Officer Clayton Turner, a 12-year MPD veteran, has been working with the community policing unit for the last several years.
In addition to working in neighborhoods, Turner and other COP officers also work in more than two dozen Shelby County Schools with the youth crime watch program.
“I love it,” Turner said about his community policing work. “I started my career as a teacher, then I became a social worker and those skills I learned I get to still use them as a police officer.”
Turner was one of the COP officers who helped transform the Denver Park area in Frayser nearly three years ago.
“I’m telling you, when they were in Denver Park the officers knew all the kids by name and the gangs moved out when the cops moved in,” said Lovelace. “They had us feeling like Mayberry. We don’t have that police presence anymore which I am sure is all over Memphis because of the police shortage.”
“Giving back is part of life”
The community police officers like other officers on the force are spread thin, but still work to connect to the neighborhood.
Turner, who works out of a North Memphis precinct, was busy on a recent day this summer putting a box of food together for two women who were short on groceries for the month
“We have a food pantry, we give school clothes and shoes to the kids and I was even the graduation speaker at one of the schools,” Turner said. “I love being part of the community and helping residents because giving back is part of life.”
In the wake of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men across the country including in Memphis, many think that community policing needs to expand locally and across the country.
“We need to get the COPS program in all neighborhoods in Memphis. I’m telling you from what I know, it would make a difference because I have seen it,” Lovelace said.
The Department of Justice has helped communities nationwide with funding for community policing. Last month, the DOJ announced $3.6 million will go towards the Community Policing Development Program in several cities.
“Community policing builds trust and mutual respect between communities and law enforcement, and that helps us reduce crime,”said Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a news release. “Over the last 23 years, the Department of Justice has invested more than $14 billion in community policing— and I have no doubt that it has saved lives across America.”
Debra Lovelace, president of the Denver Park Neighborhood Association, walks with a golf club on Aug. 23 during a visit to Denver Park, located in Frayser.