Outsmarting bad guys

Nicole Miller, a manager at One of A Kind gift shop, talks with officer Trevor Shelor about the preventive measures that have been working to curb thefts in the store as he works with officers Franco Pigoni (center) and Harry Sosa. Miller has been impleme

When Trevor Shelor cruises through one of Charleston's historic neighborhoods, he doesn't take in the stately homes and lush gardens the same way the average tourist does.

Shelor, a Charleston police sergeant, notices open windows a burglar might crawl through, shrubbery that could conceal a crime and shady patches where a robber might lie in wait.

"People around here love their azalea bushes," Shelor said, pointing to a fat row of shrubs blocking the view of a Vanderhorst Street home. "They like them to grow to the size of a bus, but they need to be the size of a Smart Car to see what's going on."

Shelor has been the police department's sole crime-prevention officer for the past eight years, visiting homes, businesses and schools throughout the city to offer residents tips and advice on how to stay safe and secure. As a one-man show, his calendar quickly got backed up, leaving him stretched pretty thin.

That's all changing now.

As part of a $3 million federal grant initiative, the police department has added two more officers to the crime-prevention unit to expand its interaction with the community.

Joining the unit are officers Harry Sosa, a 12-year-veteran who has worked as a foot-patrol and school-resource officer, and Franco

Pigoni, who patrolled West Ashley and James Island for two years. Sosa will concentrate on James and Johns islands, Pigoni will focus on downtown and Shelor will handle West Ashley.

Police Chief Greg Mullen said assigning the officers to specific areas will help them become connected to the communities and understand their needs. "It gives you that ownership where individuals can become more attuned and involved in the community so we can build partnerships and trust and gain cooperation," he said.

The officers will work with some 25 established crime watches and meet with citizens interested in establishing new watches. They can meet with neighborhood associations and other groups, talk to students in schools, and visit homes and businesses to offer advice on improving security. The additional officers also will give the unit more resources to reach out to neighborhoods if they spot a rash of crimes or troubling trends, Shelor said.

"This will allow us to do some more proactive types of things," Shelor said.

Sosa and Pigoni said they have seen a number of preventable crimes over the years and look forward to helping educate citizens to avoid being victimized. In Pigoni's own neighborhood near Daniel Island, some 13 cars were broken into in a single night last year. Many times, such crimes can be prevented by locking car doors and removing valuables, taking away the incentive for thieves, Pigoni said.

Shelor said the biggest threat is often complacency -- people letting down their guard because they have not been touched by crime before. They leave their homes unlocked, forget to turn on outside lights or let shrubs grow big enough to block their view of the grounds. Criminals will take advantage of that, he said.

"You just have to have good safety habits all the time," Shelor said. "Because once you've had a crime, we can't give you that warm feeling of safety back."

Shelor has long preached the gospel of prevention to anyone who will listen. But it can be hard to judge how effective such measures are, as no one keeps statistics on crimes that don't happen.

Nicole Miller is a believer. Miller manages One of a Kind, a gift shop on Market Street. Miller and the shop's owner attended one of Shelor's workshops after the store lost $10,000 to theft during its first year of business in 2008. They employed several of his suggestions -- installing surveillance cameras, placing more expensive merchandise under glass, checking IDs for credit card purchases and moving displays that blocked the counter person's view of the store.

Last year, incidents of shoplifting dropped to less than a quarter of what they had been, Miller said. "It was really helpful and made a big difference for us."