The Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission hosted a forum on policing at the Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center on Wednesday, Feb. 24, both live and online. It was the sixth of nine such presentations around the county.
Hosts Barbara Cheives and Ted White introduced the four Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office representatives and moderated questions from attendees present and from online viewers. Speakers included Capt. Rolando Silva, Capt. Ulrich Naujoks, Capt. Craig Turner and Major Eric Coleman.
The three PBSO district commanders and their regional bureau commander fielded questions ranging from nationwide issues to very specific questions of personal situations.
The forum focused on the western communities with Silva, commander of PBSO District 8 covering the Village of Wellington, speaking first. Silva explained, as did all the commanders, that crime in the western communities is generally low, with a high clearance rate.
“One of the biggest problems we have is traffic violations. Obviously, any crime is one crime too many,” he said, showing data that all crimes in Wellington have decreased by 54 percent over the past four years.
Silva said that during 2020, due to the pandemic, they were only stopping vehicles for the most egregious violations, as was policy in many departments, and traffic fatalities nationwide increased by 18 percent. The PBSO has returned to being more proactive in enforcement, and people have slowed down, and accidents are down.
Naujoks, commander for District 9, is in charge of the team serving the Village of Royal Palm Beach.
“The number one public safety concern in Royal Palm Beach is traffic issues,” explained Naujoks to a questioner. “We place a lot of emphasis on education, rather than just enforcement.”
He said that stealing from unlocked cars is the most prevalent form of vehicle-related crime in the village.
He addressed the topic of homelessness, noting an area shelter providing assistance. “Homelessness is not a crime. You can’t arrest your way out of it,” said Naujoks, explaining that they try to get homeless people into services to help them.
Turner is the commander for districts 15, 17 and 18, a large area covering The Acreage, Loxahatchee Groves and Westlake.
Turner said that while crime is very low in the new City of Westlake and the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, there had been a spike in vehicle burglaries last year in Loxahatchee and The Acreage. He attributed this to juvenile group homes.
“These are juveniles who have been in and out of detention facilities or have other problems,” he explained.
The PBSO initially treated it as a crime problem and focused on arrests. “Then we switched mentality to a mentoring type of program,” said Turner, adding that they invested resources in equipment and started a Police Athletic League program that appears to be showing some success.
As commander of the West Regional Bureau, Coleman’s responsibilities cover nine PBSO districts. He noted that the PBSO has been making progress on the goal of getting body cameras for deputies.
Coleman noted that the Palm Beach County Commission has supported the project, along with the villages of Royal Palm Beach and Wellington. “It is a huge project, some $20 million. It is an agency priority, and it is moving forward,” Coleman said, explaining that for more than 15 years already, some 1,000 cameras have been in use on patrol cars in the county. They will be replaced as part of the new body camera project.
Silva said that the goal of the community forums is to help bring the community together. “We are adding value and making a deposit into the bank of community trust,” he said.
The evening ended with comments from State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86). He offered thanks to the commanders for being there and for their work to make the community a safer place. He also stressed the importance of the evening’s conversation and dialogue.
“Thank you also to the residents for coming out and participating,” Willhite said, adding the state legislature tries to make sure that the PBSO, and departments across the state, have the tools they need.