The last three weeks have been among the deadliest in Spokane this year.
But the three people killed in what investigators ruled were homicides are an exception to a trend of fewer violent crimes, both locally and nationally.
Like most areas of the United States, Spokane County is experiencing a drop in violent crime that law enforcement officials and criminologists can’t definitively explain.
According to data collected by the FBI from local law enforcement agencies, Spokane County as a whole recorded 3.51 violent crimes per 1,000 citizens in 2010 – the fewest since 1985 – and officials expect 2011 figures to look much the same.
Violent crimes taking place in the city of Spokane increased slightly in 2010 – 6.25 crimes per 1,000 citizens compared to 6.18 in 2009 – but the numbers still are a sharp drop from the high rate of violent crimes reported throughout the 1990s. Just three murders have been reported in the city of Spokane this year, down from an average of about 10 per year.
“We’re not really sure why it’s happening, but we’ll take it,” Carly Cortright, a strategic analyst with the Spokane Police Department, said of the overall drop.
In 1994, the city of Spokane reported 9.1 violent crimes per 1,000 citizens. By 2002, it had dropped to 6.7. It’s fluctuated since then but has never come close to the averages seen in the 1990s.
Property crime hasn’t followed the same trend. While down nationally, theft, burglary and other crimes involving property in Spokane County jumped from 43 per 1,000 citizens in 2009 to 51 in 2010 – the highest in five years. The rate is still far below the peak in the 1990s, however; in 1994, the county averaged 62 property crimes per 1,000 citizens.
“I think you’re incredibly safe in Spokane from being a victim of violent crime,” said Cortright, who has compared Spokane to 42 other cities of similar population sizes.
But, she said, “I think you stand a very high chance of being a victim of a vehicle prowler.”
Preliminary 2011 statistics for the city of Spokane, which will be submitted to the FBI, show violent crime remaining steady. Vehicle theft is down 19 percent this year, Cortright said, and overall property crime was below average until a surge in the last two months. But property crime still greatly outnumbers the national average.
Cortright attributes the city’s high property crime rate to the presence of instant report-takers on the Crime Check phone line. Other cities don’t have such a service. “If you call in it doesn’t matter what it is. Someone took your lawn gnome? We take a report on it,” she said.
For the officers in the field, a falling crime rate hasn’t made much difference in their workloads. The number of commissioned officers is budgeted at 290 – the lowest since 2006 and the same number budgeted in 1999. Calls for service to the Spokane Police Department have remained steady. The department averaged 300 calls per day in October.
“I know from my interactions with officers and detectives that they are as busy and caseloads remain high,” said Tom Michaud, crime analyst.
While the rate of violent crimes – murder, robbery, assault and rape – has declined in the last decade, the number of murders in Spokane has never followed much of a trend line.
There have been six murders reported in Spokane County – three of those in Spokane – so far this year; 12 in 2010; and 10 in 2009. In 2002, 20 murders were reported; the next year there were 10. The homicide rate, which includes vehicle homicides and manslaughter, is higher.
Zachary Hays, a criminologist at Washington State University in Pullman, suggests several reasons for the overall decline in violent crime. Baby boomers are getting older and are “aged out of crime,” Hays said. Also, the judicial system continues to incarcerate people, and cities like Spokane focus on locking up repeat offenders.
“It’s not that we’re taking everybody off the streets. It’s that the people who are most likely to commit crime are ending up back in prison,” Hays said. “They’re getting put back in prison a lot more because of smaller and smaller technical violations.”
Cortright said a factor in the number of homicides is how many people are saved by officers providing medical care at the crime scene. Police have responded to shootings and stabbings in which the victim likely would have bled to death at the scene had officers not applied a clotting agent to their wounds.
Hays, at WSU, believes the decrease in crime isn’t exceptional – it’s the high crime rate of the 1980s and 1990s, driven by the early days of the war on drugs and the rise of street gangs, that was the exception.
“We were so violent in the ’80s and ’90s that it just couldn’t sustain itself,” Hays said.