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Building safer communities through collaboration: The impact of the Community SAFE Project

The project allows local police and law enforcement partners to take a proactive role in providing comprehensive training and support to different entities in their community

By Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough

Communities across America wrestle with the breaking news and ensuing fears, fatigue and frustrations resulting from reports of violence-based mass casualty incidents.

In an era where increased emphasis is placed on the need for comprehensive school and public safety reform, collaborative initiatives are a critical imperative to achieving and maintaining holistic public safety. Recent violence-based mass casualty attacks on schools, churches, public events and businesses underscore the urgent need for more synergistic emergency response alignment between school-based law enforcement, local police and law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdiction.

Incorporating a variety of essential components, such as multi-agency pre-planning and coordination training, alongside post-modern policing strategies, holds the potential to significantly enhance school and community safety to ensure the wellbeing of all stakeholders.

The ALERRT Center: A Model of Excellence

In light of the ever-evolving landscape of public safety, it is essential that contemporary safety measures encompass comprehensive preparedness and collaborative efforts between different law enforcement agencies and the public. One example of this innovative approach is found at the ALERRT Center, based at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

Recognized as the gold standard in active shooter response training by the FBI in 2013, ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training) empowers law enforcement officers with the critical skills and knowledge needed to effectively respond to active shooter incidents.

Among its exceptional offerings, the ALERRT Center developed the Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE) training program. This initiative provides civilians with invaluable strategies, guidance, and a proven plan to navigate and survive an active shooter event. By empowering first responders and civilians with the necessary tools and knowledge, ALERRT helps to foster a culture of preparedness and resilience in communities that enhance public safety.

The Community SAFE Project: Bridging gaps and building safety

In 2022, a pioneering approach in shared community and law enforcement public safety preparedness emerged from the Hutto Police Department in Hutto, Texas, with the Community SAFE (Strategic Actions For Everyone) Project. As a school safety expert and inaugural former police chief of two school districts in Texas, I wanted to develop an innovative approach that seamlessly bridges the gap between local police, school-based law enforcement, worship centers, child care centers and businesses through multi-layered public safety preparedness and response.

As an extension of the Four Pillars of School Safety and Policing transformative model I developed for educational institutions, the Community SAFE project stands as an effective model that has transformative potential for communities nationwide. By integrating CRASE training and elevating the readiness levels for schools, childcare facilities, places of worship, businesses and citizens, the program establishes a new pinnacle in public safety initiatives.

Comprehensive community engagement and training

At its core, the Community SAFE Project embodies a deep commitment to cultivating partnerships with a diverse range of stakeholders, fostering community and public safety preparedness. Expanding the traditional scope of law enforcement duties to providing citizens with beneficial public safety preparedness strategies, the initiative extends police services and collaboration in a manner that enhances mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

The project allows local police and various law enforcement partners to take a proactive role in providing comprehensive training and support to different entities in their community. This includes training in standard response protocols, assistance with the development of safety plans, establishing site-based standard response protocols and co-facilitating safety drills to improve preparedness to address a variety of situations.

To facilitate this process, specialized training sessions are regularly conducted to provide the knowledge and tools necessary to enhance safety and security measures. By expanding police services to provide these specialized support solutions, the Hutto Police Department not only enhances public safety preparedness but also fosters resilience and empowerment among its residents.

Businesses, child care centers and places of worship share a common need for robust safety protocols, similar to mandated emergency protocols and procedures used in public schools. The Community SAFE Project identified effective practices used in schools and utilized those solutions to enhance safety and security for community partners. The Hutto Police Department has been instrumental in the fulfillment of this endeavor. Officers can conduct site visits at businesses, places of worship and child care centers, to perform risk and vulnerability assessments. Officers also assess critical factors such as security of access points, existing access control measures, building layouts, evacuation routes, and provide recommendations for enhancing both interior and exterior building security solutions. Assessments also extend to the evaluation of existing site surveillance systems. Based on the findings, officers provide recommendations to optimize response capabilities and security measure improvements.

The Hutto Police Department assists community members with the creation of detailed emergency response procedures designed to address a range of potential emergencies, including active shooter incidents, severe weather events, fires, hazardous material incidents, train derailments, incidents that require taking shelter, or high-risk police activities in the vicinity.

The Community SAFE Project is designed to build a network of prepared and resilient stakeholders. Building confidence through competence provides a level of security that is invaluable. The integration of best practices in safety planning, enhancing security measures, and providing comprehensive training opportunities exemplify proactive safety initiatives in action. The shared commitment to safety and security among law enforcement agencies provides stakeholders with the knowledge and skills needed to identify potential threats, respond effectively in crises, and provide vital assistance to law enforcement in critical incident resolution.

The importance of early intervention and mental health support

In addition to the different public safety initiatives, the Community SAFE Project emphasizes the importance of early intervention and mental health support. By addressing underlying issues and providing resources for at-risk individuals, it aims to prevent incidents before they occur. Additionally, the project encourages open communication channels between law enforcement and the community, fostering a high level of trust and cooperation.

A distinctive aspect of the project is a collaborative effort between the Hutto Police Department and the Hutto Independent School District that creates continuity of care for students. Non-school-based law enforcement are often first responders to various incidents that can have a traumatic impact on victims and witnesses, particularly children. Instances such as abuse, neglect, assault, or exposure to family violence can have long-lasting negative effects on children.

Beyond the immediate trauma, the aftermath of these incidents can create adverse childhood experiences that significantly disrupt a child’s sense of safety and well-being. Moreover, the potential for peer ridicule and social stigma adds another layer of distress to these already vulnerable situations. The profound impact of adverse childhood experiences can lead to enduring mental health challenges and substance abuse issues. The Community SAFE Project provides a system of support and report pathways designed to ensure that officers who become aware of or respond to suspected incidents that potentially lead to student trauma are required to report such information to the department’s crisis support specialist. Simultaneously, information is shared with the Hutto Independent School District Police Department to ensure that the necessary support and resources are available for every affected student.

Building a united front

Furthermore, initiatives like the Community SAFE Project directly address underlying social issues and promote positive partnership development. By engaging with citizens and organizations to foster partnerships, law enforcement can identify and collaboratively implement preventative measures, support vulnerable populations and create opportunities for positive social change. Initiatives like the Community SAFE Project allow communities to build a united front to address a variety of incidents. It creates a culture of vigilance, preparedness and resilience that not only deters potential threats but also ensures a swift and effective response of solidarity in times of crisis. Through this integrated and early intervention approach, the project not only aims to intervene effectively in traumatic situations but also strives to create a seamless continuum of care for children facing adversity. This initiative exemplifies a proactive and multi-layered approach to school and public safety by recognizing the critical need to support and safeguard the well-being of young individuals.

The strategic partnership between the Hutto Police Department and the Hutto Independent School District allows for integrated community-based training exercises that equip first responders with the skills and precision needed to navigate crises effectively. For instance, procedures were implemented by Hutto ISD to enhance law enforcement campus access and campus layout familiarity. The proactive measure ensures that officers are well-prepared to swiftly enter and efficiently navigate campus buildings and facilities during emergencies to address a variety of situations. The alignment significantly improves overall preparedness and response to potential threats, thereby creating a safer environment for students, staff and community members.

Shared ownership

The Community SAFE Project emphasizes proactive engagement and outreach within communities to foster trust, mutual respect and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and stakeholders. The project promotes a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for public safety, strengthening the bond between law enforcement and citizens. The shared effort of working together toward creating safer, more resilient communities demonstrates the transformative power of collective action in promoting public safety and well-being.

Innovative policing initiatives can positively impact the overall perception of the level of police commitment to safety and security. When residents, businesses, and educational institutions witness law enforcement agencies working in partnership with local stakeholders to enhance preparedness, it instills confidence and reassurance in the collective ability of a community to come together to mitigate and respond to a variety of crisis situations. In turn, it leads to a greater sense of security, ultimately contributing to the betterment of the overall quality of life in the area..

During a critical incident response involving multiple law enforcement agencies, the recurring question often emerges: “Who is in charge?” This inquiry is a common one, often leading to ambiguity, depending on the circumstances and location. The call for truly collaborative policing initiatives represents a paradigm shift from the usual practice. For instance, the extent of engagement and cooperation between school police departments and partner law enforcement agencies can vary widely across jurisdictions. Evidence of this unfortunate reality has been seen in past incident responses to active shooter events at schools around the country, where numerous agencies converge but are met with limited information, direction, or clarity on planned strategies. Therefore, there is a significant need for truly multi-agency collaborative training, communication alignment, and response protocols to effectively resolve critical incidents. The primary objective is to ensure that all responding officers are well-prepared to navigate crisis situations effectively in order to minimize the risk of chaos and confusion during emergencies. Such measures aim to facilitate a coordinated, coherent, and cohesive response across all agencies involved in the incident.

At its core, collaborative policing is about building resilient partnerships inside and outside the policing profession. It ensures that communities have the support and solutions needed to overcome potential threats. By fostering partnerships between law enforcement agencies, schools, businesses, and organizations, collaborative policing initiatives create a network of support and resources that enhance overall community safety.

Looking ahead, collaborative policing stands as a cornerstone in shaping the future of school and public safety. The integration of innovative programs such as the Community SAFE Project and the establishment of partnerships across diverse law enforcement entities can significantly improve a community’s readiness to confront emerging threats. By nurturing partnerships, harnessing resources and placing a premium on preparedness, law enforcement agencies can expand their capacity to respond decisively to potential dangers and create a steadfast framework for public safety and citizen well-being.

NEXT: Chief Jeffrey D. Yarbrough shares his philosophy on leadership, which prioritizes breaking down silos and ensuring creating organizational culture is a collective effort

About the author

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Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough

Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough is a 27-year police veteran and former U.S. Army Gulf War veteran with the 101st Airborne Division. Chief Yarbrough is an experienced, innovative and transformational servant leader who recognizes the value of others and inspires them to reach their fullest potential. Prior to joining the Hutto Police Department, he served as the inaugural Chief of Police for the Round Rock Independent School District. Chief Yarbrough also served in a dual role as the inaugural Chief of Police and Chief Operating Officer for Bastrop ISD. He was a sergeant in the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office where he investigated alleged criminal offenses committed by public servants and elected officials.

Chief Yarbrough is the former Chief of Police and Assistant City Manager for the City of Tulia and oversaw the electric, public works, water, parks, landfill, streets and police department. He served as Senior Investigator for the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar of Texas where he investigated professional misconduct allegations filed against licensed Texas attorneys. Chief Yarbrough served as a Sergeant with the Texas Attorney General’s Office and was responsible for investigating capital murder and major felony cases throughout the State.

Chief Yarbrough earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Texas at Brownsville. He received a Master of Science degree in Educational Human Resource Development from Texas A&M University at College Station. Chief Yarbrough attended the prestigious Northwestern University Center for Public Safety’s Senior Management Leadership Program in Evanston, IL. and completed the Law Enforcement Leadership Certification Program at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, NC.