As downtown “ambassador” Joshua Harris helped nab a fleeing bank robber, a downtown alderman is pitching a related idea: put sidewalk greeters like him in neighborhoods throughout the city and equip them with police radios.
It might be cheaper than hiring more cops, the alderman, Douglas Hausladen, told the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee last week.
More ambassadors—helpful sidewalk-roaming “concierges”—in the city would mean more eyes and ears on the street to spot and stop crimes, Hausladen argued at the March 20 committee meeting. Right now only downtown has ambassadors. If they see a problem, they call the police department like any other citizen.
Hausladen’s case in point about the crew’s crime-fighting potential came Monday of this week, when ambassador Harris spotted red dye coming out of the pocket of a woman heading towards a city bus. He alerted downtown beat cop Officer Pete Ballolli who ended up arresting the woman for robbing the TD Bank at the corner of College and Chapel.
“Synergistic bliss,” Hausladen called it on Tuesday afternoon.
“We see something, that’s what we do,” downtown ambassador Harold Hasell (at right in above photo, with Harris) said of his colleague’s assist.
The pair said some people already think ambassadors are cops—especially since they sometimes ride bikes, and they wear yellow uniforms similar to cycle-cops’ jackets. Other people mistake them for parking meter readers.
“People will run past me and put money in the meter,” said Harris, who’s 24.
“Full sprint!” Hassell added.
Hausladen has not created a formal proposal for ambassador expansion yet. But his idea was greeted with cautiously open arms when he floated it at last week’s committee meeting.
Hausladen, a freshman alderman, said he’s not yet putting forward an official proposal in part because he’s still learning the ropes three months into his first term. He said he he’s not sure how new ambassadors would be paid for, but said there are a variety of options, from grants to neighborhood fundraising to the city’s general fund. In the meantime, he’s just trying to see if people are into the general idea.
“First and foremost: Is this something desired by the city?” Hausladen said. If it is, then the city can begin to talk about how to pay for it.
Ambassadors have been walking downtown’s sidewalks since 1998, said Win Davis, the deputy head of Town Green Special Services District, which pays for the staff of 15.
“We provide hospitality and safety services as well as maintenance,” Davis said. “We are walking concierge-type people downtown.”
Being “extra eyes and ears” for the police department has always been a focus of the program, Davis said. “We’re in daily contact with our downtown officers.”
“Any way that we can have a closer relationship with the police department helps us do a better job,” said Davis. As for whether ambassadors should be given police radios, Winn said, “Ultimately that would be up to the police department.”
As part of a recent effort to revive community policing, downtown now has five full-time walking-beat officers. Walking cops have been deployed to other neighborhoods as well.
As police Chief Dean Esserman looks to hire more cops and increase walking beats even further, members of the Public Safety committee raised concerns about how the city will pay for it.
“Downtown ambassadors can be much more cost effective,” Hausladen said. The job pays a living wage, he said. Wages start at $9.75 an hour, Davis said.
The ambassadors could be trained to use police radios and relay information immediately to the cops, Hausladen said. It would be like having a fleet of security guards around the city, he said.
You’re talking about making this citywide? Alderwoman Jackie James asked.
Yes, Hausladen replied. “People from the neighborhoods” could be hired and trained, he said. It could start with other business improvement districts, like the Grand Avenue Village Association the Chapel West Special Services District.
In fact, Chapel West on March 8 contracted with the Town Green to have ambassadors further down Chapel Street six days a week, Davis said.
“It’d be interesting to flesh this idea out,” city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said after the aldermanic meeting. Anything that would help get more information to police would be valuable, he said.
“We have a lot of unemployed people” in the city, Hausladen said. An expanded ambassador program could be “a training ground” for police academy cadets.
“I would love to talk more about this,” said Beaver Hill Alderman Brian Wingate, chair of the Public Safety Committee. He said there might be a “safety issues” with putting ambassadors into all neighborhoods.
“Are civilians going to take these people seriously?” he asked. “I know we’re all trying to save city dollars, but we don’t want to put people in harm’s way.”
Paul Bass contributed reporting.