HUNTINGTON — As Huntington's violent crime rate continues to decrease, Huntington police officers are slowly starting to get back to the streets in an effort to reduce other types of offenses, such as property and street-level crimes.
In a letter sent to downtown Huntington businesses, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the city is working toward a solution to remove criminals from the streets: "Through ongoing discussion that (Huntington Police Chief Hank) Dial and I have had with property owners, business owners and social service agencies, the police department is also working with the Cabell County Sheriff's Department and various federal partners on a more comprehensive approach in removing criminals from the streets."
Dial said the effort is currently threefold. Officers are now going to vacant structures where individuals are trespassing and dealing with property crimes head-on; a foot and bike patrol also has started in the downtown and Marshall University areas, with one goal being to reduce loitering and panhandling; and Dial is working with federal and local agencies on another project to curb crime, as well.
The effort comes as Huntington bounces back from 2017, when the city saw one of the highest violent crime rates in its history. The rate dropped 21% in all of 2018. It has again dropped another 25% in the first six months of 2019, compared with the same time period in 2018.
Dial said during the past two years, police have had to place their focus on responding to, investigating and preventing violent crime, but the dropping rate gives police leeway to now focus in other areas.
"Huntington is a compassionate city, but our compassion cannot go to the point we allow our businesses and our city to be victimized by criminals who are wandering the street," he said. "It absolutely will not be tolerated."
Dial said the new changes started earlier this year with a "direct patrol" of officers in teams of two who go out into the community several times a week into abandoned houses and clear them out, making arrests when appropriate.
"You know it's illegal to camp on someone's property," he said. "You can't just be on this property even if it's not used and the owners aren't there. We want them to call us. We want them to work with us."
The department also has implemented a two-person patrol - which will switch between being on foot or on bike - to watch downtown and Marshall areas as needed. For now the patrol will be just part time. The officers are paid through salary and sometimes overtime, he said.
The bike patrol has been used on occasion and as needed throughout the city the past few years, but not to the level Dial would like.
"I don't want to sound like I'm saying that we have a bike patrol like we used to," he said. "Because it's not to that level yet."
Dial said he hopes to be able to have a full-time bike unit after restructuring within the department next year.
Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he had received positive feedback about the effort from the chamber's downtown members, who have already noticed change. He said Williams directly communicating to the downtown businesses that their complaints were being heard was important.
"This is an issue we have seen growing slowly over a period of time, more in visibility perhaps than numbers, and it's good to see (law enforcement) react to it," he said. "Obviously we want to treat these people with compassion, but also we want to have people to be able to run their business in downtown Huntington."
The next item on the agenda for the police is working with the Cabell County Sheriff's Department, West Virginia State Police and U.S. Marshals Service for a plan to address "the criminal element hiding in this community and living on the streets." Dial would not release Wednesday any additional information about that effort for "tactical reasons."
Dial said Huntington police have been working with the Cabell County Sheriff's Department, West Virginia State Police and the Ironton, Ashland, Milton and Barboursville police departments to come up with a way to alleviate the issues and to compare notes about repeat offenders seen in each of the three counties.
"We are seeing the exact same issues with many of the same people," he said. "I do know that these folks aren't indigenous to the city of Huntington, and that's why we're working with the U.S. Marshals Office and some of our federal partners on these issues because they're crossing state lines and committing these crimes. There's no doubt about it."
The department also has received input from the businesses, social service providers, various congregations and residents on the subject. Dial continuously praised those partnerships as directly affecting the department's operations.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.