The body language of those attending the South OKC Safe grant kick-off meeting Thursday night changed when OKC Police Maj. Paco Balderrama started explaining the program in Spanish.
For many in the U.S. Grant auditorium on S. Pennsylvania Avenue it was a gesture that seemed to immediately put them at ease.
Balderrama grew up there and graduated from U.S. Grant High School.
Maj. Patrick Stewart, commander of the south side Santa Fe Division, and Balderrama in OKCPD administration explained a program approved by the OKC council Nov. 21 that will pay officers who patrol that division overtime to get out and go door to door asking questions about what people in those neighborhoods need from the police.
They aim to repeat the success the approach had on the northeast side of the city where the mostly black population has, at times, struggled to trust the police.
Most everyone involved with the new state-funded enforcement push to the south side says it’s going to be a heavy lift to get people to accept uniformed officers knocking doors and asking questions with clipboards in hand.
These are the days of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on homes and businesses.
People who live in south side neighborhoods often say fear of a uniformed person knocking on the door is strong.
One of the audience, Jose Rodriguez, asked a question specifically if they were going to be working with ICE to pick up people who are in the United States illegally.
Stewart and Balderrama both were emphatic that from the chief on down, their department is committed to letting federal agents do their own work.
“If we are called to your house to help, we are not going to ask about your immigration status,“ said Balderrama. “We are there to help. If people think we are there to ask about their status, they won’t call, which we want them to do.”
After the formal part of the meeting was over Free Press talked to Rodriguez about why he asked that question.
“We just want everyone to feel safe and like they are a part of the community,” said Rodriguez. “People live and work here and they should not have to worry and live in fear.”
Stewart has to deal with that fear daily as he leads a 191-square-mile division that includes large parts of the Hispanic population.
The six-mile area for the focus is where there is the greatest need, but also the least trust.
Stewart told Free Press after the presentation that he thinks it will have “a significant impact.”
“I believe in my heart of hearts we will significantly reduce violent crime in that zone,” said Stewart.
But the relationships that are built will have an impact on the citizens and the officers.
“They [officers] do not get an opportunity very often to meet with people in an area where they patrol, find out about them as a person, realize they are no different than them, create a friendship,” Stewart said.
“I think it’s going to be a win/win for the citizens and the officers.”
State Representative Mickey Dollens, who represents HD 93 on the south side backed up Stewart’s ideas about relationships.
“I found out early how important door-knocking was,” said Dollens. “You learn a lot by knocking on doors and asking people what they need from their government.”
Sweeps vs relationships
After their presentation, Balderrama talked with Free Press and was confident about the program’s long-term impact.
“You know, we can do sweeps where we mark off an area and just start making large numbers of arrests. But the problem is that when all of those people we arrest get out of jail they have lost their jobs and go right back into the community,” said Balderrama. “It’s just not productive over the long term.”
He said this program will have officers talking to people on their own doorstep and asking questions about what they need. They will be shaking hands and try to make a connection.
“We believe that we can reduce violent crime by doing that over a long period of time. You can’t put a price tag on building relationships,” he said.
Oklahoma City Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer talked with us after the program and described it as “an amazing grant,” and described the first use of the method on the northeast side as producing “terrific results.”
The area for the south side grant is mostly in her ward.
She said she is hopeful about the long-term relationships officers will be able to form in the program.