WHEELING - If you ever have to call the police, Chief Shawn Schwertfeger doesn't want the officer who shows up at your door to be a stranger. And he wants that officer to have a vested interest in keeping your neighborhood safe.
As the Wheeling Police Department adopts new patrol and response protocols following the repeal of the two-officer per cruiser law, Schwertfeger said he's also in the process of restructuring operations to a model he believes will not only build stronger relationships between the police and the community, but also promote accountability for solving crimes at all levels of command.
"We are moving toward what's known as geo-policing, or geographic policing," Schwertfeger said.
This system will eventually replace the more centralized shift command model with one in which a commander is in charge of one of three geographic zones. Shift supervisors and rank-and-file officers would be assigned to a specific area on a consistent basis and report to that zone's commander.
Schwertfeger believes geo-policing will allow residents to become more familiar with the officers assigned to their area, improve the department's ability to identify crime trends and increase accountability in terms of solving problems in a given area.
"We'll look at crime statistics and people (will be) held responsible for reducing those crime trends," he said.
The city would be divided as follows: one district encompassing Warwood, Wheeling Island and North Wheeling, another consisting of downtown and South Wheeling and a third that includes everything east of the top of Wheeling Hill, including Woodsdale and Elm Grove.
Community members already have some opportunities to form relationships with officers through the city's various neighborhood watch groups and programs such as the Citizen's Police Academy. But Schwertfeger hopes geo-policing will take that to a new level.
Before coming to Wheeling, Schwertfeger last worked as a captain in the Albemarle County, Va., Police Department, which also recently switched to the geo-policing model.
That jurisdiction, which covers 740 square miles of both urban and rural areas, was divided into eight parts - two districts with four sectors in each district.
According to the department's website, the prior procedure of organizing the department according to shift and the varied assignments that went with it led to inconsistency that limited officers' commitments to a particular area. But under geo-policing, "officers are consistently assigned to sectors within their assigned district. This allows for solid relationships to develop between officers and community members."