Cupid wasn’t the only one showing love on Valentines Day.
In a display of local and federal cooperation Monday at a joint press conference held at the Port Arthur Police Substation, Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton, Port Arthur Mayor Bobbie Prince and John Ross from the United States Attorney’s Office spoke about the impact Operation Time Machine is having on violent crime in Port Arthur in removing violent, repeat-offending criminals off the city’s streets.
Operation Time Machine is an initiative of the Port Arthur Police Department, ATF, DEA, FBI and ICE that began in October 2009 and is designed to reduce gun and drug related violent crime in Port Arthur.
Through 16 months of the operation, Blanton and Ross said there have been 40 indictments with 26 of those charged receiving state or federal prison sentences. Many of those charged were felons in possession of a firearm and other gun-related charges.
Blanton said the positive effect of Operation Time Machine is showing up in the crime statistics for Port Arthur, where the city reported an overall drop in crimes against persons in 2010, which includes murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery. While Port Arthur reported four more robberies in 2010 than 2009, the cumulative total for all four categories saw a drop from 434 in 2009 to 419 in 2010, a 3 percent decrease.
“We’re trying to reduce gun crime,” said Blanton, who admits he’s disappointed in the rise in robberies. “Any increase is unacceptable and we’d like to reduce (robberies) further. But we’re working on it.”
Despite the good news about crimes against persons going down, Blanton said the overall crime in the city actually increased in 2010 over 2009 because of a steep rise in the number of thefts and burglaries that were committed in 2010, a trend that enveloped all of Jefferson County.
There were 96 more thefts and 41 more burglaries in 2010 than in 2009, an increase of 6.5 and 4.2 percent, respectively. Those numbers pushed the city’s overall crime numbers up 3 percent from 2009, with 3,076 crimes reported in 2009 and 3,170 reported in 2010.
But Blanton said his department, which has 127 police officers on staff, the most in the history of the department, is taking the overall rise in crime very seriously and there is work underway – both on the streets and behind the scenes – to get the theft and burglary problem under control.
One way Blanton plans to combat local thieves is more attention will be paid to forensic evidence thanks to four forensic vehicles used by the department to recover any possible evidence from a crime scene.
“Whether it is through fingerprints or any other forensic method, if there’s anything (at a crime scene) that we can recover, we’re sending the forensic people out there,” Blanton said.
Of course, just deploying forensic vans isn’t going to guarantee arrests, nor will it guarantee there will even be forensic evidence available considering most burglars and thieves cover their hands. So don’t expect CSI: Port Arthur with every crime being solved in less than an hour.
To point out the potential impact of a single prolific thief or burglar, Blanton cited the recent arrest of two groups of two burglars, unrelated in criminal circles, that were responsible for nearly 50 burglaries in Jefferson and Harris counties. He said taking four guys off the street like those are instrumental in keeping the theft and burglary numbers low.
“We’re putting more cops on the street; we’ll look at other ways to link a suspect to a crime and other measures will be taken to address the thefts and burglaries,” Blanton said.
Ross, who’s worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office since 2007 and with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office from 1995 to 2007, said he’s encouraged by the progress that has been made in Port Arthur since the inception of Operation Time Machine.
“The stats are interesting and we’re pleased with what we’re seeing. But they also confirmed our suspicion that this concentrated effort has been beneficial to Port Arthur,” Ross said.
He pointed out the fine working relationship among all the city, county and federal entities as a significant reason for the number of arrests and the early success of the initiative. The operation is still in its relative infancy regarding the amount of work that is being done on the ground by police and federal agents as well as the work that lies ahead in pulling more violent criminals off the streets.
While mentioning the great work that’s being done on the ground, Ross also credits the Jefferson County district attorney’s office for handling the bulk of the Time Machine cases that have led to stiff prison sentences.
“Enough cannot be said for their efforts and what they do,” Ross said.
Adding to the recent success is the pursuit of a Hobbs indictment against two men recently charged with a string of five armed robberies in Port Arthur. A Hobbs indictment is more serious than a state charge because it is a federal charge and carries a much harsher sentence, with each Hobbs violation carrying a maximum of 25 years in prison, according to Davilyn Walston, public information officer for the Department of Justice, Eastern District of Texas.
Howard “Rocky” White, 30, and Donte Burton, 31, both of Port Arthur, are facing Hobbs Act charges after a robbery spree in Port Arthur that stretched from Aug. 26, 2010, to Nov. 13, 2010. White is alleged to have used a firearm during all five robberies and has been charged with five counts of brandishing a firearm while Burton is charged with only one count of brandishing a firearm. The two are facing stiff federal penalties as a result — White is facing a minimum of 107 years on the five gun counts alone, and that doesn’t include the five Hobbs act charges, which could add an additional 125 years in the federal penitentiary. Burton is facing a minimum of seven years in prison on just the gun charge.
But the point that federal and local officials want to make with bringing out Hobbs charges, which Ross said hadn’t been done in more than 15 years in Southeast and East Texas, is that the charge is just another resource that is being used as part of Operation Time Machine to keep criminals thinking twice about committing a violent crime because of the longer prison sentences being handed out.
Another major testament to the federal charges over state charges is that oftentimes when a repeat offender gets hit with a state charge, that person can bond out, and it’s not uncommon for the criminal to commit more crimes while out on bond, according to Blanton and Ross. But in the federal court, the judge determines the bond, and if an offender has a lengthy record of criminal offenses, that offender will often be denied bond and will spend his or her time in jail until their court hearing.
“These criminals are being arrested, jailed, pleading guilty and serving serious prison time,” Ross said.
While the work is far from over, the key moving forward to all those involved is staying ahead of the criminals, building strong cases and using the information that’s already been accrued in the past 16 months to catch the major players still operating.
“We’re encouraged by the start, and we’re starting to be more proactive than reactive,” said Ross. His colleague, Baylor Wortham, a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney, said the real groundwork has only just begun, and that the sustained effort to this point can help all the agencies sharpen their focus as the operation digs in.
“We’re excited about how successful it’s been,” Wortham said of Operation Time Machine, “but the true test will be moving forward because the potential upside is even greater than what we’ve accomplished so far.”
Fred Davis can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 227, or by e-mail at fred [at] theexaminer [dot] com.