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Chief looks back on first year

Now that he’s put in a full year at the helm of the Suffolk Police Department, Chief Thomas Bennett is looking forward to Year Two.

His accomplishments in his first year have included reviewing all of the department’s policies and procedures, establishing a second Neighborhood Enforcement Team, collecting $1.1 million in grants and seeing most categories of violent crime decrease.

“I’ve been real pleased with how committed all the people are,” Bennett said of the hundreds of sworn officers and civilian employees under his command. “I’m kind of pushing them hard and they’re responding.”

Bennett has a goal in mind — accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Accreditation by the national organization “makes you a better department,” Bennett said.

“I want to be ahead of the curve,” Bennett said. Accreditation forces police departments to “hold people accountable,” he added. But instead of applying for the accreditation and then bringing the department up to speed, he wants to do it the other way around.

“We’re just trying to move forward and modernize,” he said. “Our citizens expect a professional police department.”

Bennett took the oath of office at Booker T. Washington Elementary School on June 11, 2009. He replaced the retiring chief, William Freeman, and followed a hiatus that was filled by interim chief Thomas Townsend, a retired Hampton police chief.

Police supervisors have been meeting every Wednesday morning for the last year to review and revise all of the department’s policies and procedures. Some changes have included internal affairs procedures and shift hours, as well as changes in how an Amber Alert is handled.

“We have met every single Wednesday to get that done,” Bennett said. “It’s a very [time-consuming] process.”

The department also was reorganized on April 1 to incorporate Bennett’s first set of promotions, which included Suffolk’s first female major.

Perhaps the most visible change since Bennett took office is the addition of a second Neighborhood Enforcement Team to concentrate on gang problems in North Suffolk neighborhoods.

“They’re doing well,” Bennett said of the second team, which recently made several burglary arrests that he said resulted in a lull in gang activity. “Usually, what we see is after some arrests, things quiet down for a while. It’s better than the other way around.”

Though Bennett doesn’t claim to have personally brought the crime numbers down, the fact remains that all violent crime numbers are down for the year through the end of May compared to last year, with the lone exception of motor vehicle thefts. Arson is down 80 percent, and rape is down 62 percent.

“That’s pretty much a regional thing,” Bennett said of the rise in motor vehicle thefts.

The department also has brought more than $1 million in grant money to the city, helping to pay for a new police boat, bulletproof vests, software, crime scene cameras, a school resource officer and more. The department recently received word that the school resource officer grant was renewed for the coming year.

Other police programs also have been successful, Bennett said. The false alarm reduction program has brought that number down by 24 percent, and the motor carrier safety unit has taken numerous overweight and unsafe vehicles off the road.

“In our opinion, that program is doing what it was designed to do,” Bennett said of the false alarm reduction program.

“My people are working real hard, but we want to get a lot accomplished,” he said.