Is Killeen losing the war on crime?
That question was posed to Killeen’s elected officials and the city’s police chief last week — and the answer was a unanimous “no.”
Certainly, it’s a legitimate question, as the city has seen the number of homicides soar to 28 in the first 10 months of the year, nearly double the 2019 total. Moreover, Killeen’s overall crime rate has increased by 2.6% between 2018 and 2019 — while many other cities of similar size witnessed a declining rate.
But the phrase “war on crime” may not be the best phrase to use in this context.
It may be more apt to describe the effort to curb criminal activity as a series of battles.
In fact, Killeen appeared to be winning some of those battles, when comparing 2019 statistics to the 2018 numbers.
For example, rapes declined from 117 to 105. Robbery cases fell from 146 to 124, and burglaries dropped from 854 to 818,
More importantly, year-to-date figures (through September) in those categories compare favorably, with 60 reported rapes, 80 robberies and 702 burglaries.
Those are certainly categories where police appear to be making headway. But other areas are extremely concerning, such as aggravated assault. As of Sept. 30, the city had reported 492 assaults, compared to 340 for all of 2019.
Taken in conjunction with the high homicide count this year — the highest since the city suffered the tragic mass shooting at Luby’s in 1991 — it’s easy to see why crime is a much-discussed topic among local residents.
Police officials are quick to point out that most of the homicides have a domestic component, but that’s not the case in all instances. Mayor Jose Segarra also noted that many of the homicides were gang- or drug-related.
Sadly, the majority of the victims have been African American, male and under 30 years old. That is a trend that should be troubling to all segments of the city’s population.
Certainly, it would be a mistake to try to define the city’s efforts to curb crime solely on the basis of statistics. Whether the city is “winning” or “losing” the so-called war on crime can’t be based on whether there is a plus sign or a minus sign associated with the current crime rate.
More importantly, each crime listed in the report represents some of our neighbors who have been victims of criminal acts. Whatever the nature of the crime, our entire community suffers the loss.
Perhaps the biggest problem connected to crime — other than the damage inflicted on the victims — may be public perception.
If residents perceive a city has a crime problem, they are likely to feel less safe at work, at home and in their leisure time. More importantly, they may fear for their children’s safety — and that can impact their decision on whether to put down roots in the community.
In addition, businesses may consider a city’s crime statistics in deciding whether to locate a manufacturing plant, restaurant or retail outlet in that location. And while Killeen officials express confidence that the city’s crime challenges have not been an issue in this area, it’s impossible to say how many businesses may have been deterred when conducting preliminary site studies.
In terms of long-term impact, if Congress decides to conduct another Base Realignment and Closure round, or BRAC, the city’s crime rate will be a factor in the Pentagon’s decision-making process when it comes time to allocate personnel and resources — and that could potentially have a negative impact on Fort Hood and the surrounding community.
It is encouraging that the city has made considerable strides in deterring some categories of criminal activity, and Killeen’s elected officials have made funding first responders a top priority in the municipal budget, approving a 6.8% police department increase for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Notably, the current budget contains $2,116,000 in overtime expenditures. That’s nearly double the amount of budgeted overtime in the last budget.
Part of that increase is no doubt necessitated by a growing workload associated with a burgeoning population — the city had more than 151,000 residents as of 2019, up by nearly 24,000 from 2010.
But another factor in the higher overtime budget is the fact that the police department has 260 sworn positions authorized but had only 235 of them filled, as of 2019.
And while the extra money from overtime pay may be welcome to some officers, the additional work hours can take a toll if they consistently take away from time with family or leisure pursuits. That, in turn, can lead to police officers looking elsewhere for employment — and retention has been a persistent challenge for the city in the past 10 years.
Certainly, the department is to be commended for its commitment to patrolling the streets, targeting areas of concern and aggressively pursuing leads that could culminate in an arrest.
Still, whether criminal activity is declining or on the rise, crime remains a community problem.
That much has been made abundantly clear through police and city council-sponsored outreach events and public forums.
As in any city, Killeen’s police department doesn’t have the manpower to keep an eye on every neighborhood, at all times. That would be true even if the KPD had another 25 officers on the force.
Certainly, police can and do target areas with a history of criminal activity with increased patrols — with considerable success.
Chief Charles Kimble previously said the department had made a commitment to using statistics, greater operational efficiency, and pushing for state and federal partnerships to go after repeat offenders. Police must continue to use every resource available to gain an advantage in the fight against crime.
Still, there are no simple fixes to this complex problem.
What our community desperately needs is a “united front,” as Mayor Segarra so aptly stated last week.
No doubt, the best defense against crime is an engaged populace. That means watching for suspicious activity, communicating with neighbors and passing on observations and concerns to police.
Whether the effort to curb crime is truly a war is debatable. But what is not up for debate is whether we can allow crime to gain the upper hand in our community.
The answer to that is a resounding “no.”
And that’s a statement we must continue to make — together.