Walking the beat

Published 10:45 pm Saturday, October 3, 2009

It’s a quiet afternoon in downtown Suffolk, and two of the city’s finest are trying to keep it that way.

Police officers Rachel Cardwell and James Goben pound the pavement throughout the city’s core business district, popping into business after business to check on the workers.

“We’re just checking on you,” Goben says to clerks in the stores. The two officers peer into windows of closed and vacant buildings, greet pedestrians, and wave to the wait staff in downtown eateries.

Goben and Cardwell step into a popular restaurant at about 3 p.m. on a weekday, and find no customers dining or employees ready to seat them.

“Normally, this would arouse my suspicion, but I can hear somebody scooping ice in the back,” says Goben, lingering until the employee emerges from the kitchen.

“Just checking on you,” he tells her.

The scene sounds more like Sheriff Andy Taylor’s brand of Mayberry law enforcement, but it has cropped up in Suffolk recently as a new initiative of police chief Thomas Bennett.

“It gives a little bit more personalized police service than riding by in a car,” Bennett said Friday. “That particular area has a whole lot of foot traffic, particularly during lunchtime.”

Bennett said the foot and bicycle patrols fall in line with his community policing philosophy — being proactive rather than reactive.

“They have the opportunity to converse with people, and it’s an opportunity for police to know what’s going on,” Bennett said. “It makes people feel better.”

The foot patrol officers, who vary from day to day, work the downtown core, keeping an eye on the numerous banks, daycare centers and businesses in the area. Cardwell and Goben give business owners tips on keeping their stores safe.

“We just give little safety tips to help protect them,” Cardwell said while walking the beat Wednesday.

For example, the two have advised owners to move their cash registers away from windows and out of easy reach of would-be criminals; to move ATMs farther back from the door; and to remove excess advertisement decals from the windows.

“Some of these stores, if we get a call for an armed robbery, we can’t see inside,” Cardwell said.

The officers mix up their route every day, stopping to talk to residents on downtown streets and walking behind Main Street banks. One of the goals, obviously, is to stop crime.

“Just mere police presence in any area would deter some crime,” Goben said.

Bennett said the response to the effort has been positive so far.

“I’ve gotten a few letters and a few calls from mostly merchants, but one or two citizens too,” Bennett said. “They’re all positive, thanking us for having officers down there.”

The officers seem to enjoy it, too.

“If the calls would allow it, I’d stay out here for three or four hours,” Goben said. “I just like walking around.”