The Beech Street Neighborhood Watch Association held its monthly meeting Thursday night at St. John's Episcopal Church. It was at this meeting that the Helena-West Helena police Department gave advice to the citizens of the community on combating crime. Police Chief Uless Wallace also released his plan of action for the city as promised.
Several other topics were also discussed at the gathering of concerned citizens, including the H-WH police candidates failing the Civil Service examination, code enforcement, and the impact not having a jail open in the county is having on the city and its budget.
Among the first topics discussed at the meeting was Detective Michael Thomas' advice to the community. He noted that when you leave your curtains or blinds open, "You are advertising what you have in your home. You may as well just open the door and say 'this is what I have'." He continued, "When you get a new flat-screen TV, do not put the box on the side of the road; keep it in the house." He also stated that when you leave for more than a day, let one of your neighbors know, and "call the police department and them us to drive by your house while you are gone."
One of the biggest problems facing the police department is the fact that the majority of police officer candidates have not been able to pass the Civil Service examination. Also in attendance was Debbie King from Phillips College who noted that the college provided report writing classes and Civil Service exam pre-tests to the police officers and officer candidates, respectively. But, according to King, not many attendees showed up because the classes were not mandatory to attend, "Of the 18 or 20 that were on the list, only about 8 to 10 showed up."
Wandra Williams noted that, "Of those that showed up for the training, most of them did pass the test."
Once a candidate passes the examination, a series of background checks are performed and a rigorous field-training program is in place for training new officers. Assistant Police Chief Ronald Scott noted that, "Right now we are 12 people short and it is working us very, very hard and that is why you all are here is that the whole community is feeling the effect of it."
Wallace noted that, "I will try to fill 9 positions as soon as possible." With the addition of nine new officers, I will place them into the Patrol Division to bring their shifts to six officers per day - three for the west side of the city, two for the east side of the city, and a shift commander who will float between both sides of the city. Once I am allowed to fully staff the department with 12 officers, I will be able to have officers to effectively patrol the city with the use of zone policing," continued Wallace.
Page 2 of 3 - Wallace then addressed a few things that he is implementing in his 2014 plan. One is zoning. Wallace noted that the city is broken down into a series of zones and there will be one officer in each zone and we will still have a Criminal Investigation Division officer out and we will still have the Special Crime Unit out. He noted that the officers will stay in their zones and every street in the city will be patrolled.
"We know zoning techniques. We do not just pick our streets and ride around in a big circle...within that 8-hour period, that officer will call out every street in that zone [on the radio] and that way the shift supervisor will know every street that officer has been on and plus it will be on the radio long – that way we know that officer is not stagnant."
The police chief also noted that he assigned one detective to form a Burglary Division separate from the current CID.
Wallace said, "The new division's mission will be to respond, investigate, and report all robberies, burglaries, and home invasions. They will identify and perform surveillance in the areas of interest where burglaries have taken place [while] the SCU will continue to focus on drug and gang activities."
The chief's plan also calls for more DUI stops and arrests. He noted the State Police have not been on patrol in Helena in over nine months. He has a plan in place to counteract the high number of impaired drivers. He noted that he is working with MADD, who committed to giving a police car and an officer's salary for two years and equipment to combat drunk driving.
Wallace also addressed the lighting issue in the city. He said that the light poles are too far apart and it is simply too dark in Helena-West Helena.
Wallace noted that, "On some streets the light poles are on the corners. In most neighborhoods, the only lighting comes from porch lights and a few yard lights."
He continued, "On some streets, debris and nature have grown over the light fixtures preventing the proper disbursement of light."
He gave a list of streets in downtown Helena that are in poor condition and have either little or no street lights working – many of them having been shot or busted out.
He noted that, "If the city would fix those lights that are fixable, it would assist my officers in locating addresses and possibly prevent criminals from hiding.
" One solution is to contact Entergy, who can "provide citizens with special lighting to light the perimeter of their homes for en economical cost of $6 to $7 dollars a month."
One of the most disastrous issues facing the city is the number of abandoned/vacant buildings. Wallace provided the Daily World with a list of 390 houses in the west side and 500 in the east side that provide criminals with cover to perform their illegal activities.
Page 3 of 3 - "The dwellings that can be entered and checked safely by the police department will be checked from this point on until action can be taken to correct the problem,” said Wallace.
Another crisis the city is facing deals with the jail, or lack of. Though the PD is still arresting criminals, there is no jail in which to incarcerate criminals in Phillips County. Since the jail was closed due to gross mismanagement and infrastructural safety issues, criminals have been sent to out-of-county jails. Wallace noted that since the city has not paid the jails for the care of prisoners from H-WH, the list of jails that will take criminals is steadily dwindling, citing that the city owes thousands to some of the jails where Helena inmates are locked up.
In some cases, police cars with over 150,000 miles are transporting criminals as far away as Ashley County, amounting to over six hours round-trip in which an officer is taken out of the city where he could have been on patrol. Neither the city council nor the quorum court have given the jail issue much discussion over the past several months.
The meeting closed with two programs the H-WH PD will offer free to citizens of the city. The PD will offer 6 classes in 2014 for anyone wishing to be obtain a concealed carry permit for a handgun.
"The training and range will be free of charge, [and] the police department will train 20 citizens at a time. The trainee will have to pay the $142 fee required by the state, but the background check and finger print process will be free."
Another free program available to citizens in H-WH given by the PD includes a property assessment.
Wallace noted that "I will take appointments for any citizen of Helena-West Helena to have their property checked by an administrative staff for safety and security improvement tips...I would ask that all home owners and renters clearly identify their residences with 2-inch numerals outside of their residence."
He continued, "I would ask that the city's street department replace street signs. In doing so, this would aid the department in improving our response time."
Wallace wrapped up his public safety plan with a note regarding his intentions to retire on Dec. 15, 2014, ""I truly believe that I have left a footprint for my predecessor to follow. I would like to thank those that supported my administration."