WEST HARTFORD — Officials have rolled out a number of tactics to combat what they say is a rise in youth crime this summer.
“We understand that people in our community have concerns and questions about quality of life issues here in West Hartford and in the capital region,” Town Manager Matt Hart said at a virtual community forum to address the increase.
He said there have been car thefts this summer, including one in July where a toddler was still inside.
“We continue to see crimes committed by juvenile offenders and we have experienced a recent spike in thefts of catalytic converters,” Hart said. “Our popular town center does attract some late night activity that can be problematic, such as fighting, littering and property damage.”
Police reported 71 motor vehicle thefts from Jan. 1 to Aug. 1 this year. There were 90 motor vehicle thefts for that same time period in 2020.
There have been 68 cases of stolen catalytic converters so far in 2021, some of which involved multiple vehicles. This is up from the 12 reported for all of 2020, police said.
There were also more ATVs in town. Earlier this month, police responded to a call for a gathering of 200 ATVs.
Police didn’t track ATV complaints until this year and said there have been 23 since July.
“Some of these things have been happening for years with some wrinkles,” Hart said. “What’s happening in West Hartford is not unique to our town or even to our region.”
Police Chief Vernon Riddick Jr. said the department is in constant communication with town officials on all of these issues.
Riddick said the department launched a special catalytic converter detail, made up of four to six officers at night. The officers use unmarked police cars and “cold vehicles,” which don’t look like police vehicles, to set up surveillance in certain parts of town to try to catch the thefts.
The town is also part of a regional task force with the capital region until December, using a $5 million federal grant.
“This is not regional policing,” Riddick said. “In a manner it is, but we still have our full complement of officers.”
Instead, two West Hartford officers work together with other officers in the region on a part-time basis to tackle catalytic converter thefts, stolen motor vehicle, ATVs and violent crime.
“We are able to take our forces and our information and our personnel and we couple them together with these different task forces and different agencies,” he said. “When we have crime that’s occurring in our town, we can tap into that resource. We can also tap into the intelligence, which is extremely important as far as the information that’s coming from within our state and without our state at the federal level.”
The department also launched an anonymous tip line at email@example.com and 860-570-8969. Police can use this information to put surveillance where needed, make arrests or issue fines.
Officials are looking at creating an ordinance to prevent ATVs in town, such as issuing fines to gas stations that allow ATVs to drive in and gas up. Riddick said this is different from people using trailers to bring ATVs in, which is allowed.
The department has several officers dedicated to downtown and has also started using a drone there on the weekends to help prevent littering and fights at night.
“It gives us a sky view and cover more territory,” Riddick said, adding it was a “force multiplier” not “Big Brother.”
The department also launched a camera program partnership last December where residents and business owners can allow the police access to their video surveillance if a crime occurs. Officers will be looking to expand it as the year goes on.
“It’s important to know that we are not monitoring other cameras, it’s just the access to the other cameras,” Riddick said.
Town and police officials stressed partnership throughout the forum between the public and police.
“That’s the essence of community policing,” Riddick said.
He said this includes locking doors and cars to help prevent valuables from being stolen.
Riddick said its also important to consider the root causes driving people to crime so they can address, but that’s something beyond just the police. The department can help with programs though and offer assistance.
He said there needs to be accountability and the age for juvenile offenders shouldn’t be raised to 21. He said there also needs to be escalating consequences for repeat offenders.
“Many times we come into contact with these individuals and/or juveniles and they’ve been arrested four, five, 10, 15 times, but they’re still out,” Riddick said. “Something needs to change. Again, we’re not advocating for yanking our kids off the streets and throwing them into detention centers with no type of programs.”
He said these centers do have advantages like mentors, counselors and programs. He said there needs to be the funding to help these youth and the programs geared toward them.
Riddick said there also needs to be some help at the state level to pass laws that will allow departments to share information readily about juvenile offenders, like they can with adult offenders.
He’s requesting changes to the law to extend how long the police can hold a juvenile offender while officers try to locate their parents or guardians. Currently they are released after six hours if no one can be reached. The Department of Children and Families had previously been called at that mark and they would take custody at that point.
“We’re really trying to be proactive and reactive to the concerns of the community,” Riddick said.