Spokane has the highest crime rate among the state’s 10 biggest cities for the first time in the 23 years that the data has been compiled.
Last year, Spokane suffered about 97 crimes for every 1,000 residents, according to the preliminary Crime in Washington Annual Report. The rate is up from just under 87 crimes for every 1,000 residents in 2003.
Almost all of the increase can be attributed to a spike in property crime; violent crime was steady in 2004 and remains lower than in some of the other cities.
Spokane’s Deputy Police Chief Jim Nicks noted that last year’s budget cuts forced officer layoffs and the elimination of some crime prevention programs.
“I don’t think it’s going to turn around anytime soon,” Nicks said. “The whole criminal justice system in Spokane is in great need of help.”
Spokane’s total crime rate in 2004 was higher than any year since 1988. Last year was the only time since crime rates first were entered into the report in 1982 that Spokane’s rate is highest among the state’s 10 most populated cities.
About a dozen smaller Washington cities had higher crime rates in 2004 than Spokane, including Kelso, Aberdeen, Centralia, Burlington, Mount Vernon and Moses Lake, according to the preliminary statistics.
Nicks and other crime experts warn that crime statistics can be misleading, especially when different cities are compared.
“It could be the signal of a trend or it could be an anomaly,” said Clayton Mosher, an expert in crime statistics at Washington State University in Vancouver. “There’s so many factors.”
For instance, some cities’ statistics may not reflect reality because citizens may be less likely to report crimes, said Michael Erp, director of the Washington State Institute for Community Oriented Policing.
“It’s significant,” Erp said of the rate increase in Spokane, “but you have to be careful in what meaning you attach to it.”
State crime numbers are compiled by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which provides the data to the FBI for a nationwide look at crime. The final state report is expected to be finished in July, and the association says the numbers may change.
The FBI released its preliminary crime statistics for 2004 last week. Across the country, violent crime fell 1.7 percent and property crime fell 1.8 percent in 2004. Property crime remained steady in the West, even while it fell in all other regions of the country.
The good news for Spokane is that violent crime – murders, rapes, robberies and serious assaults – has generally declined. Although up slightly in 2004, figures from both 2003 and 2004 are lower than any year since 1985. Seattle and Tacoma still had higher violent crime rates than Spokane in 2004. But Spokane’s 2004 property crime rate was the highest figure ever registered for the city.
Reports of burglary, larceny and car theft each jumped more than 10 percent last year.
“In Spokane it’s reasonable to believe that police have seen a rise in property crime as a result of the drug problem,” Erp said.
Nicks said methamphetamine habits often lead people to burglary, forgery and theft.
“A majority of property crime comes back to drugs issues,” he said.
While Spokane may have the highest rate among the state’s largest cities now, crime in Spokane is nowhere near the towering figures experienced by Tacoma, Yakima and other cities in the 1980s and 1990s. When crime in Spokane was at a peak in 1988 at almost 98 crimes for every 1,000 people, Yakima residents were experiencing 175 crimes for every 1,000 people.
Nicks said that he expects 2005 Spokane crime statistics to show a decrease.
Not that the situation necessarily is improving, he said. But fewer residents appear to be reporting incidents since the start of 2005, when the police and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office stopped taking reports of nonemergency crimes by phone 24 hours a day.