A downtown contact station, neighborhood meetings, even a Web site that maps all police activity in the city are all on the list of upcoming projects of the Ashland Police Department.

The police are preparing to introduce a string of changes like these in the next several months, many of them examples of the move toward community policing, according to Police Chief Terry Holderness.

Community policing, according to Holderness, is a philosophy of working with the citizens to identify problems and work together on solutions.

"In traditional policing, we wait until after a crime occurs, and then we go out and arrest the suspect," he said. "In community policing, we change the environment, train people how not to be victims, work with people at risk of committing crimes in the future."

For example, traditional policing models may look at crime statistics and conclude that gangs are a major problem, but the citizens they serve may be more concerned with neighborhood nuisances such as loitering and speeding cars, Holderness said.

"Generally speaking, the chief seems very, very responsive to the community," said former ACLU lawyer Ralph Temple. "He seems to be connected to the community, sees himself connected to the community and wants the police to be connected to the community. I think the whole atmosphere is a good one. I really think he is a continuation and embodiment of the spirit Mike Bianca represented."

Mayor John Morrison asked Bianca to resign in April 2006 after a vote of no confidence of the Ashland Police Association the year before. A report issued by the Washington D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum recommended more emphasis on community policing and after a nationwide search, Holderness was named chief in April 2007.

Looking ahead

Since then, the department won approval of a small downtown station by the city council in September, a move that should help reduce response time and provide a convenient place for people to report crimes and police to process paperwork, Holderness said.

"We want it to be a pleasant, comfortable area for people to have contact with us," he said.

The downtown contact station could open as early as March, he said, after the current tenant's lease expires at the end of February.

Holderness also plans to begin neighborhood meetings in March, based on newly-created quadrants of the city, with a sergeant assigned to oversee each one. Those meetings will be a chance for people with similar issues, such as downtown merchants or those living near Southern Oregon University, to voice concerns, and the police will teach people how to avoid becoming victims.

Along the same lines, Holderness plans to bring back the citizens' academy, which gives interested residents an inside look at daily activities of officers.

To increase accountability, the force is considering equipping all squad cars with video equipment that would turn on with emergency lights, similar to the audio recording system they have now. A new addition to their Web site should also improve rapport with the community, Holderness said. With the exception of mental illness or sexual abuse cases, all activity will be posted online, and users will be able to generate reports of activity near a certain address, such as their home or child's school.

"We want to be as transparent as possible so people know what we're doing," he said. "We do have a lot more activity than you would expect for a town this size.

The service, which costs about $200 per month, will also allow police to perform lower-level crime analysis, Holderness said.

Community reaction

Many of the new policies have won favor with the local business community.

"I like where it's going," said Mike Drager, who owns Ashland Money Metals. "I think it remains to be seen how effective it is."

Drager said he was concerned with the large transient and panhandling population in Ashland in the summer, and that a larger police presence was needed to address the problem.

City Councilor Eric Navickas said he is skeptical of some of the changes, and even the term community policing, especially with recent approvals of tasers and downtown contact stations.

"The substation doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing if it's used appropriately, but it seemed to be driven by a section of the business community that's really antagonistic towards a lot of the youth downtown," Navickas said. "The downtown is a public place where all walks of life, people of all backgrounds should be able to spend time."

Dividing the town into different quadrants could also become a negative issue, he said.

Although citizen groups can be beneficial to oversight of policing, they can also become a tool for minority groups to have very strong voices in pushing for heavy-handed policing," he said. "There's a possibility of having a very strong voice for a value that the whole community doesn't support."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .