Crime and Community – A Discussion with the Mount Dora Police Department*

Mount Dora's Police Station

We have a lot of things to brag about in Mount Dora.

A beautiful downtown, wonderful neighborhoods, droves of events, an array entertainment options, parks, a diversifying population, easy access to within reasonable distance to Orlando’s theme parks and much more.

What we can’t brag about is our crime rate.  It’s not really very pretty; not something to toot our own horn about.  Overall, crime is down 3% in Mount Dora over last year’s statistics.  The Mount Dora Police Department (MDPD) is holding the line.  But Mount Dora does have an increase in violent crimes.  That’s the scary statistic.

Mount Dora has problems, just like any real city does.  Sometimes, being so close in proximity to theme parks, beaches and multitudes of vacationers we forget that we aren’t granted a stay from the realities of the world, just because we have the privilege of living in a pretty glorious corner of it.

A recent column in the Orlando Sentinel offered a pretty uncomfortable picture of Lake County’s crime statistics – and Mount Dora’s numbers, in particular, were a surprise to many.  Mount Dora is third highest in overall crime in Lake County out of 14 cities.  The Mount Dora Citizen sat down with Chief John O’Grady and Deputy Chief Robert Bell to discuss the unenviable reality that Mount Dora, for all of its advantages, isn’t free of the worries of burglary, larceny and – more seriously – violent crime.

One of the most basic of government functions is the protection of the population.  Safety and health of the public are its cornerstones.  It’s never a surprise to learn that the budget of the police department is one of the highest of any department in the city.  Police departments are 24/7 operations that require highly trained employees, extensive technology, and specialized equipment to function appropriately in today’s world.

So where does Mount Dora fall in line relative to those requirements?  Behind.  Definitely behind  in the world of technology.  The city’s police department currently employs an antiquated software system to analyze crime statistics and timely identify people and areas of concern.  Does it make it impossible to police well? Of course not. But it does hinder the department’s ability to quickly identify, react, and proactively police crime.  Countless man hours are spent manually inputting and analyzing data that could, instead, be available at the touch of a few buttons.

Mount Dora’s overall crime rate is actually down 3% from last year.  That’s the good news.  Though violent crime is on the rise, Chief John O’Grady asks that people keep that news in perspective.  “I’ve been here 3-1/2 years,” says O’Grady. “In that time we have had two murders in Mount Dora.  Of course, any policing agency will tell you that no murder rate is acceptable.  But, because we are such a small city, if we have no murders one year…the next year we have one murder – well, our murder rate would have just gone up 100%.”

To his point, in 2014 Mount Dora had no murders.  There was one in 2015, representing a 100% increase in one year.  In 2014 Mount Dora reported 46 incidents of aggravated assault.  In 2015 there were 60.  Robberies almost doubled in Mount Dora from 2014 when there were 9 to 2015 when there were 17.  Identifying the neighborhoods and people of concern is critical if the police department is to successfully bring those numbers down.  That’s one of the areas where the MDPD currently feels hampered in their efforts.

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Deputy Chief Robert Bell says one of the most common crimes with which the MDPD struggles is car burglaries, often considered a crime of opportunity. He encourages locking car doors to prevent most of this type of crime.

According to Deputy Chief Robert Bell, “As one of our lieutenants said, right now we are in a silo.  If a crime happens here (in Mount Dora) we can refer to our system and pull everything that individual has done – but only what they have done in Mount Dora.   It hinders our ability to quickly investigate.  We have to get on the telephone to call other agencies and their investigators to inquire about a suspect.  If we had access to the right technology, we could quickly see if neighboring police departments are looking at that same individual we are investigating, as well.”

The Mount Dora Police Department is asking to update their technology, to bring it in line with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Eustis, Clermont, Tavares and other communities within the county.  To that end, the MDPD is going before the city council on July 5 to request funding for Spillman Technologies software.  The price is steep – $273,000. It doesn’t add officers to the streets, doesn’t create a deterring presence for criminals.  But, it will help the department more effectively use their resources and react quickly.

As Mount Dora continues to grow, acting quickly will become more important. Being a popular visitor destination, and the presence of a major highway, and having a number of large retail outlets along that highway are all influences on Mount Dora’s crime statistics, according to the Chief and Deputy Chief.  Bell says the MDPD deals with crimes such as larceny at retail outlets on 441 regularly.

O’Grady mentions that a recent case of a missing teen – from another county – is being worked by MDPD because the youngster bolted from her grandparents car while in Mount Dora.  The coming Wekiva Parkway will bring more pressure to bear on the department.  Says O’Grady, “Crime will come with the highway, there’s no denying that.”

O’Grady says his department is already strategizing about and planning for the growth and development that will occur.  “In part, the type of policing we will do will depend upon what is developed.  Whether we need cameras or other infrastructure, we will have the need for more people.”

The number of sworn police officers (46, which includes part-time reserves) has been the same in Mount Dora since 2008. Since last year, two officers have been assigned as school resource officers – one in the high school and one in the  middle school.  O’Grady and Bell see these School Resource Officers (SROs) as crucial cornerstones to the community policing philosophy to which they ascribe.

“I believe it is critical for residents to have a comfort level, a level of trust with their police department if we are to be successful,” says O’Grady.  “We are an accredited agency, we hold Citizen Police Academies, do Santa Tours at Christmas, we participate in the Back to School Backpack program, we are in the schools promoting ‘See Something, Say Something.’  You cannot quantity the results that you get from these types of programs overnight.  But ask our citizen how they feel about their police department. To be a successful department, to have a good (crime) resolution rate, you have to address systemic issues within the community.  Outreach from the MDPD is the best way we can accomplish that, in the long term. ”

He hesitates to agree when asked if he needs more patrol officers on the streets.  But crime is not deterred or solved by computer programs, no matter how state-of-the-art.  This budget year a $273,000 software hit brings Mount Dora into line with other agencies in the area.  But, it does not put the city ahead of the game. That will require the continued, diligent effort of the MDPD and the community.

Chief John O'Grady
Chief John O’Grady

“There will always be bad guys out there that we can’t reach, no matter what we do.  But, if we have built a relationship with our community – if we include them through programs like Code Red Alerts, if we continue with the Citizen’s Police Academy and with our SRO’s in the schools – and we couple those types of outreach with better technology, we will be better equipped to handle the bad situations when they do arise,” O’Grady says.

  • Update: At the July 5 Mount Dora City Council Meeting, the council unanimously voted approval for the purchase of the Spillman Technologies software mentioned in this post.
Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)