From Red Dogs to community policing

Atlanta crime-fighting strategy shifts to get personal with residents

Atlanta police Officer Chris Dowd arrested lots of criminals while on the Red Dog squad, but the heavy-handed raids often angered the public.

Dowd has done an about-face in his tactics since Red Dog disbanded last month. He is one of the new “community police officers” who are to partner with the public to fight crime.

“It’s a different type of proactive policing,” the 38-year-old Dowd said recently as he drove to Virginia-Highland. “It is still proactive, just not as aggressive.”

Deputy Chief Renee Propes, who oversees the 50-member Community Oriented Policing unit, said the officers will still make arrests. But they won’t respond to 911 calls, which the APD brass said keep officers too busy to bond with residents.

The unit will teach safety tips, attend neighborhood meetings and get residents and cops working together, Propes said.

“We want our citizens to feel good about the Atlanta Police Department,” Propes said.

A crime-fighting strategy since the 1990s, community oriented policing ideally wants beat officers operating like the old-time foot-patrol officer. They are to know neighborhood leaders, vagrants, storekeepers, criminals, the kids and the nosy neighbors.

The results are mixed nationally because police forces often use specialized units, like the one in Atlanta, rather than changing the police culture, experts said.

“The rest of the department is going to be stuck in the way they have done things for decades,” said John Hinkle, a criminologist. “That is the disadvantage of doing it as a special unit.”

In 2009, The U.S. Justice Department began using $1 billion in federal stimulus money to award three-year grants to departments to hire more officers for community policing. More than 15 metro Atlanta cities qualified.

Hinkle, a professor at Georgia State University, said the strategy often has more success in public relations than in crime reduction. Many officers resist the strategy, he said.

“It has been pretty effective at improving relationships between police and community, and it has been effective at reducing fear of crime even if actual crime is not reduced,” Hinkle said. “A big part of police culture that community policing tries to break down is the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. But a lot of community policing activities don’t seem like police work to officers. It seems more like social work, so it can be hard to get buy-in.”

Wayne Mock, a former APD major who heads Midtown Blue, a private security patrol, predicts Atlanta’s beat cops will learn the strategy from officers like Dowd.

“I think every beat officer has to be engaged in it,” Mock said. “You want the guy who gets the 911 call to be the one interacting and following up and if you train them right they will.”

Lou Arcangeli, a former APD deputy chief who taught community policing at the Georgia Police Academy, said police officers already have examples of the strategy working. For example, he said Officer Dino LaRosa has spent years developing relationships in Little Five Points and he ensures unsavory activities, such as public drinking, don’t become a nuisance.

“He brings a lot of order and courtesy to that community that wouldn’t be there without his presence,” Arcangeli said. “He knows the street people and has a relationship with them.”

Arcangeli called APD’s new division a good first step. “I hope the officers performing these services are decentralized and become a part of the way APD does business in the next couple of years,” he said.

John Wolfinger, the public-safety chair for the Virginia-Highland neighborhood, and Linda Adams, his counterpart for Vine City, both said the unit could tackle trouble spots, neighbor disputes and code violations now ignored by the police.

Wolfinger said he already has pointed out a homeless camp, places where vagrants drink and spots where teenagers hang out. “Finally we are going to have some people who can work on things before they become big problems or keep big problems from getting bigger,” he said.

On patrol, Dowd chatted about concerns with mothers at John Howell Memorial Park and proprietors on Highland Avenue.

Dustin Zeiner, a store manager, noted high-profile crimes scared customers last fall. “That has died down, which is good because that was killing business at night,” he said.

Adams said the officers could work with neighborhood-watch groups in high-crime Vine City. Now, many residents distrust police or fear helping them, she said.

“We have to get the confidence in the people that the officers are here to help,” Adams said.

Hinkle, the criminologist, said the strategy works best with affluent residents who view the police as allies and often not in the neighborhoods needing it the most.

“In the areas where you have the most crime, the relationships with the police are often worse and police have an uphill battle,” he said.

After years of arresting people, Dowd said he wants new tactics to protect neighborhoods, but he still has the heart of a street cop. Last Wednesday, he hurried to help police pursue a burglar near the East Lake golf course. The action had ended by the time he rolled up in his “community officer” car.

A plain-clothes officer greeted Dowd with a friendly chuckle. He gestured at Dowd’s car, an older model that didn’t look up to high-speed pursuit. “The gentle side of life,” the plain-clothes officer ribbed.

Dowd, unfazed, returned his friend’s grin. “I just enjoy seeing you guys do your thing,” he said and nodded at his car. “We’re retro — going back to a friendlier time.”


More than 15 metro cities are receiving three-year grants to hire officers for community policing including:

Marietta: $856,000 to hire six officers

DeKalb County: $3.2 million to hire 15 officers

Snellville: $364,000 to hire two officers

Atlanta: $11.2 million, the maximum grant, to hire 50 officers