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Less crime is possible

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Posted: Friday, June 6, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 5:11 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Kevin M. Smith

Killeen Daily Herald

For several decades, Junction City, Kan., – home to Fort Riley – was not the place to be.

A high crime rate marred the city's reputation.

"When I first started, we were one of the highest in the state for crime – probably the highest per capita in the nation," said Junction City Police Chief Bob Story, who has worked for the police department off and on since 1984.

But now, the streets are relatively quiet, officials said.

Story and Geary County Attorney Steven Opat said stricter laws, tougher penalties and aggressive action cleaned up the city.

Junction City's crime problem dated back to the 1970s.

"Any press that was read about Junction City was negative," Opat said.

Story said there would be about six homicides a year at that time. According to the FBI's uniform crime report, there was just one homicide in 2006.

"I think things in Junction City have gotten a lot better and a lot safer," Opat said.

Story said the most recent step to curb crime was when the police department implemented the "broken window" theory. It's a law enforcement theory, according to Story, that says if a person who has been in jail returns to a better community, they are not as tempted to commit crimes. He said a nicer-looking community sends a message to residents that crime is not acceptable in that neighborhood. Story said criminals who return to a neighborhood after serving a sentence – if it's nicer than the way they left it – usually either change their ways or move to another community where crime is an accepted behavior.

"We have seen a huge, tremendous change in the crime by doing that," Story said.

The theory originated from an article by James Wilson and George Kelling that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1982.

Story said the theory was put into practice by the Junction City Police Department in 1997 and really caught on between 2000 and 2002. Part of Junction City's implementation of the theory involved including the blight department – code enforcement activities – under the police department.

Story said drugs also are a factor in the community. Story, who started as a Junction City narcotics officer, said that division is not nearly as busy as when he was working it. And that is clear across the board.

"Narcotics run a lot of our violent crimes," Story said.

He said drug dealers do not typically live in "good" neighborhoods.

Opat attributed the clean up to aggressive police behavior and stricter convictions.

"Things became very aggressive," said Opat, who was county attorney from 1979 to 1989 and has served in that position since 2003 after having a private practice.

Opat said he, then-Geary County Sheriff Bill Deppish and then-Police Chief Jerry Smith worked together to aggressively seek criminal convictions. He said among the things they targeted were drug gangs.

"We ended up smashing three substantial drug rings," Opat said.

Opat, who went to Junction City as a public defender in 1977, said he handled "nearly every crime imaginable."

"I think what I've seen is a more aggressive approach and an imposition of serious consequences," Opat said.

Opat recalled seeking and achieving many homicide convictions.

"Which made people realize we were trying to address the problem and this wasn't a place for criminals to be," Opat said.

Opat said the success can be attributed to an unrelenting attitude.

"I think things over the years have stayed fairly consistent and fairly aggressive," Opat said.

Story also said crime data for Junction City needs to be qualified.

"Our crime rate may be per capita, but that doesn't count Fort Riley," Story said.

He said Junction City's population is estimated near 20,000 now and Fort Riley is up to about 18,000. He said the per capita statistic can be skewed because there are many soldiers on post who frequent the community.

Deployments also have an effect on crime, Story said. The number of soldiers home has a "two-fold" crime factor. He said there are more people to commit crimes, but also more people to be the victims of crimes.

Story said with more soldiers in the community, there's more cars to break into or things in homes to go after.

"There's so much more opportunity for someone to be a victim," Story said.

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