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TRANSITIONING: Huntington Police Overcoming Perception that City Overrun with Crime
One of a Series of Articles Detailing Status and Proposals by City of Huntington Departments
What’s on the mind of Huntington’s department heads as they prepare for a new chief executive officer at the city’s helm?
Scrubbing accumulated grime from the tarnished jewel, the Huntington Police Department has in the words of Police Chief Skip Holbrook “ learned to do more with less,” thus accentuating an innovative model for finding ways to implement the expansion of “Money-ton’s” increasingly high profile drug culture.
Hired as an outsider from North Carolina with local roots, Holbrook took over a department rattled by reactionary police work, particularly a community stunned by big city homicide implications following the prom night murders of four teenagers. With drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes and frequent ‘shots fired’ dispatches, residents increasingly perceived the relative crime safety of small town Heartlands had evolved into a Little Detroit. The steady rise in drugs and violent crime had come after a 2002 reduction to 76 officers. The bad guys overtook the number of law enforcers.
“We had to figure new ways to do business, to reconnect to the community,” Holbrook told the Public Safety transition committee, explaining that for the last six years (with the exception of 2011) the budget has remained “flat” in the $12 million (plus) per year range of which 90% goes for personnel costs that include current employees and pension fund contributions.
The answer has come in the form of various acronyms --- JAG, COPS, Weed & Seed --- which Holbrook describe as a “cautious… slippery slope” of grants utilized to boost police presence, technology, surveillance , replacement of worn vehicles, and K-9 officers to among other endeavors “sniff” out evidence.
Grants and multi-agency partnerships with the F.B.I. , A.T.F., and other specialized task forces have enabled HPD to reduce crime in Huntington to a 27 year low utilizing only about $1.1 million from the city funds for operating expenses.
“If we don’t work together , we aren’t going to win,” Holbrook said, who pooled successful neighborhood driven and community involvement models that had proven successful in other cities. The results brought a 62% reduction in violent crimes and a 40% decrease in drug related crimes. As a return on the investment of adding about $387,000 for six officers, overtime reimbursement, five vehicles, and cameras, HPD has gained approximately $1.45 million in outside funding and has seized approximately $1.7 million in drugs and taken nearly $6.5 million in drugs off the streets.
And, in each of the years , the department has come in under budget thanks , in part, to a color coded time card system which ensures accurate budget tracking.
Faced with a gasoline station, convenience store and parking lot at 20th Street and 9th Avenue that repeatedly consumed resources, the law enforcement tackled the “reoccurring drain” through a federal food stamp fraud investigation. The building will be “knocked down” on December 5, ending its loathsome history as the center of drug trafficking, prostitution and shots fired.
Since the West End (District 2) is now a crime “hot spot,” HPD plans an increasing initiative to “apply the same models and principles that were used in Fairfield.”
Describing opiate addition as an emerging city threat, Holbrook told the Public Safety Transition Committee, “We have got to find solutions other than putting everybody in jail.”
After an increased number of cruisers involved in accidents during high speed pursuits, the department initiated officer driver training during emergencies (held on an airport runway using already nearly worn out vehicles), cameras in cruisers, and a separate series of action reports that detail the how, when and why of firearms discharge, pursuits, and publishing use of force data.
The department’s goal over the next four years would be increasing staffing up to a crime “preventive” an “proactive” reduction level of 115. Some of those personnel would be in civilian employees , not sworn officers. “I’d rather have an officer on the street than (in the office) writing grant reports.” A civilian crime analyst predicted through computer data the location where the next serial larceny would occur. “We deployed resources where it might happen” and as a result “had a third floor flea market of recovered goods” from “intelligence led policing.”
Holbrook worries that the mayoral changeover and tight fiscal conditions “pits" department against department. " Every (city) department has critical needs. Wherever you plug a critical need in one department, (you hope) they do not take it out of my pie.”
Rev. Samuel Moore, who chairs the committee, told Holbrook “if people know what’s going on, they are more likely to support [them],” adding “Do you have a public relations officer?”
Holbrook smiled and stated, “We’ll take on of those too,” just after adding that he has worked under three Huntington mayors.
His keys for excellence: “Keep your eye on the ball, be focused, profession, realistic and a team player.”