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Jan 30

Preventable Crimes

Posted on January 30, 2017 at 3:58 PM by Jamie Bastas

Having lived and served as a police chief in six states, it is fascinating to contrast the various laws and ordinances that can vary so much across our great country. Likewise, it is interesting to compare the priority with which some laws are enforced regionally. One of the more challenging adjustments I had upon being appointed as a municipal police chief in Virginia is the reality that as a “Dillon Rule” state, local communities are quite limited in their ability to adopt local ordinances to deal with some of the more challenging issues. I was previously unaccustomed to state government significantly regulating local control of problems.

Early on in my tenure here, my executive team got a chuckle about my early observation that it seemed to me that a pretty blatant parking violation was so widespread here. They indicated that there was no state law or local ordinance against it, and that previous police chiefs had likewise complained of the inability to enforce what is a violation in most cities and states around the country: parking with driver’s side to curb on a 2-way street. So, I’ve learned to just grit my teeth when I walk my dog around the neighborhood and recognize that it’s not illegal here so quit worrying about it!

I’m sometimes asked why certain things are NOT against the law, and I sometimes point out that you can’t legislate common sense. None of us want to live in a “police state” or have laws and ordinances so cumbersome that no one could ever comply with everything; we must rely on common sense and folks’ voluntary commitment to do the right thing for the greater good. There are some behaviors that we see frequently in Newport News, however, that significantly contribute to crime and injuries and even death that are completely preventable, and I want to use this forum to plead for the public’s assistance in greatly reducing these negative events.

In all the places I’ve lived and policed in my life, I’ve never seen as many pedestrian accidents resulting in injury or death as I have in Newport News. It is almost uncommon to see pedestrians actually use the crosswalk that is designed for this purpose, but highly common to see folks frequently crossing at mid-block, with traffic whizzing by a high speeds. Even more frustrating is to see a slow paced gait across 3 or 4 lanes of traffic, as if jaywalking includes a shield of protection that makes the pedestrian impossible to run down….until, of course, they are struck by a car. In some portions of our City, it has resulted in so many injuries that some fences were erected to try to prohibit folks from crossing at dangerous places; some of these have been replaced with thorny bushes for a continued deterrent at a better appearance. Most troublesome to me is when I see adults leading young children across traffic on busy streets at mid-block; we are teaching the next generation of pedestrians to take unnecessary risks without the context of life-threatening consequences. Some might quickly say, “well, just write them all jaywalking tickets.” This is far easier said than done. First of all, as we are struggling with many other police agencies across Virginia and the entire U.S. to fill our vacancies, our lean staffing has reduced our ability to conduct widespread traffic enforcement, so we tend to do more focused enforcement activities at known crash-prone locations. Second, jaywalking is a very challenging enforcement stop; officers in cars have to often negotiate U-turns in heavy traffic, and then find a way to make contact with a pedestrian on a sidewalk in a manner that won’t severely impede traffic on the main road that cars are occupying. And, pedestrians being mobile, their ability to disappear from view while the officer is turning around to go after the violation increases the challenge. Ultimately, like so many other social problems, the police aren’t the only solution and merely enforcing isn’t the only method. This is a problem that every resident in Newport News needs to understand and commit to changing. We need to teach our children how to safely cross a street at designated crosswalks. We need to kindly ask our neighbors and friends to quit crossing in the middle of the street, sometimes in the dark of night when visibility is poor. As a police department, we will continue to respond to auto/pedestrian crashes, we will continue to notify next of kin of tragic outcomes, and we will continue to warn folks to stay out of the street. But, solving this problem comes down to common sense and citizen resolve.

The second preventable crime may surprise many of you. The number one cause of stolen vehicles in Newport News is from people leaving their keys in their car, whether a spare set in the console, or the main set in the ignition. This includes the practice of leaving a car running while grabbing coffee at the neighborhood 7-11 or warming it up in one’s driveway. In 2015 and 2016, we’ve seen dramatic increases in stolen vehicles in our region, and in the majority of these cases keys have been left in the car. In Virginia, like every other state I’ve policed in, it is illegal to leave your keys in the ignition when the car is parked and unoccupied on PUBLIC PROPERTY. However, unlike every other state I’ve been in, it is NOT illegal to leave the car running on PRIVATE PROPERTY. When I have suggested that this is a legislative change long overdue, I was told that no one has the appetite to pass laws telling people what they can’t do on their own property. I understand the politics of that response. However, we don’t permit people to simply point their gun at someone and fire it while on their property. We don’t permit people to take their clothes off and run around naked within the public view on their property. But, for the foreseeable future, we will apparently let folks leave their unattended cars running as if inviting a car thief to jump in and take off.

Again, responding to crimes and solving them is a bona fide police activity, and we’ll continue to do our best at it. But, preventing crime is ALL of our responsibility, and by simply locking the doors on our homes, removing keys and valuables from our cars and locking them up, we could eliminate a large portion of property crimes in Newport News. When we lower opportunity, we are lowering the risk of being a victim. Help us by following the simple phrase “Lock it and Pocket” the keys.

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