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Gainesville Police out to build trust, one call at a time
Force's community policing efforts enter 26th year
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Pete Lewis - photo by Erin O. Smith

During the last days of summer, Gainesville Police Officer Justin Seabolt cruised through Ridgecrest Apartments on Roper Hill Road. Kids no older than 9 all stop and turn to Seabolt pulling out a roll of stickers with police badges, putting the community football game in a timeout.

No one can quite explain the magnetism of the stickers, but Seabolt never leaves home without them.

“It drives me crazy the parents that tell their kids you better behave or I’m gonna have the police come get you. I want them to be able to come to us if they need us,” he said.

The Times spent six hours riding along with two different Gainesville Police Department officers to examine the department’s “community-oriented policing” model.

“I think there’s probably a stereotype that comes with the job with officers that we’re all just hard-nosed, looking to put people in jail and harass people. But we’re just normal people, too. We have families that we go home to,” Seabolt said.

Ret. Capt. Chad White, the department’s de facto historian, said the effort for community policing first started in 1990.

“We took one supervisor and a 10-men task force and we went in to the three major housing projects at the time — Harrison Square, Atlanta Street and Melrose,” he said.

The initiative, White said, was the department’s effort in “building bridges with the community to the police department.”

After the deaths of five Dallas law enforcement officers and other violence around the country, Seabolt said he’s seen more people stop, wave or show some sort of appreciation for their work.

Officer Laura VanDeraa, whose district follows along E.E. Butler and Limestone Parkways, focuses her work on the community relations beat entering her second year with the department.

“Every call is an opportunity to build rapport with somebody in this city,” VanDeraa said, who was fresh from a game of kickball at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County.

Even during White’s last years on patrol, the retired captain said “people were still asking for the officers that worked 15 years ago in those housing areas.” The result was a decrease in the calls for service.

“If they had something such as a bicycle stolen, instead of calling the on-duty officer that was working, they would wait for the officer that was assigned to the community to come back to work,” White said, who retired in 2014. “That was the type of trust and relationship that had been built.”

At Ridgecrest Apartments, Thomas Glass and Michael Style said they see the patrols often and appreciate the way they interact with the kids. Before moving to the area five years ago, Glass said he had a negative perception from others about the area.

“We’ll be sitting out here sometimes talking — they’ll stop and wave,” Glass said.

Even on the weekends and the early morning, Glass said the area remains calm.

“(The police) are doing their job,” another resident Pete Lewis said. “It’s calm. They make you feel like you can leave your door open sometimes.”

One resident, voicing concerns for elderly citizens, said she wishes the officers would park there more often for crime deterrence.

For a decade after college, Seabolt built kitchen cabinets.

Now a five-year officer with Gainesville Police, he’s still working with his hands and handling lumber, as he’s called out to Interstate 985 to toss deadwood back in to the woodline.

After wiping away the splinters, he slowly approaches an elderly man who endured the brunt of the tree’s damage on his car. Seabolt squats down and holds the flashlight for the man changing a tire, and it’s only been four hours into the officer’s 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.

Seabolt, who holds a degree in wildlife management and had previous goals of being a Department of Natural Resources ranger, said he “wanted a challenge” when he made the move to law enforcement. For three years, he served as the domestic violence officer on call.

“It was something that I kind of developed a passion for as far as working those, talking to the victims, doing my best to resolve situations,” he said.

After the long hours in court and the heavy nature of the calls, however, Seabolt now works as an all-district patrol officer.

For VanDeraa, it all started with TVLand and “Adam-12.” Watching it nightly with her dad, the officer became enamored with all things law enforcement.

Of the calls she remembers most in her year on the job was a call out to Atlanta Street when she was first riding solo.

A young girl — 5 or 6 years old — stood with her mother and stared at the officer “like she was at Disneyworld or something.”

The reason the mother gave, VanDeraa said, was the idea of seeing a female police officer, something that the boys at school said wasn’t possible. VanDeraa returned with a bear in a police uniform.

“I still see that little girl around and I hope even though she’s young … she’ll still remember that and she’ll take that with her,” she said. “Maybe she will go be a police officer one day. Maybe she won’t. But if she doesn’t, maybe she’ll remember that police officers are nice, that we’re not just out there to take people to jail.”

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