FBI statistics indicate Hemet PD’s efforts to clean up city might be working

HEMET — With a new police chief, an increase in police staffing levels, several new, resurrected or enhanced special teams, and new funding secured by recently passed Measure “U” all happening in the last few months, City of Hemet and Hemet Police Department officials were happy to report an overall decrease in total crime and an increase in felony arrests for 2017, based on recently released FBI crime statistics.

Hemet Police Chief Rob Webb recently discussed FBI crime statistics that indicated the city’s overall crime had dropped, while the police department’s overall arrests had gone up. Hemet PD photo

In an exclusive interview with RCNS, Hemet Police Chief Robb Webb recently discussed the FBI’s 2017 crime statistics, as well the factors that once caused CQ Press to issue a report calling Hemet the “most dangerous city in the U.S.” Many area residents still recall and often refer to the 2010 report that cited that year’s FBI crime statistics as justification for the inauspicious label.

But as sobering – and scary – as the FBI’s 2010 statistics were, for several subsequent years statistics indicated things were only getting worse. By 2015 and 2016 studies by the FBI and private crime and community watchdog groups were reporting as much as a 50% increase in violent crime within the city.

However, since the passing of the Measure “U” and its public safety-related 1-cent sales tax, Hemet police officials say their department has begun to affect real changes and they point to the recently released FBI statistics as proof of their officer’s efforts.

Those statistics show that during the 2017 calendar year the city of Hemet saw a 20% decrease in homicides, a 39% decrease in rapes, a 17% decrease in robberies, and a 22% decrease in aggravated assaults. Those figures represent a 22% decrease in overall violent crimes against persons.

Property-related crimes experienced a similar decline according to the FBI statistics with reported burglaries decreasing by 4%, thefts decreasing by 4%, and vehicle thefts decreasing by 14%.

Additionally, thanks in part to funds generated by voter-approved Measure “U” which led to an immediate increase in police staffing levels, the city saw an 8% decrease in overall crimes. Not surprisingly, with more officers not only on patrol but working on special teams throughout the city, the FBI’s statistics also revealed that officers made 44% more overall arrests in 2017 compared to 2016.

After the FBI’s most recent report was released, many Hemet residents – as well as those who work, shop and play within the city’s boundaries – have said the recently released statistics came as welcome news and they were “happy and relieved” to hear that the city’s crime statistics were continuing their only recent trend of decline.

“Outrageous and unacceptable” crime levels

Following so many years of increasing crime, continued drops in police staffing levels and worsening morale within the police department and throughout the city, citizens finally stopped quietly accepting their fates and began raising their voices and complaints about the once peaceful retirement community.

Hemet’s former Police Chief Dave Brown was instrumental in helping to bring about the passage of public safety-related Measure “U”, which helped bring about many of the city’s current positive changes. Hemet PD photo

As citizen’s voices, complaints and criticism grew strength and began to gain traction in 2016, City and Police Department officials as well as community leaders finally sat up and began to take notice.

Calling the previous year’s crime stats “outrageous and unacceptable,” Hemet’s former Police Chief Dave Brown explained in an exclusive June, 2016 interview with RCNS, “It’s no secret, Hemet has serious crime and public safety issues.”

“These crimes weigh heavily on me, our department and our community,” said Brown at the time. “There are victims and family members whose lives are forever altered by these criminal acts and I’m not okay with that.”

“Our community must come together like never before if we are to stand a chance of winning this war for Hemet,” Brown explained at the time.

Acknowledging at the time that Hemet’s crime was “out of control,” Brown explained at one 2016 town hall meeting, “Criminals and gangs have tried to claim our town as their own. It absolutely must stop – now – if we are to be successful in reclaiming our beautiful city.”

Following the strong lead and head start created by Brown, Hemet PD’s new Police Chief says he plans on continuing to improve quality of life issues for Hemet’s residents while continuing efforts to increase police staffing levels and lower overall crime statistics.

Thanks to Measure “U” – passed under Brown’s guidance and heavy push – Webb says he now feels Hemet PD has the needed funding to help his department grow and the city continue to improve.

Many officials and citizens throughout the community are now saying that since the measure’s passing the city’s police and fire departments, as well as overall public safety, have continued to improve. They have pointed at the FBI’s recently released crime statistics for 2017 as evidence of the positive changes the city is currently experiencing and enjoying.

Many “complex factors” led to Hemet’s prior decline,

as well as its current resurgence

Although city officials, citizens and community leaders agree there are countless “complex factors” that go into explaining such a positive change in crime statistics many have argued that the most obvious factors affecting the city’s continuing improvement have been more funding for public safety-related issues and more police officers on the street, as well as better awareness, cooperation and involvement from the community.

Since the passage of Measure “U”, there are more officers available to respond to major and critical incidents such as this incident involving a violent, confrontational and suicidal man who had taken to hacking himself with a large knife. Despite advancing on officers while waving his knife around and screaming for them to shoot and kill him, officers managed to take the bloody and highly-agitated man into custody. John Strangis photo

“Since the passage of Measure ‘U’ the Hemet Police Department has been working hard to bolster our staffing levels,” Webb explained to RCNS in a December, 2017 interview. “We’ve increased our police staffing levels by about 20% and this has allowed us to begin filling important ‘non-patrol’ functions.”

Since that interview just three months ago, Hemet PD’s staffing level has increased even more – bringing the department’s strength to 89 sworn police officers, the highest it has been since 2011 when the department’s sworn staff was slashed to just 55 officers.

In addition to improving patrol staffing levels, some of the ways the City and its Police Department have continued to improve public safety have been by implementing several new special teams and/or enhancing the department’s existing teams and community outreach programs. Some of those teams specifically target gang members and their illegal activities, others focus on recurring, daily problems or basic, quality of life issues for the citizen’s residents.

As Hemet PD began to bolster their staff in the days and months following the passage of Measure “U” there were more available officers to respond to major incidents, emergencies, and violent or dangerous incidents that put the public at risk. Dillon Meighan photo

In a recent follow-up interview Webb explained that while there are many things that affect crime – such as the area’s economy, unemployment levels and policing strategies as well as staffing levels – he believes the addition of new officers and implementation or expansion of the department’s special teams has been key to the city’s recent positive changes.

Now, with teams such as the department’s Gang Task Force and Gang Impact Team, community-based programs such as the Crime Suppression Unit and R.O.C.S., or “Restoring Our Community Strategy” Team, and part-time involvement with the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and other special programs, officers are beginning to get a handle on a problem that until just recently seemed nearly insurmountable.

“With the increased staffing our officers are not just chasing calls anymore,” Webb explained. “Now they actually have time to go out and be more effective. Now they have the time to make proactive arrests and are better able to respond to emergencies and critical incidents.”

Measure “U” – the beginning of Hemet’s “real” change

Although the city’s first real push to gain funding necessary for improving public safety by way of Measure “E” did not gain the full support of the community and ultimately failed to get the necessary 2/3’s voter approval for implementation, police and city officials did not give up.

Rather than tuck their tails between their legs and let the “criminal element” take over, by mid-2016 – with the public’s growing support – City officials, Hemet PD, and civic leaders listened to the community and came back even stronger in support of Measure “U” later that year.

Within days of Measure U’s passage, officers conducted a series of city-wide sweeps, including Dec. 14th’s “Operation Naughty and Nice.” Officials made so many arrests they were forced to take over part of the old K-Mart parking lot, where they set up mobile booking and temporary detention facilities. During one of those early sweeps, officers netted more than 60 felony arrests and issued more than 30 misdemeanor citations over two days. Hemet PD photo

While touting the measure’s needed funding as a public safety issue, City and Police Department officials began to hold a series of community “town hall” meetings and open forums where citizens had the opportunity to share their own personal stories of how crime in the city and throughout the valley had affected them.

The efforts paid off and the tactic worked – and Measure “U” easily passed during the subsequent November, 2016 elections.

Since then, with necessary public safety funding being provided by the new voter-approved 1-cent sales tax, citizens began to notice an immediate decrease in violent and property-related crimes. About the same time, the Police Department enjoyed an increase in staffing levels, as well as a substantial 44% increase in overall arrests compared to the previous year.

Many Hemet residents who saw the difference and increase in officers on the streets making more arrests soon began to report more confidence in their police department and officers as well as a growing sense of community pride and involvement.

Since last year, better community awareness of the city’s issues and an increased willingness by average, everyday citizens to get out of their homes and bring about the changes they wanted to see within their city have been a rallying cry to those active within the community.

“Better funding means better staffing which means a better police force.”

During the push for Measure “U”, one area resident and former law enforcement officer, 63-year-old, Steve Gonzales, spoke to a group saying, “If you break it down to its simplest terms, our city can have the best cops that can possibly be had. But one good cop can only do so much. Two good cops can do twice as much. It’s exponential. More cops simply means more results.”

According to Hemet Police Chief Rob Webb, a stronger, better prepared police department with more available patrol officers and special team members means more officers available to respond to major incidents, such as this arrest at the end of a vehicle pursuit. Gary Rainwater photo

“But ultimately it all comes down to funding,” Gonzales continued. “Better funding means better staffing which means a better police force.”

That belief, that increased staffing equals better results and a better, more capable police force has been tested during several recent critical – and potentially deadly incidents – within the city.

One of those incidents was a recent pediatric emergency involving an infant who had stopped breathing.

With firefighters and other emergency first responders still rushing to the scene, Hemet police officers were first to arrive – less than one minute after the hysterical parent made the frantic 911 call and the call was dispatched.

As firefighters and AMR medics began arriving at the home, officers already inside the residence updated that the child had begun breathing again and was crying and alert. AMR medics transported the child and relieved parent to Hemet Valley Hospital as a precautionary measure and the tyke was released from the hospital later that day.

Another major incident that recently gained statewide attention happened in the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass-school shooting that stole the lives of 17 people and injured at least 14 others.

With fears, rumors and veiled threats swirling around several San Jacinto Valley and Inland Empire area schools, and after photographs of a threat scrawled on a high school bathroom wall emerged, Hemet PD was put to the test when a 7th grade girl made a frantic call to her sister reporting an active shooter firing a gun on her middle school’s campus.

Patrol officers, school resource officers, special teams members, area task force officers and police supervisors from around the city raced to the school’s campus after the emergency was broadcast. At the same time, City of Hemet Fire personnel began preparing and staging for a possible mass-casualty event.

Countless Hemet PD officers flooded onto Diamond Valley Middle School’s campus after receiving a report of an active shooter at the school. Timothy Franzese/Public Safety Incidents photo

While more than a dozen patrol vehicles and countless officials flooded onto the middle school’s campus, a School Resource Officer who had been on the school’s campus was in the process of searching for the girl who reported the incident.

Officers who began arriving within one minute of the dispatched call wasted no time and raced onto the school’s campus to locate and confront a potential school shooter.

The scare caused two schools, Diamond Valley Middle and nearby McSweeny Elementary, to go into full emergency lock down, when early witness reports indicated the suspect had possibly walked away from the middle school towards the elementary school, located on the same street just steps away.

Because of the early reports, officers were forced to split their search efforts between the two schools. For several tense minutes, curious area residents and community reporters watched on as officers – some carrying AR-15-style rifles, others carrying shotguns or handguns – methodically searched both campuses and the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Although officials determined the incident had been an innocent but false alarm, the sight of so many heavily armed officers, willing and prepared to rush towards potential gunfire, was a strong and impressive visual representation of just how ready the department now is to respond to any and all emergencies at a moment’s notice.

Basic “quality of life” issues a major concern for Hemet’s residents

Hemet PD’s R.O.C.S. Team members work to clean up a homeless encampment within city limits during a December, 2017 operation. Hemet PD photo

In addition to wanting a police department ready to effectively respond to any type of emergency, a 2016 private study and community survey requested by the City and Police Department revealed that besides what former Chief Brown called the city’s “outrageous and unacceptable” crime rates, what was troubling citizens the most and what residents felt was the most important immediate public service priorities were simple “quality of life” issues.

The study indicated citizens were concerned about such basic issues as increasing the number of sworn police officers; maintaining 911 paramedic and emergency response services; tracking sex offenders and parolees; creating, maintaining and enhancing police anti-gang and anti-drug units; upgrading, maintaining and improving police and firefighting equipment.

Other basic issues high on the list of those polled included dealing with day-to-day issues such as vagrancy, loitering, homelessness and drug use in public areas such as the city’s parks and parking lots; illegal dumping and allowing privately owned properties to become overrun and filled with broken-down vehicles and other clutter; and dealing with the area’s countless vacant homes, many of which have been taken over by homeless persons and other squatters, according to area residents.

Saying, “Hemet PD is extremely grateful to our community for the interest in the quality of life issues affecting our city,” Hemet PD Lt. Glen Brock recently discussed the FBI’s crime statistics and explained, “Although the Hemet Police Department is pleased to see a decline in crime, we will not stop our efforts to further reduce crime and the fear of crime in our city.”

In the last decade that “fear” referenced by Brock has continued to wrap its insidious talons into many Hemet residents, who in recent years have reported feeling increasingly “fearful and isolated” by what many have called the “rampant” crime within the city and entire San Jacinto Valley.

Hemet PD patrol officers and Gang Task Force members arrest a man after he fired a gun into a Hemet apartment complex, then tried to carjack a Hemet woman’s car while fleeing from officers. Epicenter News photo

Some of those hit hardest by Hemet’s once out of control – but now steadily declining – crime rate included the city’s large retirement and snow-bird community that helped put Hemet and the surrounding valley on the map as a peaceful, quiet and safe place to live and visit in the first place.

Where just a few decades ago you could once see out-of-town RV’s, family’s playing happily in clean and well-maintained parks, and traffic that rarely traveled above or even at posted speeds, driving through Hemet and the San Jacinto Valley in recent years has revealed parking lots filled with vagrants, panhandlers and drug addicts looking for a fix, parks overrun by homeless and indigent persons, and area roads and two-lane highways so dangerous, even area public safety personnel are afraid to drive on them.

“It’s the quality of life issues that hit us old-timers the hardest,” long-time valley resident Bill Boskins explained after hearing of Hemet’s decreasing crime rates and the police department’s increase in staffing and arrests.

“For years my wife has been afraid to go to the store alone anymore for fear of being bullied by panhandlers or randomly victimized by criminals,” said Boskins.

“She won’t even let me leave the house after dark,” Boskins explained. “Even though it’s getting better, just stepping outside our house to dump the trash after it got dark used to cause her anxiety.”

“We didn’t move here in the ’80’s to live out our golden years in fear,” Boskins lamented. “It’s just wrong and really unfair.”

Newly formed and enhanced special teams making a “huge impact”

One of the ways Hemet PD has been dealing with and improving Hemet’s quality of life issues was the formation last September of the department’s R.O.C.S., or “Restoring Our Community Strategy,” Team.

On a beautiful December day, officers assigned to Hemet PD’s Crime Suppression Unit perform high-visibility extra patrol in the form of a picnic lunch at Hemet’s Weston Park. Robert Carter/Public Safety Incidents photo

Comprised of three detectives and one supervisor whose main focus is quality of life issues, the special team helps free up patrol officers from having to deal with day-to-day issues so they can have more time to pro-actively patrol and respond to emergencies and priority calls for service.

Although all of Hemet PD’s special teams can and do respond to all major and critical incidents, without having to respond to routine calls for service, the department’s special teams’ members are able to focus on more basic – or conversely, more targeted – issues.

Problems such as nuisance properties; vagrancy and panhandling; illegal dumping; and illegal, dangerous or unsightly homeless encampments; as well as the enforcement of laws in the city’s parks and protecting property owner’s rights against trespassing.

One incredibly simple but highly visible way R.O.C.S. Team officers made an immediate impact after their formation earlier this year was to begin enjoying their daily lunches at the City’s many beautiful parks.

One such park, Hemet’s Weston Park, had for years become an eyesore and known more as a place best avoided by families with children and the park had gained a reputation as being over-run by those looking to use the park’s grassy acres as a daily crash-pad rather than a fun place where families could enjoy all the park has to offer.

In recent years the park had become so overrun and un-manageable – without the necessary funds to do anything realistic or lasting about the problem – that there have been several times where city officials took the extraordinary step of fencing in and closing the entire four-acre park for prolonged periods – sometimes for months at a time.

But that bad reputation slowly started to change when citizens began to notice that special teams officers had begun enjoying their lunches – picnic style – amidst the park’s large grassy and play areas, many picnic tables and numerous shade trees.

Once officers began eating lunches at and visiting the city’s parks more regularly – in some cases multiple times a day – the parks began to clean up and more families were soon spotted enjoying them. Gary Rainwater photo

One Hemet resident Sharon Rommel praised the special teams’ efforts at the time, saying, “When I saw them eating lunch at the park, so it can be better enjoyed by families, I could not have been happier. I love it. Whoever thought of that is genius.”

“They are doing the best they can with their limited resources and I think eating their lunch at the park is a great way of killing two birds with one stone,” Rommell explained. “Anything our officers do to show their presence and get the riff-raff to take a hike from the park is okay in my book.”

Shortly before his retirement Brown explained to RCNS, “This park belongs to the people and seeing police officers having lunch in the park sends the right message.”

“These officers truly care about the community they serve and it’s going to make a huge impact having them out there focusing on the areas that need their attention,” Brown continued. “I think this is a great example of Hemet police officers taking ownership of their community and setting an example.”

“The cool thing is that no one ‘told’ them to do it,” said Brown. “They decided on their own that this was a good idea and they just did it.”

“Helping the homeless helps the entire community”

Although dealing with and helping homeless and indigent persons are not traditional police responsibilities – considering the fact that some of the biggest complaints by citizens were vagrancy, aggressive panhandling and loitering in parks and business parking lots – CSU and R.O.C.S. Team members work with local, county and state agencies to help homeless individuals get off the street and into more permanent housing.

Hemet PD’s R.O.C.S. Team officers recently help a local homeless couple get home to Nevada, where the had family, friends, and jobs waiting for them. The couple had reportedly been homeless in Hemet and the San Jacinto Valley for several years. Hemet PD photo

To that end, during Brown’s last months as police chief and Webb’s first few months of tenure as the city’s “Top Cop”, CSU and R.O.C.S. Team members were able to help five homeless veterans and five homeless citizens find new, more permanent local shelter and housing, or get back home to waiting family.

Two of those homeless individuals that special teams officers recently helped were Randy and Cheryl of Nevada, who were trying to find their way back home – where both reportedly had jobs waiting for them as well as a built-in support system in the form of family and friends.

During their routine patrols within the city, traveling from one known problem area and hot-spot to another, R.O.C.S. Team members happened to speak with the couple, who shared their story and asked for assistance.

After learning the pair had been homeless within the San Jacinto Valley for years and was having difficulty getting back home to Nevada, R.O.C.S. officers reached out to one of their community partners at the Central County United Way. Through the CCUW’s “Homeward Bound” Program, officers were able to obtain transportation for the couple to get back home.

After all the details were worked out and arrangements had been made, R.O.C.S. officers were then able to get the couple to Perris so they could connect with the Greyhound bus line.

Thanks to R.O.C.S. officer’s efforts, Randy and Cheryl are now back home in Nevada where they have since reunited with their family.

“We want ‘everyone’ to be part of the solution.”

Now settled into his new position as Chief of Police and with the funding necessary for his department and officers to make effective changes throughout the city, Webb wants to let the residents his officers serve know he is committed to helping his staff make the positive changes the residents of Hemet want to see.

“I just want our residents to understand we are really trying to be a positive force in the community this year,” Webb explained, clearly proud of his officers’ recent efforts at cleaning up the city’s streets and putting criminals in jail.

Webb acknowledged that for every neighborhood, park, business and parking lot in Hemet to be crime free as well as clean and look nice, people from throughout the community will need to come together and unite towards the common goals most area residents say they want.

Ready to take his department into the next decade of growth and expansion, Webb also acknowledged that “crime is a community issue” and that it takes more than just a police department or its officers to address and fix a community’s problems.

It takes “everyone” to be “part of the positive solutions and efforts,” Webb explained.

Anyone with information related to criminal activity or who is interested in joining Hemet PD’s growing cadre of police volunteers is encouraged to contact the Hemet Police Department at (951) 765-2400. Anonymous tips can be submitted to the Anonymous Tip Line at (866) 640-TIPS (8477), online at crimestoppersplus.com or via Facebook.

 

Contact the writer: trevor.rcns@gmail.com

Trevor Montgomery, who recently moved from Riverside County to Shasta County, runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers Valley News, The Valley Chronicle and Anza Valley Outlook as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 27 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 14 grandchildren.

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