Dayton Sees Drastic Crime Report Reduction as Police Chief Draws on Community

Dayton Sees Drastic Crime Report Reduction as Police Chief Draws on Community

Austerity a 'good thing' for community-centric, innovative approaches: Chief Richard Biehl

Dayton, Ohio chief of police Richard Biehl has been making what some are calling the "worst" decisions in policing history for the past four years, but in 2011 the city experienced an unprecedented drop in crime reports — more significant than in any of the prior 10 years. Richard and the Dayton policing department have since received state, national and international recognition for their contribution to this decline.

Richard attributes the results — and the disgruntled folks — in part to the community-centric, innovative changes he and the Dayton police department made to how policing gets done in Dayton.

He says he doesn't think any of this would have been possible without austerity measures forcing change, breaking down people's resistance to change, and creating or deepening both the urgency and the importance of community.

Dayton chief of police Richard Biehl

The scene

There hasn't been a time in his public career, which dates back to the late 70s, when Richard saw such a substantial drop in police staffing numbers across the U.S. as when he joined the Dayton policing department in 2008. It's a reality that continues to this day for some parts of the country, with state cuts coming even this year, he tells Axiom News in an interview earlier this month.

Dayton has also faced slower economic rebound than much of the rest of the country, having failed in large part to recover from the dot-com bubble-burst, with only a three to four per cent growth over the decade from 2001.

Adding to this, about the time Richard came to Dayton, the justice department had sued the civil service over its testing process for both police officers and firefighters, and, while that was being contested, hiring was frozen. It has been four years since police officers have been hired and during that time the department has lost almost 100 officers.  

"All of that obviously created some very challenging, very interesting circumstances when I first came here," says Richard.

The wizardry

Described by a friend as a "philosopher chief" — one of those rare breeds found in almost every profession that's looking to reconstruct the very essence of their field - Richard made one of his first changes asking a new question.

While a study had been commissioned to examine the number of officers required to police a city the size of Dayton, Richard proposed it was more relevant to ask "how we change the way we're policing the community to accommodate the staffing level we're rapidly approaching."

"We knew we weren't going to get more officers; we had to police differently," says Richard.

The department found answers to that second question in several different arenas, from revising the type of call that would require officer response as well as the extent of response, to changing the criteria used when considering jail for minor misdemeanours. Both measures coincided with a significant drop in the reported incidence of crime and jail intake numbers.

Richard also oversaw the restructuring of the Dayton police department from five police districts to three divisions, as well as the eliminating of a long-held command and supervisory structure recognized as no longer efficient.

Accessing technology as a force multiplier is another part of an ongoing experiment in response.

The main actors

But the No. 1 solution in Richard's mind was leveraging the community, both other institutions and citizens, as enforcers of public safety.

"I think anyone who has been in the chair of being the head of a law enforcement agency knows that with shrinking resources you have to leverage partnerships, not only with law enforcement agencies and other government entities, but, and most importantly, with citizens," says Richard, noting he will make the call "until the day he's gone" that citizens have to take a greater role in ensuring public safety.

The tactics the Dayton police department have put in place to enable this institution and citizen engagement have included, among others, arranging for adjacent jurisdictions to have the authority of Dayton police, not just when the latter is overwhelmed, as has been the case in the past, but even for ongoing day-to-day issues.

For citizens, there's a crime-mapping tool and citizen's digital alert to bring crime knowledge and awareness to them in real-time.

While there's lots of room for more uptake on these and other ways to get involved, Richard says his general sense is that the community at large is more open to a collaborative approach than ever before.

"My first experience when I came to Dayton is that was a very welcoming and a very caring community even though it was not a resource-rich  community, and I think what happened in the last few years was a realization across the board that people really need to work with each other and I think we've developed a much truer sense of community."

The twist

The recession, he adds, appears to be helping things along in this respect.

"I think some of the austerity that has come along with some of these difficult economic times has begun to shift that sense of the significance of community and the need to get to know each other better and the fact that we do need to depend on each other," says Richard.

"There's a long way to go yet; but it seems we're moving back to a much greater appreciation for the collective, for what it is to really be part of a community and feel part of a community."

The numbers and awards

Here's a sample of the reduced reported incidents of crime in Dayton from 2010 to 2011: armed robbery down by 20 per cent; aggravated assault reduced by 18 per cent; vandalism down by 16 per cent, and downtown targeted crimes down by 28 per cent.

Among the awards the Dayton police department has received is the 2011 Community Policing Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Cisco, for its community policing initiative at Belmont High School that is credited with reducing reported incidents of crime and disorderly behavior by nearly 80 percent. The project was implemented in co-operation with Dayton Public Schools and the Montgomery County Juvenile Court. It has also been recognized by Ohio Crime Prevention Association.

— More to come with author Peter Block on the Dayton, Ohio story, the larger narrative of restorative communities, and how the recession can be a
force for good in this.

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