As people are ringing in the new year, area police have many efforts planned to keep celebrations from turning dangerous.
It should be no surprise that impaired driving will be a main focus for officers as they monitor the streets. Police have made it abundantly clear how severe the consequences can be if people get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.
"It's not just wrong, you can kill somebody," Lake County sheriff's spokesman Emiliano Perez said of driving drunk.
The Hammond Police Department looks to prevent those situations with roving DUI patrols along with combined enforcement focusing on a variety of violations, including seatbelts and aggressive driving, Hammond police Lt. Patrick Vicari said.
The holiday weekend also will include high-visibility enforcement operations from the Lake County Traffic Safety Partnership.
"Officers will be out conducting saturation patrols to supplement regular patrol officers already on duty," said Hobart police Sgt. Ronald Russo, coordinator of the partnership.
Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, and Merrillville and Chesterton police departments, each reported they will have additional officers conducting traffic patrols over the weekend.
Although police are putting a heavy focus on spotting drunken driving, the best way to prevent it is to not let it happen at all.
Vicari said the first thing alcohol impairs is judgment. If people have to contemplate whether they are sober enough to drive — they shouldn't get behind the wheel.
"It's just not worth it," he said.
Police said there are plenty of options to stay safe for those who plan to consume alcohol.
Officers recommend designating a driver who will stay sober, calling a taxi or using ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft.
"Uber is cheaper than jail," Chesterton Police Chief David Cincoski said.
“We are not specifically doing sobriety checkpoints, but we have added two patrol officers to a cover the 7 p.m.-to-3 a.m. shift on New Year's Eve," Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said.
"This allows us to have additional officers during peak times, while still maintaining the minimum staffing levels. Cold weather and snow may help keep people inside, but the pitfalls are still present.
"I see some bars/restaurants have offered taxi services and/or the ability to leave one's vehicle in their parking lot overnight without it being towed. I do think more people use Uber and Lyft nowadays.”
There is no question the risk is severe when driving impaired.
“Too often we read about a DUI crash that killed someone — you do not want to be the person that caused that," Williams said.
"It will ruin your life and destroy the family of the deceased. When in doubt, get a ride from a sober person. Be part of the solution to end DUI fatalities, not the reason."
Hobart's Russo said those planning to consume alcohol also can make arrangements to stay at the house where they are celebrating.
LaPorte County sheriff's police will have extra vehicles on the street over the weekend specifically watching for impaired drivers, LaPorte County Capt. Mike Kellems said.
He said the approach has been used during other holidays and events, and he believes the increased enforcement has been successful in reducing drunken driving incidents.
Impaired driving isn't the only dangerous situation police hope to prevent during the holiday.
Merrillville Police Chief Joseph Petruch said it's unsafe and illegal to discharge firearms to celebrate the new year.
"What goes up is going to come down," Petruch said, "We don't want some innocent person getting hurt from a stray round."
Hammond police begin using second generation of body cameras
HAMMOND — A second generation of body cameras has arrived at the Police Department, and they will work in concert with new in-car cameras that will be rolled out over the next year.
Hammond police more than two years ago became the first department in Northwest Indiana to begin wearing body cameras.
Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said his officers have been receptive to the program and the number of complaints filed against them has decreased.
Administrators review the videos every time a complaint is filed and for every type of physical interaction beyond handcuffing, including when an officer or someone else is hurt, he said.
More often, police review the videos with an eye toward training.
"Normally what we find is the officer needs defensive tactics training — self-defense training to give him some more tools so he doesn't find himself in that same situation again" Doughty said.
Hammond police officers are trained in verbal de-escalation, but administrators sometimes find officers need to be re-trained.
"Maybe he could have talked his way out of a fight," Dought said. "Not that he started the fight. But maybe he could have kept the guy a little calmer."
Doughty said one of the reasons he started the body camera program was to reduce the amount of discipline imposed on officers.
"If you're just a chief that disciplines everybody for everything and you never offer them training, you're not going to have a very sound, healthy police department," he said. "And you're certainly not going to have respect for upward chain of command."
In the rare case a video reveals criminal intent on the officer's behalf, the department does not retrain, he said.
Patrolman Simon Siba, who has worked in Hammond for three years, said he supports the use of body cameras and appreciates year-round training opportunities.
"When people say they're going to make a complaint, I can say, 'That's fine. Everything is recorded and everything will be reviewed by a supervisor and go up the chain,'" he said. "I'm sure our complaints went down because of these."
Statistics show complaints filed against Hammond police officers decreased by more than 46 percent from 15 in 2014, the last full year without body cameras, and to eight 2016, the first full year with them. Just four complaints have been filed so far this year, Lt. Steve Kellogg said.
The department currently employs 211 officers.
The department in 2015 began requiring all uniformed officers to wear body cameras, stepped up community engagement efforts and started a multiyear "procedural justice" training program focused on professionalism, Kellogg said.
Officers can review body camera videos, but they cannot edit or erase them, Doughty said. So far, the department has not deleted any videos because of a provision in the department's current contract with its supplier Axon that allows for unlimited storage.
Body cameras and in-car cameras both automatically start recording anytime an officer activates a squad's lights and sirens or removes a rifle from a secure rack inside the squad, police said.
Officers must hold a button down for a longer period of time to turn off body cameras, which helps prevent them from shutting cameras off in the heat of the moment, Cpl. Jason Quick said. Officers can add case numbers to videos and classify them as a pursuit, a traffic stop, an event requiring review by administrators and more.
In-car camera videos can be downloaded to Hammond's system directly from the car, Quick said. That allows administrators to immediately review them, if there is a need to make statements or decisions.
In-car cameras are assigned to vehicles, which are pool cars and shared by officers. Body cameras are individually assigned and numbered, Quick said.
Doughty said the department went a year without dash cameras so it could purchase equipment that meshed with the body cameras.
The department recently spent $35,000 to upgrade existing in-car camera equipment and plans to spend $97,174 in 2018 to equip 40 new patrol vehicles with in-car cameras, department spokesman Lt. Steven Kellogg said. Annual storage fees for the in-car cameras are $41,904.
The body cameras cost about $400,000, plus $147,000 a year for storage, Kellogg said.
Read more here: Hammond police testing body cameras
Fingerprint fuming chamber helps Highland police expedite evidence analysis
HIGHLAND — Before police moved to their new station in early 2016, detectives often processed evidence at their desks.
These days, Highland police detectives have a secure evidence room at their new station on Ridge Road that includes storage, supplies and a fingerprint fuming chamber.
The Air Science Safefume chamber, which cost about $4,000, helps investigators move their cases along faster by allowing them to collect fingerprint evidence before sending it for analysis and possible identification, Detective Lee Natelborg said.
Local, state and federal crime labs often have a backlog of cases, requiring local police to be more selective in which pieces of evidence are sent for processing. By processing some evidence themselves, and seeking assistance only with analysis, Highland police can expedite cases, Natelborg said.
Investigators can try to bring out fingerprints on any surface small enough to fit in the fuming chamber, he said.
The Hammond Police Department, Lake County Sheriff's Department, Indiana State Police and FBI all analyze fingerprint evidence.
Investigators can use similar, less sophisticated methods to process evidence collected using the fuming chamber, Natelborg said. However, the chamber increases the likelihood that processing will produce quality evidence.
"This gives you better odds, especially if you've got a big case and you want to make sure you do it right," he said.
Natelborg said he recently investigated a burglary and used the chamber to gather fingerprint evidence from a small basement window he removed from the home.
He took the evidence to the Hammond Police Department for analysis, but a suspect has not yet been identified.
"It's not like on TV," Natelborg said. "Most people don't leave you a perfect thumbprint."
Natelborg is still waiting on a DNA analysis from the Indiana State Police lab, and the fingerprints will remain on file.
"Those fingerprints on the window aren't going anywhere," he said.
Cmdr. John Banasiak said the department's old detective bureau likely was as big as the evidence room at the new police station.
"This was our chance to get the most modern and up-to-date facility," he said.
The chamber offered a relatively affordable way to increase investigators' efficiency, officials said.
"We're never going to have our own crime lab," Nadelborg said. "We're just not that big of an agency. Plus, their experience alone is priceless."
License plate readers alert police of potential crimes in real-time
GRIFFITH — Photos of vehicles, accompanied by an close-up of their license plates, popped up one after another on Officer Al Tharp's in-car computer screen as he drove through town.
The license plate reader technology installed in his patrol car emits an audible alert each time it detects a license plate that could be linked to a possible driving violation, wanted individual or crime.
The two cameras on the back of the marked squad scan license plates in both directions. They're capable of processing data from hundreds of vehicles during Tharp's shift, compared to the dozens he might be able to manually check during that time.
Tharp said some people may see license plates readers, or LPRs, as a "big brother" technology. For him, they're just another tool in his investigative toolbox.
"You still have to develop probable cause," he said. "You're not going to get arrested just because the system says."
For example, if the LPR system flags a car that is being driven, Tharp manually runs the license plate through his dispatch center to check the accuracy of the system's data. He verifies that the vehicle and driver match descriptions in law enforcement databases, and he works to build a case the same way he would without the technology, he said.
If the system flags a license plate tied to a person with a suspended driver's license but the car is not being driven, Tharp takes no further action, he said.
The LPR system creates GPS markers, which can be useful for proving probable cause, he said.
LPRs are becoming one of the most widely adopted new technologies in law enforcement, partly because they're affordable, Griffith Police Chief Greg Mance said.
The total start-up cost for the system in 2015 was just less than $20,000, he said.
"The technology has proven to be invaluable in its ability to locate stolen cars, catch wanted subjects, and provide data related to crimes," Mance said.
Griffith's license-plate-reader-equipped patrol car is on the road 24/7.
Since the department began using the license plate reader last year, the number of violations observed due to the system has dropped off, Tharp said.
"Which is actually a good thing," he said. "That's what we want."
The license plate reader system is linked to state and national databases. Towing and repossession companies have license plate readers that also feed data into the system, but their access is limited to their specific purposes, police said.
Some of the other Northwest Indiana law enforcement agencies using license plate readers include Hammond, Highland, Lake County sheriff's police, Valparaiso, Portage and Indiana State Police. The cameras can be mounted on cars or on poles.