Monday, March 17, 2008

Afternoon Chat with Sgt Fitzgerald of Montgomery County Sheriff Department in The Woodlands Texas

The Woodlands is comprised of five zones (one contract) and the Town Center zone (a second contract). These two contracts will probably merge into one in 2010 when the village contract is moved under the management of the Township. The zone concept has been working out well. It is efficient. There is always one deputy assigned to each zone. That creates a stable situation but needs to be managed for absences due to vacations, court appearances, instructional classes, priority callouts or sickness, at which time one of the roving deputies is assigned to the zone. There are 30 deputies assigned to The Woodlands. Twenty-nine are patrolling officers and one is a full time very experienced detective. Deputies are assigned investigative duties for misdemeanors in their respective zones and detectives(s) are assigned to felonies. Sgt Fitzgerald is the daytime supervisor and is frequently out in the field also.

Besides the normal absences, the only time a deputy is not on-duty in his patrol assignment is when he must appear in court or respond to assist another law enforcement officer nearby. He might at times be called to assist in a large accident on the freeway or other close-by location, but not dispatched to a distant location unless there is really a dire need! In other words, the contract officers for The Woodlands are not dispatched to the far reaches of the county, away from their primary responsibility. Management is very aware of who is paying the bill. The normal law enforcement professional relationships do exist. For example, Shenandoah will assist our officers, as we at times assist the Shenandoah officers. The relationship between the surrounding police and our deputies makes it possible to provide backup in situations warranting backup and assistance. So a patrol car might at times be seen out of The Woodlands.

Opportunity crimes are by far the predominant type of activity seen here. Therefore, one possible source of such a crime is a solicitor. Solicitors are allowed by law to be in our neighborhoods. However, they do not come into neighborhoods such as Capstone where the residents by mutual agreement do not open their doors to solicitors. Strangers are only wasting their time in that neighborhood. The companies soliciting or distributing materials will not go there, because they understand they are wasting their money there. If citizens want their neighborhood to be as Capstone, they might want to talk to their village association representative. The association can place signs in the neighborhood for non-solicitation and there are stickers available to put on doors.

Often what you hear or read about in the newspaper or email can be misleading because of insufficient information or just outright false statements by citizens. At times, there are false accusations or pertinent information left out of an incident report in the early stages of investigation, simply because a news article or email was published too early. So if one hears about something and does not see it reported, it might not even be a real event, just something made up for some personal reason. If the situation warrants it, the concerns related to an incident are quickly distributed to appropriate contacts.

Should there be an emergency, a 911 call goes into the Montgomery emergency control center operator, in Conroe, who has a map on the computer screen displaying the caller's location relative to The Woodlands law enforcement zones. After taking enough information to identify the caller and the location, the call is electronically forwarded to a radio dispatcher who calls out for a deputy in the affected zone. The radio dispatcher also has a map showing the location of the officers and the incident. An officer close to the incident will then respond. This happens quickly. The department wants to engage the problem during the incident, not afterwards. If the problem is occurring, it gets immediate attention. The most immediate response to emergency calls is for an officer needing backup or a crime in process. They will call out a deputy on the radio as soon as the basic information is acquired and while the caller is still on the phone.

So what is a priority one call? If a person hits the panic button in his security system and does not have a history of inappropriately pressing the button, it is considered an emergency call! If an officer needs assistance, it is definitely a priority call. If there is a neighborhood security issue with break-ins or other issue causing the department to be on alert, an alarm could trigger a priority classification. The classification can be triggered at the discretion of the department depending on the area circumstances. 99.9% of alarm calls are false, but there is a quick response when no priority calls are pushing them back in the queue. If a citizen creates a history of false alarms, response may be slower because the call can fall to the back of the queue. Cry wolf too often, no wolf can be assumed to be in the neighborhood, so to speak. There are of course two numbers to call:
1. Emergency: 911. Life or death situations, crime in progress, suspicious person where crime seems imminent, officer needs help, car accident.
2. Non-emergency: 936-760-5800. Remainder of issues

What conclusions can we derive from the data collected here in The Woodlands? Well, most of our crimes are opportunistic in nature. In the central parts of The Woodlands, there is very little crime, and what little there is, is related to opportunistic situations that can be exploited. For example, if the door of a house is left open or unlocked, a person can easily enter. That presents an opportunity to easily commit a crime. If the car is left running in the driveway and the citizen goes into the house for something forgotten and someone walks by and sees that opportunity, he may not have a car there when he comes back out. Leave the keys in a car or leave the car unlocked, and someone may take the opportunity for a joy ride or steal something out of the trunk or in the car. These situations seem very elementary, but opportunistic crime does happen, simply because the citizen did not take measures to discourage it. Most crimes of opportunity occur by our own youngsters here in The Woodlands. We have concentrations of crimes in and around the sports parks and public areas. That is the reason we focus on those areas to patrol.

"Criminals hate The Woodlands" because of the difficulty of escape. "They prefer to stay near easy exit locations, particularly near I45. We have seen more activity on Gosling and Kuykendahl in past months also, where outsiders come in from Harris County."

What about traffic? Speeding is a problem and the running of a stop sign seems to be a habit. For speeding, the STEP PROGRAM is being utilized in The Woodlands. This is program funded by a grant from the state to catch speeders on the state roads by radar. One will see this program in operation on Lake Woodlands, Gosling, Kuykendahl, and The Woodlands Parkway, although the parkway is often too busy to be effective with this program. A District 2 deputy working in the STEP program might use a Woodlands car, but the funding comes from the state, not The Woodlands law enforcement contract. Certainly our deputies will give tickets for high speed and zooming right through a stop sign, but discretion is used to enforce the law for minor infractions of traffic laws.

What can or should citizens do to help? If a citizen spots a probable drunk driver, the citizen can follow some distance behind and report the car to 911. Be ready to tell the operator where you are and what direction the automobile is moving. You could save a life. There is generally plenty of patrol help nearby, and the department wants to catch lawbreakers in progress. If a citizen notices repeated law infractions such as a car speeding at the same time of day in a certain area, let the department know and someone will be there to catch the speeder. "We want to make The Woodlands as non-attractive as possible" to criminals. Residents should not be hesitant to call the department right away when some issue is spotted. But be safe.

What about noise, say late at night? Disorderly conduct is defined as noise greater than 85 decibels (DB), regardless of the time of day or night. If the resident is in a home or park, and the noise level is above 85 DB originating in a public place, we can give the offender a ticket. The deputies have noise monitors available but not all cars are equipped with them. There needs to be a little advance planning to nab the offender. We focus on catching repeat offenders, so if one is aware of repeated loud conduct that is predictable in time and location, the department can monitor a location for an offense. Transient noise moving down the road is difficult to monitor for issuing a citation. If a citizen wants to monitor noise, measuring devices are relatively inexpensive at Radio Shack or other electronic store. A spike in noise over 85 DB constitutes an offense. We can also address vulgarity and public rowdiness within the frame of the disorderly conduct law.

In general, The Woodlands, even with the additional officers, has a lean patrol force. There is a satellite detention center now in The Woodlands office that can be used 24/7. The prisoner is detained there until a van comes to transport him to the Conroe jail. That makes it more efficient for deputies and keeps them working on the streets. However, it is not used except for warrants or other more tranquil detention situations. Soon the DPS will move out and more officers will have desk facilities to work on their paperwork. Still, the car is their primary office.

Expect to start seeing bicycles in the villages as 12 deputies have been trained to patrol by bike. Citizens will see the bikes attached to the rear of deputy autos. The bikes will be used to patrol areas previously inaccessible like pathways or locations like parks, where criminals can easily evade the officers when they are in their patrol cars.

Many thanks to Sgt Fitzgerald for this interview! I hope it helps our citizens to better understand what is occurring here and why. We have a very capable organization enforcing the law in The Woodlands. It is continually becoming better. Deputies are currently being trained in the use of tasers, another force option for them in some situations.

I lean towards the statement of Don Norrell at the 2008 annual Woodlands members meeting, "I believe the (new police) program is working effectively."

In February, there were one hundred 911 calls in The Woodlands. We had 13 major traffic accidents; there were 546 traffic tickets issued, 82 arrests, 34 assaults, 214 calls for suspicion, 9 robbery+prowler calls, 32 criminal mischief calls, 65 burglaries, 119 reported thefts. Our population is about 88,000. We spent $130,000 for services from 30 deputies using 25 patrol cars. The Woodlands Association publishes detailed monthly statistical reports on the Association's Website.

1 comment:

JAMilillo said...

Hi there!

Is there a way we can contact the author of this blog?

Sincerely,

Joseph Milillo
tctinfo@yahoo.com