What is Killeen doing about the city’s troubling crime rate?
That’s a legitimate question that many residents are asking in the wake of an FBI crime statistics report that shows increases in several categories for 2016 compared to the preceding year.
The numbers don’t lie.
Robberies rose from 148 to 234. Aggravated assaults were up from 513 to 617. Burglaries jumped from 1,038 to 1,124. Motor vehicle thefts nearly doubled, from 174 in 2015 to 351 in 2016.
All sobering statistics, to be sure.
Even more distressing is the fact the city recently recorded its 16th homicide of the year — equalling last year’s 12-month total, with three months to go in the current year.
Add in last week’s flurry of gunfire incidents in which homes and vehicles were targeted by gunmen in passing vehicles, and residents have every right to demand and expect answers.
To date, those answers have been few and far between.
At a community forum in mid-August, then-Police Chief Margaret Young acknowledged that violent crime was up 19 percent from the same time last year. Property crime had also increased, up 10.5 percent from the same date in 2016.
Yet, at the same forum, Young told the crowd the police department would be eliminating 32 vacant positions — including nine patrol officers and one police captain — in an attempt to save money.
That announcement was met with anger by some residents — and that’s certainly understandable.
At a time when the city is facing increasing challenges in curbing both violent and nonviolent crime, it’s hard to see how trimming positions — even vacant ones — sends the right message to criminals or the public at large.
City Manager Ron Olson is quick to point out that these positions aren’t actually being eliminated, but rather are being unfunded. That would seem to be splitting hairs, since either way, those positions will be empty, at least for the coming fiscal year.
It’s also troubling to hear of cutbacks, considering the department already has 17 actual vacancies — though some of those positions will be filled when prospective new hires complete their police academy training.
Still, the department should be actively recruiting quality people to maintain a full complement of officers.
In late August, the Harker Heights Police Department swore in Corey Bates as the department’s 47th officer. He was chosen from among 160 applicants for the position. He came out of the police academy as the No. 1 shooter and won the Top Gun Award. In addition, he was selected as the class’ honor graduate.
That’s the kind of quality recruit every department should strive to attract, and it’s worth asking whether Bates had also applied for a spot on the Killeen police force.
Over the past few years, Killeen has lost several senior officers and investigators to retirement, as well as the city’s longtime police chief, who moved over to City Hall to become the city’s interim city manager last fall and has continued on as an assistant city manager since Olson’s hiring in February.
With new Chief Charles Kimble in place, the city should be on the lookout for new officers to help fill the ranks — not trimming positions and slashing overtime.
At one time, the police department acknowledged a goal of having two police officers for every 1,000 residents. As Killeen’s population stands at about 140,000 people, that would mean KPD would have an optimum force of 280 officers.
But as things stand, the department is far short of that number, with 242 employed.
On Sept. 28, a 39-year-old man was found dead on Reese Creek Road in southwest Killeen. The body, which had a gunshot wound, was discovered by a mail carrier in the middle of the day.
The grisly discovery marked the city’s 16th homicide this year. Yet, to date, arrests have been made in only five of those cases. Yet, the police department is undergoing a restructuring that will shift personnel away from criminal investigations.
Kimble has said KPD will increase the number of patrol officers and change the way police patrols operate, making the most out of the department’s limited resources. This is especially important, since the recently approved city budget also puts caps on police overtime.
The department is also moving toward a more data-driven patrol strategy, in which crime patterns are evaluated and trouble spots are targeted with increased police resources. Though targeting neighborhoods has been criticized in some cities as an example of profiling, proponents say the policy can be highly effective.
Kimble also plans to put more emphasis on community policing, saying that it starts with visibility. If officers engage in problem-solving, he told the Herald, they know what’s normal in the neighborhoods and shopping centers they frequent.
Unfortunately, it may be getting harder to tell what’s “normal” in any given neighborhood.
The city’s homicides haven’t been confined to a single area of town. Rather, they have occurred in several sectors, as have the seemingly random drive-by gunfire incidents.
Obviously, the department has its work cut out if it is to be successful in bringing crime under control.
At the August police forum, Kimble sounded committed to the task, saying, “We’re going to do it (police work), and we’re going to do it with the resources we have. I’m not going to let a budget or a lack of a budget get in the way of this community’s safety.”
No doubt, Kimble and his department will need the community’s help in curbing crime.
No matter how many patrol officers KPD hires, police can’t be everywhere, at all times. That’s why programs such as Citizens on Patrol and Neighborhood Crime Watch are essential to monitoring suspicious activity in neighborhoods across the city.
Ultimately, the FBI’s crime stats are more than just numbers. Each one cited represents residents who have been impacted by crime — and had their lives diminished by it. And by extension, the city itself is diminished.
It’s time for action. It’s time to get involved.
It’s time for some answers.