Rock Hill Police: 'Saturation,' stats curb crime and crashes in target area

jmcfadden@heraldonline.com Editor’s note: On April 5, a Friday, Herald reporter Jonathan McFadden spent an evening on patrol with a Rock Hill police officer.April 13, 2013 

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    • Rock Hill Police officers focusing on seat belt enforcement on Patriot Parkway issued eight seat belt citations and made two arrests for possession of marijuana. Officers on Riverview Road issued three seat belt citations and two warnings.

— A bald, mustached Fort Mill man who admitted to drinking a 22-ounce beer at lunch made his way home without getting cuffed for driving under the influence when he was pulled to the side of U.S. 21 on a recent Friday.

Instead, the 35-year-old man, who told a police officer he has a “delayed focus” in one eye (yet, he still managed to pass a field sobriety test) drove away with a $185 ticket and a possible four points lost on his license after he was stopped for driving 17 miles above the speed limit.

He was one of at least 20 motorists Rock Hill Police Officer Chris Rowe stopped for traffic violations April 5 in an area of the city that police have identified as a hotbed for traffic collisions and violent and property crimes.

To curb the trend, police in January unveiled a new way to target crime while simultaneously stifling car accidents. Organized by the state Department of Public Safety, the initiative is called the Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety, or DDACTS, and joins together the Highway Patrol, State Transport Police and, most recently, the York County Sheriff’s Office’s Highway Interdiction Team.

Using statistics, police bolster enforcement and visibility in key areas to net the criminals they say use vehicles to transport their guns, drugs and stolen property. The police effort also encourages drivers to play it safe on the roads.

The area of focus for Rock Hill police includes all the streets, roads and avenues enveloping and crisscrossing with the Interstate 77 interchange, North Cherry and Celanese roads, where Rowe says “90 percent of the cars are going eight miles over” the speed limit.

Dilip Patel, who manages the Microtel Inn & Suites on the part of Riverview Road that intersects with Celanese, said he often worries about hotel guests who walk to a restaurant or nearby store and have to dodge speedsters.

“There are always people speeding” on Riverview Road, where pedestrians are at risk because there are no sidewalks or walking paths for them to travel on, he said. “I’m worried that an elderly person or guest might get hit.”

He’d like to see walking trails added that will connect Riverview Road with the Riverwalk. But, until then, he’s grateful for the added police presence, he said, comparing their efforts to heavy highway patrol enforcement during holidays.

“To me, it’s the same thing,” he said, and “hopefully builds awareness.”

According to police, it has.

By the end of March last year, police reported 10 violent crimes, four gun violations, 10 vehicle break-ins, eight burglaries, 12 car thefts and 11 drug arrests in the area now targeted by DDACTS, according to statistics compiled by the Rock Hill Police Department. By the first three months of this year, officials have seen a measurable decrease, with only five violent crimes reported, four vehicle break-ins and six car thefts. Police have made 28 drug arrests, although they report seeing a one-incident increase in gun violations, and burglaries have increased by two .

By March 2012, there were 94 collisions reported near the interstate. So far this year, police have recorded 66.

“I don’t expect to see these numbers every month,” said Rock Hill Police Maj. Steve Parker, who secured the DDACTS grant for the city after attending classes and training sessions.

Still, any reduction at all, he said, is “a win.”

This time last year, police issued 221 citations for speeding, seat belt and other traffic violations. In January and February this year, they’ve issued 252. Numbers for March were unavailable. The initiative doesn’t track specific violations, like speeding or DUI’s, in one given area or on one street.

It’s a win for Jason Nesbit, owner of the Best Way Automotive repair shop on Riverview Road, who like Patel has seen tons of speedsters —usually in the mornings.

“I think the more (police) the merrier,” he said.

When Nesbit opened the shop a year ago, it was broken into, he said. He hasn’t had any incidents since then, he said, and hopes more police manpower will keep it that way.

During the weekends, he does his best to pull in all the cars at his shop so vandals and drunks don’t get any ideas. More officers will keep his mind at ease.

“I’m behind it 100 percent,” he said.

Ruby Smith wasn’t pleased to see Stone Haven Pointe apartments on Stoneypointe Drive on the list of focus areas for DDACTS.

Smith, who’s managed Stone Haven for six years, said she tries “keeping the place with good people” and is concerned that potential tenants will think twice before renting if they think the complex has a lot of crime and crashes.

Ask her, and that’s not the case.

Aside from the occasional mo-ped theft, most of the issues reported at Stone Haven, currently home to about 250 people, are domestic-related, Smith said.

According to the most recent citywide crime report from Rock Hill police, only four violent crimes were reported at the apartment complex in 2011 compared to the eight reported in 2006. The complex saw a 5.3 percent reduction in the number of property crimes reported between 2006 and 2011, although it ranked fourth on a list of the top five Rock Hill apartments for vehicle break-ins in 2011.

Data provided by the Rock Hill Police Department shows that 12 crimes were reported within 500 feet of the apartment complex in 2012. Only one of those, an aggravated assault reported three days before Christmas, was classified under the police department’s definition of “violent crime.”

Smith said it took about four years to “clean it up” at Stone Haven.

She said she appreciates more officers patrolling the area.

“A couple of them are really proactive with all the properties,” not just hers, she said. “If we have any kind of problems, they’re over here, checking it out and fixing it.”

The DDACTS effort doesn’t take manpower from other units within the Rock Hill Police Department. The traffic unit focuses on saturating an area throughout the week, while the street crimes unit and other units use “direct patrol shifts” to patrol DDACTS areas while working the department’s Compstat and Weed and Seed initiatives in other parts of the city, Parker explained.

“We understand that there’s violent crime, property crime and other crime going on in the city, and we’re addressing that,” Parker said. “This is just one program that works in this area that wouldn’t necessarily work in some of the other areas that...don’t have the collisions overlapping with (violent and property crime).”

Parker said police haven’t had indications that more crime and crashes are leaking into other areas of the city as a result of heavy enforcement in the DDACTS area.

“Basically, it’s saturation,” he said. Before, “we might have had one or two officers in that area on a particular day, but now, sporadically, you might end up having 12 or 14 officers...working in that one area, trying to saturate that area.”

Rock Hill Police owe much of the success to a joint effort by the Highway Patrol, State Transport Police and York County Sheriff’s Office Highway Interdiction Team, Parker said.

“It’s a collaboration,” he said. “We couldn’t do it by ourselves...we couldn’t do it with as much gusto.”

Officer Chris Rowe was all gusto April 5, a Friday, when he joined about 30 Rock Hill Police officers and two Highway Patrol troopers to scout for drivers without their seat belts, or concealing the straps behind their arms —a big “no” in Rowe’s book.

Just ask the 42-year-old Rock Hill woman he stopped on Cherry Road.

She travelled past Pizza Hut with her seat belt strap suspended behind her arm, not across her chest. When properly worn, the seat belt strap will, in the event of an accident, prevent a driver’s shoulder blade from dislocating, ribs from fracturing and internal organs from being punctured when their body hits the airbag, Rowe said.

Some people treat seat belts like they’re “insignificant,” Rowe said.

For the next several minutes, the woman would argue with Rowe, demanding to know why he pulled her over, asking if he was giving his passenger an “initiation” and claiming that she understood she violated the law, but she still doesn’t have to listen to Rowe.

“I enforce the law…you do have to listen to me,” Rowe told her with a smile as he wrote her a warning. Still, she countered, “you don’t tell me what to do.”

After checking her driving history with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, her criminal history with the National Crime Information Center and cross-referencing with dispatch for any possible warrants, Rowe drove off as the woman, her record pristine until that Friday, peered at him through her driver’s side window.

A few miles down the road, Rowe got a call from a supervisor. The woman called and complained. Rowe expected as much.

The entire exchange is captured on Rowe’s in-car camera. Supervisors and internal affairs officers will review it and make their decision from there. But for Rowe, and most of his colleagues, complaints are nothing new. It’s happened before, he said, and it’ll happen again.

The 27-year-old Blythewood native has been with the police department for three years — more than a year of that time he’s spent in traffic enforcement, where reducing traffic fatalities and collisions takes top priority at all times of day.

Each month, traffic officers receive a traffic analysis from the department’s statistician, who gives them graphs and figures that point to collision trends and help police tailor their efforts. From there, they draft a monthly schedule that helps them focus on different enforcement strategies on a specific day or week.

One night might be seatbelt enforcement. The next might target DUI’s, or be a dedicated DDACTS day, Rowe said. The department, so far, has had one DDACTS day per week — or, more than 12 days— since January among the traffic unit and a total of five “specialized” DDACTS days with the state and county agencies.

Friday nights, Rowe said, “can get wild.”

As the words left his mouth, he pounded on the brakes and flickered on the blue lights as a silver Sebring following an ambulance sped past the red light at the intersection of Cherry and Riverview roads.

“He didn’t even hit the brakes,” Rowe remarked as he turned the steering wheel hard, made a sharp U-turn on Cherry Road with sirens blaring and lights blazing and hovered behind the car until it pulled over into a gas station. He got out and started asking questions.

Minutes later, Rowe returned to the car.

“They were on their way to the hospital,” he said, announcing that the ambulance carried a family member. “If they don’t make it to the hospital, they can’t be of any help.”

Tickets for offenses are typically issued at the officer’s discretion, Rowe said. Some officers might let drivers get away with minor traffic offenses, like exceeding the speed limit by five or 10 mph.

“People think all we do is write tickets,” he said. “A warning,” which officers use to educate drivers, is “sufficient enough for some folks.”

There is no quota or extra pay for an officer who brings back a handful of citations, Rowe said. About seat belt violators, he said, “if we pull you over, there’s no doubt in our minds that you weren’t wearing your seat belt.”

One Lancaster County woman in a gray Escalade wasn’t buying it.

Rowe stopped her as she drove into Rock Hill without buckling up. He trailed her to a nearby gas station, where she insisted that she was wearing her seat belt and “just took it off” when Rowe flashed his patrol lights.

The officer disagreed.

“We get lied to daily,” he said after writing her a $25 ticket.

By 7:30 p.m., Rowe regrouped with officers on Patriot Parkway, where authorities had just arrested two men, 20 and 23, with a Smuckers jelly jar filled with individually-wrapped marijuana joints in their car. One man had $340 cash in his pocket.

They were initially stopped for not wearing seat belts. For the drugs, they spent the night in jail.

On U.S. 21 near the Riverwalk, Rowe educated a Fort Mill woman, 46, who was driving 53 mph in a 45 mph speed zone. He showed her the laser device police use to measure a driver’s speed, and how it caught her.

Around 8:45 p.m., evening dinner plans were delayed when an officer radioed Rowe for assistance at a checkpoint on Bagwell Court, where Rowe said neighbors often complain about speeders. The speed limit through the neighborhood, which borders the Sonic on Celanese Road and empties into Mount Gallant Road, is 25 mph.

“We’re being hammered,” the officer told Rowe.

He wasn’t exaggerating.

Officers frisked several motorists, confronted drivers for travelling without a license and made three arrests for driving under suspension, driving without a license and shoplifting. Lights were flashing, cars were coming and going and a man stood cuffed in front of a house while an officer searched his car.

At 10 p.m., when saturation began, Rowe stopped at a Rock Hill motel, dispersing a group of men from Greenwood who drank Bud Lights in the breezeway — committing a public display violation.

One quick warning from Rowe broke up the party. They planned to go to bed anyway, one of them said, because they had to get up at 4 a.m. to do roofing work.

More stops and tickets followed: A man who appeared to be in his teens drove without headlights on; a group of local college kids coasted down Eden Terrace, also without headlights beaming; and a Chester County woman returning home from a late-night movie swerved in her travel lanes on I-77 while reaching for her glasses.

By night’s end, Rowe issued eight tickets and about the same number of warnings.

One of those warnings went to a 22-year-old Rock Hill woman whose speeding Chevrolet pickup was filled with balloons.

She was getting married the next day, she told Rowe.

“Congratulations,” he told her before letting her off with a warning —“a wedding present.”

April 5 DDACTS stats

Here is a summary of stops associated with the DDACTS program made by state and local law enforcement agencies on April 5 . The agencies were unable to provide the specific numbers of warnings or tickets issued or arrests made.

• State Transport Police reported 15 “activities,” which included inspections of three commercial vehicles, two citations for lane restrictions and one warning for lane restrictions.

• The Highway Patrol reported 19 “activities,” including some that involved driving under suspension, possession of marijuana and open container violations.

• The York County Sheriff’s Office drug enforcement unit/HIT team reported three “activities,” including a driving under suspension stop; dealing with one person who had a pistol though they were convicted of a violent crime; and a third person who had marijuana, $1,418 and a handgun.

• The Rock Hill Police traffic unit reported 58 “activities,” which included two DUI’s, two possession of marijuana violations; one open container violation; one operating an uninsured vehicle violation; one driving without a license violation; and one driving under suspension violation.

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