Crime Lab Detective Update

Today’s post is from Keegan Chetwynd, an employee at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciene at Sugar Land.

Over the past few weeks many of you have had the opportunity to visit our Crime Lab Detective exhibit.

We have had the privilege of hosting several events involving community law enforcement agencies. We have decided to put together a few articles on different law enforcement functions within the community; this first article will be focused on the Sugar Land Police Department and their role within our community as high visibility crime prevention specialists. We will also be taking the time to examine several of the more interesting pieces of equipment in use by the department.

Since Sugar Land was first declared a “General Law” city in 1959 the police department has been an integral part of the community, in fact, one of the very first substantial expenditures undertaken by the city in 1959 was a $3000 Police Car that was fully equipped by the standards of the time. Traffic signage, street lights, a typewriter and an adding machine were also among the early expenditures. The annual budget for running the city totaled only $52,000 at the time, it now tops out above $52 Million, and the police department has grown to reflect these changes. The police department presently employs 176 people who, through hard work and dedication have made Sugar Land the safest city in Texas.
To get a better picture of how the inside of their department works on a regular day, I met up with Sergeant Jimmy Surratt who had agreed to take me on a behind the scenes tour of the station, and to bring me along for 2 shifts in his cruiser. Jimmy has been a career policeman, having started work in 1986 for the Wharton County Sherriff’s Department. He has been with the Sugar Land police department since 1992. When asked why he first decided to become a police officer, he expressed that it had been the result of a strong desire to assist members of the community, and it must be mentioned that this is a sentiment well echoed within the department in Sugar Land.

Jimmy and Justin
Officer Jimmy and Justin

The City of Sugar Land is divided up into 6 beats, the first of which extends north of Highway 90 to the edge of the city.

The second beat is what amounts to the Sugar Land business district along Highway 6 and Highway 59. Beats 3, 4 and 5 are predominantly residential neighborhoods to the East, South and West sides of the city respectively. The Sixth is actually listed within the department as Beat 9, and it represents a special patrol area within the Town Center area. Our museum is located right in the heart of Beat 5.

Because of the supervisory role of Patrol Sergeants we were able to move between several areas, and were able to respond to a number of incidents throughout the course of the 2 shifts. In one instance there had been an attempted burglary in a residential area, there was some indication that the burglars themselves were wearing work overalls and had been driving what looked like a service van. This is a particular sort of crime that has been observed with some regularity in the more affluent communities in the United States, in some instances the criminals are even able to disguise themselves as Postal workers or Linemen for the power companies. In a sentiment that is echoed by the department’s crime prevention strategies Sergeant Surratt encourages anyone who finds a suspicious person in their community to call the non-emergency police line @ 281-275-2020 and to try and provide specific details about the suspicious actions of the individuals, and most importantly, if possible, try to record the license plate information on their vehicle.

When the police observe a visible trend in crime within their community, one of the first suppression options is to create an impact team. It is comprised of a group of officers who are being specially tasked to handle the rising frequency of the specific type of crime. One of the more basic ways that an impact team is able to thwart burglars is often by persistent patrols in areas that are being frequented by suspicious persons.

Police Chase
Police Chase!

An interesting side effect of having a well-staffed and well-motivated body of officers is that the majority of them have had the opportunity to go through additional training, beyond what is required by the state. In fact several members of the Sugar Land Police Department have had the distinct privilege of attending the F.B.I.’s international training course hosted at their facilities in Virginia. Lt. Justin Joyce is among the chosen few, and in describing his experiences within the program, it was abundantly clear that the objective of the course was to raise global law enforcement standards, to promote cooperation between agencies, and to expand the knowledge base of those in attendance.

I also found it very interesting to note that contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, a Crime Scene Investigation unit is not always called to the scene of every crime that happens. In most instances the police officers in our community are fully trained in evidence handling and collection techniques, and are more than capable of spear heading an investigation. The Crime Scene Unit is generally processing the harvested evidence within their lab. They will only be called out to the field at the request of an on-scene commander; discharged weapons, high dollar theft, and harm to other human beings are generally the sorts of crimes that require their onsite expertise. The Crime Lab in Sugar Land is known for its finger printing capabilities, but DNA is not cost effective to do in-house, and so it is sent away to a state facility. Our exhibit Crime Lab Detective does place a strong emphasis on finger prints, and so I have developed a strong appreciation for anyone who is able to do comparisons without the assistance of a machine. The Lab in Sugar Land does have a fully functional AFIS (Automated Finger Print Identification System) which is able to help them with this task.

Crime Scene Vehicles
Crime Scene Vehicles

As promised we will now take a look at some of the equipment in use by the department currently.

If you live in the Sugar Land area you may have noticed that there is a change occurring. The older Crown Victoria’s are starting to disappear from the streets, and are being replaced with the highly visible Tahoe, but among the Tahoe’s parked behind the station there is a smattering of something altogether more sinister and aggressive in appearance.

Sugar Land Police Charger
Sugar Land Police Charger

The Dodge Chargers in use by the police are 2006 models, and are fully decked out with the factory police conversion package, including the 340 Horse Power, 5.7 Liter Hemi V8 engine and all of the other hardware needed for its role as a Traffic enforcement vehicle. Although the vehicle itself weighs almost 2 tons it is agile, with precise steering and a rear wheel drive system that is favored by police. It also has a silhouette which is similar to a number of vehicles common on today’s roads, and when painted in subdued markings it has proven itself exceedingly useful in the apprehension of drivers who would otherwise hide their recklessness in the presence of a squad car. Inside the Charger there is the regular suite of police additions, including radios, equipment racks, and the computer system that is used to track the vehicles, and also to relay call information to the officer, and allow him to see more information on persons of interest. As would be expected from modern law enforcement vehicles there is also a system which monitors the actions of the officer during a traffic stop, for his own safety.

There is however one piece of hardware onboard the new Chargers that might not be as easily recognized – The License Plate Recognition System. As the car moves through the streets of Sugar Land it is actively scanning all the vehicles around it with the cameras mounted on the trunk. It is supported by a computer that runs a complex algorithm which is able to determine license plate numbers from the camera images. It can determine plate numbers even when they are skewed by perspective. These License plates are then matched against a list of outstanding warrants and stolen vehicles, and if a match is made the officer is alerted, and is then able to perform a traffic stop.  It is quite likely that as technology further improves, we will start to see these systems on more police cars around the country.

Charger 1
License Plate Recognition System

To learn more about how the police are able to apprehend criminals, and to try your own hand at crime solving, come visit the Crime Lab Detective special exhibit!

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