TIFTON - A community-oriented program designed to bridge differences between law enforcement and residents of a high-crime area has won a statewide award for the Tifton Police Department.

Chief Jim Smith and school resource officers Toni Gann, Lester Cromer and Scott Bowers accepted the Dr. Curtis McClung Award of Excellence from the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs July 23 in Savannah.

The McClung award recognizes innovative programs that impact quality of life issues within a community while promoting professionalism in law enforcement. Tifton's police department was selected for the annual award over departments in Marietta, Moultrie and Warner Robins.

The TPD received the award for its Community Involvement Center summer program, a nine-year effort involving the Tifton Housing Authority, civic organizations and volunteers. During the summer, officers take neighborhood children fishing, bowling and to the movies and organize sports activities for them. A homework program during the school year helps kids stay on track with academics.

"We do things to keep the kids busy during the summer, off the street and out of trouble," Smith said. "But we also try to teach them responsibility and discipline."

The center, a 12,000-square-foot space in the Housing Authority complex on Old Omega Road, sits along one edge of the New Front area. When Smith began researching community-oriented policing in 1992, New Front was a heavy drug activity area with high incidences of property crimes and assaults. Eight homicides occurred in the neighborhood between 1988 and 1993.

"It was a really rough area," Smith said. "Nine years ago, it wasn't really safe for police officers to go down there. Now, we have either done away with the crime or shifted it to other areas."

Smith said some of the young people who first attended program events are almost grown now and still help out at the center. "A lot of friendships develop, a lot of trust and respect for each other," he said. "The school resource officers become a person the kids can go to with personal or family problems."

The CIC operated with both public and private funds. The City of Tifton budgets $2,400 annually for the program, and additional funding comes from TPD fundraisers and private donations.

"It's not all about us," Smith said. "It's about this community and the people who are willing to get involved. I'm very thankful to the mayor and council for their support. We're beginning to reap the benefits and see success stories."

To contact city editor Florence Rankin, call 382-4321, ext. 209.

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