Tuesday, June 11, 2013

$450 for horse manure removal, $69.26 for Bojangles'

The first head-scratcher was a $450 bill for horse manure removal -- an expense paid to a South Carolina company called Scoop D Doo Inc. 

On Tuesday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police released an itemized list of how they spent nearly $50 million to secure the Democratic National Convention. 

The list included a lot of things we expected  -- $2.7 million for a video management system, $1.9 million for ballistic helmets and chest protectors, $1.54 million for housing.  But as I perused the list, I kept being drawn to the (mostly) small-ticket items that seemed like quirky purchases for an event that had been designated as a potential National Security threat.

The horse manure removal was one of those things. Police paid $450 to a Rock Hill-based company called Scoop D Doo Inc. to remove horse droppings (From Scoop D Doo's website: "We've seen our customers' back yards turn from a smelly dog poo land to a thriving lush green haven in a matter of weeks.") The DNC's temporary horse paddock was set up in First Ward, but a Department of Justice Report offered some criticism: "Event attendees found horses to be impressive looking, but this event did not lend to their need."  Still, police paid $75 for farrier services (those are the people who put shoes on the horses) and $400 to pressure wash the garage after the horses were gone. 

Among the other expenses:

  • Police paid  $9,999.82 for mass arrest tracking system software, although they never made a mass arrest. 
  • $949 went for something described only as chainsaw rentals
  • $9,654 paid for shin guards for bicycle officers
  • $17,000 purchased "aerial photography of event area."
  • $103,545 went for a Porta-Jon for portable restrooms in the event area for use by officers
  • $9,300 went to Impromteau Inc. for Lanyards for DNC credentials
  • The department paid the Charlotte Neighborhood and Business services $1,680 to clean up graffiti.  
  • $1,049.70 went to Dick's Clothing & Sports for portable tents. (Were the tents for undercover officers who infiltrated the protesters' encampment at Marshall Park?)

And make what you will of what the department paid for food. Officers who patrolled the city or who worked undercover were given a per diem to eat wherever they could. The joint information center ate food from Queen City Catering and Waiter's Choice.  But most officers got three meals at the R&R Center at Central Piedmont Community College.

A sampling of what they ate:

  • $450.40 went to Chik-Fil-A, but only $69.26 went to Bojangles'.  Arby's, the purveyor of roast beef sandwiches, received $31,878.39 for food. 
  • In the sandwich category, officers ate $49,018.68 worth of food from Jersey Mike's and spent $50,073.58 on food from Firehouse Subs. Another $82,262.63 went to Jasons' Deli. 
  • Compass Group (at Johnson & Wales University) received $22,358.40 for food, while Johnson C. Smith, where most officers stayed, received $202,761.50 to feed officers. 
  • Pepsi Cola received $95,686.50 to quench officers' thirst. The city paid $9,612.69 for ice. 
The department also paid $1.54 million for housing. The bulk of that went to Johnson C. Smith, which got $726.289.97 to house officers. Johnson & Wales University received $188,333.04.  -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Friday, June 7, 2013

How to avoid being a victim of Charlotte's most prevalent crime.

The bad news is that criminals who break into cars and steal things are finding new and more sophisticated ways to victimize people. The good news, police say, is that thefts from autos are one of the most preventable crimes. 

Earlier today, police arrested two men for allegedly breaking into cars at the government plaza parking deck in the center city.  Last month, local police and federal authorities said they broke up an organized crime ring that stole checkbooks from cars, then used them to make phony deposits into the suspects' bank accounts. That means many people were victimized twice, first by broken windows and stolen goods, then later when money disappeared from bank accounts.

Last year, thefts from autos accounted for nearly one in every four crimes, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Crime Statistics. But police have long contended that people can "harden" themselves to these types of crimes. One officer told me he takes every thing out of his car when he leaves.  (I contended that a messy car practically lived in by, say, a reporter would make it hard for a thief to get in and out inconspicuously.)

The car break-in story is a bit more nuanced than that. For years, investigators didn't go to the scene of car break-ins because the crimes had such a low solve rate. Instead, the department fielded reports over the phone or via the Internet. I've taken a number of calls from people incensed that police didn't send someone to dust for fingerprints on their car. Car break-ins went down after Rodney Monroe became chief in 2009 and changed the policy. 

Through it all, police used public awareness campaigns to get car owners to turn their vehicles into less-desirable targets.  A few years back, police launched a television campaign encouraging people to take small, easily-pawned goods out of their car. They reiterated that advice before Memorial Day weekend, when thousands of visitors were expected in the city for race week.

Here are some of the better tips: 
  • Lock your car doors and windows 
  • Install removable electronics, such as CD players, that you can take with you when you leave.
  • Don't leave anything visible. Tempting items include small electronics, a purse or computer bag
  • Avoid putting valuables in the trunk once you arrive at your location. Some thieves watch parking lots waiting for victims to stow things, then break a window and pull the trunk release
  • Park in secured, well-lighted areas, or in a garage, if possible
  • Avoid GPS holders with suction cups. Even if the device isn't visible, the ring the devices leave on the window often signals to thieves that a GPS device is hidden inside. The same goes for a visible iPod cord or a cell phone charger.
--Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A drone makes its debut

The American Civil Liberties Union wants a closer look at how police departments are using unmanned aerial vehicles and other military technology originally intended for use overseas.  

But some in North Carolina have had a close look at how they work -- and how they don't.  

As a reporter covering Gaston County in 2006, I was at the commissioners meeting when police got approval to buy the $30,000 drone. And I was there a month later when it failed its debut.  

Several things went wrong. At some point, the rudder broke on the craft and it couldn't turn left. It also stopped responding to the global positioning signals that guide it.  

So instead of seeing a display of aeronautic innovation, we saw a grey fuselage slowly disappearing into the horizon. At the end of the demonstration, operators had to essentially crash-land the Cyberbug in a field away from the cameras.  

Gaston County Police believed that for the price of a patrol car, they had purchased a substitute for a police helicopter -- a device that could track marijuana growing fields or help search for runaways. Then-Chief Bill Farley even suggested that other county departments could use the device to, say, get aerial pictures or video of ongoing construction. 

After it crashed, county police told us we were seeing a glitch. In a story the next day, I wrote: "Farley asserts that the police department and the county have a valuable tool. They just have to work out the bugs and get officers more training, he said." 

But seven years later, the Cyberbug has never been used outside of training.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have come far since that flight.  According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has about 7,000 unmanned drones, up from 50 a decade ago. And the makers of the Cyberbug have updated the device

Last week, the city of Monroe gave approval for its police department to buy a drone. So we may see another debut soon. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fired officer's case provides inside look at how CMPD disciplines officers

A rare public view of a fired officer's attempt to keep his job may motivate other officers in trouble to open their appeal hearings, according to the president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg fraternal order of police.

Last week, the Charlotte Civil Service Board upheld the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's decision to fire Chuck Adkins, a former captain who had worked in Internal Affairs, Communications and in the watch commander's office.

Stories about the appeal hearing were broadcast on TV and written about in the paper, and watched closely by the department's nearly 1,800 sworn officers.

The department said Adkins broke CMPD policy by failing to immediately alert law enforcement officers about his Sept. 19 conversation with a woman who came to his home while he was in his garage, with his marked CMPD cruiser parked outside.

Adkins took the unusual step of asking that his Civil Service Board hearing be open to the public. He also notified several media outlets, including the Observer, about the hearing. (Officers who are disciplined by the department can appeal to the civil service board. Disciplined officers can also request that their hearings be open to the public, though most don't.)

In an e-mail to the Observer, Adkins said "I hope members of the media will attend as several CMPD employees who feel they were unjustly 'targeted' in the past plan on attending part or all of this hearing."

Adkins wasn't a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, which sometimes helps pay the legal costs of officers accused of wrongdoing by the department.

But Todd Walther, a CMPD sergeant and the president of the FOP, said Adkins' case could motivate other officers to elect to have open hearings.

"It allows the community to see them as a real human being instead of just a uniform," Walther said. "It's not a secret. We make mistakes just like anyone. I think in an open forum, it could be positive to show that we're not just a badge and a gun." --Cleve R. Wootson Jr.