by Julian Rankin
For the heroes in the Jackson Police Department who patrol the streets of Fondren, no job is too small – even Christopher Reeves’ Superman once rescued a girl’s stranded cat from a tree. It is more than living into the “protect and serve” mantra. It is a strategic effort supported by Chief Lee Vance called community policing. As precinct four Commander Keith Freeman declared, “they’re not separate words. It’s a combined word. Community and policing together.”
Commander Freeman filled the position previously held by neighborhood fixture Commander James McGowan, who was recently promoted to District Commander (he now oversees precinct four, which includes Fondren, as well as precinct three). McGowan was perpetually on call, even through social media networks and by cell phone. His one condition before taking the promotion was that he be allowed to maintain a strong presence in Fondren. He refused to leave it behind.
Community policing is about more than arrests and traffic infractions and foot chases. It demands that officers meet and interact with the business owners and citizens on their beats and that they regularly attend community meetings.
“They have a voice just like we have a voice,” McGowan said of the community. “They know they can communicate with us directly if they need anything. They love us and we love Fondren.”
Officer Lakashia Younger has been on the force for about four years. She thrives in the community-driven work environment, especially as a role model for young Jacksonians. Veterans like commanders McGowan and Freeman have set the tone for officers in precinct four about what it means to be a champion for the city. When Younger was in middle school, she dreamed of being a policewoman. She joined a local Police Explorers program, which educated young people about law enforcement. All these years later, some of her former instructors are now colleagues.
“I knew you’d be an officer when you were in school,” they say to her. “That’s all you talked about. You loved putting on your uniform.” Then and now, Younger considers police officers real-life superheroes.
Police must be a calming force on one hand and a protective and alert one on the other. When situations turn on a dime, their long hours of training kick in. Community policing is also a educational process, where officers learn to see the integrated picture of what makes a community work. Commander Freeman’s realization came early in his career when he worked the quiet night shift. Only after pulling a double and seeing daybreak and the city stir, parents waving their children off to school, did he feel connected. “You realize that you’re helping people in the middle of the night even though you don’t have direct contact. We’re here to be public servants at all hours.”
The community has reciprocated. Fondren celebrates the Jackson Police Department at annual picnics and events. Every day, local business owners look forward to seeing their neighborhood cops, who they know by familiar first names. “The public made it a point to do things for us,” says McGowan. “That means so much and makes it worthwhile.” These relationships also support the officers’ high-stakes work; they rely on grassroots information to more effectively do their jobs. “Without community, you’d never know what’s going on,” Younger said. “They help us.”
Most of the people the police encounter aren’t breaking laws. Officers give direction to wayward travelers and lost residents. “It may not be a police matter,” says Freeman, “but we should try to get them the help they need.” When crimes do inevitably happen in the city and a resident is vulnerable and crestfallen, the precinct’s officers support and uplift. This empathy is what has made community policing work in Jackson, the commanders say.
At the end of their shifts, these officers set aside their badges and return to families and lives of their own. Proof of community policing in action is when the distinction between an officer’s on-duty and off-duty personas falls away. Commander McGowan responded to the scene some years back when Fondrenite Dr. Scott Crawford’s beloved Lego Jackson masterpiece was tragically vandalized at a storage facility. Fast-forward to today, and McGowan – wearing his hat as a scout master – dispatches his troop each year to help Crawford install his ever-growing display at the Arts Center of Mississippi. As it is in the Lego city, the police officers that serve Fondren do their jobs with smiles, working to build a safer and more connected Jackson.