By Charlotte Aguilar
Policing West University and Bellaire requires a unique understanding of those cities and the demands of the job — part small-town Mayberry, part urban mayhem.
In addition to stopping and investigating burglaries, thefts and an occasional robbery or assault, officers are expected to wrangle stray children, lost pets and an occasional displaced senior with finesse, perform high water rescues, visit elementary schools, manage a major accident on a freeway or take out an active shooter. With the pandemic finding many seniors wary to venture out, Bellaire police have even been picking up groceries and prescriptions by pre-arrangement and delivering them to homes.
Daily, those wearing the badge in these two cities must also manage the expectations of residents — their employers — who have a strong sense of who “belongs” in their city limits, balancing those notions with the law and deepening concerns about profiling.
The reputation of cops here is such that the cities’ police departments are one of the main reasons West University and Bellaire repeatedly land on “most desirable” and “best places to live” lists. Their service, fast response times, and enviably low crime rates are a selling point, like good schools and parks, that attract homebuyers and lift property values.
The daunting realization of police abuses around the U.S. in recent weeks has triggered a backlash in many cities about the direction and future of law enforcement. But in Bellaire and West University, where community oversight and department review is constant, there has been no loud outcry.
From unsophisticated roots at their beginnings, both departments have evolved into technology-rich, training-sharpened forces. Here’s an overview of today’s Bellaire and West University P.D.s.
BUDGET & STAFFING
Bellaire’s police department has a $6.75 million budget, which accounts for 31 percent of the city’s general fund spending. That funds 59 employees including patrol, investigations, and personnel for the Municipal Court, animal control, jail, emergency communications and records management.
West U’s P.D. gets 18 percent of the city’s operating budget, $5,575,200. That funds 38 employees in patrol and support services, which includes administering the Direct Link program, as outlined in the fiscal year 2020 budget.
Both departments have emphasized recruiting minority and female officers. In West University, 67 percent of the staff is minority and 17 percent is female.
Both cities adopted the use early of dash cams and body cams. Bellaire Chief Byron Holloway made this case for use of the body cams in seeking a grant for them from the Bellaire Police & Fire Foundation support group: “Funding body-wearable cameras will increase evidence collection, increase police accountability and reduce false accusations against officers, and will also increase officer safety as potentially dangerous suspects know their actions are being documented.”
Both departments have high-water rescue vehicles that can transport multiple people to safety.
Bellaire has three drones that can go safely where police personnel can’t to track down suspects or assess a dangerous situation so that action can be carefully planned. The use of a drone to assist West U P.D. in locating a burglary suspect hiding in a residential neighborhood earned national attention for both departments.
West University recently bolstered its Direct Link program, which connects residents’ home security systems directly to police rather than going through a third party which then contacts WUPD.
But its biggest move yet is the creation of a “virtual gate” around the city — a network of cameras and license plate readers that will capture images of every vehicle entering or exiting West U. Chief Ken Walker has championed the concept, believing it will serve both as a crime-solving tool as well as a deterrent.
Bellaire and West U are both committed to constant training. Bellaire both trains its own officers and other departments at its new state-of-the-art police headquarters, which even features a room for de-escalation training.
There’s also an emphasis on FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development training for supervisors and FBI National Academy training for qualified police command officers.
In West University, police receive about three months of basic training and another three months of field training, then annual training of four weeks.
MISSION, POLICIES, PRACTICES
“The Bellaire Police Department exists to enhance the quality of life of citizens by safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all persons, providing a safe and secure community, investigating criminal incidents, and facilitating the flow of traffic.”
“It is the mission of the West University Place Police Department to safeguard the lives and property of the people we serve, to reduce the incidence and fear of crime, and to enhance public safety while working to improve the community’s quality of life.”
Both departments have detailed policies about use of force and the duty of fellow officers and supervisors to intercede if they observe any violation of those policies.
Annually, each department prepares a Use of Force report for the previous year. After analyzing data about officers and subjects, responses, time of day of incidents and more, the Bellaire report for 2019 concluded: “Data reported does not suggest Bellaire Police Officers are using more force than is objectively reasonable. Even so, in 2020 the department has mandated that all officers undergo a four-hour block of de-escalation training consisting of two hours of classroom instruction and two hours of simulator training. The intent is to increase officer safety, reduce reliance on force to achieve law enforcement objectives, and reduce the possibility of subject injuries in force encounters. It is anticipated that the following year’s Use of Force review will show reduced incidents and reduced officer and subject injuries.