Oct. 18--DECATUR -- In the early decades of the 20th century, one of the most familiar figures on the urban American scene was the cop on the beat.
In recent decades, the foot patrolman has all but disappeared from city streets.
However, he is beginning to make a comeback in Decatur.
During the past two years, police officers have been venturing out two-by-two onto the sidewalks of inner-city neighborhoods and the downtown business district.
The idea is to forge relationships with area residents and business owners to prevent crime and gather information leading to arrests, while identifying potential trouble spots such as abandoned houses.
Police Chief Todd Walker said that when he took the police force's reins in January 2011 he believed a partnership between the department and the community would be necessary to effectively fight crime.
"One of the things we really ramped up was foot patrols," Walker said during a recent interview.
Officers serving in various capacities have been walking frequent afternoon beats, including patrol officers, detectives and command officers.
"The main reason is to get out and interact with people, listen to what they have to say, to address some things we might not see in a squad car or might not be able to deal with if we just wait for a call for service," Walker said.
At the start of a patrol in the GM Square neighborhood on a gorgeous summer day, Sgt. Ed Hurst and patrol officer Ben Massey parked their squad car in a church parking lot on North Edward Street and headed north.
Every time they walk a two-hour patrol, they take a different route, depending on what they observe.
"This is a pretty good way to develop some information about the neighborhood," said Massey, a Lovington native who has served on the force for four years.
Hurst said people are not afraid to give officers information on the street if they can make it appear like they are conducting casual conversations.
"Someone could tell you that they saw someone down the street carrying a TV," Hurst said.
Massey and Hurst frequently greet people sitting on porches or hanging out in yards. In most cases, their friendly greetings are returned.
While on foot patrol, they are exempt from answering calls for service, which consume much of the time of patrol officers in squad cars.
"You get so wrapped up in running from call to call." says Hurst, who has been working the overnight shift as a sergeant since May, after about 14 years on the street. "You get busy in a car. This is a nice way to slow it down."
Massey said it pays to get to know people, sometimes by name.
"If something happens (such as a serious crime), we can talk with that person, see if they know anything," Massey said. "You do develop a rapport with the people in the neighborhood."
During this patrol, the officers came upon a boarded-up vacant house on North Union Street with a downed 30-foot-tall pine tree -- recently felled by a chainsaw -- blocking the front sidewalk. When they checked the rear of the house, they found that the boards had been removed from the rear doorway.
The officers entered the dark house with their flashlights.
"Police department. If you're in here let us know," Hurst announced.
There was no response.
The house had been ransacked. Canned goods were strewn across the floors in the kitchen and basement. The entire house was a mess.
As the officers examined every room in the house, they repeated their announcement.
They stopped outside while Hurst reported the condition of the house to he city's Neighborhood Standards Department, so they will board it up again.
The house next-door was also vacant, an uninhabitable wreck gutted and blackened by a fire.
A few blocks away, the officers strike up a conversation with a man who has been working outside.
He told them about a car of a specific color and model that has been stopping nearby to sell drugs every night.
The officers said they will pass that information on to street crimes detectives.
Patrol Lt. Brad Sweeney, coordinator of the foot patrols, said they have been effective.
"Numerous times, people walked up to officers that gave them information that led to arrests right then and there," Sweeney said. "People have told officers: 'Go right around the corner and check out (a specific) car. They're selling drugs out of the car.' That happened on Johns and Maffit one afternoon.
"In police work you try different tactics," he said. "Foot patrols are doing something that work in Decatur and work well."
Patrol officers also employ the element of surprise.
"The person in the car was looking for black and white squad cars," Sweeney said. "Before he could react, the officers were on him. They are looking for squad cars in the area. They are not expecting two police officers on foot to come walking up on them."
Sweeney, who has walked on foot patrols himself, said people are confident about approaching friendly foot patrolmen but will rarely flag down a passing squad car.
"There is so much more face-to-face contact on foot," Sweeney said.
Another recent important victory by foot patrolmen occurred on North Union Street.
"Neighbors told them about firearms hidden in a bush and under a porch," Sweeney said. "The officers recovered them. I'm not sure that would have happened if they were in a squad car."
Walker said the foot patrols this year are funded by a federal Justice Administration Grant of $45,587. The money is used to fund proactive police work, which also includes bike patrols and "rat packs." Rat packs are operations in which officers from other law enforcement agencies work alongside Decatur police to saturate an area, to arrest fugitives and search for contraband and firearms.
Homicides and shooting incidents have dropped significantly since last year, and Walker attributes this partly to the department's aggressive, proactive activities.
"We wanted to go into these troubled neighborhoods and let the residents know we were going to do everything in our power to control these problems," Walker said. "We don't want the good guys to feel left out. We want to give them their due attention."
Copyright 2012 - Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill.