Jim Whyte, right, has just taken the reins of the Neighborhood Security Initiative (NSI). With him, from left, are Brooks Goedeker, president of the NSI board; and Sarah Wickenhauser, assistant to the director. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
February 01, 2012There's a new sheriff in town.
Or, to be more precise, a new executive director.
Jim Whyte, a 20-year veteran of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, will take charge of the Neighborhood Security Initiative (NSI), an effort managed by the Central West End's Special Business Districts (SBDs) and Washington University Medical Center to reduce crime.
"The reason Jim rose to the top is that he is excited about getting out into the neighborhood," said Brooks Goedeker, president of the NSI board, which received more than 200 applications for the spot. "He's excited about forming relationships with the businesses and residents."
Whyte, who replaces the organization's previous director, James Partee, said he's eager to tackle the opportunity.
"It's in my blood," said the 45-year-old resident of the city's Lindenwood Park neighborhood. "It's something I've been wanting to do all my life and I think this is a great transition from a career in law enforcement to a very unique position."
Whyte is at the top of an organization that says it's making real progress in the fight against criminal activity. According to statistics provided by the group, crime has declined by nearly half in the area's five SBDs since the program's inception in 2007. Those districts are Central West End, North, South, Southeast, Washington Place and Westminster Lake.
In general, approximately 10 percent of each Special Business District's annual collections goes to the administration of the NSI, said Goedeker. The other 90 percent is used for safety and security measures.
"The majority of those funds are for police patrols, but some of the Special Business Districts also use the funds for increased lighting, security cameras, picking up trash, etc.," he said. "All of the funds have to be used in some way to assist with the overall safety and security."
More than 1,100 crimes were reported in 2008. Last year, that figure dropped to 557. Crime is down overall in the Central West End (CWE) more than 33 percent since 2008, but most of that decrease has been in the participating SBDs. Non-participating parts of the neighborhood have seen only a four percent drop.
Significant figures can also be found over just the last year, which saw 1,142 crimes in the CWE, a 16 percent decrease over 2010. But participating SBDs saw crime cut by almost a third, while non-participating areas actually saw an eight percent increase.
This graph, using data compiled by NSI, compares crime in the Central West End SBD from September through December 2010 with the same period in 2011. More statistics are available at www.cwensi.com. (click for larger version)
The secret, Goedeker said, is communication. The districts previously had crime prevention plans but there was no coordination.
"When somebody wants to do a crime, they don't care about what boundaries they cross so they might rob somebody here and rob somebody there, but these two areas weren't talking to each other," he said.
It also meant each was negotiating separate rates with security patrollers, mostly off-duty city police officers on bikes. Integrating these districts has given them better bang for the buck as well as a central nexus for data to pass through.
"Five-hundred and fifty seven crimes sounds like a lot, but when you look at the volume of people who live and work in this area, from a crime stat position, that number really drives home the effort that the NSI has made," Whyte said.
Sarah Wickenhauser is among those at the heart of that effort. As assistant to the director, she's informed every morning of the previous evening's 911 calls and receives police reports for the more serious crimes. By crunching the numbers, NSI can find out not only where a problem is occurring, but whether it is part of a larger pattern.
"That does often happen, especially, I would say, with auto thefts," said Wickenhauser, who issues monthly maps of such activity. "You typically see a cluster of them. With copper piping being stolen, those are typically in clusters. When we do see a trend like that we can send out an alert to the public."
That can also mean a shifting of patrols the next time around to look for suspicious activity where it seems to be centered.
"When we see a spike or trend in crime, we're pretty much attacking it right away," Goedeker said.
By far and away, the most reported crime is larceny, usually small thefts of opportunity in which someone breaks a car window to take an item or steals something laying in view. Some 715 incidents, more than two-thirds of all crimes chronicled in the first 11 months of last year, fell into this category, NSI reports.
More serious criminal activity, while a problem, is comparatively rare. Using figures running through November, NSI said that the Central West End had 128 burglaries last year and just over 100 auto thefts. There were a few dozen robberies.
Truly violent crimes are rarer still. Only 28 assaults and two rapes were reported during that period. The last homicide was in 2010. Though most cities find violence tends to jump during summer, nuisance crimes don't operate in the same fashion.
"We actually see that crimes of opportunity occur more in winter when there are not as many eyes and ears on the streets," Goedeker said.
"Chomping at the Bit"
GPS technology also allows the group to know where officers are at any given time. That can be handy information and gives a sense of accountability to citizens who may call with complaints.
"If somebody on McPherson says 'I never saw the units last night,' Sarah can say, 'Well, actually they were down your street five times;' or if a crime ends up happening we can find out where the patrols were," Goedeker said.
Interaction with the public is a key part of what NSI does as well. The group hosts meetings the last Wednesday of each month to talk to residents and business owners.
"There are people chomping at the bit that live in the Central West End that want to get involved and have resources they want to offer," Whyte said. "Moving forward, I think it's going to be a joint task to pair up those people with our needs from the security perspective. I think it's a win-win combination once we can do that."
In a sense, it's nothing new to Whyte, who won't just be in charge of NSI's bike-borne officers. In 2008, he was one. He called it one of the highlights of his career.
"You get out of the police car, interact with the citizens more, they see you more," he said. "Personally, it was a great experience I had. I think the neighbors and business owners really appreciate that presence."
Whyte said he thinks NSI's success can be replicated elsewhere.
"I think the model is probably something other cities throughout the nation are experiencing but it's very forward-thinking on the NSI's part to create this and organize it," he said. "It's very unique. We hope it serves as a model for other communities where there are opportunities."