Prevention, Not Just Arrests; A Police Program Seeks to Stem Crime before There's a Need for an Apprehension

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT COLEMAN

This fence puts chain link to shame.

Each panel is about 7 feet tall and topped with sharpened metal.

A bolt cutter would barely make a dent in the solid iron bars that constitute the frame.

But that didn't stop someone from trying to uproot it. One of the panels that wasn't anchored in concrete was cocked at a strange angle, leaving a small entrance to the debris-filled creek beyond.

"There's a reason it's called an elephant fence," Miles McChriston said. "Whoever tried to move it probably got a hernia."

McChriston, a 21-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, isn't in the fence-building business, but he said this is one of the projects of which he's most proud.

He and Officer Rita Cusatti are part of a new Sheriff's Office initiative to alter the reactive nature of police work. The agency was awarded a $1.1 million grant by the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank out of Washington, D.C., to shift the focus from making arrests to identifying the root causes of crime.

About 60 other officers were selected for their problem-solving acumen and given a simple directive by Sheriff's Office administrators.

Put the handcuffs down. Take some time. Walk around the community and figure out the locations and motivations of the criminal element.

INITIATIVE, NOT REACTION

Cusatti and McChriston's patrol area encompasses the Royal Estates apartment complex, which is on a service road in the 8000 block of the Arlington Expressway. The apartment manager told them about a rash of car and home break-ins plaguing residents, so the pair got to work.

They located a busted chain-link fence toward the back of the complex that exited into a shallow creek. Overturned shopping carts and cracked TVs had been haphazardly arranged into a makeshift bridge for departing criminals.

Cusatti, a 13-year Sheriff's Office veteran, approached her husband, a Jacksonville architect with experience building sturdy intruder-proof fences, with an idea.

She wanted to build an imposing barrier to block criminals from entering or leaving the complex.

The officers then convinced local vendors to donate the fencing material at little to no cost. Apartment maintenance workers have been contributing most of the manpower, and the fence will be complete in a few weeks.

The total cost would've been about $18,000 based on contractors' quotes, Cusatti said. The apartment manager paid about $300.

"Instead of just arresting the guys who'd enter and waiting for more to follow, we tried to figure a way to shut down that access permanently," she said.

Andres Reeder lives at and works maintenance in the complex. He said he's seen a noticeable decline in the number of unsavory characters coming through the creek opening since the fence project began. It's made criminals think twice, and sometimes that's all it takes, he said.

"Anything to keep them from coming in is a good idea," Reeder said. "I'm thinking about wrapping some barbed wire around it once it's all up to make sure they keep out. …