Crime & Courts

Police meet the neighbors

Shortly after 6 p.m. on a late October evening, patrol cars with flashing lights drove through an isolated north Wichita neighborhood. Three officers fanned out along the street, which had recently been the scene of a burglary that led to gunfire and a high-speed chase.

The officers weren't looking for the bad guy on this Tuesday evening; he'd been in jail since crashing into a tree at the end of the chase.

The officers were looking for neighbors willing to spend a few minutes to attend an impromptu meeting so they could learn more about the crime and the man in custody.

It was the latest "impact meeting" hosted by the Patrol North Bureau of the Wichita Police Department. The meetings feature beat officers and detectives who converge on the location of a major crime to interact with residents there.

The middle-of-the-street meetings allow law enforcement to update residents on the status of a case, seek more information, and learn of other criminal activity in the area, Capt. Jeff Easter said.

Introduced last fall and unveiled as a regular response to serious crimes early this year after a surge in gang-related activity, the impact meetings have proven so successful they are now being used citywide.

"You're conveying to the citizens we do care," Police Chief Norman Williams said. "We do care about the crimes that impact the quality of life in your neighborhood. We don't just blow it off."

More than 50 impact meetings held this year in north Wichita have drawn more than 900 people, Easter said — most of whom would not otherwise have spoken to officers at a neighborhood association meeting or block party.

Along with updates on cases, the meetings offer tips on how to recognize when criminal activity is occurring and steps that residents can take to protect themselves.

The first impact meetings were held following shooting incidents or robberies, Easter said, but commanders have since expanded them to include burglaries and search warrants.

At Tuesday's meeting, a group of people — five officers and 10 civilians — gathered by the fire hydrant at Kopplin and Jackson — right outside the home where the crime spree began.

"On Friday, around 1:30, the corner house had a call of a burglary in progress," Sgt. Jose Salcido told the residents. "He came to this house on the corner and tried to get in, and the man inside called 911."

When the burglar was unable to get inside, Salcido said, he went to a neighbor's house and forced his way in.

"He was helping himself to stuff in the house when he woke up the resident, who was asleep in the basement," Salcido said. "Instead of taking off, he ends up fighting the gentleman."

Salcido said one of the burglary victims fired a handgun into the ground to scare off the burglar. The man sped from the scene and, with police in pursuit, reached speeds of 120 mph before crashing near 53rd and Porter.

Al Hall, one of the neighbors, wanted to know what kind of car the burglar drove.

"It was a white Dodge Durango," Salcido said.

"I've seen it going up and down the street — probably five times," Hall said. "I knew that he didn't live here.

Chad Burnett, the community police officer for the area, told Hall and his neighbors not to be shy about calling 911.

"If you see a suspicious vehicle or a suspicious person up here, give us a call," Burnett said. "Sometimes that little stuff turns out to be something."

Dan Moore, another neighbor, was concerned about one of the victims.

"That guy who shot his gun off in the city limits — he's not going to get into any trouble for it, is he?" he asked.

Burnett said he was not.

Burnett and Salcido suggested that the neighborhood, northeast of 37th North and Arkansas, start a Neighborhood Watch program.

"You really don't have a lot of crime here," Salcido said. "We've taken this guy down, but I'm sure there are others operating in the area."

"We're just glad you guys caught him," Deborah Mitzner, one of the neighbors, said.

Mitzner said after the meeting that she was happy she had a chance to attend.

"I'm just really glad to see them out here and following up," she said. "It's reassuring.... Neighbors are on edge after something like this."

That's why officers hold the meetings so soon after a significant crime occurs — within 24 hours of a shooting incident or robbery — and why officers make it a priority to follow up quickly on other criminal activity mentioned during the gatherings.

"If we don't follow through with that, we're going to lose credibility," Easter said. "We follow through with all complaints, but those go on the front burner because that neighborhood is in turmoil right now.

"You can't let one of those slip through the cracks, because then you'll have people saying, 'It's just a bunch of officers talking to us. They're not doing anything about it.' "

The flashing lights on patrol cars draw attention — and that's no coincidence, Easter said.

"People will come out and look," he said. "That gets them outside. They think something has happened."

But some early impact meetings drew no one at all because people were afraid they'd be spotted and targeted by gang members, Easter said.

Fear of retaliation is perhaps the most significant obstacle officers face in battling crime in neighborhoods, Williams said. That fear allows gangs and other criminal activity to flourish.

"By going into the neighborhoods, we're trying to address some of that fear," Williams said. "They're in their own comfort zone or in that neighborhood.

"It goes hand-in-hand with building that relationship. You're building that trust."

It takes time — and action — to build that trust in some places, Easter said, especially areas where gangs thrive. In some places, he said, it took arrests and evictions before residents began to respond.

"We have to uproot the problem before citizens are going to come out and say, 'OK, I'm willing to come out and talk,' " Easter said. "We understand the fear concept, and know that's a huge hurdle we have to get over.

"By doing these meetings and staying involved, it helps us get over that hurdle."