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Downsized beats break down walls between citizens, cops

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

When the police car pulled into Tony's Quality Import Service, the owner's wife turned to look at the Ford Crown Victoria with a face full of concern.

Then she saw the driver, Clayton County Police Officer David Starcher, and she let out a big smile. When the 10-year veteran got out of the car, she gave him a big hug.

"Hey David!" she said.

"Hey Martha," he said. "How are you?"

Starcher describes Tony and Martha Ochoam, a Columbian immigrant couple who've been running the import business on Jonesboro Road since 1993, as "good people." When he stopped in to see them on Thursday morning, they talked about the neighborhood.

"That's kind of the idea of the beat policing system," he said. "You get to know people."

Police beats in Clayton County were restructured in August. Each beat was reduced so it can be patrolled by one officer per shift, as part of Chief Jeff Turner's call for community-oriented policing.

The change, Turner said, puts the community in a closer relationship with the officers who are there to protect them. When people see the same officer, every day, and can talk to him and listen to him, they feel that the police department has a face, can see what the department's doing, and are willing to work with police to protect their neighborhoods.

"The only way to have a change is to have a buy-in from the community," said Turner, who became chief in March.

The community will "buy-in," if its members feel a sense of neighborhood ownership, according to the theory, and if they feel they are on the same side as the authorities.

When officers are more accessible and more personable, Turner said, citizens will see that police officers will consistently be there and follow through with their promises.

On Starcher's beat, 2-Delta, there seems to be more than partnership. He has forged a friendship with many. Pulling his patrol car into the Phillips 66, on the corner of Jonesboro Road and Battle Creek Road, Starcher said, "Oh, these are great people."

Frez "Frank" Lakham, the station's owner, laughs. He said that in India, where he's from, he'd have to pay a police officer every time he checked in at the store.

Here, he said, he has a great relationship with the county department.

"This county, one call and," - he holds up his right hand and snaps - "they're here."

Lakham has been teaching Starcher a few words of Hindi, an Indian language. Things like how to say, "Hello," and, "Are you OK?"

The gas station is in the center of Starcher's beat. He has one of the smaller areas to protect, and it is largely made up of immigrant business owners.

"It gets to the point where you almost know the cars that should be there," said Starcher, a native of Miami. "Going by a business and seeing a closed sign when they should be open, you notice something's wrong, because you know the hours when the stores are open, "he added.

The beat re-organization has divided the county into four zones - Adam, Baker, Charlie and Delta - and divided each zone into five beats, each one patrolable by a single officer.

The structure allows the police to get to know the neighborhood, Starcher said, but to be successful it requires the individual officer's effort.

"They've put us here, with the beat system," he said, "but we have to make it work."

Starcher makes it work by getting out of his car, talking to people, joking with people, and trying to open communication.

Pamela Whitfield said it has worked enough that she can call Starcher when she has a concern or a question, but isn't a 911-type of emergency.

"When I get calls," said Whitfield, manager of Century Lake Apartments, "or someone is concerned, I can call him and find out what's going on."

On Thursday, Whitfield asked Starcher to check on the apartment complex more often, next week, because she'll be out of town. He agreed to help, and teased her about the trip.

"You didn't ask me if you could take off," he said.

"Yeah, well I'm going to North Carolina," she said.

"Boyfriend?"

She laughed at him.

"No," she said, "business. So if you could stop by, I'd appreciate it."

"Of course," Starcher said.