San Mateo Police Department: San Mateo, California –
Rogell Neighborhood Safety Partnership:
Safeguarding At-Risk Communities through Empowerment, Encouragement, and Trust
Problem Solving and Institutionalization of Community Policing in San Mateo:
The City of San Mateo, like many US Communities, enjoys a rich blend of residents from multiple backgrounds and cultures – originating both inside and outside of the US – and a wide range of socio-economic conditions. This results in a diverse set of policing areas, which include some million-dollar-plus homes, some middle-class communities, and some lower-income and at-risk communities. In a city with many such “micro-climates,” San Mateo Police personnel know that they may, within minutes of each other, be responding to a burglar alarm at a multi-million dollar estate on one side of town, and a gang issue with high potential for violence on the other.
When current SMPD Police Chief Susan Manheimer was hired in 2000, one of her first actions was to disband the specialized Community Policing Unit, consisting of a dedicated “community policing officer” assigned to each of 5 policing beats. Chief Manheimer’s goal was to re-create the community policing mindset instilled in every member of the organization bearing the insignia of the SMPD. Personnel at the San Mateo Police Department, therefore, are trained early on in providing a high level of service to the community that includes evaluation of each situation they encounter for problematic roots to be addressed, and long-term solutions to be developed.
SMPD holds regular COMPSTAT-style meetings to identify hotspots and problem areas, and utilizes the COMPSTAT problem solving model: amassing timely and accurate intelligence information, assessing our access to effective tactics (both with internal resources and in partnership with community-based organizations), rapidly deploying resources with an operational plan to address the problem, and employing vigorous and frequent reassessment to determine the level of effectiveness with the current strategy (and modifying if necessary). This problem-solving model is employed as our best-practice, and its implementation taught as a development tool to Field Training Officers and candidates for promotion in the organization, making this the established and practiced manner of problem-solving department-wide. SMPD calls its brand of this problem resolution “Neighborhood Safety Partnerships.” The “Neighborhood Safety Partnerships” philosophy is utilized throughout the organization from the FTO program through to the direct participation of the office of the Chief of Police. It is implemented by patrol area commanders through their troops, and by Investigations and the Crime Reduction Unit when a trend or problem requires a long-term solution.
SMPD used this problem-solving process very effectively in the North Amphlett neighborhood of San Mateo in the early 2000’s. In the wake of several shooting incidents and multiple reports of gang-related fighting, recruiting and posturing in this neighborhood, SMPD established a problem resolution plan that was extraordinarily effective in:
• Reducing gang activity
• Raising neighborhood care and concern for their own area
• Helping in the evolution of a community from a fearful and reluctant attitude toward the police to a functioning partnership that included:
o Minimization of blight through the care and concern of residents
o Awareness of danger signs of gang activity and prevention efforts on behalf of the residents to keep it from sprouting
o A bond between the community and the police that permeated from the adults who were no longer afraid or reluctant to call for our assistance to the youngest who were heavily involved in our Police Activities League.
In the tradition of Problem Oriented Policing, this resolution strategy was retained for future use.
In 2009, SMPD noticed a similar problem to the North Amphlett neighborhood in our North Shoreview Community that included Rogell Avenue and Rogell Court. This area contains several apartment buildings and two alleyways on the very border of our jurisdiction to the north and east. The two streets were occupied almost entirely by immigrants from the same small region in Mexico. Trust for the public establishment and especially the police was extremely low. The residential area consisted of 10 apartment buildings. The landlords in the area had little to no contact with residents, and a significant feeling and look of blight and lack of care permeated the neighborhood. Public intoxication and small children running the neighborhood unsupervised combined with a general lack of maintenance and appropriate lighting to make this an area of high risk to public safety. An uptick in crime was noticed, as well as an increase in gang activity – especially drinking, loitering, graffiti, and the recruitment of young community members to the gang lifestyle. Two unkempt and unsupervised alleys in the area provided an environment suitable for continuing deterioration of the neighborhood.
This condition was noticed quickly by San Mateo Police, and a plan was set in motion at the direction of Chief Manheimer and Area Lieutenant Rick Passanisi to apply the successful North Amphlett problem resolution strategy to this area, in an effort to proactively reverse the trend through prevention and intervention measures.
Partnership with the Community, and Public and Private Organizations:
SMPD began to evaluate the Rogell Neighborhood, and quickly realized that the population of the area would require improved business relationships with property owners and a paradigm-shift to the manner in which the immigrant residents of the community related to their public service providers. There needed to be a suitable living environment, and a positive relationship with the authorities.
Having worked successfully with our neighbors at the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC) in the past, especially with the successful turnaround in the North Amphlett neighborhood, we again contacted this valuable community partner. PCRC is a community based group of facilitators and advocates, and have a proven track record in bilingual communities. Utilizing available Community Development Block Grants through the City of San Mateo, we were able to fund PCRC as our important bridge to the residents of Rogell.
We also recognized the need to enlist public partners within the City of San Mateo Organization. The blight, lighting, abandoned vehicles, and general poor standard of condition of the apartments and alleys would require both documentation and partnership with landowners. To give us an idea of what we issues the City had a right to enforce, a public multi-pronged team was formed to include the SMPD Area Lieutenant Rick Passanisi, the City Attorney, Code Enforcement, the Fire Department, and the Building Department. This team took an initial walk-through of the neighborhood, documenting areas that could be improved.
City Public Works was also essential in this partnership, ensuring that regular street sweeping occurred and that street lighting was constantly kept up to CPTED standards (crime prevention through environmental design). In fact, a major beta-test of LED street lighting in San Mateo specifically included the Rogell neighborhood for improved lighting.
The next group contacted was the landlords of the 10 buildings in the community. The team contacted ALL the owners, and established them as a group – the landlords were organized into regularly scheduled meetings, and advised of the conditions that needed improvement. One of the cornerstones of this process was the establishment of a streamlining plan – as long as the landlords as a team were responsive to the improvement needs and any ongoing concerns and swift to act, there was no need to escalate the City’s action to the level of citations, court orders, or the like.
The landlords group was educated on what to look for in terms of CPTED concepts to reduce the probability of blight, as well as the warning signs that criminal street gang activity and gang members were occupying their buildings, and what to do about it. City staff conducted similar CPTED walk-throughs of the neighborhood with the landlord group. The landlords group spent thousands of dollars on renovations to clean and clear up this neighborhood and make it a safer place to live, and continue to regularly meet on neighborhood concerns.
The alliances that needed to be created with the actual residents of this neighborhood proved to be more difficult. With the assistance of PCRC, contact was made with all the residents in the neighborhood, and an initial community meeting was set. There was massive apprehension among the residents – fear of immigration issues being a roadblock to services and a barrier to police contact were most prevalent. There were ZERO residents at the initial public meeting, set at a local public school. The residents had cleared off the street as well, and shut themselves inside their residences in fear – the neighborhood rumor, we discovered, had been that the meeting was an ICE sting designed to take them all away. Residents also expressed reluctance due to transportation and child-care needs.
It was time to reassess and reassure. PCRC re-contacted all the residents. Along with PCRC, we promised and provided reassurance that the City of San Mateo was available to help them, and provide the same excellent service that we provide to ANY resident of our City. PCRC also arranged a group of volunteers to provide care for the children during the meeting, and arranged for any needed transport to a meeting space donated by an adjacent hotel in the neighborhood. The second meeting was a rousing success, and began an important dialogue. In this meeting experts shared with the residents their rights as tenants in their apartment buildings, and reassured them of their rights to adequate public health and safety needs. To many of them, coming from a culture where fear of authority and the establishment was prevalent, this was critical assurance that we were committed to partner with the community, protect them, and provide a safe environment for their neighborhood to thrive.
With the relationships and trust beginning to build with the residents of Rogell, an important anchor of our strategy could be implemented. SMPD is proud to have a robust and award-winning Police Activities League non-profit program, and we were able to utilize PAL to help us “build the bonds between cops and kids.” Youth programs were made available and facilitated among the kids on Rogell, and special PAL-related programs like our “Santa Cop” and “Brunch with Santa” PAL holiday outreach and connection-building campaigns included Rogell families. PAL was happy to assist with transportation, a major issue for Rogell residents, and also began assisting with transport for the kids’ families as needed. In doing so PAL transitioned from youth-oriented services to youth-oriented, family-connected services. This was one of a series of crucial points in the trust-building process between the residents of this community and the Police.
PAL events were consistently staffed by off-duty police officer volunteers, allowing Rogell neighborhood kids to personally get to know the officer patrolling their beat outside of their uniformed officer presence. This is one of the prime elements of Police Activities League philosophy.
SMPD Officers partnered with PAL on two special targeted parts of this strategy. Our Crime Reduction Unit (hotspot policing team and SMPD’s gang experts) recognized that three of the teens in this neighborhood appeared particularly vulnerable to the gang lifestyle. One of CRU’s Officers led an initiative to get the teens set up with PAL soccer, and in the PAL-facilitated tutoring program, as a diversion from the gang-lifestyle.
School Resource Officers at San Mateo High School and feeder middle schools serving the Rogell area community were also provided excellent prevention and early intervention education through the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program – a structured 13 session course providing youth with training on social defense and proper decision-making skills. The GREAT course and its Officer Instructors were funded in partnership between SMPD, PAL, and the San Mateo – Foster City School District.
As part of our ongoing review for strategies to be institutionalized, the implementation of the GREAT education program in select schools has since blossomed into a robust School Resource Officer team servicing and funded in partnership with all of San Mateo’s three public high schools and four public middle schools, with three full-time School Resource Officers now working under the direction of a sergeant assigned as the Executive Director of the Police Activities League.
SMPD also enlisted the assistance of some of our local businesses to meet goals of the program. One of the key issues in the improvement of the neighborhood was the removal of some of the trash and clutter that exacerbated the condition of blight. Recology, our local waste removal partner, was kind enough to drop off large waste bins for each of the neighborhood’s regularly scheduled cleanup days – these clean-up days not only resulted in a better-looking neighborhood, but were essential in building a teamwork atmosphere between residents, landlords, City Staff, and PCRC, who all participated.
Another key issue was the noticed deficit in available healthy food for many of these residents. San Mateo PAL coordinated with the Second Harvest Food Bank and its “Healthy Food Initiative” to arrange for monthly free healthy food distribution to 85-90 neighborhood families.
Local community groups are surprised when SMPD tells them that in circumstances like Rogell, an increase in calls to the police is a mark of success. Communities with fear and apprehension towards the authorities are – because of that fear – also less likely to call for help and services when needed. This results in the potential for increased danger to their health and safety. Over the past five years, calls for quality of life concerns in the Rogell neighborhood have consistently been increased over previous years.
With trust built between these communities and the authorities, they are much more likely to take ownership of factors that improve the general health and welfare of their neighborhood, and to reach out for help when needed – especially from police. This reduces danger and saves lives.
The Rogell community continues to be clean and well-maintained. The residents now understand the “broken windows” philosophy and quickly address graffiti and blight issues. The Rogell neighborhood continues to conduct regular “cleanup” events. Residents team up with landlords, police officer volunteers (including Area Lieutenant Rick Passanisi and our CRU officers), members of PCRC, and PAL volunteers to keep pride in their neighborhood. Involved community members in this initiative were initially almost exclusively the female members of the household. Now male members are buying-in, and showing up for the “cleanups.” Members of the Rogell community also get together annually at an event they call a “Posada.” This event occurs around the holiday season, and PAL and SMPD assist with decorations and entertainment for the kids. The neighborhood provides a shared spread of traditional food, and the landlord group has been known to show up for the Posadas and celebrate with the neighborhood.
Possibly the most important and visible improvement in this neighborhood is the trust bond and friendly attitude towards the San Mateo Police. A neighborhood that was once terrified to come into contact with SMPD now greets officers with smiles and waves, and children run from the apartment buildings to interact with officers and get SMPD stickers, which are proudly displayed.