By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Is it still safe?
It’s a question people who know Wade Branson ask about Goshen following a violent crime. In response, the police chief talks about his family.
“I have three grandsons who go to Goshen schools,” Branson said during an interview Friday in his office. “I always tell them, ‘Do you really think I’d let my grandsons be in Goshen schools If I didn’t think the city was safe?’”
Branson said the population of Goshen — which he estimated at more than 32,000 — has grown over the years, and so has the territory that’s part of the city. With that growth has come an increase in crime. The police chief said he feels Goshen is a safe community for its size.
“Our crime is not as high as the city of Elkhart, but it’s higher than the city of Nappanee,” Branson said. “It’s usually proportioned to your citizens.”
Like Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, Chief Branson indicated that with a lot of violent crime in the city, the parties involved are known to each other. He also discussed the numbesr city police submit to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.
Looking at the totals for violent crime — for FBI purposes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated battery — Goshen had 52 thus far this year, 43 in 2011, 35 in 2010, 39 in 2009 and 46 in 2008.
“It seems like we’ve had a lot of big crimes,” Branson said. “But if you look at it over the last five years, for the major ones we’re talking about, they’ve stayed pretty much consistent.”
Sean Holmes, chief deputy at the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, also found good news in the statistics.
“The trend is not that we’re increasing our homicides,” he said. “...Violent crime, although it’s in the news, the trend is not going up.”
Holmes offered a public-safety contrast: The number of people killed by the hand of another is far outweighed by the number of people who die in automobile crashes every year on Elkhart County roads. Holmes said there have been 20 to 50 crash-related deaths every year since he started with the department in 1994.
On the topic of crime, Holmes said, “From my experience, this is a safe county when compared to others our size, with what they’re dealing with. “He also praised the efforts of police agencies in the county.
“They’re working hard to keep people safe,” he said.
That work can be challenging due to manpower constraints.
Holmes said Elkhart County Sheriff’s officers had 50,000 calls for service last year — the number’s more like 70,000 in situations when multiple officers respond. The department has 45 officers to handle that amount of calls.
Branson said that for cities Goshen’s size in the Midwest, the average is to have around 2.2 officers per thousand residents.
“If we did that, we’d be at 66 (officers),” he said. “We’re at 58.”
An advocate of proative policing, Branson said it’s difficult to be proactive “when we’re just trying to man shifts.”
“We’re a 24/7 operation,” he said.
Perfect security is impossible in an imperfect world. That said, both Branson and Holmes offered suggestions for reducing the risk of being a crime victim.
Branson suggested alway locking house and vehicle doors. Holmes said home alarm systems are good to have.
“Motion lights are great, they really are,” according to Branson. “Dogs? Perfect. Nobody wants to break into a house when they hear a barking dog. Even a small dog.”
Branson also said that large shrubs by windows give someone cover to look in, or sneak around a house.
“If your shrubs are down, it’s a lot harder to do,” he said.
Some people may feel the need for a firearm. Holmes urged caution.
“You’ve got to be smart about it,” he said. “You just go out and buy a gun and you think that’s going to protect you, and you don’t know how to use it safely — the danger in that is that somebody could get hurt that you didn’t intend to.”
Branson advised people to be aware of their surroundings.
“Is there someone sitting in a car beside you? Does it make you uncomfortable?” he offered as an example. “Call the police. We will be more than happy to come out there. ... You call, we will come.”