Virginia Beach, Va. - Steve Brown and several other police officers raced to Baccalaureate Drive looking for an escaping gunman.
Police said James White had murdered his wife, wounded her son, and then ran into the Campus East neighborhood. A group of kids flagged down the pursuing police. They pointed to where White was hiding.
“We were able to set a perimeter, close in, and take him down,” Brown said.
That readiness to help police didn’t often happen in the Lake Edward and Campus East communities. Community leaders told NewsChannel 3 that for many years, officers patrolling some of the high-crime areas eyed everyone with suspicion, and that built a wall between the police and the communities they covered.
“They looked at everyone as if they were the criminal,” said Rev. Michael Daniels, of Enoch Baptist Church. “Or at least a friend of the criminals.”
Daniels said some neighbors didn’t report the drug dealers because sometimes calling the cops led to other problems.
“With a drug dealer, they know their intentions. They know what they are going to do,” he said. “But with the police officers, you never know.”
That’s what police Capt. Dennis Hebert inherited when he took command of the Third Precinct four years ago. When he was a sergeant and a lieutenant in that precinct, he believed more could be done to build trust in the neighborhoods. And when he arrived as captain, he had the power to make the changes. Rev. Daniels was one of the first people Hebert sought.
The strategy is simple, he said: “We have to treat people with dignity and respect.”
The commander’s idea was, from a policing standpoint, pretty basic: Encourage the officers to get to know the neighbors, and to be a part of the community. He urges his officers to get out of their patrol cars and set out on foot, meeting people.
“We call it the stop, walk and talk,” he said.
Officers last year went door-to-door to hear neighbors’ concerns about crime near their homes, as part of a survey. In Lake Edward and Campus East, more than half said guns and drugs were problems. But more than half in Campus East said the police were doing a good job, and close to 70 percent in Lake Edward said that.
The police’s job in the neighborhoods has gone far beyond arresting criminals. Officers log busted streetlights, broken fences and abandoned houses, sending maintenance requests to the city. Then, the officers make sure city crews fix the problems. Officers also join in community meetings, including the newly re-formed Lake Edward Civic League. And the police partner with three churches to host community days that draw thousands. Those events, Hebert says, go a long way to patching strained relationships. Now, according to Hebert, police are getting the tips they need to find the criminals.
“We’re finding more and more people calling us and giving us information, unlike they ever used to,” he said.
And that brings us back to the shootout.
Brown told NewsChannel 3 he recognized the kids who gave the crucial information about the gunman from the recent community day. And, more important, the kids recognized him.
“That made the difference” he said.
Rev. Daniels says the communities are far better, and far safer than they were a handful of years ago, and he credits the police with building needed relationships.
Just a few years ago, “I wouldn’t have walked this neighborhood at night,” he said. “In 2015, I will.”
“Are all the problems solved? No,’ Rev. Michaels said. “Are there still some issues that need to be resolved? Of course. But we have made great strides.”