By Stephen Scot Mayer, Carlos Xavier Cantu and John David Osborne Jr.
Harlingen, Texas is a unique place to live, work, and play. Its citizens enjoy a sub-tropical climate that allows them to participate in outdoor activities almost year-round. As a result, local and regional sports are always significant events in Harlingen. The climate, as well as Harlingen’s proximity to several game preserves, also makes the area an ideal spot for national/international bird watching. Moreover, last but certainly not least, the plentiful sunshine, warm Gulf breezes, and fertile delta soils result in some of the world’s finest grapefruits and oranges being grown locally.
Established in 1910 as a crossroads community in the Rio Grande Valley, Harlingen, Texas is located 15 miles from the southernmost tip of Texas, where the United States and Mexico meet. Harlingen has grown, and today incorporates an area of over 40 square miles and boasts a population of just under 60,000 people. Harlingen is currently ranked 53rd by population among 3,200 Texas communities.
Prior to 2011, Harlingen had a violent crime rate that was twice the national average, while property crime was three times the national average. Today, Harlingen citizens live in a very safe city and benefit from a low crime rate. This tremendous decline in crime is attributed to the joint efforts of the people of Harlingen; its Mayor, City Commission, City Manager and the combined leadership of the Harlingen Police Department (HPD).
By 2008, the city of Harlingen was suffering from a crime problem. Gang violence was a weekly occurrence, while auto theft and burglaries remained a daily routine. On June 25, 2008, a Harlingen police officer was gunned down while he engaged in a routine traffic stop with a known local gang member. This one event, more than anything, forced into motion the transformation of the police department.
The year 2010 saw the emergence of HPD’s Comp-Stat platform – a program that evolved into the current Strategic Analysis of Crime meeting – a weekly assembly of key Department personnel who analyze existing crime reduction efforts as well as the issue of gang violence. Through these coordinated aggressive efforts, Harlingen saw an 80 percent reduction in gang violence over a two-year period.
Without realizing it, the Department had put into practice an operational model that focused on the placement of resources in problem areas. By proactively targeting gang members, associates, and their activities, as they occurred in specific locations throughout the city, the Department was, in effect, following the principles of an operational model that would later become the basis of all future crime reduction efforts.
In 2011, the HPD found and embraced the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) model. The DDACTS model incorporates location-based crime and traffic crash data to conclude the most practical approaches for positioning law enforcement and other assets. Drawing on the preventive value of highly visual traffic enforcement and the fact that crimes often include motor vehicles, the objective of DDACTS is to diminish crime, crashes and traffic violations.
Implementing DDACTS on a broad scale at the HPD involved struggle and change. Nevertheless, the results were exciting. Even more exciting was the fact that innovation and the willingness to engage in calculated risk led to the creation of a stimulus platform that used DDACTS as a foundation to achieve unprecedented results.
The greatest challenge faced by the HPD was in motivating the front-line officers to increase their traffic contacts. It was determined that the answer to this issue was to take out of the equation the fact that the front-line officers felt they were being forced to do the traffic contacts and replace that with a mindset of officers wanting to make traffic contacts. An internal study of what Harlingen cops wanted was conducted. Ultimately, it was determined that the best method would have to incorporate the pursuit of a personal goal, and identify a reward that would have valence to officers on the front line.
In response, the Crime Reduction Challenge (CRC) was born. The CRC is a blend of the nationwide best practice of DDACTS and an active motivational system that rewards police officers for embracing the DDACTS philosophy. The theory involves transitioning an internal policing structure from that of a traditional solely seniority-based system to that of a blended seniority/production-based model with a well-defined reward system. By embracing the guidelines of the policy, police officers are motivated to increase their proactive activities and are rewarded for their initiative and work ethic.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
In starting any challenge, one must have various elements such as rules of play, outcome measures, competing teams, goals and clear rewards. The HPD started by creating an instructional document that outlined the rules of play. Next, it was determined that UCR Part 1 crimes would be the perfect outcome measure. The goal was straightforward – the shift that dropped UCR Part 1 crime the most, on their respective shift, in a 12-month period, was the winner.
Next, the administration decided to allow the team leaders, in this case, the individual watch commanders, to select their team players. This would be done on what the Department dubbed, “Draft Day.”
To ensure the watch commanders were properly motivated to play, game rules were put in place maintaining that the winning watch commander could have their selection of shift for the next year. Moreover, the two watch commanders who did not win the CRC would have to switch shifts for the next year.
With the watch commanders in the game, attention was turned towards the shift sergeants. Rules were instituted that conveyed the fact that the sergeant who had the greatest crime reduction in their respective area for the 12-month game period would win. As a reward that sergeant would be allowed to select their shift and district, for the coming year.
The front-line officers were next. This came with a twofold solution. First, the two officers on day shift, evening shift, and night shift who were assigned the district with the greatest reduction in crime the year previous would be dubbed, “Free Agents.” Additionally, a point system was established. For every traffic contact or field interview made by a front-line officer, one point would be awarded. For every traffic contact made, by a front-line officer, in a documented “crime hot spot”, two points would be awarded. To ensure that seniority continues to have value, each officer began the game year with 10 points for each year of service up to 10 years. At the end of the year, “Free Agents” are determined by tallying the total of these points and establishing an order of precedence listing in which an individual number of officers are ranked as top performing. Those high-performing officers, or “Free Agents” as they are called, open up “Draft Day” by choosing their shift, days off, and district for the up and coming year. Once all free agents have elected a spot, watch commanders fill in the remaining spots in the schedule by drafting officers from the remaining pool of patrol officers.
Always of concern in the implementation of a new system is the number of resources it is going to require. One of the most exciting aspects of the DDACTS/CRC systems is the fact that it can be implemented with existing resources.
In taking a broad look at the system, it is wise to evaluate all elements necessary to be successful. At the HPD, time was a critical issue. A statistical analysis of calls for service was conducted. Finding creative ways to reassign tasks to others leaves a patrol fleet with the time required to achieve crime reduction success. The rewards are quite impressive. In small to mid-sized agencies staffing and allocation of personnel is a major consideration; that is why it is important to note that it took very few officers to staff these specialized functions. Again, no additional resources were needed. Staffing simply had to be re-positioned to help achieve the goal of freeing up time for patrol.
It was during the third quarter of 2011 that the HPD began its shift in strategy to combat its crime rate, by focusing on the strategic operations principal of the DDACTS operational model. The primary tactic employed was the traffic contact. Traffic contacts saw a dramatic increase of 75.6 percent from the previous year. Despite the late start, 2011 had an increase of 10,270 traffic contacts over 2010. The perception of increased police presence had an immediate effect with a 9 percent decrease in UCR Part 1 crimes at the end of 2011.
In 2012, the first full year of DDACTS implementation, the results were even more impressive. The most telling measurement of the success of this new way of targeting crime was the decrease in the amount of calls for service. By the end of the year, the HPD had fielded 23,724 fewer calls for service compared to the previous year, a 32.7 percent decrease. The biggest contributing factor was the 99.5 percent increase in traffic contacts over the last year; a total of 47,606. The direct correlation between increased traffic contacts and decreased call volume and crime is clear. The year ended with a 20 percent reduction in UCR Part 1 crime. The proactive efforts of our officers on the front end were paying significant dividends.
The Department adopted the CRC in 2012, and it played a significant role in the dramatic increase in traffic contacts that year, along with the corresponding drops in crime and call volume. With the naming of the first Crime Reduction Champion and successful completion of the first “Draft Day”, 2013 continued to build on the success of the previous year.
The traffic contact benchmark previously attained was surpassed by a 4.4 percent increase for a total of 49,702 contacts in 2013. Although calls for service saw a modest increase of 3.6 percent, the result attained from the increased level of proactive efforts was an additional 19.6 percent reduction in UCR Part 1 crime. Broken down, violent crime decreased by 3.7 percent and property crime decreased by 20.9 percent. By now the evidence was clear, and all skepticism about the effectiveness of the DDACTS/CRC model vanished. Spurred along by the CRC, proactive policing vs. reactive policing was now the norm, and another benchmark achieved. In 2013, the HPD reported its lowest crime rate since 1985.
Continuing the foundation set by previous year’s results, the outlook for 2014 looked promising. The result produced the greatest year to year reduction yet. Again, traffic enforcement efforts were the primary tactic used and again, a new benchmark achieved with 60,769 traffic contacts, a 22.3 percent increase over the previous year. There was also a 22.7 percent overall reduction in UCR Part 1 crime on top of reductions already recorded in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Equally important as using DDACTS to address crime trends is using it to address crashes. The Department traffic unit began to focus their enforcement efforts on areas plagued by crashes. In one such effort, officers turned their attention on a hot spot, conducting 48 traffic stops within one hour. The officers focused on violators making an improper turn that was identified as the top cause of crashes in that area. By educating the violators on the dangers of the improper turn and the visible presence of law enforcement in the area, this location quickly fell off the radar as a high-frequency crash location.
A 10 percent average reduction in crashes since implementing the DDACTS/CRC model is impressive. The data reveals significant reductions in injury and alcohol-related crashes.
Crash data results for 2014 complement the year’s reductions in crime with equally impressive results. In comparing 2013 to 2014, incapacitating injuries were down 70 percent, non-incapacitating injuries were down 48 percent and the number of persons killed due to automobile crashes dropped by 17 percent. When it came to alcohol-related crashes, 2013 to 2014 saw a 10 percent reduction.
When looking at 2010, the year preceding DDACTS/CRC implementation, we saw a police force totally reactive in nature with the corresponding 3 percent increase in UCR Part 1 crime. Following 2010, and as traffic contacts increased year after year, calls for service, violent crime, property crime and injury related crashes all dropped considerably.
Comparing the cumulative results of three years of DDACTS/CRC enforcement efforts against 2010, when police were merely responding to calls for service, the magnitude of crime reduction efforts can be appreciated. Since the inception of the new operational model of policing efforts, there has been a 347.1 percent increase in traffic contacts. The increase has had the direct effect of lowering calls for service by 40.2 percent, lowering violent crime by 62.8 percent, and lowering property crime 53.7 percent, impressive by any standard. This further validated the DDACTS/CRC model.
FEEDBACK FROM THE COMMUNITY
Despite the impressive success of the DDACTS/CRC system, the ethics of the CRC came into question by a local media outlet. A local news affiliate ran an article questioning whether the community deserved to be part of the police department’s game. Furthermore, claims were made that because more traffic contacts were made, more citations were being issued. It was alleged that officers were making stops on individuals without probable cause. Moreover, a quota system was alleged. The Department wanted to reassure the citizens that their intentions were pure. Several media interviews were conducted, and the message went forth. The community was reminded that the officers of the HPD were not stopping people for no reason. The officers were making reasonable traffic contacts for violations of the law.
LESSONS LEARNED AND ANCILLARY IMPACTS NOT ANTICIPATED
When implementing a crime reduction strategy of this magnitude, it is always important to identify internal and external stakeholders early on. Bringing these stakeholders in as part of the development team ensures there are no buy-in issues. As mentioned earlier, the Department saw a significant increase in traffic contacts by officers once they embraced the DDACTS/CRC system. Police officers who expressed difficulty in making three traffic contacts per shift prior to implementation were now conducting as many as 15 following implementation of the CRC aspect.
Not all that was learned was positive. The high-frequency of some officer’s traffic stops brought into question the quality of the stop. Informal lines of communication buzzed with news that front-line officers were conducting such fast paced traffic contacts that there was no investigation being carried out during the stop – none. Department supervisors began reviewing videos, and it was clear that some officers had moved from the traditional 7-step violator approach to a new 3-step approach the Department dubbed, “Stop, Lean and Look.” Officers would make a traffic contact for a minor infraction, advise the driver about the violation and immediately give a verbal warning without so much as checking driver’s license or insurance. With only minimum effort during a stop, it was suspected that some violators may have been allowed to leave a traffic stop when further investigation may have revealed a greater offense. The Department addressed this issue by removing verbal warnings from the equation altogether unless, of course, there were emergency circumstances. Now in order for the point(s) for the stop to count towards the officer status as a top performer, or “Free Agent” the officer must write out the infraction as an accountability citation or a written warning citation.
HOW TO GET STARTED AND RESOURCES NEEDED
As with any good plan, preparation is a must. DDACTS/CRC implementation is no different: First, one must prepare the department. Officers and supervisors must find the balance between DDACTS operations and traditional police service. Patrol supervisors must monitor current crime trends and provide definite oversight on the reduction efforts. Administration and command staff must provide clear and measurable goals, as well as guiding their officers as new challenges arise. Second, one must prepare the stakeholders. A Department must give consideration to those who will be affected by the reduction efforts, primarily the patrol officer who will be leading the effort. All stakeholders must have a complete understanding of the DDACTS guiding principles and its role in achieving a reduced crime and crash rate. Do not forget to include groups such as city leadership, media outlets, municipal courts, community partners and most importantly the general public. Finally, a Deparment must prepare itself. Be ready for questions about acceptable policing practice, the idea of rewarding police officers for doing their jobs, as well as internal resistance to change. Knowing that DDACTS/CRC is a proven method for reducing crime and crashes an officer should prepare for success. Crime reduction efforts should always be evaluated for effectiveness and modified if necessary.
The HPD, while looking for innovative approaches to reducing crime, increasing employee morale, and ensuring proactive policing, created the Crime Reduction Challenge, and in doing so have developed a department of highly energetic police officers. The citizens of Harlingen have all but forgotten the daunting crime problems of the past. These days, Harlingen is at or below the state of Texas average in both violent and property crime, and is advancing quickly on being at or below the national average. In a day when many are worried about border violence, Harlingen thrives as a model of successful DDACTS implementation.
The Department stands behind its innovative approach to dramatically reduce and prevent crime in the target community, while at the same time enhancing employee morale and increasing proactive policing. At the HPD, it is believed when the police department competes with itself to lower crime and improve the quality of life it is the community who wins the game.