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Published: Sunday, 3/3/2013

Chief Diggs: ‘I’m just a guy who loves being a cop’

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs views video camera feeds in the department's real-time crime center at the Toledo Safety Building. Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs views video camera feeds in the department's real-time crime center at the Toledo Safety Building.
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The surveillance camera zooms in on a man loading a bulky package into his trunk outside a store in central-city Toledo. The resolution is so high that his license plate is plainly visible; his registration tab expires next month. Nothing seems amiss.

I’m watching the live video feed from the intersection of Bancroft and Kent streets as Chief Derrick Diggs shows me around the Toledo Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center. It’s the home of the department’s Project ORION, for Observation Research Intelligence Operations Network.

A wall of monitors displays views from 73 cameras mounted on poles throughout the city. Crime analysts sitting at computers study the images and maintain contact with patrol cars on the streets. Cameras soon to be installed will be able to detect and locate gunshots.

Despite the initial privacy concerns of civil libertarians, Mr. Diggs says the cameras have helped reduce major crime, promote business activity, and elevate citizens’ feelings of safety in the areas where they are installed. “It seems like everybody wants a camera,” he tells me.

In Greek mythology, Orion was a giant hunter. The ORION center, Chief Diggs says, is ground zero for the “data-driven, intelligence-led” police force he has been building since he became chief in October, 2011. His service in the department goes back 35 years.

“I’m just a guy who loves being a cop,” says the 57-year-old lifelong Toledoan. “It’s the only thing I’ve done, all I wanted to do, since I hung up my football cleats. When I was hired, my sister told her friend: ‘Girl, my brother has been the chief of police since he was five years old.’ ”

Mayor Mike Bell agrees with the chief’s approach. After Mr. Diggs formally retires on March 21 to take full advantage of his pension plan, Mr. Bell plans to rehire the chief the following day.

In a memo he sent City Council members last Friday, the mayor cited Chief Diggs’ “record of success” in urging them to confirm his reappointment. But Mr. Bell, who seeks re-election this year, also made clear that he will keep Mr. Diggs on the job with or without the council’s blessing.

Big challenges

This transition doesn’t mean the chief will merely ease into a delayed retirement. He continues to lead a police force that is understaffed compared to departments in other large Ohio cities.

Even so, he must battle all the criminal plagues of hard-pressed urban communities: youth gangs; drug trafficking, especially in heroin and prescription painkillers; the proliferation of illegal guns, and citizens intimidated by thugs’ warnings against “snitching.”

The number of Toledo police officers, which peaked at 771 in the 1980s, now stands at 599 with the addition of a new police academy class. Chief Diggs says he wants the department’s uniformed strength to continue to grow to 700 to 750 officers, but concedes that will depend on economic and budget matters over which he has no control.

In the meantime, the chief seeks to apply technology, data, and intelligence gathering as force multipliers, not only to respond to crime but also to prevent it. He created a criminal intelligence division that involved the reassignment of about 90 officers.

The department uses crime statistics to deploy officers and resources, detect trends, pinpoint criminal hot spots, and build stronger cases against offenders. Police commanders are accountable for the numbers in the areas they oversee. Woe to those who don’t have good answers at the twice-a-month meetings Chief Diggs convenes to review the data.

“If we’re on our game, the meetings are short,” he says. “If we’re not on our game, the meetings are very long.”

The data-driven approach is getting results. Chief Diggs says Toledo police solve five of every six homicides; the national average is barely more than half. He links a 22-percent drop in burglaries last year to the numbers-crunching strategy.

A related element of the high-tech initiative is the installation of 40 or so traffic cameras around the city to identify red-light runners and speeders, who get traffic citations in the mail. The cameras produced nearly $3 million in revenue for the city last year. But Chief Diggs rejects complaints that the traffic cameras are a money-raising device in the guise of law enforcement.

“My only concern about the traffic cameras is public safety,” he says. “They’re there to reduce traffic accidents. And they’re working. You drive down the (Anthony Wayne) Trail, we’re getting good compliance. People are slowing down.”

Battling gangbangers

Of greater urgency is the city’s gang problem. Chief Diggs says the Police Department has gotten a better handle on it since the Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (TCIRV) began last April. He describes the program’s three elements: cracking down on gang violence with an “unprecedented law enforcement response,” but also giving gang members the educational and employment services they need to escape lives of crime, and enlisting the community to provide information about crimes and supply what he calls a moral conscience.

Chief Diggs cites preliminary statistics that suggest gang violence in Toledo has dropped by as much as 62 percent since the initiative launched. Gang arrests, he adds, are “off the hook.” Mayor Bell says TCIRV helped bring down the notorious central-city Beehive Gang, which was linked to a number of homicides and shootings.

“The gangbangers have to understand that this community is not going to tolerate gang violence,” Chief Diggs says. “This is not a police problem — it’s a community problem.”

Some get-tough types deride TCIRV’s social-service component, dismissing it as “hug a thug.” But the city’s chief law enforcement officer insists it’s essential.

“Listen, I can’t stop all the problems with gangs,” Chief Diggs says. “There are no microwave results. We continue to arrest individuals all the time — you do something bad, I’ll put you in jail. But if we don’t give them a way to turn their lives around, we’ll just keep arresting them.”

At the same time, the chief dispels some popular misconceptions about gang violence in Toledo. It was not the leading cause of homicide in the city last year; domestic violence was. Nor do gangs control the city’s drug traffic, he says.

Whether the police department is battling gang violence or other forms of crime, Chief Diggs says community cooperation remains vital. His department is working hard to increase the number of block-watch groups across Toledo.

“We have to have the citizens working with us in this city,” he says. “They’ve got to be our eyes and ears. They’ve got to make sure the kids stay in school. That’s what will turn the community around.”

As our visit ends, Chief Diggs points to a framed certificate on a wall near his conference room. It’s from the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), which identifies police departments worldwide that reflect the best professional practices. Only about 10 percent of U.S. police forces earn the competitive accreditation, which Chief Diggs calls the “gold standard.”

“This is one of the best police departments in the country,” he says. “It’s not me who’s saying that — it’s (CALEA). I’ll match my officers against any in the country. All credit goes to them. They keep the lid on.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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