Lakewood PD unit at the forefront of community policing

Dutch Smith spends his workdays differently than a lot of other agents with the Lakewood Police Department.

Rather than going on patrol or responding to calls about crime, Smith and the other agents in the department’s sector liaison unit work on community outreach and crime prevention. Last week Smith walked through a senior living complex and looked at the security of the doors, made sure landscaping didn’t obstruct views and checked for adequate lighting, inside and out.

“They call me the light cop,” Smith said.

The sector liaison unit is at the forefront of the department’s ongoing community policing effort that brings officers together with residents and business owners.

The five-agent group was started in the early 2000s under then-Chief Ron Burns and the agents are split between northern and southern neighborhoods. The agents have all been on the force for several years and are assigned to the unit for five years.

“We get our faces out there a lot. People get to know us and it develops a very healthy and strong relationship,” Smith said.

Agents regularly meet with business owners, attend community events such as HOA meetings and City Council ward meetings, and work with Neighborhood Watch groups. They also work with the city’s homeless population and try to help neighbors resolve disputes.

“They’re probably in the forefront of our community policing efforts,” Lakewood Police Chief Dan McCasky said.

The agents help residents and business owners use environmental design in their efforts to prevent crime, examining a building’s layout, landscaping and lighting. Smith and other agents even shared ways that could boost residents’ safety during the design of the CityScape at Belmar senior apartment complex. Buildings that have been inspected and are in compliance with safe design principles can earn a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design certificate.

“If you can start thinking about crime prevention from a design perspective, you tend to have an advantage. It’s a lot easier to design a feature into a building rather than adjusting a feature afterward,” agent Chad Martinez said.

Martinez believes it’s important to take a proactive approach to policing rather than waiting to react to crime. His unit’s actions, such as taking part in National Night Out, are a big part of the department’s effort’s to build trust within Lakewood and raise crime awareness.

“The issue any agency has is engagement with the community. Not that many people join the police department Facebook page,” Martinez said. “We’re not celebrities, we’re not cool people to follow on Twitter, so the battle always becomes ‘How do we get that information out? How do we get people to care about safety and security?'”

Community policing in Lakewood has been at the forefront of McCasky’s efforts to lead the department, continuing what former Chief Kevin Paletta did before him. Mayor Adam Paul has praised the department and the unit for being a positive presence in the city.

“It’s a great unit and what it does is it allows our police agents to really get into the neighborhoods and build relationships, which is important in policing,” Paul said.

McCasky hopes to add another officer to the unit and will ask for money to do so in next year’s budget.

“It’s a great unit. They are really high energy, highly motivated,” McCasky said. “They are invaluable to us, we couldn’t do the things we do without them.”

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