Whitehall Police Chief Mike Crispen was hired two years ago for a reason: The city needed to lower its crime rate.
So far, that has happened.
Through September, violent crime — defined as murder, negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — has dropped 36 percent compared to 2016 rates, according to police department data. Burglaries have fallen 43 percent, down from 240 in 2016 to 137 in 2018.
Dispatched calls also are down 14 percent, suggesting a general decline in crime.
“Nothing is more important in a community than safety,” said Leslie LaCorte, a Whitehall resident since 1966 and a former city councilwoman
Residents didn’t necessarily feel safe when Crispen was hired. Concerns about violent crime and the prevalence of drugs in the community were widespread, even if it was partly because the city experienced an anomalous nine homicides in 2015 (there were two in 2016 and none in 2017 or in 2018 so far).
Crispen said he understood the need for change.
The answer to the obvious question — what’s driving the declines? — has multiple parts, Crispen said. And crime rates aren’t simply the product of police action. It’s also about economic development and opportunity, he said, praising Mayor Kim Maggard for her commitment to both.
“You can’t just keep throwing people in jail. When they get out, they’ve got to have something,” Crispen said. “Or better yet, let’s get to them before they commit the crime and get them into some good jobs so they see there is another option.”
In 2017, Whitehall had 48 new businesses open. That’s also when Crispen and the department implemented a retooled approach to policing.
The crux of the new approach is dedicating resources to the root of residents’ concerns, Crispen said. That means focusing on theft.
Violent crime is often linked to drugs, and drugs are related to theft, he said: Heavy users often get the money to buy drugs “by stealing, shoplifting, theft of people’s property.”
“If I reduce the funding source significantly to buy drugs in the city of Whitehall, it’s going to make it a lot more difficult to sell here,” Crispen said.
The narcotics unit also is cracking down on drug dealers.
“If we can make it more difficult to sell here, the dealers are going to go away to some degree and the violence will start to come down,” he said.
At this point in 2016, there had been 372 drug-related arrests in Whitehall. In 2017, the number was 575. In 2018, there have been 622 so far.
And, by design, theft arrests are up, too. There were 306 from January through September in 2017, a 51 percent increase compared to 2016.
This year, that number declined to 260. Crispen said that appears to indicate the police department’s efforts have been successful because “we’re still doing the same initiatives, only they’re not finding as many people stealing.”
One of the department’s major new initiatives is called a “theft blitz,” he said. Held every few months, the blitzes involve increasing patrols of undercover and uniform officers in the city’s high-theft areas, which tend to be retail corridors. A blitz in December produced 14 arrests; the most recent one yielded five arrests.
The goal, Crispen said, is to send the message: “You’re not stealing in Whitehall.”
Other initiatives include a program that trains businesses on theft-reduction strategies. There’s also a group of volunteer residents, known as the Mobile Community Watch, who patrol the city in assigned shifts, acting as another set of eyes and ears for police.
On a recent four-hour shift, for example, LaCorte and fellow volunteer Janice Ritchey checked to make sure a boarded-up home didn’t show signs of being occupied. Ritchey said she once saw a person who matched the description of a theft suspect and notified police of his whereabouts.
Approaches like Whitehall’s have proved effective in other cities, said Tammy Rinehart Kochel, a professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University.
Analyzing the patterns that drive problems allows police to develop “very targeted and tailored responses,” she said. “Because the more targeted and tailored they are, the more effective they tend to be.”
Asked if he feels Whitehall’s aggressive strategy is “over-policing,” Crispen said he didn’t think so.
“You start violating people’s rights, that’s over-policing to me,” he said.
Crispen said every Whitehall officer wears a body camera, part of what he calls “a culture of accountability.” He also said officers receive significant legal and ethical training.
“What happens with crime is how people visualize what a community is about,” LaCorte said.
The progress made the past two years feels like “a new beginning,” she said.
This story originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.