April 21, 2012 in City

Mapping crime won’t eliminate it

By The Spokesman-Review

the data

After analyzing 6  1/2 years of data, the Spokane Police Department launched its Focus Area Emphasis pilot project in April 2012. View a map showing the 50 city blocks that generated the greatest number of calls for service at http://data. spokesman.com/spd- emphasis-project/

If you had to identify the epicenter of Spokane crime, what would you pick?

One of the maligned neighborhoods on the near North Side? Somewhere just east of downtown? An overlooked corner of the Peaceful Valley or lower South Hill?

Not even close. Try malls and apartment buildings.

Or, more specifically, try parking lots.

That’s how we roll.

A recent analysis of “calls for service” to the Spokane Police Department over seven years found that the 4700 block of North Division – the NorthTown Mall – has produced more crime reports, by far, than any other block in town. Other “chronic hot spots” include 200 E. Wedgewood Ave. and 8400 N. Nevada St. – the site of large apartment complexes.

The rest of the top 10 spots for burglary, vehicle break-ins and malicious mischief are all large apartment buildings.

“That’s just a matter of concentration of people and concentration of opportunity,” said SPD Maj. Frank Scalise.

And yet the block-by-block analysis paints a limited picture. The mall numbers probably reflect that the sheer number of cars parked there is high as much as they reflect a chronic criminal problem. And, though those individual North Side blocks have lots of calls, there is nowhere in town that even comes close to the cluster of high-call blocks in the downtown area.

The department is hoping to use the new data analysis to combat the property-crime problem – the problem with the crimes themselves and the problem with public dissatisfaction with police cutbacks.

The department analyzed where its calls were coming from and tallied the figures for 17,000 blocks that had at least one call to the police going back to 2005. The figures quantified what most cops already knew: “There’s a large amount of crime happening in a very small number of areas,” Scalise said.

Citywide, 6.5 percent of the blocks analyzed accounted for half the crime calls, the SPD analysis found. Now, the department is using that knowledge in an experiment that aims to make lemonade out of the budgetary lemons.

The department has targeted two areas for focused emphasis: The 8400 block of North Nevada, and the “gateway to the city” – the Division corridor from First to Third avenues, between Pine and McClellan streets.

The plan is to have officers increase random patrols and other police activity in those areas and see if that drives down crime. It’s modeled on similar approaches that other cities have used to combat vice and violent crimes, Scalise said, but Spokane is the first place to apply it to property crimes.

Scalise said the intent is not to simply provide more drive-throughs, but to create a visible and active presence.

It’s an interesting approach, but not a magic bullet. For one thing, if it works, it won’t necessarily eliminate crime, but simply push it to other neighborhoods. But it may provide the start of a long-term strategy of expanding targeted policing efforts.

Crucially, though, the resource crunch at the department still exists. Eight years ago, Spokane had about 30 more police officers on the street than it does today, and calls for service are increasing. During the first three months of this year, the department received 11 percent more calls than last year, and last year was higher than the average of the previous four years.

There is only so much of that which can be obscured by special programs and new emphases – and there is exactly none of that which can be obscured by press conferences about special programs and new emphases.

A cynic might wonder if this program is a PR move, meant to assuage concerns that flooded the city after it disbanded its property crimes unit – and then was forced to do a verbal tango trying to insist that it wasn’t backing off from property crimes.

Scalise insists this isn’t a stunt. The department began analyzing this data and planning the program more than a year ago, he said, before David Condon was elected mayor and before Scott Stephens was named interim chief of police.

“It’s definitely not for show,” Scalise said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

There are two comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email