Crime down overall in Galax

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By April Wright, Reporter

Galax's overall crime rate for 2008 was down by 15 percent from the previous year, but property crimes rose by 15 percent and violent crimes — including assault, rape and murder — increased by 25 percent,

Galax Police Chief Rick Clark presented his annual report to Galax City Council on Feb. 9.

Violent crimes, Clark told council, are typically in relation to alcohol-related activity. The number of violent crimes reported last year totaled 206, with increases in aggravated assault, sexual assault and assault by threat.

Compared to 2007, shoplifting dropped by 29 percent, but burglary had increased by 12 percent. A total of 371 property crimes were reported, a figure seemingly linked to the downturn in the economy.

The citizens of Galax are not at the point of stealing to feed their families, but Clark said he noticed a slight difference in the kind of property that is stolen.

Three years ago, thieves were taking luxury items, such as DVD players, cameras and computers. Now, there is a slight increase in stolen food items and medicines.

“When things go good, I like to think that I facilitated it,” said Clark. “When things change, I'm responsible.”

The second reason for the staggering increase in violent and property crimes, Clark said, could have been in response to the cost of fuel.

Clark, who is responsible for compiling the city's 2008-09 law enforcement budget, did not anticipate the price of fuel reaching $4 per gallon last fall and began to grow concerned that not enough money would be available for fuel for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in June. As fuel prices increased, the visibility of officers decreased.

Once gas hit $3 per gallon, officers were required to park their vehicles at least one time per day for a short period of time, while four cars were in motion in the city.

When gas hit $4 per gallon, each vehicle on patrol had to park for 15 minutes per hour. And on the night shift, when possible, officers parked vehicles and doubled up.

“While I do like technology, there is no substitute for an officer,” he said. “Empirical data in criminal justice literature supports the hypothesis that high uniform police visibility and aggressive enforcement actions directly affect crime.”

The visibility and mobility of the police department decreased, both of which probably contributed to the increase in crime and decrease in traffic summons and DUI arrests, he estimated.

Clark said he takes responsibility for this. However, to avoid this from happening again, the police department will create a strategic business plan and make better use of statistical performance information.

The sergeants and command staff will address the issue of police visibility and treat it as a priority. Clark said the department will also address crime rates and explore options and responses.

What caused an overall reduction in crime, however, was the decline in “nuisance crimes,” such as bad checks, loitering and trespassing.

In 2007, there were 1,454 total crimes. In 2008, that figure dropped to 1,232.

“We're proud of this [drop in nuisance crimes],” said Clark. “But we're most concerned with violent crimes and property crimes.”

In addition to 206 violent crime and 371 property crime reports, there were 99 reports involving narcotics and 556 miscellaneous crime reports.

Last year, the Galax Police Department made 2,494 misdemeanor arrests and 157 felony arrests.

According to the 2008 report, there were 2,320 traffic summons, 86 DUI arrests, 200 reportable vehicle crashes, 21 non-reportable accidents and 51 injuries.

The department investigated 200 automobile accidents in the past year — which is an increase of 6 percent from 2007 — but fewer injuries were recorded. The increase in accidents, Clark said, may be contributed to street paving on Stuart Drive during the summer.

Service calls in the city increased by 17 percent, from 13,748 in 2007 to 16,373 in 2008. A call for service, he defined, is any call that results in officers taking action, whether it's unlocking a car, helping someone find a lost cat or responding to a crime. This doesn't include calls that involve providing simple information, such as giving directions.

“I was recently accused in [The Gazette's Reader Hotline] of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses,” Clark told council. “I confess to you that I am an eternal optimist. I have refused, and the members of my police department have refused, in the past seven years to tell anybody that there is nothing we can do about it.”

Clark assured that “things will get better,” and that the police department will provide its best effort to “make things better.”

Challenges of Diversity

What has become a challenge for the police department is the city's cultural diversity.

“We're culturally diverse and we face challenges because of it,” he said. “We've faced challenges the past year that seven years ago [when he took the Galax job] I never anticipated facing — and we've made some responses in conjunction with consultation with my peers.”

In May, the entire enforcement staff of the police department completed customer service and cultural diversity training conducted by the Virginia Center for Policing Innovations. The training was funded by a Department of Criminal Justice grant.

As calls come in from concerned citizens throughout the city, the police department cannot hide from the facts of crime, said Clark, referring to a study completed by the Department of Justice and printed in The Washington Times that revealed that Mexican drug cartels have a presence in the city.

Taking a proactive stance, Clark said the Galax Police Department used a grant from the U.S. Attorney's Office that allowed five officers to undergo specialized training in gang recognition, with certification provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

“In the past year, both within our organization and the community, we have faced challenges that have caused us to examine our responses and training,” he said. “We pride ourselves as an organization that serves the community and, in facing these challenges, we have learned a great deal."

The police department's most recent challenge and achievement was the apprehension on Feb. 5 of William Smitherman, charged with robbing the Galax First Citizens Bank, a bank in Bedford County and a bank in Roanoke in the months of January and February.

The suspect was arrested based on a warrant provided by the Galax Police Department, he noted.

“It has been such an honor to be the chief of the Galax Police Department, and I have been so appreciative of the opportunity to be associated with these young men and women,” he said. “Seven years ago, when crime happened, I felt like I needed to be there every step of the way. But I'm to the point where I'm still involved, but I need to get out of the way.

“It is hard to express in words how fulfilling it has been for me both professionally and personally to see the men and women of this department grow. I truly believe that the men and women of this department are examples of the best Galax and the Commonwealth have to offer.”

Clark said it has been rewarding to see how the officers of the Galax Police Department have grown and have been able to take initiative on their own.

Council members commended the police department's officers for their efforts and willingness to put themselves in harm's way to protect the citizens of Galax.

“I know I say this each year, but thank you is not nearly enough,” said Mayor C.M. Mitchell. “The quality of life goes up tremendously. Without the things you do, it would be a much less nice place.”

Recognizing Officers

Clark recognized personal achievements made by the members of the force during 2008:

• Capt. James Cox was recognized as a Master Assessor and has led assessment teams across the state during other agencies' on-site accreditation reviews. He has spent the last year preparing for the police department's on-site assessment schedule for March.

• Sgt. Chris Brown, with assistance from Police Officer Vickie Taylor, recently completed and submitted paperwork for the city's Certified Crime Prevention Community designation.

• Detective Robbie Isom completed the successful prosecution of an organized crack cocaine distribution effort. In a two-year period, the group prosecuted was responsible for the distribution of $500,000 worth of cocaine. Isom was able to crack the case based on historical data and strategic interviewing.

• Detective J.B. Greer led the department in felony arrests and case clearance.

• Detective Aaron Criner provided assistance to the Grayson County Sheriff's Office in two separate murder cases.

• Police Officer Vickie Taylor, also school resource officer, began implementing the Gang Resistance Education and Training program into Galax schools this year.

• Police Officer Darrin Alley became court security officer in August. He also became certified as a Crime Prevention Specialist.

• Sgt. Ralph Hill supervises officers Mark Burnette, Brian Felts and Jason Hawks. These officers, said Clark, distinguished themselves in arrests and criminal investigations. In the past year, their diligence has resulted in multiple arrests for vandalism across the city.

• Sgt. Earl Johnson supervises officers John Reavis, Jacob Vaughan and Kevin Hall. Johnson is an academy-level instructor and oversees the department's firearms qualifications. Members of his shift have distinguished themselves in criminal investigations.

Vaughan's observations and skill at recognizing potential physical evidence resulted in the arrest and conviction of an offender that would have otherwise remained a cold case.

• Sgt. Jim Spence supervises officers Bill Shaffner, Jody Poole and Chris Hines. These members are academy-level instructors and actively participate in the training of police officers in the area.

Poole participated in the training of every local police officer in the Twin Counties in the past year. Poole is certified as an active shooter response trainer.

Hines is the department's DARE instructor and led the agency in DUI arrests.

• Sgt. Donita Jackson supervises officers Larry Doby, Shawny Jones and Darren Dixon. The members of this shift arrested suspects in the act of committing burglary, with a second arrest resulting in the clearance of multiple crimes in downtown Galax.

Jackson is a Rape Aggression Defense trainer and, along with Taylor, offers the program in city schools.

Jones led the department in traffic enforcement and custodial arrests.