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These police are stopping crime in their track shoes

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002



GOLDSBORO, N.C.

Among themselves, police sometimes refer to young street thugs as "rabbits." Because if they bolt, they're often uncatchable.

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In return, the street community has a nickname for a new kind of police team cruising America's toughest corners: "the jumps."

From dusty rural counties in South Carolina to the chilly urban streets of West Chicago, a growing number of police chiefs are tapping former track and football stand-outs to form special teams to pursue small-time street criminals – on foot or at full sprint.

Munching Power Bars, not Krispy Kremes, these small "aggressive enforcement" teams of mostly young, single officers are charging into gritty areas where beat cops have often had to peel off the chase, huffing and puffing. These are places where corner drug dealing has become blatant, orchestrated by quick young men who know the turf a lot better than the police do.

"Most beat cops won't do what we do," says Cpl. Brian Dawson, a former linebacker and cross-country runner at Eastern Wayne High School, and the brawniest member of the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement (ACE) team of the Wayne County, N.C., sheriff's department.

"The bad guys can run, but we can run, too," he says.

Affordable ... and fleet of foot

Lightly armed, in full-body camouflage and sneakers, and sometimes accompanied by dogs, these special units are generally created by reorganizing departments, not adding new staff. That makes the units affordable enough for deployment in small and medium-size cities, as well as the kind of rural suburbs and mobile-home parks where Mr. Dawson has become a daunting presence.

The concept, while not new, has been spreading rapidly in the past couple of years.

Today's teams of sprinting officers are partly patterned on the 1980s "jump-out" drug-interdiction teams – gung-ho packs of officers who took on gangs, mano a mano. Often pulling up in a ratty car, all in plainclothes, they soon fell out of favor. Too many people complained they couldn't tell the police from the gangs, says Gordon Crews, a criminal justice professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

In contrast, deputies like Dawson and his teammates Mike Cox and Max, a German shepherd, are cutting a more traditional profile, wearing military-style uniforms with "POLICE" stitched on the back – a signal as much to drug dealers as to those who want the drug trade gone from their front stoops.

Much of their work involves literally chasing criminals from alley to alley, often still failing to make arrests. But the result, they say, is less public drug dealing, less crime, and less fear in the neighborhoods.

"As long as it's within the rules and regs of the department, and conforms to the Constitution, so what if it's unconventional?" says John Gnagey, the general manager of the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa.

But some criminologists question whether these kind of hopped-up interdiction teams always stay within the bounds of acceptable policing. Some have been criticized, for example, for chasing people down without evidence suggesting that a crime was being committed.

"The reason we're seeing more and more of these teams is because they work," says Mr. Crews of Jacksonville State University. "But you can also see that a lot of local law enforcement officers are using community fear to really justify doing anything they want to do."

Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders says the ACE teams were created in response to pleas from neighborhood leaders. "The only complaints we get are from the drug dealers."

Winning back the streets

For officers like Veronica Buchanan, this new policing tack is simply a way to level the field – to give some street credibility back to the police.

Too often, if the police fail to chase, drug dealers only grow bolder, says Ms. Buchanan, a member of the eight-member DART team in Meridian, Miss.

Even with top talent on hand, the foot-races are tight. Dealers know the terrain – and have friends in convenient places.

"They can dart in an apartment, or their bloods will stop" and pick them up, Buchanan says.

Not big, but fast

At just over 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, Buchanan isn't most people's idea of a thug-chaser. In fact, gang members sometimes tell her to "go back to school."

But when a suspect sprinted away from a crime scene recently, Buchanan passed two other officers from a late start to overtake and cuff the man.

"I don't scare people when I get out of a car, so I have to back up what I say," says Buchanan, who ran track in high school and has one of the best arrest records in the department. "The foot race is my thing."

As in Meridian, the area of North Carolina surrounding Goldsboro includes places where shootings and street-dealing are common, though often hidden beneath the veneer of rusted-out trailer homes and behind corroded swing sets.

The work is dangerous, and keeping criminals in prison is tough.

The ACE team has had to change its tactics, too, as drug dealers have moved indoors or gone mobile, dealing from their late-model cars.

One day, ACE officers might do surveillance from the woods, the next they're talking to a large gang of muscular young men hanging out at a local basketball court. The race is on when someone bolts.

When that happens – which is often – Dawson will pursue a "runner" until he actually commits a crime, like throwing a baggy of drugs on the ground.

"They want to go on a run, fine," he says. "There's no law against us going for a run, too."

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