Violent crime in Huntington drops 20 percent in 2018

December 23, 2018 GMT

HUNTINGTON - After seeing violent crime rates drop by a fifth in his first year leading the Huntington Police Department, Police Chief Hank Dial is crediting teamwork within and outside of the department as the reason.

With 19 criminal homicides reported in 2017, Huntington saw one of its most deadly years in history. However, with the number cut in half in 2018 as of Dec. 18, Dial said he believes Huntington has turned a page for the better.

From 2017 to 2018, Huntington’s violent crime rate dropped more than 21 percent - from 2,951 reported crimes to 2,522 - while property crime dropped more than 13 percent, from 2,535 in 2017 to 2,194 this year. Overall, the Huntington Police Department saw a decrease of more than 18 percent in the total number of crimes reported to the department.

Dial believes the numbers show the city is on an upswing.

“It shows a city in resurgence from a very bad time,” he said. “But it’s also early, and we have a long way to go.”

Dial said Tuesday he was pleased with the numbers in all but one of the categories, which he credited to listening to his officers, the community and working on partnerships with police and other agencies across the region.

By the numbers

As of Dec. 18, of the eight crimes - aggravated assault, forcible rape, murder, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft - required to be reported to the FBI’s Uniformed Crime Report each year, Huntington saw a decrease of more than 14 percent.

The highest decrease in crime this year was criminal homicides, which dropped from 17 by Dec. 17, 2017, to just eight in the same time frame in 2018.

A homicide investigation does not automatically mean a criminal act has taken place. Last year, Huntington had 21 homicides overall, with 19 being declared criminal so far.

In 2018, Huntington has seen 10 overall homicides. Eight of those have been declared as criminal cases. Two others - a child death case and a gun case - are still under investigation.

Dial said this year police have suspects in all eight criminal homicide cases for 2018. Some of those cases are awaiting an arrest or indictment by a grand jury. From 2016 to September 2018, HPD had reported to have a clearance rate of 87.5 percent among 43 homicide investigations at the time.

This year Huntington saw five drug-related homicides. In 2017, there were 16.

Aggravated assault dropped more than 20 percent, from 189 to 150, while robberies dropped more than 30 percent, from 137 to 95. Burglaries dropped 19 percent, from 644 to 520, and larcenies dropped nearly 11 percent, from 1,638 to 1,463. Motor vehicle theft declined nearly 18 percent, from 235 to 193.

Only one category has seen an increase in 2018, with forcible rape going from 73 reported last year to 75 in 2018, a 2 percent increase.

Arson numbers remained the same, with 18 reported in both years.

Dial said the reduction was accomplished through aggressive intelligence-based policing.

“A key element that we changed this year is that we now target specific individuals who are known to be violent drug offenders for rapid investigation. We arrest them for the other crimes they are committing before they become the trigger person,” he said. “We no longer allow them to linger in our community and stop selling drugs.”

Because of this, in 2018 the department also saw its highest number of drug busts. By Dec. 19, the drug unit had executed 98 search warrants. Police conducted 58 search warrants in 2017.

The 98 executed warrants are the most any officers remember conducting in years past, Dial said, and he said the community tips are what led to the high number. By the end of August, the drug unit had already seized more drugs than the year previous. The total amount was not available last week, however.

The department also went from 66 indictments being returned against offenders in 2017 to over 90 in 2018.

Teamwork goes a long way

Dial said after taking over the chief position in January, the department had a single goal to reduce violent crime, which saw a dramatic decrease in 2017, following nationwide trends. He said this year’s reduction could be credited to the detectives, patrol officers and drug units working together closely and communicating, as well as community involvement.

Dial was leery of taking any credit for the reduction, but instead credited better communication among officers.

“One of the best things I do as a leader is I listen to them, and if we look at their plan, I stayed where I want us to be. I sit down with those officers and say what’s the best way for us to get here, the same way I sit down with the community so they can tell me what they can do to help.”

An example of that, he said, was the successful violent crime initiative, created by Shane Bills, that is still in effect, he said. The VCI was created in 2017 to address the high number of violent crimes.

Decreasing numbers

With a reduction in homicide comes more time for officers to look into other investigations, but Dial said his staffing is still not enough. He is budgeted for 108 officers but has open positions. A recruitment campaign for the department is expected to start by the end of the month.

Dial said the uptick in indictments and prosecution was because of the department’s relationship with U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart of the Southern District of West Virginia and changes that allow the department to automatically prosecute in federal court any offense involving fentanyl or gun crimes. Better relationships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have also helped investigations on drug and firearm cases, he said.

“They’re all taking more on their back like they should have probably in years past,” he said. “A big thing this year is we’re putting a lot more violent criminals in prison with long-term prison sentences.”

While there is a national outcry for less jail time for offenders, Dial said the people they are putting in prison for long periods of time are not low-level offenders.

“These are people who bring violence and poison to our community,” he said. “We want them in prison.”

Dial also acknowledged the importance of drug-dependency recovery in the reduction of property crimes in 2017. That’s why they work closely with programs like the Quick Response Team that helps citizens get into drug rehab, he said.

He also believes changes in the harm reduction program, which now does not allow out-of-county residents to participate in the program, also helped reduce robberies and larcenies.

What’s next

The most important thing for next year is a continuation in the reduction of violent and property crimes in the city, he said.

Dial said the uptick in rapes is concerning for the city, and he has already started the process with other organizations on attempting to reduce that number. The uptick, he agreed, could have been an effect of the national #MeToo movement, which encourages victims of sexual assault to come forward to discuss their experiences.

He also hopes to create more transparency between the department and the community.

“We have got our feet under us, and we’re able to do more of the intelligence-based policing. We can go after these things and work cases better,” he said. “We are blessed to have investigators who have a sophisticated skill set and they can bring intelligence-based cases to get these drug and violent criminals to the courts to get convictions.”

The HPD Annual Report has not been made available since 2014 by the department, due to what Dial said was a computer filing system program issue. He hopes new software has cleared up that issue and the 2018 report will be made available next year.

He specifically said he hopes to use it to strengthen the relationship with Marshall University so they can use the report for recruitment purposes.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.