“Block by Block,” Escambia County Sheriff’s Office ramps up engagement efforts with Neighborhood Specialists
During the recent campaign for Sheriff, Chip Simmons’ platform was always laser-focused on increasing both enforcement and engagement to levels never before seen in Escambia County. Those in the new administration who oversee the engagement component to this strategy have certainly hit the ground running, as attempts to actively engage with every neighborhood in Escambia County are now under way. Not only has Simmons increased involvement in neighborhood associations, youth associations, and increased town hall opportunities, but two new sub-stations have been opened (Molino and Perdido), decreasing deputy response time and providing better service to citizens.
In order to specifically focus on engagement, on day one of his administration, Sheriff Simmons hired two full-time “Neighborhood Specialists” who serve under the Community Relations division of the Sheriff’s Office. These specialists are intended to work directly with the residents living in each neighborhood, finding ways to improve upon public safety, and serving as a liaison between any given neighborhood and ECSO deputies. Sheriff Simmons says that the ECSO expects to hire a third Neighborhood Specialist in the near future.
The two specialists are Ronnie Rivera, a nonprofit and fundraising specialists with years of experience in relationship-building and advocating for public safety concerns; and Delarian Wiggins, current District 7 Pensacola City Council representative and former ECSO Deputy. Both men appear confident and optimistic about their new roles in the Simmons administration, and seem to enjoy interacting directly with members of the communities which they serve.
Wiggins says he is primarily focused on “building partnerships” within his new role at the Sheriff’s Office. Both Wiggins and Rivera are physically going out into various neighborhoods daily and engaging with citizens. This means that they sometimes literally walk up to people while they are in their yards doing work, sitting outside, walking their dogs, or playing at parks, and ask them about things that concern them. Approaching business owners, residents, and neighborhood leaders in public can be daunting for some, but for these specialists, it is second nature.
“The very same day after we visited Myrtle Grove and interacted with several residents in their yards, we saw a post appear on the Myrtle Grove Facebook page, with residents grateful for the chance to express concerns directly to the Sheriff’s office and to hopefully, get some direct feedback,” Wiggins said.
Rivera says that the Neighborhood Specialists hope to become the eyes and ears of the community, with a direct line to the Sheriff. They also plan to roll out various programs to assist with engagement in the near future.
Commander Andrew Hobbs, who is in charge of Public & Community Relations, says this more direct approach to neighborhood engagement is more strategic than the alternative “shotgun” method. Using the neighborhood specialists, collecting data, building strategic partnerships and performing evaluations, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office will be able to directly address the issues affecting these communities.
Sheriff Simmons hopes these specialists will allow his administration to take a deeper dive into our neighborhoods by using data analysis and on the ground research. “This will create opportunities to really address the vulnerabilities in neighborhoods,” he explained.
“From day one, the Sheriff had plans to create a data package that we would base our research on, and we would then begin to strategize our efforts based on these facts- not just conjecture,” Rivera said.
The Simmons administration is calling this approach to understanding and addressing neighborhoods the “Block by Block” program. Designed to evaluate issues in a holistic manner, “Block by Block ” evaluations look at effects of crime as well as causation in such a way to where agencies are brought in to work together to solve community problems.
The community engagement specialists are approaching every neighborhood in Escambia county with an evaluation form. With 60 active neighborhoods in the county, the first complete evaluation is set to Myrtle Gove, followed soon by Montclair and Mayfair. “Block by Block” plans to engage every neighborhood in due course.
“If the issue affecting crime in a community is street lights, or code enforcement, we plan to tap into and build upon the existing relationships we have with other agencies and follow up on concerns, to make sure these things are being addressed. The “Block by Block” approach allows all agencies a bridge to be able to speak to each other. As neighborhood specialists, we are connecting ECUA to ‘Parks and Recreation’ or to Code Enforcement, or of course, to the Sheriff’s Office….all for the purpose of reducing crime in our neighborhoods and promoting public safety,” Rivera explained.
So far, most residents have recognized the specialists and been extremely receptive to their presence. Many people have stated that they have never been approached before nor been directly asked for their thoughts on the issues plaguing their community, and they were more than happy to be asked for their insight.
Wiggins says that many of the complaints so far have involved vagrancy, abandoned houses, and blight. However, opening lines of communication and building trust with the community is critical to cultivating our neighborhoods, and to serving the Sheriff’s Office effectively. “Having these direct communications with residents allows us a much more broad approach than what we had tried in the past,” Wiggins said, praising the program.
Currently, the two men are splitting the county into territories, with Rivera spearheading effectors in West Pensacola, South Pensacola and Perdido Key, and Wiggins heading the charge in the areas north of 9 Mile Road.
A typical day in the life of a neighborhood specialist involves a debriefing between the two men, an assessment (going out and talking to residents), a debriefing again on programs and improvements, inputting data and completing evaluation forms, and then attending a neighborhood watch or community watch meeting in the evening.
Wiggins emphasizes that building trust is key to effective engagement for any Sheriff’s Office, and even hopes it will help the administration in working to overcome the “street code” that can plague neighborhoods. “When you’re having a one on one conversation, and taking this proactive approach…people tend to be more open than they would if you were to approach them in a large public setting. It’s important for people to know that we all have the same type of problems…we share the same type of concerns.
Sheriff Simmons agrees. “We all really want the same thing: a safe place to live, work, and play.”