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Deputy revamps prevention programs
Meet your government: Deputy Stephen Wilbanks, crime prevention officer
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Deputy Stephen Milbanks is the Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s crime prevention officer. - photo by Tom Reed
Contact
Hall County residents interested in starting or reviving a neighborhood watch should contact Deputy Stephen Wilbanks at 770-533-7674 or swilbanks@ hallcounty.org.

In the Gainesville city limits, contact Officer Joe Britte at 770-287-0893 or jbritte@gainesville.org.
In times like these, Deputy Stephen Wilbanks’ job is more important than ever.

Wilbanks, the Hall County Sheriff’s crime prevention officer, works with neighborhoods to try to keep break-ins and other crimes from occurring. He’s had a lot of face time with concerned residents lately, as local burglaries have increased by about 40 percent this year during the recession.

Wilbanks took on his new duties in March. He sees the job as representing the sheriff’s office when the public has questions or concerns about rising crime.

“I think more than anything else, it’s to put a personal face on the sheriff’s office by acting as liaison between our communities and the office, and to help come up with creative solutions to the problem,” Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks, 39, is a Marine veteran who served a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2006. He spent the first several years of his law enforcement career as an MP with the Marines, serving at bases in Japan, Texas and Albany.

The native of Decatur, grew up in Gwinnett County and graduated from Brookwood High School. He lives with his wife and two sons, ages 7 and 4, in North Hall.

Wilbanks got into civilian law enforcement in 2003 when he was hired on with the Hall County code enforcement division. In 2004, he joined the sheriff’s office, where he impressed superiors with his sharpness, military bearing and work ethic. He’s a member of the sheriff’s SWAT and dive teams.

While he’s in a serious business, Wilbanks is quick with a smile or a joke. It is a personality well-suited to working with the public.

“I like being the person people look to when they need help,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest challenges of any crime prevention officer is keeping neighborhood watch groups active. While there are nearly 100 registered groups in Hall County, fewer than half could be considered active. Often after a temporary spike in neighborhood crime subsides, a group will fall dormant, failing to maintain the lines of communication so essential to keeping a watch effective.

“The thing I want to do to prevent that is to keep the topics fresh,” said Wilbanks, who in his seven months on the job has helped start or re-start about 40 neighborhood watch groups.

An ideal neighborhood watch has a captain or captains that keep in close contact with the crime prevention officer to get the latest information on criminal activity and disseminate it to neighbors through e-mail or phone trees. In turn, neighborhood residents report suspicious activity back to law enforcement through the same lines of communication.

In one recent instance, three theft suspects being chased by deputies behind Corinth Baptist Church were nabbed after Wilbanks enlisted the ears and eyes of a neighborhood watch with a quick call to its captain.

“That’s a textbook example of how we want that emergency communication to work,” Wilbanks said.

Like most crime prevention officers, including his counterpart Joe Britte at the Gainesville Police Department, Wilbanks teaches numerous programs, including lessons on narcotics awareness, identity theft and business and personal property crime prevention.

He’s also available for free home security assessment.

“I basically look at the house like a criminal would,” he said.

Unlike his old job as a patrol deputy, Wilbanks no longer is the first responder to a crime; he’s trying to keep one from happening.

“It gives me the chance to talk to people on the front end of the problem, not the back end,” he said. “I get to talk to them before something happens.”
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