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!

“Solve It!” Crime Lab Family Event

Today’s post is by Sibyl Keller, Director of Programming at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land.

If you haven’t gotten the chance to check out the newest exhibition at HMNS at Sugar Land – October 1st is the day to mark your calendar!  Crime Lab Detective entered the halls at the Museum September 3rd and since has captured the fascination of visitors of all ages.

Crime Lab Detective | HMNS at Sugar Land
Crime Lab Detective at HMNS at Sugar Land

From 11 am until 2 pm on Saturday, October 1st – “Solve It!” Family Event begins even before you enter the Museum! 

Crime Lab Detective | HMNS at Sugar Land
Some of the evidence you can find in Crim Lab Detective. Now open at
the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land.

Not to make a scene – but more as a celebration of joined forces of local law enforcement agencies, your discovery begins with an incredible line-up of emergency vehicles in the Vehicle Exploration Station located in the front parking lot of the Museum!

As you enter the Museum – members of the Fort Bend Sheriffs Department, the Office of Emergency Management, the Sugar Land Police Department and the Sugar Land Fire Department – will be on hand for demonstrations and to answer your many questions and to show off the crime fighting techniques used in our community.

After your visit with our community crime fighters and life savers, you then get to take the opportunity to try your own hand at crime scene investigation in visiting our new exhibit, Crime Lab Detective!

Crime Lab Detective | HMNS at Sugar Land
Members of Sugar Land’s First Responders will be at
the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land on October 1.

In addition, the third floor conference room will be transformed into a Junior Investigation Laboratory set up inside the museum, featuring crime-busting activities and CSI crafts – fun for the whole family!

Crime Lab Detective | HMNS at Sugar Land
Sugar Land Fire Department Fire Truck

This event is ticketed separately from general admission to the museum.  Tickets include an admission to our traveling exhibit, Crime Lab Detective, and to the Junior Investigation Laboratory, as well as entry into the Vehicle Exploration Station.

Flickr Photo of the Month: Trappings of Yingpan Man [Dec. 2010]

Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd - 4th century
Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd – 4th century by cybertoad, on Flickr.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. This month, we’re re-starting a series where we’ll share one of these photos on the blog each month.

Elaine (cybertoad on Flickr) took this photo during a Flickr meetup in our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition. From the photographer:

The Beauty of Xioahe may have been the exhibit’s celebrity but the Yingpan Man still captured me. His simple funerary mask with the delicately painted eyebrows and the gold leaf evoke a sense of elegance and peace that I hope he carried with him into the after life.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Photography is prohibited in this exhibition during general hours. If you’d like to join one of our Flickr meetups, check out our Flickr group Discussions page for updates on upcoming events.

Want to see Yingpan Man for yourself? Secrets of the Silk Road is only on display for a few more weeks!

How To Rule the Sea: A Guide for Privateers 1500 – 1800s [Real Pirates]

Imagine for a moment you are the king or queen of a country and war is on the horizon.  Both you and your enemies are dependent on the sea for trade, which keeps the economy going and taxes coming in.  If you want to win the war, you have to attack your opponent’s trading ships and keep them from pulling in money to continue fighting you.  For the sake of argument, we will say that both nations are roughly equal in the quality and quantity of ships in their navies and that you are desperately looking for a winning edge.

What would you do?

If your first thought was to buy and build more ships you would be wrong.  First, navies are expensive and require a lot of maintenance.  Second, the war might be over by the time your new ships are built.  So in the end, your nation might be bankrupt with a large navy it cannot even afford to maintain after the war.

On second thought, maybe you could hire some mercenaries.  Not really, because ships and crews are expensive and no one can afford to maintain a privately owned personal navy they can loan out to you in case of a war.

Here’s a hint:  how about getting the merchant ships you are protecting to do some of the fighting for you?  It sounds like a good idea, but how would you do it?

The answer is by legalizing piracy and creating what are called privateers or privately owned ships that are willing to fight for you.  The incentive for privateers to put themselves in harm’s way was that they would often be able to keep or sell off any cargo or ships that they captured.  Additionally, they sometimes could also receive a prize or bounty for capturing ships.  This is exactly what nations did from the 1500s through the 1800s, and it allowed them to use armed ships and sailors without spending tax dollars to build and maintain a navy.

Real Pirates at HMNS
Step aboard a recreation of the pirate ship Whydah in the Real Pirates exhibition – now open!
And, see a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr.

The first step in becoming a privateer or “legal pirate” was to receive a letter of marque.  Simply put, a letter of marque is an agreement between the owner of a ship and the government that allows the ship to attack a rival nation’s trading vessels.  One of the advantages of having a letter of marque over freelance piracy was that if you were captured by a rival nation’s navy, you would be treated as a military prisoner instead of being hung for piracy.

Privateers were so effective that the British government began to license privateers to attack and capture pirates that were plaguing the Atlantic during the 1700s.  These privateers were remarkably effective at curbing pirate raiding and helped bring to an end the golden age of piracy.

To see what life was like on a real pirate ship, visit the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open! You can also see privateer models Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am – 4:30 pm at the Houston Maritime Museum. Want to know more about pirates? This post is based on information in Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly.