Some crimes increase in Heights area

May. 14, 2013Houston Chronicle

After an increase in robberies and vehicle burglaries in the Heights and other areas, Houston police officials are asking residents to partner with them to help prevent crime.

That many residents could do more was pointedly driven home by police during an April 29 public meeting hosted by Houston City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen to cover what crimes are most prevalent in the area and how to prevent them.

While the meeting was occurring, police officers conducted a quick check of the 45 vehicles parking at the meeting site, the West End Multi Service Center, 170 Heights Blvd. Of those vehicles, 29 failed to meet Houston Police Department‘s standards for preventing car burglaries. The vehicles that “flunked” had valuables in open sight, unlocked doors or open windows.

“It is the most preventable crime,” police Capt. Daryn B. Edwards said of vehicle burglaries. “Don’t leave the (Global Positioning System device) on the console. Don’t leave the laptop. Don’t leave the cell phone.”

Burglaries of motor vehicles in the greater Heights area have increased by 44.1 percent for a 12-month period ending in late April compared to the same period for 2011-12, HPD crime statistics show.

HPD reports 644 Heights-area vehicle break-in cases for the 2012-13 reporting period compared with 447 for the previous period.

Also on the increase in the Heights area are robberies, up 25 percent from 60 in 2011-12 to 75 in 2012-13. Auto thefts are up 15.2 percent for the same period, from 138 to 159.

While the Heights area saw a drop in some crimes, such as aggravated assault and break-ins not involving vehicles, numbers rose in some other categories.

Four sexual assaults were reported during the most recent recording period, up from three for the previous year. Thefts were up 4.3 percent from 423 in 2011-12 to 441 in 2012-13.

The department had one report of one Heights-area homicide in the 2012-13 period, compared to none in 2011-12.

The idea behind the meeting was to educate residents and empower them to help keep themselves and their community safe, said Cohen, who represents District C.

“In her State of the City speech, the mayor said crime in the city is down,” Cohen said. “That’s great news, unless you’re the one whose car was broken into.”

Cohen urged area residents not to hesitate to report suspicious people in their neighborhood.

“Everyone is so nice, they don’t want to call the police. But if you see something that looks suspicious, I’ve been told by the police, call the police and be a tattletale,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to call.”

In the nearby area along the western part of Washington Avenue, aggravated assaults were up 39.6 percent, from 48 in 2011-12 to 67 in 2012-13.

Burglaries from motor vehicles in that area were up 4.4 percent from 1,006 in 2011-12 to 1,050 in 2012-13.

That area saw one homicide in 2012-13, compared to none in 2011-12. Sexual assaults along the corridor were down – three for the most recent reporting period compared to 6 for the previous one. Robberies decreased from 46 to 38, and burglaries were down from 194 to 153.

In response to a series of armed robberies in its neighborhood, the Oak Forest Homeowners Association also recently hosted a public meeting with Houston City Council and law enforcement representatives to discuss the crime situation.

“People understandably have gotten a little nervous,” association president Craig Powers said. “At one point we had (Houston Police Department) telling people not to leave their homes at night, which was disconcerting.

“We want people to feel safe again.”

Eight robberies have been reported in the neighborhood since April 5.

Oak Forest also experienced a series of robberies last October, Powers said.

“Crime seemed to be trending down,” he said. “Then we had people getting robbed in their driveways, including two instances where weapons were discharged.”

“I think Oak Forest is still a relatively safe neighborhood. That doesn’t mean people are wrong to be concerned.”

To prevent in-home burglaries, HPD recommends solid-core or metal-exterior doors; double-cylinder deadbolt locks if there is glass within 40 inches of the lock; and lights around doors, walkways and driveways.

Edwards also warns about prospective burglars knocking on doors to see if homes are empty.

“Don’t answer the door if you don’t know the person, but let them know you’re there,” he said. “They want to get some of your belongings and be gone.”

Edwards said there are a number of effective steps motorists can take to prevent burglaries from motor vehicles as well.

He suggests hiding valuables in the trunk of the care before leaving for a destination.

Make sure the doors are locked and windows are closed when parking, and park only in well-lit, high-traffic areas of a parking lot, Edwards added. At home, park in the garage if possible, or at least in the driveway.

Drivers also can take steps to prevent carjackings. Edwards encourages drivers to leave immediately when they get in their car instead of lingering.

“If you think someone is following you don’t drive home,” he continued. “Drive to another business, a police station or a fire station..”

Edwards said HPD has been getting more calls about suspicious packages since the bombings in Boston. He said that’s not a problem; it’s always wise to call the police if there’s a safety concern.

At the Heights-area meeting, police Sgt. Richard Wilson emphasized the importance of keeping a record of serial numbers for valuables.

During a rash of 150 burglaries in Montrose a few years ago, he said, only one of the victims could provide the police serial numbers for stolen belongings.

The HPD has a computer program that it allows it to enter the serial numbers of stolen items and receive notifications when someone attempts to pawn them, Wilson said.

“It’s very, very important,” he said. “Write down your serial numbers. Don’t put them in your computer. That will be stolen. Write them down on paper.”

Oak Forest Homeowners Association is considering a paid constable’s patrol program, but it would be expensive.

Oak Forest comprises 18 sections with a total of 5,500 homes. The association’s research shows it would need about one constable to effectively patrol each 500 homes: a total of 11 officers. The program costs about $80,000 a year per officer, Powers said, which would bring Oak Forest’s cost to $880,000 a year. The association collects $10,000 to $20,000 a year in voluntary dues.

“It’s wonderful and good for small things, but it’s really not adequate for constable’s patrols,” Powers said.

Braeswood Place Homeowners Association and Garden Oaks Civic Association have constable patrol programs in place. Like Oak Forest Homeowners Association, these associations only assess voluntary dues.

To reach the Houston Police Department, visit www.houstonpolice.org. Call 713-884-3131 for non-emergency situations; 9-1-1 for emergencies.

The Heights HPD Storefront can be reached at 713-803-1151, and the Neartown HPD Storefront’s number is 713-284-8604.

For more on the Oak Forest Homeowners Association, visit www.ofha.org or e-mail hotline@ofha.org.