On a chilly December night, Sgt. Michael Williams of the Herndon Police Department is patrolling the residential streets of downtown Herndon. The illuminated houses draped with colorful Christmas lights reflect off the hood of his squad car.
"Herndon is a very nice town, it is a very nice place to work as a police officer," Williams said, making a turn from Elden Street onto Grant Avenue. "I can’t say that it is an unsafe place to be."
Williams was patrolling Herndon’s streets a few weeks after a report had been released, at the request of Herndon’s Town Council, that showed that the number of serious crimes, like assault, burglary and homicide, were up from the same period last year.
The report hasn’t forced a major change in the way he does his job, he said.
"Every night that you go out you can’t feel totally comfortable, as a police officer you must always be on edge and ready in case something were to happen," said Williams, a 17-year veteran of the Herndon Police Department. "So you can’t do your job based entirely around statistics, you have to deal with the reality that is out there, and right now we’re doing our job to protect and serve the community just as we always do."
AFTER THE RELEASE of the statistics showing the rise in total serious crimes reported in Herndon increased approximately 18 percent over the same period of time between 2006 and 2005, the Herndon Police Department, at the request of council members, assembled data showing crime statistics over the last five years.
Presented to the Town Council at a work session last week, the report showed that while serious offenses had risen between 2005 and 2006, they were down as much as 15 percent when compared with town statistics through the same periods in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, serious crimes were slightly lower than those in the same period of 2006.
Police records also showed that the less serious, "group B" crimes, such as vandalism and petty larceny continued their steady decline, dropping approximately 1 percent between 2005 and 2006.
The rise that is being seen by Herndon this year has more to do with national trends and normalization from low-crime eras, according to Herndon Chief of Police Toussaint Summers.
"I think that what we’re seeing in Herndon is what we’re seeing nationwide in terms of a slight increase in crimes being committed in many different areas," Summers said. "You have to understand that we had an incredibly low level of crime in 2005, so by comparing the two years and saying that Herndon has gotten more dangerous is not necessarily a completely accurate perception."
Summers added that there was no evidence to make officials believe that the serious crimes are taking on a random nature, pointing out that many of the violent crimes involve individual altercations that take place in the privacy of homes, making them almost impossible for police to prevent on a reasonable basis.
AGREEING WITH LOCAL law enforcement officials that Herndon has not become an unsafe community, Herndon Vice Mayor Dennis Husch said that the eyes of officials must still not be taken off of the crime statistics.
"Herndon is just as safe as it always has been, but the point is to make it safer," Husch said. "These guys are law enforcement professionals and they do a great job … but we just like get people throughout the town thinking not in a negative but a positive way about what we can do to change this trend."
Crime prevention by the Herndon Police Department focuses on community-based initiatives, according to officer Denise Randles of the Herndon Police Department. These programs include Herndon’s 17 active neighborhood watch groups, the Citizen’s Support Team and the newly-proposed Herndon Crime Prevention Council, which looks to connect police officers with citizens from Herndon’s varied demographics for consultations.
"Police officers think one way, but we want to speak with the people who live in our communities and get a dialogue going about what they think can be done better," Randles said. "If we want to make our communities safer, we’re going to need the participation of as many people in the community as possible."
FOR DIANE DAVIS, the Neighborhood Watch program coordinator for Four Seasons, crime is a growing problem in Herndon and there are not enough people willing to do anything about it.
"It’s very disconcerting, we’re very concerned about our neighborhood … but to be honest, I’m not seeing a whole lot of attention coming from the community," Davis said, adding that she has tried to increase participation in the watch program but has gotten little positive feedback.
While Davis doesn’t feel unsafe in Herndon, she said that the perception that there are more people in the town who would commit crimes is definitely apparent.
"I don’t hesitate to drive through town at night," she said, "but I definitely think that there are more predators out there, more people willing to break into a home … and that comes with any growing city."
Only greater community involvement will succeed in making communities safer, Davis said.
"I think the police have done a wonderful job, but I think the citizens have to become more … actively involved in protecting their neighborhood," she said. "People just won’t get involved unless something major happens and it shouldn‘t be that way."