By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Residents of Dayton’s Woodland Hills community demanded action from the Liberty County Commissioners Court and the Sheriff’s Office during the public comments portion of the Aug. 13 commissioners court meeting.
Members of the Woodland Hills Community Watch said they are fed up with an increase in crime and a lack of police presence in their community despite numerous requests for help.
“We are done. My question to you all is what is it going to take? Is it going to take the citizens of our neighborhood to step in and take the law into their own hands to get this situation under control? What’s it going to take?” asked Theresa Abner. “We want something done. We don’t want a Band-Aid on it. We want it fixed.”
Abner, a resident of Liberty County and Woodland Hills for 23 years, reminded the officials that Woodland Hills residents have been supportive of them during reelection campaigns and will remember those who kept their promises when the next election season rolls around.
“We go out and support every one of y’all when you are running for reelection – on our time and on our dime. We support y’all. We expect you all to be out there supporting us. That’s what we expect. We don’t expect to be talked to like we are trash,” Abner said.
Abner claims that drug use has increased, which, in turn, has resulted in an uptick in thefts, home burglaries and other crimes. Residents are so concerned that they have begun patrolling streets and looking for criminal activity.
“We have people out patrolling in our neighborhood – citizens who have stepped up – to help law enforcement get this under control. We are tired of seeing these dopehead criminals walking the streets between 1 and 4 a.m.,” she said. “You want to know how we know that? Because we have people patrolling. That’s when the crimes are being committed. They are going behind people’s properties and stealing things to sell so they can go buy more drugs.”
Abner’s concerns were echoed by three other citizens. Lynn Kelly said there have been 16 burglaries in the community in the past month alone.
“And as if this fact alone isn’t enough to make our point, thanks to one of our local law enforcement officers, we have recently learned that West Woodland Hills has the fastest-growing crime rate and drug-related activity in all of Pct. 4,” Kelly said.
The crime rate is worrisome, but more concerning is the possibility that a home invasion will occur when a resident is at home, she said.
“At least half of the crimes in West Woodland Hills Subdivision are committed when people are home, which is a disaster of the most horrible kind, just waiting to happen. It is our biggest fear that if something isn’t done to help us soon, someone is going to get seriously hurt or killed,” she said. “While none of us want anyone to be hurt, who is going to take responsibility if the person seriously injured or killed is an innocent, law-abiding citizen who is simply trying to protect their family and property from people that we all can currently identify and know exactly who the criminals are and where they can almost always be found.”
Abner asked the sheriff to address the problem of deputies gathering to socialize for extended periods of time.
“When I get up and leave my house at 5 something in the morning and I see three sheriff’s office vehicles sitting at the Circle K, chitchatting, and I am not exaggerating, you need to get your officers in gear,” Abner said. “They need to be out patrolling.”
Because rules do not allow the commissioners, county judge or sheriff to respond to public comments during commissioners court meetings, the conversations with residents continued afterward. Sheriff Rader and Abner agreed to jointly hold a community meeting in Woodland Hills sometime in September where residents can address their concerns and discuss ideas to solve the problem. The date of the community meeting will be announced once the plans are finalized.
As the county continues to grow in population, Rader says law enforcement and other services will be lagging and trying to catch up to the demand for years to come.
“In 2008, the total number of calls to the sheriff’s office, which includes EMS and fire, which we respond to, were 15,361. In 2018, the total number of calls was 44,931,” Rader said. “Since 2014, the county has approved a total of eight deputies but three were taken away when we lost courthouse security, so in reality, we have had an increase of five deputies. Two of those I had to put at Bridgehaven Children’s Advocacy Center to handle the increase in crimes involving children.”
In 2008, the sheriff’s office had one deputy for every 1,835 people, a number that does not factor in cities as they have their own municipal police departments. In 2018, the ratio jumped to 2,490 people for every one deputy. In the evening hours, the ratio is more alarming with one deputy for every 9,959 residents, according to Rader.
“With almost 1,200 square miles to patrol, it’s tough. I agree with these residents. It’s taking too long to get to calls,” Rader said. “We are swamped and need some help. It looks like the judge and commissioners will be able to help us out a bit this year. They are working to get us extra deputies and extra vehicles.”
Rader said he requested 15 additional deputies in the next budget cycle but will likely only be approved for eight as that is all the budget will allow.
“I applaud the court for having a balanced budget. It’s a hardship for all law enforcement to get extra people if there isn’t money to spend on it. The judge and commissioners have other services to consider like roads, bridges and buildings, so the fact that they are finding money for us this year is wonderful,” the sheriff said.