The members of the Eastern District police community relations council meet on the last Tuesday of every month, and they had developed a routine. Many people arrived early, sat down with an officer and quietly talked about drug dealing near their homes. It's not a good idea to air such complaints in public.
But the members learned this week that they will no longer be able to have that sit-down with an officer.
Complaints about established drug operations - crimes in progress still go to 911 - now need to be e-mailed directly to the major in charge of the district.
If that didn't cause enough confusion, Sgt. Angelina O'Grady then reminded the mostly female group that the Eastern District no longer has a drug squad that answers directly to the major. The Eastern and two other high-crime districts instead have a task force that answers to the chief of patrol at headquarters. It has worked this way for more than a year.
O'Grady assured a now-skeptical and angry group that e-mails are documented and followed up. Before, O'Grady said, "you would give me the complaint, and I would write it down and take it to an officer in [the drug unit], and I would never hear about it again."
Maj. Melvin Russell, who was at another community meeting but raced to the district to quell the growing rebellion, apologized for any misunderstanding but said the new way is better. A complaint about a drug corner or a stash house? "E-mail me, and I will take care of it," he told them.
Russell said he can assign a patrol officer or work with the task force to investigate. He noted that previously, residents had 30 minutes once a month to talk with an officer. "Now, it's 24-7," Russell said.
Then he asked how many people have computers.
A smattering of hands went up.
Have your children send the e-mail, Russell said. Or ask your neighborhood association president, or the head of the police community relations council.
The major, his jacket now off, turned to resident Zelda Giles and, smiling, said: "Baby, you've got to get computer-literate."
Later, the meeting over, Giles stormed out, vowing: "I'm going to contact the police commissioner and get our drug unit back."
The Violent Crime Impact Division, as the task force is called, is credited with bringing shootings and homicides down and has replaced the flex and drug squads in the Eastern, Western and Northwestern districts. Crime is down, but the majors lost some flexibility in how they deploy police.
Russell is reinstating community policing and is organizing neighborhood walks. He's attending every community meeting, no matter how obscure. He gives out his e-mail address and cell phone number to anyone who asks.
The head of the community relations council, Charlene Bourne, praised what she called the new "touchy-feely" approach but noted the frustration of residents who don't know a thing about e-mail and who cherished the informal meetings with officers.
At one point, a frazzled O'Grady told the group that the e-mail system "is working."
This month, the Eastern District has had one homicide and one nonfatal shooting, and it has recorded the sharpest decline in violence in the city.