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Proactive policing keeps city’s crime rate low

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The city of Highland Village Police Department has kept ahead of the usual problems that come with population growth … by thinking small.

“The idea I had coming to Highland Village was to put programs in place that would prevent problems and crime from happening,” said Highland Village Police Chief Ed O’Bara. “I had to get creative, because we have a 29-person police force which includes a total of 20 patrol officers.”

When O’Bara came to Highland Village in 2000, the police department was a traditional “order-maintenance” style department; a police response to a call for service. As a 24-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, he saw first-hand how such a call-response approach to problems did nothing to curtail crime.

“It was important to anticipate local retail growth and the roadway traffic growth with the northern expansion of [FM] 2499 to Corinth and Denton and the [D/FW] airport expansion to the south,” said O’Bara.

In the 10 years since O’Bara took command of the HVPD, the city population has grown moderately from about 12,000 to 17,400 residents, but the Lantana community has been developed to the west and Flower Mound’s population south of FM 407 has reached over 65,000 residents. 

In addition, the city’s business growth has gone from about 50 to 250 businesses, drawing traffic from about 40,000 commuters and visitors on a busy shopping day.

To keep pace with the growth of North Texas, a community approach to policing was designed to supplement the professional police officers.

“It’s not a new idea of policing; it’s not even mine,” said O’Bara. “Pro-active police programs are based on ‘The Nine Principles’ by [United Kingdom’s] Sir Robert Peel’s from 1830.”

The first principle for an ethical police force states that the police exist to prevent crime and disorder.

Chief O’Bara divided the city into 12 districts with each officer assigned a specific geographic area of responsibility (AOR) reminiscent of “beat cops” who walked specific city blocks before the rise of suburban America put police behind the wheel of a patrol car.

“Each officer is responsible for meeting the residents who live in his or her AOR, so the citizens know who they can call-on if they have a problem or need help,” said O’Bara. “It also means that response time is cut if there is an emergency and during an eight-hour shift the driving distance went from 74 down to 54 miles per patrol, which saves money and energy.”

Patrol officers are responsible for reminding residents to close garage doors and lock their homes to eliminate “crimes of opportunity,” as well as overseeing the neighborhood E-Watch program for residents to report suspicious people or activity.

The success of implementing a preventive policing program is reflected in the FY 2008 (July 1 to June 30) FBI property crime statistics: 142 in Highland Village versus 639 in Flower Mound.

Another of Peel’s principles states that the police are only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties in the interest of the community welfare and existence. To O’Bara that means his officers not think in “traditional” policing attitudes, but as members of the community. While some police departments keep track of how many tickets an officer writes, HVPD counts the number of “value-based” activities such as eating lunch with school children or attending senior programs.

“When hiring people, sometimes it’s better for a person to have service experience, like a background in sales, or additional skills like computers,” he said. “Eating lunch with kids is more valuable than sitting at a stop sign writing tickets.”

The second part of O’Bara’s community approach to policing requires the active participation of Highland Village residents.

“When I first arrived, the police auxiliary was about five or six people who basically used the shooting range for their private weapons,” he said. “Now the auxiliary has a command staff and 40-45 members who oversee the Volunteers in Patrol (VIP), special events, the police storefront (next to LA Fitness at 3196 FM 407), youth activities, the Inland Trail Safety and Security and the police Skywatch Program. We got CoServe to fund the $50,000 unit and manning it with the auxiliary is the equivalent of five professional officers.”

It was also negotiated that the new shopping center developers paid for the many cameras monitored by the HVPD.

Another innovative approach to handle youth-based issues is the Police Involving Parents (PIP) Program. Parents are called if their child is charged with under-age alcohol, drug, tobacco or other criminal activity and the parent has 20 minutes to arrive and agree to participate in the PIP program to lessen the severity and permanent record of the charge.

“Of the more than 1,000 kids who’ve participated, we’ve had less than two-percent repeat offenders,” said O’Bara. “The parents are much tougher than we are. They take away the kid’s car, computer, spending cash and ground them. After all, my officers shouldn’t be raising other people’s kids.”

Incorporating technology as a policing tool has also resulted in award-winning community programs. The Connect-CTY, a “Reverse 9-1-1” alert program, is a mass-notification system to contact all businesses and residents within minutes in the event of an emergency.

The department’s Severe Weather Analysis and Response Model (SWARM) program – which helps them make accurate, timely decisions about activating outdoor warning sirens for severe weather – has won awards from the Texas Municipal League in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

The HVPD community approach to policing has resulted in the city being named as “The Safest City in North Texas” for seven consecutive years and as “The Safest City” in Texas with a population under 25,000 for two consecutive years. The HVPD reputation has drawn other municipal and law enforcement officials from surrounding communities, as well as from across Texas, other states, national and even international agencies.

“We’re happy to share any information they can use,” said O’Bara. “The city of Sachse has started to implement some of our programs and even if other places don’t use anything, at least we’ve made new contacts.”

And, while Chief O’Bara and the HVPD officers are proud of what has been accomplished over the past 10 years, they are planning for future challenges.

“Once [FM] 2499 is finally completed, the ‘bad guys’ will be looking at it as an alternate route to I-35 to bring things from across the border up through Flower Mound, Highland Village, Denton and up to Chicago and Detroit,” said O’Bara. “We have to be prepared to remove [FM] 2499 as an easy opportunity.”

Looking Ahead
The HVPD is working to unite local, state, national and federal enforcement agencies, including Homeland Security, by utilizing available military technology to link data.

“We’re just a little puddle in the big ocean of law enforcement, but if we can formalize procedures on a local level, we can link information systems to track and stop the ‘bad guys’ before they get here,” said O’Bara.

By requiring plate information to be written on any traffic citations or tickets, ALPR (Automated License Plate Recognition) units can match that information with other data lists, such as Amber and Silver Alerts, sex offenders and other offenders.

“The scanners can be networked to alert officers if the driver is a senior on a Silver Alert, a wanted felon with an outstanding warrant, a major drug dealer or someone on a terrorist watch list,” said O’Bara. “Each scanner costs $17,000, but funding can be provided from Homeland Security, State of Texas and local agencies with the support of the North Texas Crime Commission.”

By workin
g with federal agencies and geo-mapping programs, it will be possible to track criminals across Texas. But it all starts from all enforcement officers writing a license plate number on a ticket, citation or warrant.

“We are always planning ahead so we can achieve our mission statement: ‘To achieve the public safety expectations of our community,’” said O’Bara.

By focusing on all the small details of law enforcement, the HVPD has been successful in creating a safety example for all of Texas.

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