Flanked by a woman whose three daughters hid in the basement last week as a burglar ransacked their home, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced he’s fed up with prolific property thieves who have thrived amid budget cuts that have taken much of the bite out of local law enforcement.
“I didn’t get into this business to tell people we are not coming,” the sheriff said. “Our role is to fix the problem.”
Knezovich announced a new initiative to work with judges, prosecutors and his counterparts in the Spokane Police Department – who had scheduling conflicts and didn’t send anyone to the news conference – to send a unified message to the community and to burglars that the current situation will not stand. His goal is to find creative ways to get as many deputies as possible onto the streets and to build the kinds of cases against career burglars that result in lengthy prison terms.
With tight municipal budgets, both the Spokane Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office have had to reduce the number of detectives available to investigate property crimes, such as burglaries and car break-ins. The problem escalated, Knezovich said, after the city announced last year that it was no longer investigating most property crimes.
“I believe that (announcement) affected this situation greatly. We have seen an explosion of property crimes. I think we need to have a united message and say, ‘We are going to change this,’ ” he said.
Efforts to reach interim Spokane police Chief Scott Stephens about the burglary concerns were not successful Monday afternoon.
Knezovich talked about one recent case where the bonds were reduced for suspected burglars only to have them released from the Spokane County Jail. The suspects were later arrested again on allegations that they pulled guns on victims in the West Plains.
If investigators and prosecutors can’t keep on top of property crimes, “you will see it erupt in a bunch of different sectors,” Knezovich said. “They tend to escalate. They become more brazen. The hard-core repeat offenders have to be kept off the street.”
Before budget cuts, the Sheriff’s Office had 13 property crimes detectives working crimes that occur outside of Spokane Valley or the city of Spokane. That number had been cut to three, but Knezovich recently transferred five detectives from other areas back to property crimes.
He also announced every commissioned deputy will spend time each week in the field even if their primary duty keeps them in the office.
Knezovich provided a series of numbers to show his point. Comparing January 2011 with January 2012, the unincorporated county has had a 60 percent increase in property crime reports. But Spokane Valley, which contracts deputies to work as police officers, has had a 15 percent decrease after city leaders there chose to maintain staffing levels.
He did not have numbers from the city of Spokane, and department spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe did not immediately respond to a request for information.
What’s more, Knezovich said, burglars are hitting homes in rural areas, which traditionally have had fewer break-ins. Criminals are coming here from Kootenai County, he said, and they don’t care whether a home is in Spokane Valley, Spokane or Rockford.
Melissa Bambock, who attended the news conference, said she left her 13-, 9- and 7-year-old daughters at home Thursday to run errands with her two sons. Not long after she left, a stranger came to the door of her home south of Spokane and began aggressively ringing the doorbell.
The girls followed previous instructions not to approach strangers and hid downstairs with their dogs. The girls heard footsteps upstairs after the burglar broke glass near the door to gain entry. The girls called their mother and told her what was happening.
“I probably should have called 911 but I didn’t want to hang up on my girls. I just raced home,” Bambock said. The burglar had already left when she arrived.
“I think it’s great to be able to tell them … that police are taking it seriously,” she said. “Kids, adults, anyone should feel safe in their own home.”
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he supports the sheriff using more overtime pay to fund the new effort. He noted the office has lost several deputies who were paid through either state or federal grants.
“We are trying to do smarter justice sooner,” he said. “We have taken a beating as a community with how we fund law enforcement.”
Knezovich said he will continue meeting with the SPD and Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who did not attend the news conference.
“Prosecutors are overworked. But there has to be a priority on certain crimes … so they (perpetrators) stay behind bars,” he said. “It’s only through working together that we will make a difference.”