Through the hard work and dedication of the men and women at the Fort Walton Beach Police Department, several strategies have decreased crime each year during the past three years for the lowest number of “part one crimes” in more than 15 years. The department has prioritized the community and adopted a no-opportunity-wasted strategy focusing on four areas of emphasis: community engagement, crime mapping and hot spot deployment, use of technology, and quality-of-life issues.
For the past three years, the department has wasted no opportunity to engage the community in a holistic, inclusive manner, from small events with a few people to large events with hundreds of people. The department has emphasized community engagement through direct, honest, and open communications to establish legitimacy. As Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, said in 1829, the public are the police, and the police are the public. We have built relationships in the community and established connections to illustrate that we are no different and are members of the community. We are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands, and we all value the same thing: a safe community where everyone prospers.
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Most people don’t call the police on a good day; they usually call the police on one of the worst days of their lives. Something terrible has happened to them, they witnessed something horrible, or they may have done something bad. Our community engagement efforts allow the community to interact with officers in a more positive environment. These positive contacts start honest and open discussions, which lead to understanding. Understanding and trust motivate the public to cooperate with law enforcement.
We have experienced a significant increase in cooperation and the number of tips from the public. These tips have helped solve substantial crimes. In addition to crime-solving, community engagement efforts are essential for crime prevention. Officers stress issues that can help the community become their own best defense, since many crimes are crimes of opportunity. Crime prevention tips are shared with the community, like locking car doors and removing valuables from vehicles, which can prevent crimes from occurring.
The department monitors and analyzes crime that occurs within the city. Actionable information is put out to the officers to focus on hotspots. The department has made a public map available at www.cityprotect.com. Mapping crime allows the department to deploy resources and develop strategies to combat criminal incidents.
In addition to the spatial mapping of the crime, the department also looks at temporal analysis to determine the best times for deployment and operations. The department also maps and analyzes traffic crashes and other traffic data such as speed and volume on roads to deploy resources effectively to improve traffic safety.
The use of technology has greatly assisted with the analysis of criminal data with the help of computer programs, but we have also added technology to assist with investigations. The department is one of a few agencies in the area that test-fires firearms it has lawfully come in possession of for NIBIN’s (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) comparison, allowing us to make connections in cases involving firearms. Two other technologies which have greatly assisted the department are Rapid ID units, which enable officers to identify people who have been previously arrested through a real-time fingerprint comparison done in the field in seconds, and license plate readers. The department recently installed several license plate readers that have already assisted with a homicide investigation.
The final area of focus is improving quality-of-life issues across the city. Officers assist code compliance with identifying and abating attractive nuisances for criminal activity, from locating abandoned houses that have been neglected and harbor illegal activity to areas with illegal dumping. Many street-level crimes are correlated with areas that are blighted. Officers work with other city departments to combat these blighted areas. Officers try to address issues before they become problems. Some of these problems are bigger than policing, such as homelessness or drug addiction, but the department is committed to doing as much as possible. In addition, the department has taken a strong stance on traffic safety and has dedicated resources to traffic education and enforcement.
But none of these strategies would work without the commitment of the officers to the community and by putting the community first. With the no-opportunity-wasted strategy, the department has reduced the community’s fear of crime and crime.
The department also has built a strong partnership with other law enforcement agencies: the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and the other municipalities.
The true measure of a police department is not crime numbers but how safe someone feels in their community. A police department is a vital part of any community, and the community and the police can only succeed together.
Robert Bage is the chief of police for Fort Walton Beach. He has 23 years of experience in law enforcement and also worked in South Florida as an assistant chief.