Chief Gary Jones has been busy since he took over as the Harlem Police Department’s leader in late April.
His goals include keeping residents safer by stopping criminals and to allow residents and officers to work closer through community policing and an improved public image.
“It basically started out with the belief that the community is the police and the police is the community,” Jones said.
In striving toward those goals, Jones has been a good steward of city money as he upgrades equipment.
Just recently, the department tested out a tag reader that Jones said he expects to purchase at the beginning of the year.
“The unit essentially paid for itself in less than a month,” Jones said, adding that the demo unit was returned in mid-October after 26 days of operation.
The automatic tag reader mounts on the trunk of a patrol car and takes photos of the tags on passing vehicles. It immediately runs the tags through a national database to determine many factors – if the vehicle registration is valid, if it has insurance, the status of the registered owner’s license and if the owner has any warrants, among other things.
Officers are alerted to any of those things quickly so they can stop the vehicle.
“It does it automatically,” Jones said. “No matter how many cars come by, just constantly.”
Jones said the unit netted nearly 100 citations for a variety of infractions, mostly drivers with invalid registrations and driving without insurance. The tag reader cost up to $25,000 and Jones hopes the purchase of one will be included in next year’s budget to be approved by city leaders in December.
Jones said he hopes the tag reader will help capture and deter drug traffickers and dealers from the city. He said many people transporting drugs try to avoid drug interdiction efforts on Interstate 20 and travel U.S. 78 (Milledgeville Road) from Madison, Ga., through Harlem.
“I know for a fact, corresponding with other law enforcement officers and through their interviews with informants, that people are coming through Harlem with kilos of cocaine and methamphetamine and money,” Jones said.
He’s already had three officers trained in drug interdiction and criminal apprehension and hopes to have a drug detection canine on staff by the end of the year.
The tag reader is one of the few things Jones hopes to spend money on. He’s gotten an enclosed trailer and a golf car donated to the department. The trailer, stuffed with a donated generator, traffic cones and barrels, is used during road checks. The golf car, Jones said, is often used by one of the night-patrolling deputies as a low-profile way to patrol low-lit or suspicious areas and residential areas at night.
Thanks to a donation from the Fraternal Order of Police in September, the department’s six full-time officers are sporting new body armor vests. The department’s vests were expired and in bad shape. Still outdated, but better vests were donated from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
“This vest here is a lot more versatile,” Officer David Reynolds said. “It’s a lot more comfortable.”
Reynolds often wears the vest with a new navy blue uniform that the department is evaluating. That uniform allows officers to wear the vest on the outside of their shirts and has suspender-type straps to take the 28-pound weight of a loaded belt and vest off the officers’ backs and hips.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Reynolds said.
Jones said he hopes about $20,000 for the new uniforms also will be included in the 2014 budget.
“Uniforms make the image of the department,” Jones said.
Reynolds also is sporting another of the department’s new purchases – portable camera system. A grant paid for seven of the camera systems, which costs about $1,000 each. The dash-mounted camera can record audio and video while an officer drives or can be removed and clipped to the officer’s clothing to be worn as they respond to calls.
Jones also has started numerous volunteer programs and is hopping to have more up and running by the end of the year. The department has organized regular self-defense classes for women and has had about 100 people interested in an upcoming teenage driving awareness class.
Jones hopes to have a Citizens On Patrol unit formed by the end of the year. Volunteers who pass an application process and background checks will be trained in observation techniques and radio procedures. They’ll patrol the city looking for suspicious activity or anything else that warrants a police response.
“They’ll have access to our radio direct to call dispatch or the cars that are on duty,” Jones said. “So if they see something, anything they see that is suspicious.
“(They are) another pair of eyes and ears. They will not approach anybody.”
Reporting crime is not always as easy for citizens. So, Jones set up an anonymous tip line. Callers can leave a voicemail message by calling (706) 910-9221.
“A lot of people don’t want to report because they are afraid that they are going to have to get involved,” Jones said. “That’s why I wanted to create an outlet to do so without having to.”