Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede listens while Police Chief James Collins speaks during a press conference announcing the township’s 2015 total crime rate March 2, 2016 (Staff photo by Laura Pollack.)

The Hamilton Police Division had a busy month.

In the last few weeks, it searched for a missing teenage girl, unveiled a permanent prescription medicine drop box to help curb drug abuse, implemented a plan to start using police body cameras, announced an historic low-crime rate for 2015 and began investigating a homicide.

In the midst of all this, Mayor Kelly Yaede has stressed the township’s prevention efforts. While the mayor said the township cannot prevent people from choosing to commit a crime or abuse drugs, officials can implement programs that make it harder for residents to do so. Yaede said she plans to keep the township’s focus on crime and drug abuse prevention, as well as improving the tools police have to do their job.

Read on for a closer look at the administration’s three areas of emphasis in public safety:

Crime rate

While overall crime in Hamilton Township has decreased for the second consecutive year, violent crime is on the rise.

Hamilton’s overall crime rate dropped 7.2 percent during 2015, which was a record low for the township, according to officials. This surpasses 2014’s crime rate, which was previously the lowest crime rate recorded since 1977, when the police department began using an electronic crime database.

Violent crime, however, rose by 4 percent last year. When asked about the increase in violent crime, Yaede said the township cannot dictate the decisions of its residents.

“Involving instances that occur in a private residence, the municipal government, the police cannot force an individual not to make that choice,” Yaede said.

Police Chief James Collins echoed Yaede’s statement, saying violent crimes are harder for police to prevent from happening. While it may be harder for officials to prevent violent crimes, Collins, Yaede and other Hamilton officials hold a monthly meeting where they analyze where and when the crime has been occurring in the township.

“We do analyze where it’s happening, how it’s happening to see if there’s anything to do from our point of view to stop it from happening in the future,” Collins said.

In March, Hamilton made headlines for both violent and nonviolent crimes. Early in the month, while township officials were hosting a press conference to announce the low crime rates, police were searching for a missing 13-year-old township girl who was later found in Philadelphia with a man she met online.

Then, weeks later police charged two women with engaging in prostitution, a disorderly persons offense, in the township. On March 9, police arrested Dong Zhang in a Nottingham Way spa and Honglian Zhang in a Whitehorse-Mercerville Road spa, according to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

Most recently, police began investigating Hamilton’s second homicide in the last six months. On March 17, police found 53-year-old Michael DiMattia dead inside his Estates Boulevard apartment, according to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. DiMattia had multiple gunshot wounds, and police later ruled his death a homicide. As of March 23, three arrests have been made in the case.

This comes just five months after Hamilton Police investigated the homicide of 38-year-old Jessica Prusik, who was found dead in Roebling Park in October.

While Yaede said the township can only do so much to prevent violent crime, they will continue to make sure the public is “aware of programs that may assist them from becoming victims of a violent crime.”

Yaede said the township’s anonymous tip line has become an asset for many residents to report crime. She also highlighted the police department’s partnership with Womanspace to help prevent domestic violence, which decreased in 2015.

From 2014 to 2015, instances of burglary, simple assault, motor vehicle theft, robbery and larceny all decreased. Hamilton’s crime rate is now 18.8 crimes per 1,000 residents, down from 20.3 crimes in 2014.

Yaede stressed that the prevention programs, ranging from the neighborhood watch to a partnership with Womanspace, helped keep overall crime down in Hamilton. However, the mayor said it’s important to remember the people behind the numbers, and that even one crime happening in the township is one too many.

“It’s not just stats, behind those crimes there are real lives with real stories to tell, someone who has been victimized,” Yaede said. “And what these stats mean to us today is that less Hamiltonians are being victims of crimes.”

Drug abuse

As heroin and prescription drug use continues to be a problem across the country, Hamilton officials are taking steps to prevent more residents from abusing the drugs.

Hamilton launched Project Medicine Drop in March, which allows people to anonymously dispose of their prescription drugs in a secure box located in the police department lobby. Previously, Hamilton only participated in single-day drop off programs, and Yaede said the success of the one-day events made officials realize the need for a permanent drop-off location.

“This allows residents to get them fully out of the house, and they can do it 365 days a year,” the mayor said. “They can anonymously drop them off in a safe and secure manner.”

Hamilton now joins other municipalities within the county—including Robbinsville, Lawrence, Princeton and West Windsor—who house a permanent drop-off location. Yaede said the box is a big step for Hamilton and the police department, which has been busy trying to combat drug abuse.

Deborah Minnick, coordinator for the Hamilton Alliance Against Substance Abuse, explained that the majority of people who are currently addicted to heroin were first addicted to prescription drugs. She said more than a decade ago, doctors began prescribing painkillers to patients without realizing just how addictive they are. As more people became addicted, the price of prescription drugs increased and the price of heroin decreased.

“So, we have housewives on heroin, Wall Street people on heroin, people you would never think,” Minnick said.

Hamilton, in particular, has been hit hard by the heroin epidemic. The township’s police deployed naloxone—the substance used to revive people who overdose on opioids like heroine, morphine and Vicodin—33 times in 2015, more frequently than any other Mercer County municipality. The rate police had to use the opioid antagonist is higher than most of Hamilton’s neighbors, even when adjusting for the size of the township.

As of March 23, statistics from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office show naloxone has been deployed 13 times in Mercer County this year—four in Hamilton, five in Ewing, two in East Windsor and once each in Trenton and Robbinsville.

“It’s so much easier to prevent than it is to treat,” Yaede said, adding that by the time a teenager switches to heroin they’re usually already 18 and can sign themselves out of treatment.

Hamilton’s prevention efforts largely focus on teaching children about the dangers of drug abuse. The Hamilton Alliance Against Substance Abuse educates elementary school students about how to make healthy choices, and the Law Enforcement Against Drugs program has a constant presence in the township’s three middle schools.

While the drop box aims to take those prevention efforts even further, Hamilton still remains focused on prevention over treatment.

“The municipal government cannot force or mandate that when they’re out with their friends, when they’re out on a Saturday night they choose not to do drugs,” Yaede said. “But we can make it harder for them to do drugs, and we are doing that in Hamilton Township with our prevention efforts.”

Upgrades in equipment

The police division itself will undergo changes this year as well. Yaede said the township is currently working to upgrade the police communication system. The administration has asked the police department to form a committee and put a plan together of what’s needed to upgrade its current communication system, Yaede said.

Yaede said upgrading the police radios and communication software is of utmost importance in order to give them all the tools they need to protect the people of Hamilton. While Yaede didn’t say how much the upgrades would cost, she did say the township is working to balance providing the police division with the necessary equipment without placing a heavy burden on the taxpayers.

In addition to new radios and communication equipment, police officers will begin wearing body cameras. Hamilton plans to use a $60,000 Attorney General Body Worn Camera Grant to help fund a 5-year contract with Taser for 120 police body cameras and a cloud-based storage system.

While there is no set timetable for the upgrades to the communication system or the implementation of police body cameras, Yaede said they should be completed within the year.