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Police officers explain how they're making Greenville safer

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Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman hears from ECU student Jordan Reedy, an urban and regional planning major, whose class created plans for certain neighborhoods designed to make those neighborhoods safer.

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Beth Velliquette

Friday, April 21, 2017

Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman calls them “the following-home” robberies.

A man would follow people as they drove to their homes off Evans Street, then he would rob them as they got out of their cars.

Holtzman and other officers talked Thursday night during a joint meeting of the Police Community Relations Committee and the Neighborhood Advisory Board about how they caught the robber, what the police department has been doing to try to reduce crime and how people can help the police keep their neighborhoods safe. The meeting, attended by between 60 and 70 people, was held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Martinsborough Road.

The robberies started in October, with the first on Williamsburg Drive and the second just five days later on Blackwater Drive.

“We knew we had a neighborhood that felt the fear of crime,” Holtzman said.

Capt. Rob Williams, who led the effort to catch the robber, said the department sent 10 to 15 officers to the neighborhoods every night for two-and-a-half weeks. Some laid in the grass for hours on footpaths that led into the neighborhoods, while others staked out the area in their personal vehicles, including a pickup truck and a Ford Mustang.

Residents of the neighborhood wanted to know where the cops were, but they were there, Williams said.

Police also put up a camera at the corner of Martinsborough Road and were able to review footage of the suspect vehicle during a Nov. 10 robbery on Lord Ashley Drive. They saw the victim drive into the neighborhood, followed by another car that drove out about three minutes later.

From the camera they were able to identify a few things about the vehicle, including that the red glass was broken on one of its taillights.

“Then it was just a matter of time,” Williams said.

About five days later, they spotted the vehicle in the neighborhood, stopped it and caught their man, he said. The man had been driving up from Grifton to commit his robberies.

“You may not always see a lot of marked cars, and that might be a good thing,” Williams said. “That doesn’t always mean that we’re not out there.” 

On a typical night in Greenville, there are about 25 officers out in the community, but there are 90,000 pairs of eyes, not counting East Carolina University students.

“Keep your eyes open. If you see anything that you don’t think is right, call,” Williams said.

During the stakeouts for the robberies along Evans Street, some watchful neighbors called to report they saw an unfamiliar pickup truck or a Ford Mustang. That was a good thing, but as it turned out those were the officers in undercover vehicles, Williams said.

Before the meeting, students from ECU’s urban and regional planning classes displayed presentations that showed photographs in various neighborhoods and their plans on how those neighborhoods could be made safer. Holtzman said he was impressed with the plans and said he was going to see how many of their ideas police can put into place.

One of the things that the city has been doing is replacing the old yellow sodium street lights with LED lights. They started in some of the highest crime neighborhoods, and they have really made a difference, said Lt. David Anderson, the west zone commander.

“We’re not seeing as much violence any more,” he said.

The goal, according to Holtzman, is to replace all the old yellow street lights in the city with bright LED lights. The next round of about 1,000 LED lights should go up in July, he said.

Something else new for Greenville will be increased foot patrols, Holtzman said.

“I’m big on foot patrols,” Holtzman said. “I’m asking every officer every day to get out of their cars and take a walk.”

That’s how officers can get to know the neighborhoods they patrol and meet and talk with the people who live there, he said.

With a federal grant that will pay for four new officers, and additional funding from the city council that will pay for two more, Holtzman said he was going to put those six officers on full-time foot patrol.

“They’re going out in pairs,” he said. “That’s all they’re going to do.”

Working with code enforcement officers to clean up abandoned buildings or renovate them, the reputations of certain neighborhoods are going to change for the better, Holtzman said. People will feel safer, he said.

Sgt. Dale Mills, the community outreach supervisor, said he has been working on appointing officers to work with various neighborhood associations, religious groups and community organizations.

People in those neighborhoods, organizations or groups will have their own police officer they can contact with problems or questions.

“For the first time, we have a police officer for the LGBT community, the AMEXCAN community, the Hindu community, the Jewish community, the Islamic community, the NAACP and SCLC,” he said.

Holtzman also distributed a table with the year-to-date crime statistics but said he doesn’t think crime stats always tell the truth. Outreach efforts, as well as replacing lights and completing other neighborhood improvements, aim to make Greenville safer and lessen the fear of crime, he said.

“Fear of crime is what bothers me, what makes you feel unsafe in your neighborhood,” Holtman said.

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@refelector.com or at 252-329-9566.

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