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Posted on August 16, 2015 at 10:25 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- Officer Dan Billingsley did not want to be known as the guy who picked up the snow cone machine.


Standing by the basketball courts at Springfield's Johnny Appleseed Park on a warm July evening, Billingsley conferred in hushed tones with his commanding officer, Sgt. Reggie Miller. Miller, the leader of a newly-formed community policing unit tasked with reducing crime in a volatile section of Forest Park, had scraped together department funds to buy the snow cone maker after a rented one proved a hit at the unit's last-day-of-school event in June.


Children who might otherwise have been skeptical of talking to police crowded around the officers, learning their names and building what Miller describes as the trust necessary to stop gang activity and violent crime. That reasoning, however, was not likely to play well in department roll call. Billingsley, assigned to get the machine from a Best Buy outside city lines, was seeking permission to call in his errand on his cell phone rather than the general police radio, where listening officers could put him in line for some serious ribbing.


"A city like this, and we're buying a snow cone machine?" Billingsley said. "We'd be the joke of the department."


It is that attitude that Miller, a broad-shouldered Springfield native with close-cropped hair befitting his military background, is trying to change. His hand-picked unit, an extension of the C-3 anti-gang squad that city leaders have credited with dramatically reducing violence in the North End, is made up of officers who understand the benefits of policing with a human touch, he said. And, according to Miller, it is a shift for a department which, like many, can be resistant to change.


"You've got to like talking to people," Miller said. "You have some people who just want to do their eight hours, respond to calls and go home. It does take a special person."


Under the leadership of Commissioner John Barbieri, the Springfield police department has devoted more resources to proactive, community-based policing. The C-3 initiative, which fights gang activity through an intelligence and public engagement driven approach inspired by military anti-insurgency tactics, has won national attention for crime reductions in targeted neighborhoods.


Miller's unit is an expansion of the C-3 program that began in April, targeting a jagged stretch of residential streets northeast of Forest Park. The sector, made up of narrow single-family homes and townhouses, was chosen for its high number of calls for service, juvenile delinquency cases and elevated crime statistics.


While the department's crime analytics cannot yet break down the numbers for the unit's specific area, the overall Forest Park neighborhood has seen three homicides, 43 robberies and 127 felony assaults this year, according to department crime statistics. Those numbers are on pace to exceed, or have already surpassed, the area's 2014 crime rate.


His unit's neighborhood is a particular hotspot, Miller says, and it will likely take a year and a half before the initiative's impact can be evaluated by the numbers.


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