When people think about how crime solving has changed over the years, most people probably think “DNA,” but there have been many, many more advancements and the Odessa Police Department is taking full advantage of them.
“I think that we were behind behind the times when I became chief and one of the things that we decided early on was, ‘Look, we’re short. We’re short staffed. You can’t use that as an excuse all the time. You know, your citizens get tired of hearing that old mantra. We’re short staffed, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ So we had to work smarter rather than harder,” OPD Chief Mike Gerke said.
As a result, the department has invested in new technology using grant funding and donations, and actually been able to bring crime statistics down, Gerke said. This year, crimes have dropped 13% over last year, he said.
Still, Gerke said, “The goal here is not to replace officers with technology. That’s not the goal at all. The goal is to augment their ability with technology.”
Sgt. Ian Kapets, who is in charge of the department’s major projects, technology and strategic initiatives, said the department is also using the new technology as a recruitment tool, telling potential candidates, “We’re doing cool things. It’s not just a pen and paper and you drive from call to call to call.”
About three years ago, the OPD began making a concentrated effort to deploy officers to areas identified through data as areas with high call volumes, Kapets said. As a result, they’ve seen a significant drop in calls.
“We tell our officers ‘We still want you to contact citizens. We still want you to educate people on what’s going on, but we want you to be in these kind of geographic areas when you have some downtime,’” Kapets said.
The department also began using Smart Force, a platform that allows officers to not only share intelligence they’ve gathered with other OPD officers, but with the Ector County Sheriff’s Office and law enforcement agencies in Midland.
“Think of it as like a Facebook for cops,” Kapets said.
For example, if OPD officers are noticing a lot of catalytic converters being stolen they can begin sharing information about the crimes on Smart Force, prompting other officers to do the same. Theoretically, trends and patterns could be established, suspects identified, evidence gathered and arrests made.
“That same person that may cause three, four or five reports over here is going to cause three, four, five reports over there so now if I take that person into custody, I’m benefiting so many more people than just us,” Kapets said.
Over the years, the department has also invested in different types of cameras.
Incident management cameras are cameras mounted at various locations around town, monitored at the city’s Real Time Intelligence Center and shared with the parks and public works departments.
The city can use the 16 cameras to keep extra eyes on a downtown festival, public works can use them to monitor traffic patterns and officers can use them to capture criminals, Kapets said.
“If I have a large event with people going on, I want to be able to at least kind of keep an eye on things,” Kapets said. “If there’s a medical crisis where I need to get a firetruck directed through a large crowd of people I can tell them exactly where a person’s at.”
The cameras, which cost about $5,000 apiece, are most often used by OPD, Kapets said.
“They’re on our public roadways. They’re on our traffic intersections,” Kapets said. “If I have a robbery at a business or I have some sort of major crime…we can swing the camera over and say ‘Alright, hey, I’m watching that business right now. I found the actor. The actor is getting into a vehicle. They’re leaving. Here’s the direction of travel.’ We can take our officers and kind of hone them in a little bit more.”
Kapets is hopeful that one day Odessa will have an entire network of incident management cameras everywhere, because the quicker paramedics and officers can get to a call, the better.
“I dispatched for a couple of years up in Minnesota for state patrol and we had a network of about one thousand traffic management cameras,” Kapets said. “We got to the point where a trooper would call in a pursuit or some sort of major incident or crash and we would have it up on camera before they even got on scene or I was even typing notes into the (computer). I could get ambulances started immediately.”
Flock safety cameras, which are $2,500 apiece, read license plates and were recently used to identify a suspect in a fatal hit-and-run crash, Kapets said.
However, the police department hopes others will see their usefulness and begin to buy them as well, he said.
“If homeowners associations or apartments or businesses purchased them, we’d love for them to share it with us,” Kapets said.
Those private businesses could help OPD identify suspects in burglaries and save OPD the expense of having to purchase more, he said.
“If a stolen vehicle pulls into your HOA or a vehicle, maybe we’ve been monitoring for burglaries, pulls into your homeowners association, every single patrol officer that’s working is gonna get a push notification on their computer and an email that says, ‘ Hey, this vehicle just got scanned at whatever homeowners association,’” Kapets said.
Officers will head that way and see if something’s about to happen or pull them over to question them, he said.
Kapets stressed that the information is only stored for 30 days to ensure people’s rights aren’t violated.
For the past five years, the City of Odessa has been using a drone to monitor large city events, for marketing purposes and to help out during SWAT standoffs, missing person searches and to hunt down burglary suspects.
In fact, they used a drone during Firecracker Fandango earlier this month, Kapets said.
“We had several people that went down from heat exhaustion. You got a very large crowd, which was amazing this year with all the people that came out, and finding them in the crowd as people are trying to wave down firefighters or police officers and kind of direct them toward that person. It’s really all one cohesive team and we get to use them for a public good.”
However, the city just launched a one-year no-cost pilot program with Paladin, a startup company out of Houston, that officials hope is going to have a huge impact within the city, Kapets said.
Five $20,000 drones that can be operated beyond an operator’s visual line of sight have been placed at fire stations around town and integrated with the city’s computer-aided dispatch system, he said.
If someone calls 911 to report a robbery or a fire, a dispatcher can launch a drone from the closest fire station, Kapets said. Ten Odessa Fire Rescue staff members and 10 OPD officers will be certified to operate the drones through the FAA.
The drone’s cameras will allow the drone operators to see what’s going on and help deploy the appropriate number of fire engines and ambulances or direct officers to a fleeing robbery suspect’s exact location, he said. They’ll be able to fly over the interstate and provide information that will assist in traffic control or help OFR engineers bypass traffic blockades.
The Paladin drones can fly within a three-mile radius, double a regular drone, Kapets said.
If the city decides to buy more drones in the future, Kapets said that by sharing the drones with other city departments, he thinks the city can get the cost of the drones down to “a few dollars each time” they’re used.
“We’ve invested heavily in applying for grants and trying to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and making that dollar go the extra mile. I think any person in this office can attest to that. I’m the first guy to try and negotiate on a contract,” Kapets said.
OPD has definitely become a regional resource and precedent-setter, Kapets said.
“It ultimately comes down to that age old adage of work smarter, not harder and I definitely think we’re leading the way in that,” Kapets said.