THE WOODLANDS, Texas - The Woodlands Township and local law enforcement agencies are working together to curb crime as population growth increases along with reports of burglary in The Woodlands area.
Burglary is one of the most reported crimes in The Woodlands area, according to data from The Woodlands Township crime reports. The number of calls regarding burglaries of motor vehicles increased 15.6 percent from 2016-17, while calls to address burglaries of habitations or buildings increased 14 percent from 2015-16.
Lt. Clay Swilling, an officer with The Woodlands Township Patrol Division of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, said these numbers can be attributed to an increase in residents and visitors to The Woodlands area, along with business growth. The Woodlands had a population of 68,000 in 2000, which grew to an estimated 114,625 residents in 2016.
"We have a lot of businesses here," Swilling said. "During business hours, The Woodlands population rises to around 250,000, and a lot of people come in. The bad guys like to shop here, too."
Swilling said he believes the growth of The Woodlands' patrol system, law enforcement initiatives and local outreach programs will help combat the growing problem across the community.
"We have a strong patrol presence at night, and we do a good job when folks are sleeping," he said. "We can't catch everyone who breaks into a car or (store), but we try our best."
Overall, calls to law enforcement have doubled in 2017 year-to-date from 2016, according to data from The Woodlands Township Law Enforcement Services department.
Marian Leck, director of the department, said while each call does not represent an actual crime, the increase in calls does represent the growing population of the surrounding area.
One of the most reported crimes in The Woodlands area continues to be burglary of motor vehicles, according to law enforcement data. The data shows the number of calls regarding auto burglaries has steadily increased the last three years, year-to-date to 363 calls through October of this year.
"Burglary of motor vehicles has been talked about since I've been with (The Woodlands) in 1991," Leck said. "It's easy, it's like window shopping, and it happens in residential areas or at the mall. It's the most preventable crime we have out here. Half of the victims forget to lock their car."
Swilling said he believes car burglaries are still easy to prevent by making sure residents lock their cars and hide important belongings.
"We have detectives talking to the people we arrest, and we see how we need to educate people," he said. "If the car is unlocked, then people go for it."
Burglaries of businesses have also been a concern over the past few years in The Woodlands area, according to crime reports. Year-to-date in 2017, there have been five calls for burglaries in progress and 116 calls for burglaries that have already occurred, according to data from the township.
Businesses that have been robbed since 2016 include Helzberg Diamonds in The Woodlands Mall, Taco Cabana on College Park Drive and a Shell gas station near Town Center. Business owners and managers for the respective businesses declined to comment on the incidents.
"A lot of people have areas they like to shop in," Swilling said. "Because of the population of The Woodlands and the nice stores, we have a lot to offer."
Town Center also had the highest number of calls for burglaries of motor vehicles of all the villages in The Woodlands in September, with 129 calls for burglary of motor vehicles and 16 calls for burglaries of a habitation or building.
"It's just a reflection of the population growth," Swilling said. "Anywhere that is more concentrated with people is going to have more calls for service."
Law enforcement response
Swilling said local law enforcement is working to combat these rising burglary numbers through a variety of initiatives and outreach programs.
Capt. Allison Allen, of the sheriff's office township patrol division, said local law enforcement is working with Town Center businesses and created a new investigative position Oct. 7 to curb crime in the area.
"There have been a couple of business in the Town Center area that we are working with right now with suspect information," Allen said during an Oct. 25 report to the township board of directors. "Now, we have one of our sergeants assigned as the investigate liaison for patrol. He's our in-house real-time crime scene. It's going to be his job to make sure the patrol sergeant has the information he needs for the (area.)"
Swilling said officers also recently began using a new a data system brought in by Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson earlier this year. The system enables officers to plug in dates and times of crimes in a certain area and increase patrols in that area to deter criminal activity.
"It's like a geographic heat map," Swilling said. "It's really been utilized this year. We're now able to better allocate our resources."
Despite rising instances of burglaries in the Town Center area, the township did not budget for additional officers for the region within its 2017-18 law enforcement budget.
Unlike cities, which typically have their own police departments, The Woodlands contracts with the Montgomery County sheriff's office with 87 personnel patrolling the eight separate zones in the Montgomery County portion of The Woodlands, which includes Town Center.
No additional officers were budgeted to patrol Town Center, however, the township's 2017-18 budget-which saw a 2.5 percent decrease from last year-does budget for three additional officers to patrol the Village of Creekside Park, which has been provided law enforcement services through a contract with Harris County Precinct 4 constable's office since 2007.
Leck said the township budgeted a 3 percent increase in expenditures for the fiscal year 2017-18 Harris County constable's office contract.
"We now have 12 total (police officers) in the Creekside Park area to have better coverage 24/7," Leck said. "Law enforcement is 24/7."
In addition to new initiatives and officers, Leck said the township has also been working on a variety of community outreach programs with both counties.
The Woodlands Township Neighborhood Watch, Watch Talk Wednesday, Safety Awareness Day and National Night Out are a few programs offered to help residents learn more about law enforcement and personal safety, she said.
"The initiatives the township has are proactive, and there is a lot of (safety) education, like Watch Talk Wednesdays," said Stuart Schroeder, president of the Cochran's Crossing Village Association. "We can ask questions and see the problems. I think this is still a safe community."
Burglaries in Shenandoah, Oak Ridge North
Although The Woodlands has seen an increase in car burglaries over the past few years, the nearby city of Shenandoah has seen a small decline. Shenandoah Police Chief Raymond Shaw said despite the population growth in the area, there have been fewer reports of burglaries of motor vehicles in the city filed this year.
"Normally, statistics show that population growth will always result in greater crime statistics," Shaw said. "In fiscal year 2016-17, the city has seen a small decrease."
Shaw said in FY 2016-17 there were 129 reports regarding the burglary of a motor vehicle. In FY 2015-16, there were approximately 168 reports.
Although the city had fewer reports of car burglaries this past year, Shenandoah has seen a 63.7 percent increase in total calls to police in 2017 compared to 2016, with crime on the east side of I-45 continuing to be a priority of the Shenandoah Police Department.
"The largest percentage of crime in Shenandoah has always been on the east side of I-45," said Shaw, who attributed the trend to the area's large number of businesses.
Law enforcement officials said Shenandoah and Oak Ridge North have also seen a number of robberies at local businesses in the past year, including Pappas Bar-B-Q along I-45 in Oak Ridge North, Raising Cane's on Research Forest Drive and a Subway store on the east side of I-45. Management staff at Pappas Bar-B-Q and Raising Cane's declined to comment on the incident.
Andy Walters, chief of police for Oak Ridge North, said he believes business robberies are often carried out by individuals and alleged gang members from Houston and Harris County, and the trend of business robberies near I-45 will grow unless law enforcement remains vigilant.
Walters said the city has had 19 burgalry of motor vehicles and two business burgalries so far in 2017.
"These people have slowly crept up from Houston (over) the past few years," Walters said. "The robbery at Pappas (Bar-B-Q) was expected, and it wasn't an anomaly. We're aware of the danger and the exposure. We are a maturing suburban community with affluent people, so we become a target for folks who want to steal."
Walters said he believes there is not much local law enforcement can do about rising crime except to remain proactive and aggressive. He said the city's police department does this through its traffic enforcement program and by the high visibility of officers in the region.
"Obviously, as the area grows, robberies and other types of violent crime are going to become more prevalent," he said. "There is little we can do about it other than remain proactive and hope we can intercede and make arrests for minor offenses before major crimes are committed."
Walters said to keep residents up-to-date and informed of any crimes in the Oak Ridge North area, the police department also writes online reports as a form of community outreach, which are reports on current crimes, arrests and concerns in the city. The reports are then shared on the city's social media pages to inform residents.
The city has no current plans to increase its law enforcement personnel, he said.
With incoming residential and commercial developments on the east side of I-45 under construction, such as MetroPark Square-expected to open in 2020-and Centro-expected to open in late 2018, Shenandoah officials may consider adding more police officers to patrol the area, Shaw said. There were no additions to personnel in the FY 2017-18 budget.
"The future proposed increase in personnel is thought to mitigate crime concerns with several new business expansions currently in construction or in the planning and development stages in (Shenandoah)," Shaw said.
This story was through our partnership with Community Impact Newspapers.
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