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Policing to change in Tarpon

An old idea about police and the people they serve has received a new twist in Tarpon Springs.

The idea is community-based policing _ where police officers get to know the people they serve at times other than crises. It's an idea that has been around since police officers first walked the beat, said Tarpon Spring Police Chief Keith Bergstrom.

The twist is how it will work in Tarpon Springs. Under the direction of Lt. Mark LeCouris, the police department is developing its own version of community-based policing that will involve not only knowing the residents, but knowing what services are available to help them, LeCouris said.

"We will have more involvement in the neighborhoods, bringing resources to them, get the pulse of the community and do things that the community needs and wants," LeCouris said.

The police department won't select officers to walk a beat, as other departments have. Instead, the department will encourage all the officers to get to know the community through a variety of programs and approaches, LeCouris said.

"We don't want the community relating to one officer, but to as many officers as we can," he said.

The Community Project will attempt projects in four areas: youths, business, victims and neighborhoods.

The projects will include:

Development and/or assistance in youth counseling, tutoring and mentor programs.

Increased victim assistance and victim information programs.

Increased surveillance in business districts through the Night Eyes Program.

Development of Community Pulse reports, where supervisors and officers exchange information about neighborhoods.

The project won't cost the city extra money initially, LeCouris said. The police department will use resources it has and take any extra money from crime prevention and training programs and about $5,000 from the department's forfeiture fund.

The Community Project was the brainchild of LeCouris and was the outgrowth of the city's Cops and Kids program. Formed in 1990, the program brought children and police together in a positive environment, in the hope of breaking down the distrust in police that sometimes accrues with age.

While attending classes earlier this year on community policing, LeCouris developed the plan for a class project. On his graduation day, Bergstrom gave LeCouris his gift: a chance to put his final paper in action.

With the plan, Tarpon Springs police officials hope to promote a change in mindset in both officers and residents. No longer will police only be around only when people are at their worst, and people will in turn feel more comfortable around the police, Bergstrom said.

"We are defining the job more broadly now," Bergstrom said. "Patrol can now include talking in neighborhoods and being involved in community groups."

But getting closer to the community doesn't mean getting soft on crime, LeCouris said.

"It's not that what we are doing is bad, but we need to go a step further," LeCouris said. "The police are still going out there and doing drug and crime fighting. But these are our seeding efforts. They go hand in hand with the enforcement parts."

During a presentation of the plan at a commission meeting Tuesday, commissioners said they liked the idea.

"The program will be a real help to the community," said Commissioner Cindy Domino. "Keep up the good work."

The project is slated to begin immediately with a survey of businesses' needs and concerns. The police will take that information and create programs. A final project, including the youth, neighborhood and victim elements, will be enacted in January.