Crime drops in problem neighborhood where Kissimmee police officers died

Officers getting to know neighbors, planting posts

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – One Saturday morning in December, Sgt. Raquel Fernandez didn't have to go to work, but she still went any way.

She swapped her uniform for sweat pants and, with the help of two other officers, voluntarily planted fence posts in a woman's front yard in North Kissimmee, just a few blocks from where Officer Matthew Baxter and Sgt. Sam Howard were shot to death last summer.

Howard, 36, and Baxter, 27, responded to Palmway and Cypress streets in Kissimmee the night of Aug. 18 and came into contact with three people, police said. Minutes later both men were shot and killed.

The tall posts replaced short logs that drug dealers used to sit on and sell.

"Cars were driving on the property here, and some people were hanging out and selling drugs," Fernandez said. "They're no longer driving on the property, they can't."

Police also had a streetlight installed at Brack Street and Columbia Avenue and the trees trimmed back.

Kissimmee Police Chief Jeff O'Dell said the idea came from listening to and learning from neighbors.

"Traditionally, many years ago, nobody could tell the police how to police better than we could," O'Dell said. "We've come a long way partnering with the community."

O'Dell said after the police officers were killed, he asked his officers to get out of their cars and get to know neighbors, to check out not just the bad guys, but also the good guys.

"When you're out in your normal duties and you see someone playing with their kids, washing their car, whatever, get out of your car and introduce yourself and have a few minutes conversation," O'Dell said he told his officers. "For me when we do that, great things happen. When you build that relationship, then you start to have a better understanding of what's going on and the officers take ownership and not just shoo them away one night but come up with an idea that maybe will be a more permanent solution."

O'Dell said in the past, officers would respond to a complaint in North Kissimmee, clear the area, and then minutes later the drug dealers would return.

After Fernandez and her fellow officers put in the posts, complaint calls on Brack Street have dropped to zero.

O'Dell said crime is down 22 percent since the officers' murders, largely because of positive interaction with neighbors, he believes.

"We're at over 8,000 of those community contacts now," O'Dell said. "The most serious crimes have gone down more [in North Kissimmee] than any location in Kissimmee."

Every positive encounter, or community contact, as O'Dell calls them, is logged and tracked.

O'Dell said in the days and months after Baxter and Howard were killed, investigators discovered through school resource officers that some students were aware that the suspected shooter, Everett Miller, appeared to suffer from mental illness and possessed guns but officers were never told.

"There were folks that knew that Mr. Miller was a ticking time bomb and something was not going well with him," O'Dell said. "The idea is going forward to prevent something like that."

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