Tiffany Shawared said she used to be terrified to walk through the northwest Oklahoma City apartment complex she manages.
Between the high number of break-ins, car thefts and gang violence in the area, she had every right to be.
Shawared has been the property manager at Windsor Village Apartments, 2500 N Sterling Ave., for eight years. The 48-building complex sits in a 4.4-square-mile area that police consider one of the most violent in the city.
“We’ve needed more police force here years ago,” she said. “There weren’t enough.”
Last year, city officials decided to do something about it.
Seven months after police started a yearlong initiative to stamp out crime in the area, Shawared said she feels safe at her workplace for the first time.
“There’s been a huge difference, as far as crime, since the initiative happened,” she said. “I feel comfortable walking around my property.”
High crime rate prompts changes to patrols
In late 2013, city officials rolled out a grant-backed initiative to increase patrols in the area, bounded by N Meridian Avenue, Melrose Lane, N Council Road and NW 27.
High crime rates have plagued this part of the city for decades. Between 2008 and 2012, police reported 1,466 violent crimes, including 14 homicides. Oklahoma City police Master Sgt. Bob Skalla said this area is worse than others because there are so many lower-income apartment complexes concentrated in one small area. The complexes suffer from gang and drug activity.
Skalla has worked this part of Oklahoma City for 21 years. He has been stationed in the Hefner Patrol Division, spending 20 years on patrol. Now, he is working to organize neighborhood watch organizations as part of the initiative to lower crime.
Skalla said 50 percent of the crimes in the zone are taking place in the complexes, with the other half in the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.
With the aid of a $382,000 Safe Oklahoma Grant from the Oklahoma attorney general, the city launched the initiative Nov. 4. The grant is paying overtime for six police officers to monitor and respond to 911 calls involving violent crimes in the area, where the median household income is about $35,000, compared with $46,500 statewide.
Skalla said foot patrols have been one of the most effective crime-prevention tools. The overtime officers are required to regularly walk through the area’s 39 apartment complexes.
“We’ll walk by a breezeway, and literally we’ve seen transactions of marijuana and money going on, and arrests are made right on the spot,” he said.
Oklahoma City’s apartment complexes present patrol issues to the police force. Regular patrol officers are stretched too thin to walk their beats, Skalla said.
The grant has allowed the department to free up officer time to do the patrols.
Getting the public on board
The biggest challenge police have faced is public apathy, Skalla said. He said many residents have told him they have not called 911 after seeing suspicious activity because they didn’t think police would do anything.
Part of the police initiative has included reconnecting with members of the public who live in the crime-ridden area. Skalla has helped organize neighborhood watch organizations. After the initiative started, he began teaching crime-prevention classes at eight apartment complexes in the area.
At the sessions and neighborhood watch meetings, Skalla works to raise awareness about area crime and educate residents about the importance of calling 911 to report suspicious activity.
“Initially, the first three to four months, it’s a hard sell,” he said. “So we’re trying to reconnect with the community to let them know we have the extra officers in the area so they can start reporting information to us.”
Police are receiving more 911 calls from the area than ever before.
Since the initiative began, the overtime officers have made 114 felony arrests and 210 misdemeanor arrests, while also seizing 174 grams of marijuana, 12.7 grams of methamphetamine, 3.8 grams of cocaine and one vial of PCP. These numbers are in addition to the arrests and drug seizures that regular patrol officers have achieved.
Skalla sees the arrests as an early indication of success.
“Many of these arrests would have never been made if the community was not calling 911 and reporting suspicious activity,” he said.
Skalla said the initiative’s ultimate goals are two-fold: to reduce violence in the area and get the community members to take responsibility for their neighborhoods and not turn a blind eye.
Friends of NW 10th Street, a nonprofit association comprised of local residents, as well as business and property owners, is one of the groups working closely with police to better the area. Tori Raines, the organization’s program manager, said the response from the community since the initiative’s start has been better than expected.
“We’ve gotten a lot of people who really want to be active in the area to do their part to stomp out crime,” Raines said.
Despite the extra patrols, spike in arrests and heightened response to police presence from residents in the community, crime is still an issue. Police Maj. Jeff Becker, who oversees the operation, was concerned one year will not be enough time to get the area fully under control. He is working with Attorney General Scott Pruitt to gather enough funding for a second year.
“It’s always our goal to get violent crimes down to zero,” Becker said. “A cynical person would say that’s not an obtainable goal, but that’s the target.”
At Windsor Village Apartment Complex, tenants are banding together to rid their homes of crime. Shawared is starting a neighborhood watch program that will have its first meeting Tuesday. She said she expects a good turnout.