Former deputy chief, councilman urge caution before other cities disband special police units

Former Tupelo Councilman Willie Jennings and former Deputy Chief Robert Hall point to Haven Acres turnaround as a model for community oriented policing

TUPELO, MISS. (WCBI) – Willie Jennings remembers a time when it was considered risky to be in Haven Acres in the daytime, and dangerous once the sun set.

“We was having a lot of problems with drugs, prostitution, all different sorts of crime,” said Jennings, a former Tupelo City Councilman.  He lived in Haven Acres in the late 80s and early 90s.  He says community leaders, with help from the city, applied for and received a grant from the U S Department of Justice.  The Weed and Seed grant helped pay for a new community center, and funded a special unit of police officers, focusing on high-crime areas.

“We were enforced in the early 1990s, we had six officers to target the area,” said Robert Hall, who was a Tupelo Police Officer,  tasked with organizing the unit, known as the Special Operations Group, or SOG.

The results were dramatic and measurable.

“In the first year, we had over 16 hundred arrests and we did not have a valid complaint,” Hall said.

Hall believes the SOG Unit was effective because it was made up of officers who knew the community and its residents.  They also underwent extensive and ongoing training.

“We actually had a relationship with the community, we knew the community like the back of our hand, we knew the good and we also knew the ones that was up to no good.  We played basketball with a lot of the element we had to arrest, but they knew they would be treated right,” Hall said.

Jennings says residents of the Acres community asked for help from the police and were kept informed of the progress by city leaders.

The grant paid for the community center, which houses the Haven Acres Boys and Girls Club.

“If we hadn’t had that type of unit, and funding from the government at that time, I don’t know where the community would be today.  They came in and done their job, but they worked with the community, and the community was involved with the team, police and city of Tupelo,” Jennings said.

Both Jennings and Hall have reached out to Memphis city leaders, offering to share their stories of how a special unit of officers, working with the community, made a lasting impact.

“Even though I”m heartbroken about the situation, almost got sick when I saw it, heart goes out to Nichols family, that situation shouldn’t have happened anywhere, I hate for communities and organizations to have a knee jerk reaction before we realize what we’re doing, we need the units around the country, but units have to be ran correctly, and with right officers and respect of the community,” Hall said.

The community center is a safe refuge for hundreds of children who come to the Boys and Girls Club everyday and it is an example, Hall and Jennings say,  of what happens when community oriented policing is practiced everyday.

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