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Mass. police start new program to build community relationships, locate suspects

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MassLive.com

CHICOPEE, Mass. — For 22 years, police Sgt. Thomas Gazda has been responding to call after call, mainly arresting or warning suspects before heading to the next problem.

But starting in January that’s going to change. Gazda has been selected as the leader of a three-person team that will take a new approach to crime-fighting by working with business owners, community leaders, social services agencies and the troublemakers themselves.

The Police Department is instituting a “C3” policing unit in Chicopee Center. The name stands for Counter Criminal Continuum, and the program follows practices used by the military in war zones, having officers form friendships with law-abiding people in the neighborhoods and using those relationships to identify criminals and connect people who need help with services.

“We know what we are doing is not working in the center. We want to bring in a new strategy,” Police Chief William R. Jebb said.

In the past year or so, there have been a number of problems downtown including a homicide, several shootings and assaults, and a brawl involving at least 300 teens.

“We have seen a spike in crime in recent years and there have been a lot more problems with nuisance crimes ... vagrancy, car breaks, small disturbances,” Jebb said. “We want to attack it now. We want to be proactive.”

As part of that effort, the Police Department is renting a former bank office at 35 Center St. for a substation that will be staffed by the C3 officers, with the assistance of volunteers, and open to residents. The department had a downtown office in the Chamber of Commerce building, but it was difficult to find. Now the building is being repurposed and the police are being evicted, Jebb said.

The new office is easily accessible and will be very visible. Residents will be encouraged to drop in to talk to the officers. There are conference rooms for community meetings and other gatherings.

The key to the program is to have officers work with business owners and community leaders, such as members of the Chicopee Center Neighborhood Association. The effort is wide-reaching and will involve anyone who wants to get involved, and the C3 officers will hold regular meetings, Jebb said.

Jebb said he remembers Chicopee Center was always busy when he was growing up. Now major development is being planned for the downtown with the conversion of the Cabotville and Lyman mills into apartments. But people must feel downtown is safe to attract new investments in the city, he said.

In addition to the C3 effort, police will have a downtown walking beat around the clock and regular patrols with cruisers. The difference is while officers rotate in and out for the walking beats, the same C3 officers — Gazda, Keith Hevey and John Slachetka — will be a constant presence downtown so they can build relationships with the community, Jebb said. The three officers will work flexible shifts so they can attend evening meetings, weekend activities or other events, he said.

The program takes extra resources, but this month a regional dispatch center with civilian dispatchers opened in Chicopee, freeing up six officers daily from previous duties of handling calls and enabling the city to try C3 policing, Jebb said.

The C3 team will be in close communication with school resource officers, who will share information about youth gangs and other issues likely to spill into the neighborhoods, as one violent gang of youths did about four years ago.

They also will work with the building and health departments to crack down on code enforcement issues. “We want to attack quality-of-life issues,” Jebb said.

Jebb used an example of Lucy Wisniowski Park, which had become such a gathering spot for gangs and drug activity that families avoided it, even though most children in the nieghborhood had no other place to play. In a case like that, the C3 officers might organize basketball games or simply spend time in the park to make children feel safe and show the gangs they’re unwelcome, he said.

One of the goals is to not just arrest people, but also to help them get into a better situation.

“When you are dealing with gangs and posses some people need to be locked up, but others can get out if they are offered an opportunity to get a GED or a job,” said state Trooper Michael Cutone, who developed the C3 program based on military methods he witnessed while serving overseas with the U.S. Army. He is training the Chicopee C3 officers.

Gazda was selected as the leader of the team because he is highly motivated, community-oriented and has the personality and experience for the position, Jebb said. The chief asked other interested officers to apply and nine responded. Applicants put together PowerPoint presentations and were interviewed. Hevey, an officer for 3\u00bd years, and Slachetka, a 7-year officer, were selected. Jebb said he hopes to eventually expand to a five-person C3 team.

The three C3 officers agreed that, under the old system, they didn’t have time to talk with people and find out more about their circumstances or follow up on problems they learned about on calls.

A suspect may be shoplifting because he is living in a tent on the riverbank and doesn’t know about the city’s soup kitchen, Gazda said. An addict may want to stop using heroin but not know where to turn.

“We have a homeless population downtown and we get a lot of calls about them trespassing, shoplifting,” Gazda said. “Maybe we can help them.”

Jebb said he consulted with Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl C. Clapprood, who has been involved in C3 policing since her department started using the model about 10 years ago.

“What we have seen is a drop in crime in the areas that we put it in,” Clapprood said. The city now has C3 units in four neighborhoods, the South End, the North End, Hill-McKnight and Forest Park, which were selected due to income levels, home ownership, education levels of residents and crime problems. About 45 officers work in the C3 units.

The key is to work with community partners, Clapprood said. Springfield’s C3 units have a close relationship with Baystate Health, which now has a trained medical professional who often responds with police to calls for people who are suicidal or in crisis, she said.

“I think the most important piece of advice I have is to encompass and embrace the social service partners,” Clapprood said. “They have to be there for you to address alcohol and addiction and truancy.”

Baystate will also have an office in the Chicopee Center police substation to assist those who have an addiction or are mentally ill, Jebb said.

The C3 units in Springfield also work closely with Quebec Team officers, who work in the schools. “That is a big factor if you can reach kids at risk who are likely to join gangs,” Clapprood said. Sometimes one mentor — a coach, a teacher, an officer — can make a big difference in ensuring a child becomes a good citizen, she said.

“You can’t do it for everyone, it isn’t a panacea,” she said. “For some of these kids it is day-to-day, they are used to surviving. But if you can make them understand they can be what they want to be, it helps.”