These Police Are Stopping Crime in Their Track Shoes

By Jonsson, Patrik | The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

These Police Are Stopping Crime in Their Track Shoes


Jonsson, Patrik, The Christian Science Monitor


AMONG themselves, police sometimes refer to young street thugs as "rabbits." Because if they bolt, they're often uncatchable.

In return, the street community has a nickname for a new kind of police team cruising America's toughest corners: "the jumps."

From dusty rural counties in South Carolina to the chilly urban streets of West Chicago, a growing number of police chiefs are tapping former track and football stand-outs to form special teams to pursue small-time street criminals - on foot or at full sprint.

Munching Power Bars, not Krispy Kremes, these small "aggressive enforcement" teams of mostly young, single officers are charging into gritty areas where beat cops have often had to peel off the chase, huffing and puffing. These are places where corner drug dealing has become blatant, orchestrated by quick young men who know the turf a lot better than the police do.

"Most beat cops won't do what we do," says Cpl. Brian Dawson, a former linebacker and cross-country runner at Eastern Wayne High School, and the brawniest member of the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement (ACE) team of the Wayne County, N.C., sheriff's department.

"The bad guys can run, but we can run, too," he says.

Affordable ... and fleet of foot

Lightly armed, in full-body camouflage and sneakers, and sometimes accompanied by dogs, these special units are generally created by reorganizing departments, not adding new staff. That makes the units affordable enough for deployment in small and medium- size cities, as well as the kind of rural suburbs and mobile-home parks where Mr. Dawson has become a daunting presence.

The concept, while not new, has been spreading rapidly in the past couple of years.

Today's teams of sprinting officers are partly patterned on the 1980s "jump-out" drug-interdiction teams - gung-ho packs of officers who took on gangs, mano a mano. Often pulling up in a ratty car, all in plainclothes, they soon fell out of favor. Too many people complained they couldn't tell the police from the gangs, says Gordon Crews, a criminal justice professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

In contrast, deputies like Dawson and his teammates Mike Cox and Max, a German shepherd, are cutting a more traditional profile, wearing military-style uniforms with "POLICE" stitched on the back - a signal as much to drug dealers as to those who want the drug trade gone from their front stoops.

Much of their work involves literally chasing criminals from alley to alley, often still failing to make arrests. But the result, they say, is less public drug dealing, less crime, and less fear in the neighborhoods.

"As long as it's within the rules and regs of the department, and conforms to the Constitution, so what if it's unconventional?" says John Gnagey, the general manager of the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa. …

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