December marks three years since Guyton hired a police chief to start planning the organization of a new police department. Although some citizens thought there was no need for the city of about 1,500 to have its own force, the city moved forward with its plans. The police department opened its doors in June 2006.
Now, two-and-a-half years later, a handful of citizens say the city that some residents used to call “cocaine city” has been cleaned up.
“I’ve always worked night shift and prior to the police department being here, I’d stop at the four-way stop sign and there would be four (drug dealers) on one side, four on another and maybe two on the other side selling drugs,” said Guyton resident Melissa Riley. “It was terrifying every night, but the police being here has made a big difference.”
Don Hicklen, owner of the Guyton IGA, agrees.
“You used to couldn’t even pass the street, pass the corner, because kids were in the road and they wouldn’t get out of the road. I see the police now instead,” he said. “The intersection is clear now all the time.”
Mayor Michael Garvin’s brother James Garvin also remembers how bad the city used to be.
“The drugs, the speeding, the loafing up and down the streets, all of that was rough,” he said. “But since the police department, it’s a big difference. The corners are clear (and) there’s less drugs on the street. I’m not going to say that they got it all, but they knocked a big hole in it and they are making ones that are still doing it, think twice.”
Police Chief Randy Alexander says, however, that they could not have cleaned the streets up as much as they have so far without the help of the citizens.
“Without (the citizens’) help, we couldn’t have solved half the crimes we have,” Alexander said. “The only way we can get anything accomplished is to have a community-oriented police department.”
Alexander believes in running his department with a strong community focus and said he works to build the trust of the citizens in order to help eliminate drugs on the streets of Guyton.
“If (citizens) don’t feel comfortable calling us, then we are doing something wrong,” he said. “They have to feel they can trust us on and off duty.”
Riley tells a story of how one day she had complained about a problem she had with a group of individuals who were using drugs in her neighborhood. She described how the group was smoking and “there was smoke way up in the air.”
She spoke with the chief, who said he was going to go out and hand them a business card to see if they needed a job.
“And I thought, ‘no, he’s not going to do that. I don’t believe this,’” Riley said. “So I thought I’m going to see what he’s worth and sure enough, he got out of his car and started handing out business cards to everyone standing out there. And he was talking to all of them just as nice and simple.
“The ones who had drugs, when they had seen him, they started putting it in the woods and digging holes like burrows or whatever,” she said laughing. “But those business cards, they made a big difference, so don’t stop doing that,” Riley told the chief.
Alexander’s approach is one of presence.
“You don’t have to make an arrest to make a difference,” the chief said.
He credits his team for their success so far.
“I can’t be prouder of the guys I have, all of them. They know their jobs and if I find them doing something wrong, they will tell you that I will chew them out. We want to do the right thing for the citizens and by having good officers who work with the citizens along with Ronda (Wells). Our officers couldn’t work without her.”
Although some citizens didn’t think that Guyton needed its own police force, there are many who think otherwise. The Effingham County Sheriff’s Department continues to provide backup support, but prior to the city’s creation of its department, the county was the only public safety resource the city had.
“You can see somebody holding their gun on somebody and you call the county and by the time the county gets there, the people that done it are two to three counties away,” said Garvin.
But he explained that now, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He can call the city and the chief or one of his officers will be there right away.
As with many police departments, Guyton has a ride-along-program where citizens can spend a few hours riding with a police officer. Alexander encourages the public to participate.
One Friday evening, this reporter spent six hours riding along with Sergeant Josh Moseley. The evening was spent driving around the town, making sure that certain areas that may have more crime activities are visited several times.
Moseley explained how safety was the most important element of his job.
“It’s not about giving out tickets or ‘getting someone,’ but about public safety and making the streets safe,” he said.
By making the rounds and getting to know the residents, the chief and his officers hope to build their newfound relationship up with the citizens. But it’s a very slow process, explained Alexander.
And Hicklen believes it can even be further enhanced.
“One thing they (police) could probably work on … is getting the older people to trust them more,” he said. “Because you take people like my grandmamma or granddaddy, they are in their 80s and they are stuck from way back in the day,” he said. “So if you see them sitting on the porch, ride up and speak to them… you know that means a lot to them. They are still stuck on when white was on this side and black on that side and they see a white officer come through, they frown.”
He suggested that the officers make an effort to build their trust, because “it would make them feel a little more comfortable with the police” and talking to them.
“It takes time,” said the chief but he said that his officers are working hard to develop that relationship and trust with the community.
For more information on the ride-along program or other public safety programs like the senior citizen R-U-Okay program, call Ronda Wells at 772-8745.