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Associated Press — Brody Schmidt  

Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer prepares to throw a pass during the first half.

Waco sees drop in crime rate, plans for future policing efforts
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Waco saw its long decrease in crime rate continue last year, with notable reductions in violent crime, though some categories of property crimes edged up, the Waco Police Department’s new annual report shows.

“The reality is that violent crime in down across the board,” Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt said. “Shoplifting and things in the theft categories have always driven our stats and they continue to do so even though we are at a 25-year low overall.”

Waco police released the 2018 annual police report this month documenting calls for service and police interactions last year. Compared with 2017, the city of Waco saw a 33% reduction in homicides, a 12% reduction in robberies, and a 6% reduction of reported rapes in 2018.

“We don’t take credit for the reduction in crime,” Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. “A lot of the responsibility is community involvement and trying to make Waco a safer place to live, work and play.”

The number of shootings resulting in injury or in damage to a car, house or other property has declined slightly over the past few years. From the beginning of 2019 to Sept. 30, Waco has documented 18 shootings, Holt said. For that same nine-month time period, the number was 20 in 2017 and 19 in 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of aggravated assaults ticked up slightly, from 460 in 2017 to 482 in 2018.

More notable is the increase in property crime. Waco police reported a 5% increase in burglaries and a 57% increase in automobile thefts from 2017 to 2018.

“Property crimes have always given us some trouble,” Holt said.

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Auto theft163202156147191299

Police have launched efforts to remind residents to lock their parked vehicles. Swanton said a lot of vehicle burglaries have occurred when vehicles are left unlocked or keys are left inside vehicles.

“We don’t want people to become voluntary victims,” he said. “We try to tell people to not leave anything valuable in their cars, because people will go through cars just looking for anything.”

FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program

Waco’s declining violent crime tracks with national trends. Across the U.S. about 1.2 million violent crimes occurred in 2018, down 3.3% from the prior year, according to information released through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program last week.

The report shows a violent crime rate in 2018 of 368.9 violent crimes per 100,000. That’s down about 3.9% from 2017 and 14.6% from 2009.

Aggravated assaults accounted for 66.9% of violent crimes reported to law enforcement in 2018. Robbery offenses totaled 23.4% of violent crime offenses while rape accounted for 8.4% and murder for 1.3%, the report states.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Waco’s population was estimated at 138,183 in July 2018, an increase of 10.7% from April 2010.

“Even if you ask the true criminal analyst and people that forecast and follow trends, there is a variety of reasons why crime occurs and why crime rates ebb and flow,” Swanton said. “Some years they are going to be higher, some years they are going to be lower, and reasons always vary.

“No one can every really, legitimately point to one reason why it’s up or down. For Waco, we are growing, we are getting bigger and we have a whole lot more tourism here, so with the influx of people coming into Waco and our crime rate to still be going down, that is a wonderful thing.”

Public perception

According to the Pew Research Center, violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century.

Holt said because crime is so low, one incident can create the perception of bigger issues than statistics reveal. Public perceptions about crime in Waco and often in the country do not align with the data, he said.

“People say that is feels like we are having more shootings, but it is not true,” Holt said. “Some local media writes headlines about a ‘local shooting,’ when they mean a shooting in Bell County, like Killeen or Temple, and that gives people the perception and a lot of people see those headlines, but that is a real issue for us.”

Holt said any victim of any type of crime is one too many, but public perception continues to be a battle. He said often people hear fireworks or vehicle backfires and believe those sounds are gunshots, but true shooting calls have been down this year.

“When we go back and look at discharge of firearms calls, we aren’t seeing more of those either,” he said.

Habitual offender unit

To keep crime rates steady, if not lower, Holt said police administration will begin a new patrol unit focused on habitual offenders.

Although the unit does not yet have a formal name and unit members are still being identified within police staff, Holt said he anticipates launching the new unit in the next few weeks.

“We can look at any category of crime and see that the top 10 people, known offenders in that category, are committing as high as 70% or 80% of that one crime,” Holt said. “When you get crime as low as ours is and you want to keep pushing that crime down, you go after the people who are committing the most crime.

“The goal is to keep crime down to make Waco a safer place for everyone.”

Waco ISD introduces new police dog
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Waco Independent School District’s new police dog, Dalton, took a stroll around West Avenue Elementary School with alert eyes, perky ears and a shiny police badge on the center of his chest.

His four paws are getting used to his first month in Waco ISD schools.

“He is a very good dog,” Waco ISD police Officer Larry Martinez said. “He is very alert and we are still getting to know campus, but it’s going well.”

Dalton, a 3-year-old Dutch shepherd, joined the district’s police department this month after the department retired its last dog, Gero, in June. Dalton was born in Sint-Oedenrode, Netherlands, where he started his training at Police Dogs Centre Holland and learned commands in Dutch.

Partnered with Martinez as his handler, Dalton started hitting school facilities this month after training in Louisiana.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Officer Larry Martinez is introducing Dalton, Waco ISD’s new police dog born and initially trained in the Netherlands, to the district’s facilities.

“He came from the Netherlands, where he was trained strictly on narcotics detection, and then a company from Louisiana bought him. They transferred him to Louisiana and he went through further training,” Martinez said. “I went down there and spent four weeks training with him in Louisiana before he came up to Waco about a month ago.”

Acting as the newest police dog handler, Martinez said Dalton has made a smooth transition to Waco. Waco ISD Police Chief David Williams said Dalton and Martinez will split their time between all 25 school campuses for drug detection, crime deterrence and work in the community.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Waco Independent School District police Officer Larry Martinez walks with the district’s new police dog, Dalton, outside West Avenue Elementary School last week. Dalton and Martinez are making the rounds to Waco schools to familiarize Dalton with the facilities.

“He is not only a deterrent, but he will detect if anything is on these campuses and get things away to provide the safety and security for children so they can get a better education,” Williams said. “If you feel safe, you’ll learn, and if our teachers feel safe, they will teach without any kind of distractions in our schools.”

Waco ISD partnered with K9s4Cops, a Houston-based nonprofit that helps law enforcement agencies buy dogs and fund training. The nonprofit also helped the district buy its last dog, Williams said.

In the next few weeks, Dalton and Martinez will make their way to every school for introductions between calls for service.

US troops in Syria going to Iraq, not home as Trump claims

KABUL, Afghanistan — While President Donald Trump insists he’s bringing home Americans from “endless wars” in the Mideast, his Pentagon chief says all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State group.

They aren’t coming home and the United States isn’t leaving the turbulent Middle East, according to current plans outlined by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper before he arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday. The fight in Syria against IS, once spearheaded by American allied Syrian Kurds who have been cast aside by Trump, will be undertaken by U.S. forces, possibly from neighboring Iraq.

Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he told reporters traveling with him that those details will be worked out over time.

Trump nonetheless tweeted: “USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!”

The president declared this past week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners fighting in Syria against IS extremists. Turkey conducted a weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.

“It’s time for us to come home,” Trump said, defending his removal of U.S. troops from that part of Syria and praising his decision to send more troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.

Esper’s comments to reporters traveling with him were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they shift from Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift about 1,000 troops from Syria into western Iraq.

Trump’s top aide, asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, said, “Well, they will eventually.”

Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told “Fox News Sunday” that “the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq.”

As Esper left Washington on Saturday, U.S. troops were continuing to pull out of northern Syria after Turkey’s invasion into the border region. Reports of sporadic clashes continued between Turkish-backed fighters and the Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement hammered out Thursday between U.S. and Turkish leaders.

The Turkish military’s death toll has risen to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons America’s Kurdish allies who have fought IS alongside U.S. troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

Esper said the troops going into Iraq will have two missions.

“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”

The U.S. currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after IS began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider U.S. occupation during the war that began in 2003.

Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss the way ahead for the counter-IS mission.

Asked if U.S. special operations forces will conduct unilateral military operations into Syria to go after IS, Esper said that is an option that will be discussed with allies over time.

He said one of his top concerns is what the next phase of the counter-IS missions looks like, “but we have to work through those details.” He said that if U.S. forces do go in, they would be protected by American aircraft.

While he acknowledged reports of intermittent fighting despite the cease-fire agreement, he said that overall it “generally seems to be holding. We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground.”

He also said that, so far, the Syrian Democratic Forces that partnered with the U.S. to fight IS have maintained control of the prisons in Syria where they are still present. The Turks, he said, have indicated they have control of the IS prisons in their areas.

“I can’t assess whether that’s true or not without having people on the ground,” said Esper.

He added that the U.S. withdrawal will be deliberate and safe, and it will take “weeks not days.”

According to a U.S. official, about a couple hundred troops have left Syria so far. The U.S. forces have been largely consolidated in one location in the west and a few locations in the east.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, said the U.S. military is not closely monitoring the effectiveness of the cease-fire, but is aware of sporadic fighting and violations of the agreement. The official said it will still take a couple of weeks to get forces out of Syria.

Also Sunday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group of American lawmakers on a visit to Jordan to discuss “the deepening crisis” in Syria.

Jordan’s state news agency Petra said that King Abdullah II, in a meeting with the Americans, stressed the importance of safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity and guarantees for the “safe and voluntary” return of refugees.

Caught up in Trump impeachment, US diplomats fight back

WASHINGTON — Three years of simmering frustration inside the State Department is boiling over on Capitol Hill as a parade of current and former diplomats testify to their concerns about the Trump administration’s unorthodox policy toward Ukraine.

Over White House objections, the diplomats are appearing before impeachment investigators looking into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and they’re recounting stories of possible impropriety, misconduct and mistreatment by their superiors.

To Trump and his allies, the diplomats are evidence of a “deep state” within the government that has been out to get him from the start. But to the employees of a department demoralized by the administration’s repeated attempts to slash its budget and staff, cooperating with the inquiry is seen as a moment of catharsis, an opportunity to reassert the foreign policy norms they believe Trump has blown past.

“It’s taken a while to understand just how weird the policy process has become but it was inevitable,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. The group wrote a letter last month calling for the administration to support career diplomats and protect them from politicization.

The State Department officials parading through Capitol Hill include high-ranking diplomats with decades of experience serving both Republican and Democratic administrations. Among them: Kurt Volker , who resigned as the administration’s special envoy to Ukraine after being named in the whistleblower complaint that jumpstarted the impeachment inquiry.

Others who have testified behind closed doors include Marie Yovanovitch , the former ambassador to Ukraine who was pushed out of the post after a concerted campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Michael McKinley, who resigned after 37 years in the foreign service in part over treatment of Yovanovitch; and Fiona Hill, a National Security Council staffer who worked closely with the former Ukrainian ambassador.

Volker told investigators he did not believe there was anything improper in his dealings in Ukraine. But the others have all spoken of their unease and concern about Trump’s approach to Ukraine and their testimony has largely corroborated the whistleblower’s complaint, which centered on a July phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader, as well as Giuliani’s dealings in the former Soviet republic.

Yovanovitch, who remains a State Department employee, said she was “incredulous” at being recalled early from her post despite having been told she did nothing wrong. She lamented that her experience is evidence that American diplomats can no longer count on support from their government if they are attacked by foreign interests.

“That basic understanding no longer holds true,” she said according to the text of her opening statement to lawmakers. “Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within.”

McKinley said he was “disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents.”

Trump has long cast career government officials as part of the “deep state” out to undermine him, associating the officials’ service under Democratic administrations as signs of their political leanings. That’s despite the fact that most longtime career officials have served under both Republicans and Democrats.

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, argued last week that the diplomats were disparaging Trump because they were upset that he was imposing his political priorities on their work. He singled out in particular McKinley, who entered the foreign service while Republican Ronald Reagan was in the White House and had served under presidents from both parties.

“Elections have consequences and foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration,” Mulvaney said. “And what you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill’.”

Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns called Mulvaney’s assertion “offensive.”

“For them to be dismissed unfairly and accused of acting out of some political motive I think is just wrong,” said Burns, who is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“They are demonstrating that they are responsible, decent public servants and that they have an obligation to tell the truth even when it isn’t convenient for the administration,” he said. “It gives a lie to the deep state caricature. These aren’t people plotting behind anyone’s back. They are stepping up to do their jobs.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview Sunday with ABC’s “This Week,” joked, “I think Bill Burns must be auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s secretary of state.” Warren, a Massachusetts senator, is a Democratic presidential candidate.

The White House has insisted the administration, including career officials, would not participate in the impeachment investigation. Democrats have compelled the testimony of most of the officials through subpoenas and the State Department has so far not retaliated against those who have appeared.

Neumann, the American Academy of Diplomacy president, urged Pompeo to back up his staff if there are calls for them to be punished.

“So far, Pompeo has failed to show loyalty to the people who work for him,” he said. “But, he has another test. Does anything happen to those who testify? If nothing happens, I would give Pompeo credit for having blocked it.”

Pompeo has not spoken frequently about the inquiry except to say it is unfair to the people who work for him because they are not allowed to bring State Department lawyers with them to testify.

“My view is that each of us has a solemn responsibility to defend the Constitution and to speak the truth. ... I hope those officers who go to Capitol Hill will speak truthfully, that they’ll speak completely,” he said Sunday.

Two more diplomats get their turn to talk this week: William Taylor, currently the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe.