The police officer next door

Mike Costello moved into an Atlanta neighborhood where his friend, and fellow officer, was once shot to change how members of the community view police.

Posted: Jun 2, 2018 6:59 PM
Updated: Jun 2, 2018 7:01 PM

Almost every morning after his overnight shift, Mike Costello runs through an apartment complex near his house where a fellow police officer, a friend of his, was shot four years ago.

The racially diverse neighborhood has been Costello's home for two years. He moved into the city of Atlanta as part of an initiative to better integrate police officers with the cities they patrol.

That means his running route is not only his daily exercise, but is also an extension of his job.

"I'll throw on an Atlanta Police shirt, and run through all the streets in the neighborhood, just to show, like, 'Hey, there's the neighborhood cop,'" Costello, who is Caucasian, told CNN, sitting in his backyard one spring afternoon.

On his cop's salary, Costello says he never would have been able to buy a house on his own in the Atlanta neighborhood of Edgewood.

Edgewood has rapidly gentrified over the past few years but some abandoned houses still dot the area and pockets of crime exist, says Costello.

In 2016, he jumped at the chance to participate in a program run by the Atlanta Police Foundation partnering with the city's police department. According to the Foundation, only 14% of Atlanta's police force lived in the city when the program started, now that number has increased to 22%.

The program helps the department improve community policing by building trust and humanizing officers, says Carlos Campos, an Atlanta Police department spokesman.

Campos says the department plans to place 25 officers in Atlanta neighborhoods by the end of 2020.

The six police officers participating in the program don't patrol their own neighborhoods, but they act as a liaison to the local community, attending neighborhood meetings, and volunteering in mentorship programs and local events.

Although crime is still an issue in his neighborhood, Costello says residents are invested in making it better.

"If you bring in officers to move into the city, they're gonna have more of a vested interested, because they own property," Costello says. "It's the community that they're living, working, and playing in."

The Foundation says after Costello applied and was selected by the Secure Neighborhoods program, he was given a $300 monthly stipend for three years, a marked vehicle to park at his home, and around $35,000 in equity in his home, which neighbors told CNN was previously an abandoned and rundown house.

"I really don't like taking somebody like that to jail"

Costello's precinct office is on the southwest side of the city, a 15-minute drive from his house, and faces higher crime rates and an economically diverse terrain that brings its own set of challenges.

One summer night, CNN joined Costello during a quiet overnight shift, after a particularly busy shift the night before.

The first call that came in over the radio was over a familiar issue -- a seemingly incapacitated man was hanging around a gas station convenience store causing problems.

Costello spotted him right away, a regular.

"I really don't like taking somebody like that to jail because jail's not going to solve any of that guy's problems. But at what point do you keep allowing him to do that?" Costello said after sending the man on his way.

Living in the city of Atlanta has impacted how he approaches his job, Costello said.

"It just gives you an idea of how you need to treat that particular person, in that particular situation -- become more sympathetic, more empathetic, to peoples' needs," he says.

Costello is also studying to get his law degree at Georgia State University and plans to graduate in 2020.

He tells neighbors to stop by his home if they have an issue or a concern, and although he hasn't met anyone hostile to cops, he's well aware that there's a perception problem.

"It's perceived that white police officers just wanna go and lock up young, black men for menial crimes," Costello said. "That's the number one obstacle right now, is gaining trust with people that, maybe, have not had the greatest experience with a police officer in the past."

Asked about the violent encounters between police officers and citizens that have sparked controversy and outrage all over the country, Costello says they make up a tiny percentage of overall interactions.

"You really need to go the extra mile with somebody, sometimes, and explain to them why you're doing some things, to try and put them at ease in a situation, so we don't wind up having these violent encounters, over and over again," he says.

Watching out for each other

Walking up and down Costello's street, back in Edgewood, his neighbors say they've welcomed him as a neighbor.

"He's no, like, 'I'm-the-cop' type individual. He's a neighbor, he's good people," says Calvin Dorsey, who often stays at his girlfriend's house across the street from Costello. "We're just watching out for one another."

Neighbors say that before Costello arrived, there was drug activity on the street, including at the abandoned house that became his home.

"I think they should have already have done this earlier. Maybe it will help eliminate some of the fears that people have in general," says Jennifer Winfrey, who said she's lived in the neighborhood for five years.. "I'm not gonna just say black men, I think people in general are afraid to be stopped or be questioned."

Towards the end of his running route, Costello passes by a brightly painted house with graffiti signs scrawled across it reading: "COP WATCH" and "Build up Resistance."

"Most police officers know that when they sign up for this job, it's dangerous, and some bad things could happen to you at some time," Costello says. "I still think that most people in this country like police, love police, know that they're there to help them."

Still, when asked about what success would look like for him, Costello is clear on his purpose.

"If I could change one person's way of thinking about police, I think that's successful," he says.

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