One morning last May, Dallas Police Chief Ben Click walked into City Park Elementary carrying boxes of cookies and fruit punch.
He signed the volunteer log and trudged along the hallway, down a flight of stairs – nodding and smiling to teachers and students all the way – and then ducked into a classroom.
Throughout the school year, Click tutored a member of the class for an hour every Thursday to prepare for the TAAS test.
Now the studying was over. The students had taken the test earlier in the week, and Click was back to celebrate with them.
Click and two students passed out cookies and punch. They talked about different careers the students could pursue and the importance of staying in school.
“I saw a sign in the office that says ‘Kindness counts,’” Click told the students. “You have to learn how to be kind to people.”
Making A Difference
To some in the Dallas Police Department, Click’s visit to the school is seen as typical Click.
To others, the visit is a waste of time.
Naysayers believe the only way to reduce crime is to build more prisons, put more patrol cars on the streets and adopt legislative initiatives such as the “Three Strikes” sentencing philosophy. Visiting elementary schools with cookies and punch simply doesn’t seem like a viable crime-fighting philosophy to this group.
Click believes, however, the community activism he practices is essential to his job as Dallas Police Chief.
By spending time with young children, he’s showing them that someone important cares about them. And in the future, when they are making decisions about their life, Click hopes they will remember him and avoid a life of crime.
“We try to deal with a lot of social problems with laws,” Click says. “But you address social problems by changing people’s hearts.”
Working to Change the Department
Click isn’t trying to change the hearts of the officers in the Dallas Police Department, but he is diligently working to change the way they police.
A year ago, Click implemented the Interactive Community Policing program. The program’s goal is to get officers out of their patrol cars and into the community so they can solve problems that cause crime.
Each of the department’s operations bureaus has an Interactive Community Policing unit that is implementing the program. The department has 63 ICP officers, and Click says within two years, he hopes all 2,811 Dallas police officers will be practicing community policing.
For citizens, the ICP program is designed to provide better police services by addressing the everyday annoyances that lead to crimes.
For police officers, it is meant to make their work more satisfying, giving them the freedom to work their beats, get to know residents and solve community problems.
“There’s more to police officers than just answering calls,” says Sgt. Mark Smith, who oversees the 12 ICP officers working at the Northeast Operations Bureau.
“There’s more to police officers than making arrests. If we have a real problem, these (ICP) officers have the latitude to solve it.”
Action vs. Lip Service
Prior to Click’s arrival, Dallas police chiefs talked about community policing, but nothing ever seemed to happen.
Since arriving two years ago, Click has not only talked about community policing, he has lived it.
“The idea of him being an Interactive Community Police officer is very accurate,” says neighborhood resident Pam Stephenson. “He is so personable, people want to work with him.”
Stephenson is involved with crime watch programs and the Police Athletic League. She recently mentioned to Click that she was raising money for a league boxing tournament.
“Anything I can do, Pam?” Click asked her.
A few weeks later, he and Stephenson were at the Dallas Morning News discussing funding for the tournament.
“I don’t know how he does all he does,” Stephenson says.
“My sense is that because of Chief Click, there is much more emphasis on community. Before, it was white cars cruising down the streets.”
Living the Philosophy
Nora Tomlin, director of the East Dallas YMCA, first met Click at a YMCA fund-raising victory celebration.
“He walked into that room and mingled,” Tomlin says. “He said, ‘I would like to take the time to meet the kids first.’”
“He took the time to meet the kids and ask them their names and where they go to school. It was: I want to know about you.”
After the celebration, Tomlin invited Click to tour the East Dallas YMCA. Click not only stopped by the East Dallas YMCA, he stayed for several hours to talk about the neighborhood and its issues.
“I feel he did it because he’s interested in the community,” Tomlin says. “He really is sincere in what he believes in.”
“We were talking about something pretty important,” Click says of his visit with Tomlin. “She’s going to tell me things about that neighborhood.”
“I try to be involved in every part of the community.”
Start Early and Finish Late
Click does a pretty good job staying involved. Typically, his day starts at 5 a.m. with a run around White Rock Lake and often lasts deep into the night. He keeps a typed agenda in the car seat next to him. The many pages are paper-clipped, with each item highlighted in yellow.
He attends crime watch meetings, civic organizations’ luncheons and breakfasts, church meetings, Chamber of Commerce banquets, press conferences and police department award ceremonies.
His message is always the same: “As a community, we’ll solve these problems.”
“I stay busy,” Click says. “I enjoy it, I think it’s important. It’s how I envision a Dallas police chief should be.”
When Click attends meetings and community events, he isn’t doing it as a public relations ploy. He is doing the job of a police officer.
By being out in neighborhoods, Click says he learns about our communities. He learns our problems and our assets. Then he uses the information to more effectively police our neighborhoods.
Click also is building relationships between the police force and citizens. As more and more residents see how accessible Click is, he hopes they will make that same connection with the rest of the police force and begin interacting with officers patrolling their neighborhoods.
Through these relationships, officers learn more about the problems that lead to the crimes in our community. The officers can work with neighborhood residents to solve the problems, hopefully heading off crimes before they happen.
“I think a greater sense of community commitment is certainly the way to get more criminals off the street,” Click says.
“As long as you have a city of strangers, you just don’t have a sense of community. From a police officer’s standpoint, we know that if we can get our officers back in the neighborhood where they have a closer relationship with the communities – that once people got to know each other, they start to look out for one another.”
Changing the Culture
“The hardest part of community policing is convincing die-hard police officers they need to communicate with the community,” says Sgt. Tony Crawford, with the Northeast Operations Bureau crime watch unit.
“That’s what he (Click) emphasizes by going to the meetings and interacting with the community.”
Changing how an entire police force operates is not an easy endeavor. Every officer, from Click on down, is going through training.
“Even our hiring and training has been modified,” Click says. “We never measured personal skills, communication skills. We’re in the people business. Other things are important – credibility, trustworthiness in the officers – but you also need to communicate with people, understand their point of view and be willing to listen.”
The ICP program has not been embraced by all officers. Some members of the force feel the ICP program is turning police officers into social workers. Critics are concerned that as police officers help neighborhoods clean-up graffiti, plan job fairs and sponsor immunization clinics they will no longer chase down criminals and make arrests.
Two factions of the force that are having the most difficult time with the ICP program are younger officers and middle bureaucracy – the officials who handle paperwork and judge job performance based on how many tickets are issued, how many calls are answered and how many criminals are arrested.
But it’s hard to quantify the job of an ICP officer. Spending time to track down the out-of-town owner of a property being used as a drug house may not result in immediate arrests. But it can start a process that will ultimately shut the drug house and get the criminal element out of the neighborhood.
“I talked to a lot of the young officers, telling them we are not going to stop catching criminals,” Click says. “I think a lot of the young officers think that we’re just some kind of social worker, and somehow we are going to ignore the criminals. But you can’t ignore the criminal.”
“We had an officer who was killed on the job,” Click says of Officer Richard Lawrence, who patrolled our neighborhood. He was killed the fall of 1993.
“A week before that, I attended a meeting to honor him,” Click says. “He had been on the force 23, 24 years. All those neighbors in the neighborhood where he worked, they knew his car phone number, pager and how to leave a message at the station for him.
“He did not want other officers on his beat. He wanted those people to feel comfortable that he was their officer. Instinctively, he knew that was it, and he had done this for some time.”
“And that’s why they honored him a week before he was killed. He had done exactly what we are talking about.”
Setting the Example
Click joined the Phoenix police department in 1965. He stayed with the department for 28 years, working his way through the ranks to assistant chief. He came to Dallas as police chief a little more than two years ago after the department had gone through a tumultuous period – three police chiefs in less than five years.
There were a lot of people who predicted Click wouldn’t last, that he would buckle under Dallas politics. But he hasn’t.
“I have no intention of leaving,” Click says. “I’m not one of those people who changes jobs often.”
And officers on the force say Click’s leadership is what they need.
“You want a leader,” Crawford says. “You want someone to make decisions.
“The City’s faith in the department in his influence on us and his influence on the community.”
Police Officer Kevin King, who oversees the crime watch program in the Central Operations Bureau, first met Click in Spring 1994, when they worked together on a grant proposal.
“(The first time) I walked into Click’s office, there were six books on his desk,” King says. “He was in the process of reading all of them – knowledge is power.”
Since then, King and Click have worked together on crime watch programs and other police activities. King started the Gaston Avenue Apartment Managers Association in January. The group of apartment managers meets monthly to exchange information and to receive training on how to better operate their complexes.
Click showed up for a meeting once, King says. He met the apartments managers, then sat in the back with some other officers.
“He’s interactive,” King says. “He’s interactive with the community. He’s interactive with his officers.”
“He does the right thing. How many bureaucratic administrators follow that philosophy? He has principles, and he stands on them.”
“He’s the man to implement it (community policing). It’s his personal philosophy about policing.”
“That’s what he’s doing, setting an example.”