By Victor O'Brien
Killeen Daily Herald
National crime rankings released in November reaffirmed what statistics have already shown: Killeen police made progress in 2008.
New approaches adopted by Killeen police yielded fewer crimes in 2008. Despite the progress, an uphill struggle remains to create enduring change in one of the nation's fastest growing cities.
Killeen improved by 58 spots in 2008 to become the nation's 143rd most dangerous city out of 385. Killeen ranked 85 in 2007, according to the CQ Press' annual report.
The leap lifted Killeen from being the fifth most dangerous Texas city to eighth among cities with populations more than 75,000 people.
Weighing police impact
Killeen lowest statewide ranking came in murders, where the city carried the fourth highest murder rate in 2008 for cities over 100,000, according to Texas Department of Public Safety.
Almost a year later, Killeen is on pace to post the city's lowest murder total (5) since 2004, despite a rash of three murders in November. Killeen would finish out of the top 5 if the year had ended Nov. 30.
Murder rates depend on many factors beyond police control. Analysts struggle to measure what control the police have over crime, especially murder, Pete Blair, a Texas State criminology professor, said.
Aside from gang-related murders, police can do little more than react to homicides since many are sudden crimes of passion, Blair said.
Proactive approach, better results
Problem-oriented policing, a preventive approach popularized in the last decade, has been shown to reduce crime across the nation, Blair said.
Killeen police decreased burglaries by almost one-third in 2008 and produced the largest crime drop in Texas after they adopted these techniques.
Killeen police honed in on burglaries through a multi-level approach that included high-density patrols in certain neighborhoods, awareness campaigns, community forums and a specialized unit to investigate burglaries.
Killeen has experienced similar declines in 2009 with aggravated assaults after launching family violence awareness campaigns.
The declines place Killeen closer, but far from Police Chief Dennis Baldwin's long-term goal: being on par with the national average.
One year is not a trend
One year's crime totals are not enough to determine if a city is becoming safer, Blair said. Crime rates fluctuate for myriad reasons, some of which are beyond police control.
"I want to see a sustained reduction in crime over several years. With our population increasing, that's a challenge, but it's not impossible," Baldwin said.
Still the Killeen police could have effected the crime drop in 2008 by making high levels of burglary arrests. Arresting a few burglars can solve scores of unsolved crimes and prevent even more, Blair said.
An uphill climb
Killeen's exploding population and demographics pose the biggest threat to improving crime. Killeen almost doubles the national average in burglaries and aggravated assaults, according to FBI figures.
Baldwin cites the city's demographics of a young, transient population as a possible cause for crime woes. According to 2006 U.S. Census estimates, one-third of Killeen was 15 to 34 years old and 48 percent is male: roughly the same demographic that is most prone to crime.
Killeen will need to fund and attract police officers to keep up with the population boom, Baldwin said. To do so Killeen will need to compete with larger state and national departments, which offer higher pay and better benefits to local Army talent.
Councilman Ernest Wilkerson expects city leaders will answer the challenge in the coming years to make Killeen competitive in both compensation, benefits and overall quality of life.
More officers, better equipment and a new headquarters are all part of city plans to elevate police services, which started in the last decade.
The council has funded dozens of officers since 2006, which has moved the city closer to the Texas average of 2.16 officers per thousand population in 2008. Killeen hovered around 1.6 from 2003 to 2008, but is at approximately 1.8 in 2009, with 11 more officers slated for the January police academy.
"One of the major things we're looking at is that crime never sleeps," Wilkerson said. "We want to get to the point where crime is totally reduced in the city of Killeen. We know we won't get rid of all of it, but as much as we can."
Contact Victor O'Brien at email@example.com or (254) 501-7468.