Safer Streets in Summer

Safer Streets in Summer

This summer, Mount Vernon saw a 28 percent drop in robberies from summer ’05.

In the summer of 2005, Mount Vernon experienced a “huge spike” in the number of street robberies, according the commander of the Mount Vernon Police Station, Capt. Mike Kline. This was despite the station deploying as many officers as it could to patrol high crime areas. Also, a policy had been implemented several years before that assigned officers to the same neighborhoods every day, allowing them to establish community connections and get to know “the good guys and the bad guys,” according to Officer Camille Neville, who formerly worked the beat at Mount Vernon before becoming a spokesperson for the Fairfax County Police Department.

But it wasn’t working. “There were just a lot of people doing robberies, and it didn’t matter how many arrests we made, they just continued increasing,” Kline said. Police data shows most of the robberies occurring along Route 1, picking up as soon as it grew dark around 9 p.m. and falling off as the sky began to brighten around 5 a.m. Kline said the typical victim was walking alone late at night, often an immigrant carrying cash, sometimes drunk, always in a vulnerable position. “We have a problem down here with young thugs taking advantage of the immigrant community,” Kline said. Sometimes the robbers would tell immigrant victims that if they reported the crime, the police would deport them.

Kline said that when the summer of 2005 began, the area was experiencing about a 20 percent decrease in robberies from the previous year. By the time that summer ended, the robbery rate for 2005 was 15 percent higher than it had been in 2004. Finally, by September or so, enough arrests were made, and the rate of robberies cooled.

In the ten hot weeks between June 5 and Aug. 31, 2005, 47 robberies were committed in Mount Vernon, according to data provided by the station. “That wasn’t going to happen again,” the captain vowed.

KLINE MEETS every week with the head of his bike patrol unit and his crime analyst. The bike officers of the Neighborhood Patrol Unit are the station’s most intimate presence in the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon. The officers try to be as visible as possible and stop to chat with the people they pass, looking to form personal connections in the community.

Amisha Amin, Mount Vernon Station’s crime analyst, takes the raw numbers punched into the system by the station’s officers and transforms them into visual representations that can reveal very specific patterns and tendencies. She creates charts and maps of numerous variables, the most basic of which are types of crimes, location and time.

Based on information from the sources on the street and the numbers on the charts, Kline decided to radically alter the traditional three-shift system used by all stations in the Fairfax County Police Department. He targeted 1 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. for increased police presence over the summer of 2006. This was a window when the previous shift system’s inadequacy was betrayed most starkly. Of the 47 robberies in June through August, 15 were committed in those two and a half hours while only eight patrol officers were on duty. Kline increased the minimum staff number from eight to ten. He also broke the evening and midnight shifts into two sections apiece, staggering their 11 and a half hour shift so that there were 20 patrol officers working from 9 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. And 13 working until 3 a.m. He also pushed back the shift for undercover and bike patrol officers. Instead of being off the streets at 1 a.m., as they were in 2005, they stayed on until 3:30 a.m.

“I did this because I thought it needed to be done,” Kline explained. “It was not the plan that was directed from above. It was accepted from above. It was not the plan that the rest of the county used. If it had failed it would have been my ass.”

IT WORKED. According to station statistics, there were 34 robberies in the summer of 2006, a decrease of 28 percent from the summer of 2005. In addition to the shift changes, Mount Vernon’s officers put up posters in English and Spanish giving tips on how to avoid being robbed, including being aware of surroundings, paying attention to one’s instincts, not carrying large amounts of cash, remaining sober and not sacrificing “safety for convenience.”

Patrol, plainclothes and bike patrol units all tried to make themselves as visible as possible. Kline authorized over-time for bike-trained officers to patrol when the regular bike unit was off, and worked to get K-9 units in the neighborhoods as much as possible. “We were pretty aggressive about it,” said Officer Greg Kotteman, who works with communities and neighborhood watch groups.

Ed Testerman, the manager of the Pinewood Lawns subdivision off Sacramento Drive, a place where robberies were clustered in 2005, said he has noticed a decline in robberies since he arrived in March 2005. “Over the last year it’s definitely decreased.” He said he has seen more patrol cars in the area. “The police presence is a lot greater than what it was.”

Gloria Derobertis, who lives in Bedford Terrace off Sacramento Drive, said after a recent community meeting at the station that she has seen more officers as well. “I saw the police officers in our complex quite a few times talking to people.” She said auto thefts, drug dealing and early morning robberies are too frequent in her neighborhood and “trying to get that under control is not easy.”

“I realize with the number of police officers we have they’re doing the best they can,” she added.

Cristina Schoendorf, the director of Progreso Hispano, a non-profit on Route 1 that provides English classes and legal aid to immigrants, said her clients have expressed fears about being robbed, particularly at bus stops on the way home from work.

She said Kline visits Progreso’s classrooms every three months to talk about safety and encourage people to trust the police. He also made public service announcements on El Sol, 99.7 FM, an Hispanic radio station. “He really goes for inclusiveness and does outreach,” she said. Two weeks ago, Progreso Hispano honored Kline at its annual banquet, presenting him with a plaque that read, “With appreciation and gratitude for your kind and compassionate services to the immigrant population of the Route 1 Corridor.”

THOUGH ROBBERIES dropped precipitously in Mount Vernon compared to the previous summer, Fairfax Police Department statistics show that burglaries rose 42 percent in the same time period, while dropping 24 percent in the rest of the county. However sex crimes dropped 27 percent in the same time period and destruction and larceny each dropped 18 percent from levels the previous summer. But Mount Vernon’s drop in robberies in the summer of 2006 from the summer of 2005 is made more dramatic by a corresponding 20 percent rise in robberies in the county as a whole.

Through Neville in the public information office, the major in charge of the station at the department level declined to comment on the Mount Vernon shift changes. Neville said department command staff had ordered each station to adjust staffing in response to higher calls for service at certain times, with the goal of reducing response times, allowing officers to respond in pairs, and increase visibility in the community. She said each station adapted this directive to suit its situation. “Every other station took measures to address the calls they receive in the summer.” But she could not say whether they had adopted staffing changes similar to those at Mount Vernon Station.

“[Kline] is a very aggressive captain,” said Neville. “He gets something in his head and he wants to fix it.”