SAN ANTONIO – Finding innovative ways to fight crime on the East Side is a top priority for San Antonio Police Chief William McManus.
A big part of that effort involves a renewed emphasis on community policing.
For more than 20 years, the core of SAPD's community policing efforts has been the department's S.A.F.F.E Unit, which stands for San Antonio Fear Free Environment.
Officers assigned to the unit work more closely with community members, attending meetings and special events, to establish trust and lasting relationships that can be beneficial when it comes to solving crimes.
"We've realized that the community policing model, being engaged with the community, is an extra resource that kind of helps with fighting crime," Sgt. Valente Garcia said.
Garcia, who works property crimes on the East Side, said S.A.F.F.E officers work with the community to identify problems and then bring in other city agencies to provide solutions to those problems.
Many times, those problems are quality of life issues and aren't police related, but left ignored could become problems officers eventually are forced to deal with.
"A quality of life issue could be an abandoned home, a lot that's vacant that's collecting junk, that is a place that attracts crime. You can have loitering, drug dealing, drinking, places to conceal contraband, weapons, people can hide after a crime. So if we address those kinds of issues, I think it eliminates a lot of the criminal activity that is around and addresses that quality of life issue for that person that lives in that area," Garcia said. "It allows us to share information with other city agencies that not only helps us solve crime but in turn solves a quality of life issue for the residents out here."
Solving the little problems shows the community that officers are partners with the residents. The hope is those relationships can be tapped into when they need help solving a crime.
"They put out a problem or issue they had and the officer addressed it and they say, 'Hey, they solved the problem. I trust that guy. He's actually a police officer who works in my community. I know him,'" Garcia said. "Most of the time people come into contact with police involuntarily, if we make a stronger effort to be more engaged with the community and addressing something they have a specific concern about, they're going to build a relationship and that's going to establish a type of rapport that can go on for years."
Officer Kevin Whisenhunt has been a patrol officer on the East Side for 16 years. He's spent the past 11 years working as a S.A.F.F.E officer. He said he's built such strong bonds with some community members they will only call him when they need help so he always has a long list of problems to tackle.
"There's a lot of people that want to deal with me and no other officer," Whisenhunt said. "So when I get in on Mondays from two days of being off, there's a lot of messages for me to contact certain people with certain problems."
As he drives around the community he patrols, Whisenhunt waves at residents and shouts "Hi" to them from his patrol car. He can point out problems that have been solved that have in turn helped solve crimes.
"We had a murder here about two months ago. We responded to the scene and found the body here in the yard," Whisenhunt said, pointing to a home. "The suspect was arrested two weeks ago. He's from this neighborhood. Sometimes it's a slow process, but eventually someone will come help us out."
Garcia said to be successful at fighting crime, it takes a strong partnership between the officers and the residents they serve. He believes that trust is there but can always be strengthened.
"I got to be honest with you, I think the relationship is great," Garcia said. "I believe the community out here trusts the police department."