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Roswell, Johns Creek take 21st century approach to policing

21st Century Policing in North Fulton

Roswell and Johns Creek police officials say they’re taking special steps to get to know the people they protect and serve.

NORTH FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Roswell and Johns Creek police officials say they’re taking special steps to get to know the people they protect and serve.

Roswell Chief James Conroy and Johns Creek Chief Mark Mitchell say it’s a core value of their guiding principles, called 21st century policing.

Introduced by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015, 21st century policing consists of six pillars focused on reducing crime and building trust with the public.

The pillars include: building trust and legitimacy; policy and oversight; technology and social media; community policing and crime reduction; training and education; and officer wellness.

Chief Mitchell said he understands the pillars sound like buzzwords, but he wants people to understand how they’re carried through into the police department’s everyday operations. Boiled down, the goal of 21st century policing combines the six pillars into two pieces: reducing crime and building trust with the public.

The work comes internally and externally.

Both cities have focused on taking care of their officers physically and mentally in hopes of retaining employees. The police chiefs say they hope that by creating a positive culture with accountability, the benefits will trickle down into the communities they serve.

On the public side, the police departments each have several initiatives, like citizen’s police academies, coffee with a cop and meetings dedicated to each part of the community.

For the police chiefs, everything must come out of a department-wide commitment to 21st century policing on every level.

A new way to work

In Roswell, Conroy has been on board since the initiatives began. While he was working at the DeKalb County Police Department, his boss started working on a committee to develop a national initiative — 21st century policing. When he joined Roswell in 2019, he brought the initiative with him.

Each of the departments is nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Only about 4 percent of police departments nationwide are accredited. It’s a point of pride for the police chiefs.  

Mitchell has focused on this goal since he joined the Johns Creek Police Department in 2021, after the city held a nationwide search for a new police chief.

Mayor Bodker swears in new police chief Mark Mitchell (copy)

Then Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker swears in Mark Mitchell as police chief at a June 2021 city council meeting. 

He brought his commitment to 21st century policing to Johns Creek. Mitchell read the initial 2015 report while he was the police chief in Canton, Ga., and was immediately interested.

“Man, we’re doing some of it, let’s do all of it,” Mitchell said. “Then we realized this stuff works.”

He said he wants to emphasize that 21st century policing isn’t anything to brag about.

“This is how you have to police,” Mitchell said.

That’s the baseline he carried through when he joined Johns Creek. One of his first steps was to change the department’s mission statement to fall in line with the six pillars of policing, with a focus on “partnering with the community to solve problems.”

For Roswell, Chief Conroy focuses on how the police department can fit into the city’s needs.

“We have a small-town feel, but big city problems,” Conroy said.

Conroy said Roswell needs high service, with house checks and small-town interactions. The department must balance those needs with their “big city” crime problems, he said.

A “trickle down” approach

When Chief Conroy joined the Roswell Police Department, there were 29 officer vacancies. After the protests following George Floyd’s death in 2020, even more officers left.

Conroy had the department participate in the Black Lives Matter protests that summer and doubled down on methods for officer retention and care. He wanted to keep them accountable while encouraging them to stay in the department long term.

The first action was a 20 percent pay increase for police across the board, putting Roswell at the top in the area for police pay. The department also increased training requirements and started offering advanced specialized trainings.

Mental health was a key focus for officer wellness. Roswell hired a behavioral health specialist to be on call.

Johns Creek established a peer support team, as well as counseling for officers and family members of officers at no cost. Chief Mitchell created a “quiet room” in the department and pushed for improved uniforms and exercise opportunities.

“It’s a holistic approach to physical and mental wellness,” Mitchell said.

Both chiefs said they hope the mental wellness focus will help break down stigmas for officers, especially when dealing with traumatic events. Conroy said officers have always had PTSD, but the prevailing culture to “suck it up” was unhealthy for police and the public.

“If you develop a good running culture, it really helps impact retention and recruitment,” Mitchell said.

The chiefs hope that by breaking down that stigma, the officer health can trickle down into a better relationship with the public.

Mitchell said he wants to attack the “us vs. them” mentality between the police and the pubic, emphasizing that “it’s we” instead.

To do this, Mitchell incorporated opportunities for the public to speak with officers. He’s specifically proud of “coffee with a cop,” the first 21st century policing initiative he launched. He said he’s seen people learn, conflicts get resolved and even helped people with non-police-related issues.

“It’s a chance to talk about it, to ask questions and let them know the ‘why’ of policing,” Mitchell said.

Roswell also employs “coffee with a cop,” and Conroy said the education component of the event is crucial for residents.

“Learn what your department is doing,” Conroy said. “Find out their policies and procedures and find out if they’re following them.”

Chief Conroy (copy)

Roswell Police Chief James W. Conroy speaks about the future of the city’s police department at his Aug. 2019 swearing-in ceremony at City Hall.

Roswell and Johns Creek both offer community policing academies, where residents can learn the details of policing. They also have community ambassadors, who will answer questions from other residents about the police.

Mitchell said when he first started doing community outreach in Johns Creek, he could feel the hesitation.

When he visited a school with primarily Hispanic students, they hid under their desks when he came in. He spent weeks visiting the school and trying to improve that relationship, and eventually the kids grew more comfortable with the cops.

Conroy and his officers go out to diverse communities with popsicles, also hoping to make kids more comfortable with police in uniform.

“We want kids to run towards us, not away from us,” Conroy said.

Looking to the new year

While both departments have been recognized nationally and on a state level, the work is far from over.

“Are we where we need to be? No. Do we need to keep working? Yes,” Mitchell said.

In the new year, both departments plan to continue community outreach. Roswell received multiple microgrants to expand its community policing initiatives and will hold a citizen’s police academy in early 2023.

The department also has a big change in store: Roswell residents approved a $52 million public safety bond in November, and $23 million will go to a new public safety headquarters.

The department has been in the same building on Hill Street since 1991, when they only had 88 officers. That number has almost doubled in the past 30 years to 160 officers.

“We’ve tremendously outgrown the facility,” Conroy said. “This is bringing it all under one roof.”

In Johns Creek, Mitchell is focused on consistent accountability. The city sent out its annual citizen survey, asking residents five questions about their feelings about the Police Department. From there, Mitchell chooses where the department can improve. The city will also host a citizen’s police academy in February, as well as various classes and “coffee with a cop.”

Mitchell reassured that the work to maintain 21st century policing doesn’t stop anytime soon.

“It’s not just a flavor of the month, it’s genuine,” Mitchell said.

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Reach Delaney Tarr at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @delaneytarr.