EL CENTRO — The El Centro Police Department recently revamped its Community Relations Unit to foster greater communication and responsiveness to the community’s needs.
Although the initiative dates back more than a year, the department in October added a 25-year veteran with extensive training and experience to the unit, boosting its ranks to two.
Sgt. James Thompson was the first to be assigned to the initiative about a year and a half ago, and since then had the opportunity to enhance the department’s ties to residents and members of the business community before COVID-19 slowed that effort.
A self-described impatient person who loathes nothing more than getting the runaround from an agency or a place of business, Thompson said his position has also provided him with a greater appreciation for customer service.
“We want to make sure the public knows they have a point of contact with the department and the city,” Thompson said in a phone interview Nov. 25.
The revamped effort comes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has somewhat limited the department’s normal interactions with the public, but not necessarily lessened calls for police services.
Going forward, Thompson said the department would like to undertake various projects aimed at strengthening its rapport with the public, and collaboratively address concerns about homelessness, and mental health and substance abuse issues.
Thompson said he also wants to start meeting regularly with business and community members to try to collaborate on family-friendly community events in the downtown area, where surrounding businesses could participate.
“It’s going to have to wait until things get a little better,” Thompson said, referring to the ongoing pandemic. “There is a lot of projects we want to do.”
Thompson’s past pre-pandemic efforts have included extensive interaction with the public and business community, with who he often shared small but effective tips to help reduce property crime and trespassing, such as installing lighting and fencing.
“If we do proactive steps, maybe we can fix the problem to where it doesn’t reoccur,” Thompson said.
On Tuesday, Dec. 1, both Thompson and his partner on the unit, Officer Luis Hernandez, went before the El Centro City Council during its regular meeting to apprise city officials of their efforts and credit Chief Brian Johnson’s foresight for having established the unit.
Hernandez comes to the unit after having served as a detective for several years, and as a member of the department’s crisis negotiation team for the past three years.
Although Hernandez has only been with the Community Relations Unit since October, council members expressed gratitude for his being part of the unit considering his extensive professional and personal experiences.
“I think you’re in the right place to help others who are also in need,” City Council member Tomas Oliva said.
The unit’s efforts also come at a time when law enforcement services across the nation are being increasingly scrutinized and can serve as a prime example of best practices, council member Cheryl Viegas-Walker said.
“I think that El Centro is absolutely moving in the right direction in terms of examining how we respond and what’s the best way to respond,” she added.
Outgoing council member Jason Jackson also offered praise for the unit’s establishment and its members’ efforts.
“Anything we can do to outreach to our public is a positive thing,” Jackson said.
Council member Edgard Garcia said he was glad to see Chief Johnson had established the unit to further address the community’s needs.
“We’re starting to see the fruits of that tree that was planted,” Garcia said.
Nor is the El Centro Police Department alone here in the Valley in seeing the value of such an initiative.
The Imperial County Sheriff’s Office has a dedicated Crime Prevention Unit, which along with its Sheriff’s Activities League, form the agency’s educational and promotional arm.
Some of its personnel’s duties include assisting with the Child ID and Neighborhood Watch programs, home security inspections, as well as school and public education events, the agency’s website stated.
In February 2019, the Imperial Police Department assigned the duties of public information/community liaison officer to one sworn officer, Sgt. Max Sheffield.
“This was done in an effort to promote transparency and improve communication between the department, city, and Imperial community,” Sheffield said Dec. 1 in an email. “We are glad to see other agencies recognize the need for such a position within their own communities.”
And although the Brawley Police Department does not have a dedicated officer assigned to such a task, it does employ a “needs-based approach,” where the department and the wider community work collaboratively to address a specific business or community issue, acting Brawley Police Chief Brett Houser said.
It wasn’t immediately available what kinds of community policing measures are in place in Calexico.
“I really appreciate the proactive stance ECPD is taking with this approach,” Houser said Dec. 1 in an email. “We’ll definitely be monitoring the feedback and hoping for their success with the program.”