NAUGATUCK – It’s just past sunset on a recent Thursday evening in the borough’s downtown, and two high-ranking Naugatuck Police officials are “interviewing” 7-year-old Jacob Marques as his family looks on.
The officers' questions aren’t along the lines of “What did you see?” or “Where did the ‘bad guy’ go?” No, tonight, the probe sounds more like, “Why do you want to be a police officer?” and “What is the job of a police dog?”
Neither Jacob – who wants to be a police officer with a canine partner in the worst way - nor his family had witnessed a crime on this night. So police are not downtown to take a statement, nor are they walking along Church Street to gather information from sources. They are simply “walking the beat,” as they say in the profession.
Based on recent vandalism and quality of life complaints, coupled with a few serious crimes in the area recently, the has implemented foot patrols between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on downtown streets to give itself a constant nightly presence in the core of the borough. Police have made a few arrests, including a drunken driving pinch by an officer on foot who saw a clearly intoxicated man driving erratically last week. But walking the beat is about more than making arrests, police say.
“This is something that is another tool in our belt to combat some issues we have,” said Lt. Robert Harrison, Naugatuck Police spokesman and a member of the department’s rotating "walking beat" team. “It is also great as far as community relations. We’re getting a fantastic response from the citizens. Everyone seems real supportive of it, and we’ve had a lot of fun with it."
Implementing walking beats is fairly rare in modern policing, especially in suburban communities like Naugatuck that don’t have bustling downtowns or commercial areas where hundreds of people congregate on a nightly basis. But Naugatuck police do wear down the shoe leather on rare occasions when the need arises.
In this case, police have heard what they call "quality of life complaints" in downtown, including reports of vandalism and complaints of suspicious people. Police have also investigated some major crimes recently in the downtown area, including an incident where a man who said he was trying to sell high quantities of marijuana downtown was barber shop, and an incident two weeks ago where a . (Both incidents happened at night and neither attack was on a random pedestrian.)
And while police have not seen a huge spike recently in the numbers of crimes downtown, the high-profile crimes, which have generated statewide media attention, have shaken some residents and business owners, alike.
"This (walking beat) was in the planning stages before that (stabbing incident) occurred, though that case certainly did contribute to why were are here," Harrison said. "Still, we’ve gotten many other complaints in recent months that we want to check on, including kids riding around on skateboards that we’re getting many calls on. We’ve got a couple establishments we’re keeping an eye on in terms of liquor law violations. We've had park benches on the Green that have been vandalized. ...So, we're increasing our presence down here in hopes of deterring this type of activity."
A Comforting Sight
Tammy Marques opened "Studio Z 62," a zumba studio, on Church Street within the past few weeks.
"We were so nervous about opening a business right when this stabbing happened, and we were worried about people not feeling comfortable coming down here," she said. "But seeing the officers out here walking the beat is so much more comforting."
Marques and her husband, John, have two children, including the aspiring police officer, Jacob, and 6-year-old, Emma. They brought their children downtown on Thursday evening and said they still feel comfortable walking the streets of Naugatuck at night. Tammy Marques, who grew up in Naugatuck, said she believes the borough is a nice and safe community. "We wouldn't have opened a business here if it wasn't," she said, matter of factly.
Still, Marques believes some isolated incidents may have made some people wary of heading downtown. She has dozens of customers walking in and out of her studio every night, a majority of them women. And since the walking beats were implemented, "many of the women have said they feel more comfortable knowing the officers are here," she said. "It's a very good thing."
'Hopefully...the Criminals are Going Elsewhere'
The walking beat consists of two officers walking two, four-hour shifts - from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., every night. It started about two weeks ago and how long it will last has not been determined. Police officers are not taken off of normal patrol shifts to work the downtown beat. Instead, officers are assigned overtime to work the shifts.
They walk up and down the commercial strip on Church Street, talking to residents and checking locks on the front doors of businesses to make sure they are secure.
A walk with officers on a recent weeknight showed the diversity of the police work officers see on the beat.
Early in the shift, Harrison and Detective Sgt. Ronald Hunt talked to business owners locking up for the night, families going out for a bite to eat and they checked in on the few homeless people in the area to make sure they were getting by OK.
Later in the evening, the uniformed officers walked into a few bars, where the uncomfortable stares seemingly turned to appreciation as officers explained they were simply checking to make sure people were safe.
The officers received a few questions from residents about driving directions, business locations and whether there are curfews for teenagers. And they investigated a complaint of a suspicious person - there turned out to be no criminal activity involved, and the complaintant was relieved that police investigated.
Steve Curtis, a manager at Mike's Pizza Palace on Church Street, said he's happy police are downtown. He doesn't see it as a sign that downtown has become unsafe. Rather, he believes the foot patrols are completely positive.
Downtown isn't a bad scene for the average person, Curtis says, though he admits it's only natural that people become a little more nervous when they see crimes in the news.
"With the police here now, you're talking a little more protection down here," he said. "The customers are happy. We're very pleased. And hopefully, now, the criminals are going elsewhere."