HUNTINGTON — As the city of Huntington continues to reduce the high violent crime rates from 2017, Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial says police hope to soon put a new focus on property crime, which is on the rise.

Statistics released for the first half of the year show reports of violent crimes - aggravated assault, forcible rape, murder and robbery - continue to decrease. A total of 138 violent crimes were reported in the first half of 2019, whereas 184 were reported in the same time frame the year before.

Dial said although the numbers are decreasing, he is aware of what they could be.

"Our officers have been working diligently to reduce violent crime throughout the city," he said. "Having achieved a good bit of success in that area, we can focus even more on property and nuisance crimes now."

The department's data show that 1,082 property crimes have been reported so far in 2019, compared with 1,060 in the same period the year before.

While he was not ready to discuss the project in depth, Dial said he has been working with officers to create a plan for better police response to reports of people living in abandoned structures, which he thinks has a direct correlation to an increase in larceny and arson in the city.

By the numbers

By June 30 in 2018, seven murders were reported in Huntington. That number has dropped to two in the first half of 2019, but Dial noted another homicide investigation could make that number increase by one as the investigation continues. No arrest has been made in the murder cases, but Dial said the investigations are promising.

Homicide is defined as one person killing another, criminal or not, while murder means a criminal action took place in the killing.

Aggravated assault dropped from 75 in 2018 to 72 in 2019, while forcible rape reports fell from 38 to 33. Reported robberies dropped by more than 50% in the same time frame, from 64 in 2018 to 31 in 2019.

In 2017, 83 aggravated assaults were reported, 24 forcible rapes, five murders and 71 robberies. In 2016, 76 aggravated assaults were reported, 31 forcible rapes, six murders and 67 robberies.

For the entire year of 2018, Huntington saw 2,615 violent crime cases reported, compared with 3,025 in 2017.

Dial said the large drop in robberies this year is a direct correlation to a successful battle on the drug trade, but it also had to do with changes implemented in spring 2018 in which the Cabell-Huntington Health Department stopped allowing those without a Cabell County address to use the syringe exchange in the county's Harm Reduction Program.

In contrast to violent crimes, property crimes - arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft - increased in the first half of the year.

Arson rose from eight reported in the first half of 2018 to 15 in 2019, while larceny increased from 707 to 724. Motor vehicle theft also increased, from 97 to 117. Reported burglaries decreased from 248 to 226.

In 2017, nine arsons were reported, 335 burglaries, 813 larcenies and 115 motor vehicle thefts. In 2016, 16 arsons were reported, 492 burglaries, 1,071 larcenies and 81 motor vehicle thefts.

Transient criminals are suspected of being responsible for several of the arsons and larcenies.

Dial said the police department, which works closely with Huntington fire marshal Matt Winters, has "quite a bit" of evidence being processed right now, which he thinks could lead to prosecution of people suspected of "traditional" arson cases in which someone is purposely setting structures on fire.

Increase in property crime

The increase in property crimes can be directly linked to transient people living in abandoned houses, Dial said. Some people facing homelessness will break into boarded-up homes to live before stealing things from the house and sometimes even setting the home on fire.

The Huntington-Cabell-Wayne Continuum of Care said a January 2019 count showed a population of 171 homeless people in the two counties, which is down from 190 counted in 2018 and 205 counted in 2017. Dial said police aren't necessarily seeing an increase in the homeless population, but they are seeing an increase in crime connected to the population.

Police also are seeing a trend of cars being reported stolen after vagrants remove seemingly abandoned vehicles from these abandoned properties and turn them in for scrap metal.

Dial said police are noticing three types of motor vehicle theft: somebody leaves their keys in their car and someone else takes it; the vehicle was given to a drug dealer as part of a drug trade; or people who take abandoned cars and turn it in for scrap metal.

While the city has an ordinance restricting the time a car can be parked on a city street to 48 hours, these vehicles are parked legally on a home's property.

"What we're seeing and what we're hearing is a lot more criminals in vacant and abandoned houses, and that's why we're going to direct our efforts toward that in hopes of turning this property crime trend back down," Dial said. "And that's what we look at. We look at the criminal behavior, and we look at criminals. What your socioeconomic status is doesn't concern us."

Vacant, abandoned structures

As violent crime rates go down in the city, officers can dedicate more time to the nonviolent side of crime that has been plaguing the city. Dial said the department is working on developing a patrol unit whose job it will be to concentrate on the criminal behavior of those breaking into abandoned houses.

"This directive patrol will be checking when we get 911 calls. We will also be looking at the registered vacant house (registry) that we have in Huntington, and we'll be going to those and checking those," he said. "And to be clear, we're investigating the criminal behavior."

Huntington is in the midst of a campaign to tear down more than 100 dilapidated properties, with more than half already being completed, which Dial said could help with the issue. There are 400 abandoned or vacant structures on the unsafe building commission list overall that the police will focus on.

Dial said he expected to release more information about the initiative soon.

Victory flag far from being flown

Dial said the reduction in violent crime stemmed from united investigations by HPD's Special Investigations Bureau and patrol officers to continue the Violent Crime Initiative created by Sgt. Shane Bills and Sgt. Paul Hunter in response to the 2017 uptick in crime.

"They do this day in and day out," he said. "They are constantly investigating criminals, arresting criminals and putting them in jail. Any one of these elements, without them, none of the initiatives would work."

Dial said the department's renewed partnerships with the FBI, West Virginia Fusion Center, Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, ATF, DEA, Homeland Security and U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart's office also play a direct factor in the reduction of violent crime.

A representative from the West Virginia Fusion Center is working in the police headquarters to help build the department's intel capabilities to investigate criminals, he said. A heightened federal prosecution of crime also has helped.

He said Huntington has had a 76% increase in the number of guns the Special Investigations Bureau has confiscated during drug raids because of the partnerships.

"So we're taking more criminals off the street and more drugs off the street, and that's been going on for a couple of years now," he said. "But now you can add on a significant increase in the number of illegal guns in the hands of prohibited individuals that we are getting off the street."

Dial knows the violent crime rate is directly connected to the drug trade, and federal partnerships make investigations easier. He said they allow the department to increase their capability to combat the drug trade and increase intel capacities, all resulting in the reduction in violent crime.

"We're well on our way to meeting those goals, but we still have more violent crime than we should because we still have violent crime," he said. "We haven't completely eliminated it, but what we're doing is trending well."

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

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