As Franklin Elementary students played on their school playground several hundred yards away on Tuesday afternoon, Santa Barbara police were busy unveiling a new effort aimed at keeping those students — and the rest of their Eastside neighbors — safer where they live.

The Franklin Neighborhood Center at 1136 E. Montecito St. is now home to a community policing office that will house officers with open doors so that the community will have access to police outside of their formal downtown station.

It’s part of a one-year pilot program to increase police presence at and around the Franklin Neighborhood Center and give residents a chance to talk with officers in a less formal way.

The department’s neighborhood beat coordinators were all at Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting — the ribbon substituted for a swath of yellow police tape — as well as Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, Police Chief Cam Sanchez and others who contributed to the center’s opening.

Sgt. Riley Harwood was there to brief the public and the media on the center’s opening and said the perception of safety, as well as whether people are actually safe, is crucial in Santa Barbara’s neighborhoods.

Gang activity has been a problem in the area, and the office’s placement is a strategic one.

The department also has learned that it has greater success when it has officers meeting people out in the community to talk.

Its Coffee with a Cop outreach program through which an officer has set hours at a local coffee shop and community members can stop in to talk about their concerns has been extremely successful, Harwood said.

When the department started doing patrol briefings at the Franklin center, nearby residents took notice of all the police cars in the parking lot.

“First they asked, ‘What happened?'” Sanchez said. But as people found out about the police presence in the neighborhood, “they were just happy to see us here.”

When the department did a citizens academy at Franklin Elementary School, the response was bigger than they imagined.

More than 60 people showed up, many bringing enchiladas and food for the group, and the academy, conducted in Spanish, was a huge success, Sanchez said.

Many programs in the center involved at-risk teens, and having a police presence there in a nonconfrontational way could help young people in the neighborhood see police officers in a different light, Harwood said.

The city’s Parks & Recreation Department is donating the space rent-free to the department for its office.

The artwork for the office was done by Franklin students through the Incredible Children’s Art Network and furniture was donated by local businesses and individuals.

The department explored other locations, including several on the Westside, but the Franklin center proved to be ideal, with its parking situation and rent waiver by the city.

“It’s an experiment so it will evolve as we see what the needs are,” Sanchez said.

Officer Adrian Gutierrez, a longtime Eastside resident and beat coordinator, will be making an announcement on his Spanish-language radio show on Radio Bronco in order to let the neighborhood know the center is open for walk-ins.

Sanchez said he plans to have office hours at the center, too, and evening hours will also be part of the strategy to get people stopping in after work.

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