February 19, 2012 in City

With no SPD property crimes unit, neighbors helping others

Many victims may have just given up on reporting it
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Veronica Evans had her front door kicked in recently in the Chief Garry Park area. After she replaced the door, someone has tried to enter her home twice more.
(Full-size photo)

The thieves are brazen in Veronica Evans’ neighborhood. They kicked in her door three weeks ago and ransacked her home, stealing valuables and leaving her fearful.

They’ve hit other homes near Chief Garry Park, too. At least 17. And they tried to burglarize Evans’ home twice more since she installed a new door.

She and her neighbors aren’t sitting idly by.

“People are just fed up and angry because it continues to happen,” Evans said.

They’re organizing armed neighborhood patrols and encouraging everyone to be vigilant but safe in photographing possible suspects and obtaining identifying information like license plate numbers.

A Spokane police neighborhood resource officer is assigned to investigate the burglaries, but Evans and her neighbors haven’t been able to pass along pictures of footprints and other possible evidence they’ve collected over the weeks: they say no one has returned their calls. They know police are busy, and with the announcement last year that the Spokane Police Department would no longer investigate the vast majority of property crimes, Evans and her neighbors doubt they’ll ever see the burglars arrested unless they can present unquestionable evidence to police.

“We haven’t gotten any feedback, and we’re really frustrated,” Evans said. “Personally, I feel like the cops don’t want the information because they know they can’t investigate it because they’re so shorthanded.”

Spokane police announced Friday that they are seeking any information on what appears to be a burglary trend in the Chief Garry Park neighborhood. Officers have attended neighborhood meetings, and crime analysts began noticing small clusters of burglaries late last week. Suspected repeat offenders with connections to the neighborhood have been arrested on unrelated charges; police hope that may reduce property crime there.

Property crimes decrease

Residents aren’t the only ones frustrated with the Spokane Police Department’s lack of property crimes detectives.

Neighboring investigators say they’ve noticed a change, too.

Spokane Valley Police Department Sgt. John Nowels, who is in charge of the suburban community’s property crimes unit, said he suspects the announcement last October that Spokane police would only be investigating about 5 percent of property crime has contributed to a decrease in reporting by crime victims. That’s made it more difficult for his detectives to return stolen property because they can’t find victims.

Said Nowels, “You can’t tell me that somebody who would normally report it expecting it to be followed up doesn’t hear the city leaders or police chief come out and say, ‘We’re not going to investigate it,’ and decides, why bother? … I as a citizen would be frustrated,” he said.

But even as the property crimes unit was eliminated in Spokane, the number of residential burglaries, car thefts and car prowlings in the city decreased. While overall property crime decreased by just three incidents – 15,039 last year, compared with 15,042 in 2010 – home burglaries were down 4 percent, vehicle prowlings by 3 percent and car theft, for which Spokane was ranked fourth in the nation in 2010, fell 11 percent.

“Considering the reduction of resources that we had, our department did an incredible job of getting property crime down,” Spokane police Maj. Craig Meidl said. “There are still people who are understandably frustrated, just like I would be frustrated if my cases weren’t being worked. We’re doing our best to rebuild the property crime unit as quickly as we can.”

The Spokane City Council is expected to hear a proposal soon to convert a vacant senior police officer position to a detective who would investigate property crimes, Meidl said.

Two other detective positions could eventually be created. But police say it’s doubtful the property crimes unit will be re-created as it was.

“We are going to look at using our detectives more effectively,” Meidl said.

A ‘smorgasbord’ approach

The Spokane Police Department announced it had officially cut its property crimes unit last October. Eight detectives were reassigned. Officers continued working active cases and tried to start new investigations but lacked the manpower to do so. The department announced in September that Spokane residents could expect just 5 percent of reported property crimes to be investigated.

Public outcry was loud and swift.

Mayor David Condon made criticism of the cut a central issue in his campaign last fall.

Former police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick criticized city officials for blaming her for the cuts, saying she’d warned them that she would eliminate the unit if they continued to reduce the department’s budget.

“They were all on board. Now they don’t like it and who do they blame? The police,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview during her final days as police chief in December.

Condon said last week that he’s committed to working with the Police Department to bring back property crime investigators.

“Obviously we need to have investigators,” Condon said. “So we’re looking at that as we build budgets for the coming year.

But he said he’s seen “success stories” arising from the Police Department’s new methods of fighting property crime.

Interim Chief Scott Stephens agreed.

“I know the message was out there that we’ve stopped working property crimes. That was never true,” he said. “The investigative staff, working with the patrol staff, are coming up with innovative ways to address property crimes. We’re going to continue to enhance the efforts that we’re doing right now.”

Meidl described the new tactic as a “smorgasbord” of different efforts.

Six detectives work in the fraud unit and look at identity theft and burglary cases when they can, though three have other assignments. And two teams of patrol officers who work as the Patrol Anti-Crime Team have been responsible for solving several property crimes, including identifying a suspect in a rash of commercial and residential burglaries on the South Hill. The department also has five detectives assigned to the targeted crime unit that focuses on repeat offenders, which often coincides with property crime.

Patrol officers still respond to reports of burglaries and car prowlings for initial contact with victims.

But follow-up investigations, as Evans has seen, are rare.

‘Somebody’s going to get hurt’

Evans called Crime Check to provide photos of fresh footprints she says were left by burglars. She’s yet to hear from a detective. A neighbor whose home was burglarized said the culprit defecated on her couch and used a blanket to clean himself. The police didn’t seize the items as evidence, Evans said.

A veteran of the Air Force, Evans says she’s ready to defend herself and her property. But others worry the lack of police presence will lead to more trouble.

“That’s the whole problem,” said John Nast, Evans’ 69-year-old neighbor. “Somebody’s going to get hurt because everyone’s trying to protect themselves.”

Evans’ husband is stationed with the Army in Yakima. His Valentine’s Day present to her was a bulletproof security door, because, she said, “they can’t kick that in.”

Police encourage residents to keep track of serial numbers and be proactive if they’ve been victimized. A detective, for example, recently arrested two burglary suspects after reviewing a report from November in which the victims located their property at a pawn shop. It took police three months, but the victims’ actions enabled detectives to solve the case, said Officer Jennifer DeRuwe.

A ‘quality-of-life’ violation

Spokane Valley police Chief Rick Van Leuven considers himself fortunate: his department’s budget has remained steady, allowing him to maintain a property crimes unit he believes is the best in the region.

Investigating property crimes is “the biggest potential for us to have the most contact with some of our citizens,” Van Leuven said. “We’ve established that property crimes are a quality-of-life violation to our citizens in our community.”

Spokane Valley employs six property crimes detectives through a contract with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The property crimes unit implemented an “intelligence-led policing” model in 2009 that focuses on using computer databases to track property crimes and identify possible trends. Detectives work cases that are believed to involve multiple victims or repeat offenders in hopes of staying efficient, said Nowels, who’s in charge of the unit.

Property crime suspects in Spokane Valley often have victims in Spokane, too. Nowels and his detectives still coordinate with the SPD’s fraud unit and with the patrol team, but he said the level of coordination that existed when Spokane had its own property crimes unit is gone.

What’s more, Valley police often find themselves investigating crimes in Spokane because a theft ring that originates in the Valley may have victims all over the county. Valley detectives won’t overlook a victim just because he or she lives in Spokane, but they won’t initiate investigations based on crimes in Spokane.

One illustration of the ripple effect of Spokane’s property crimes decision is the case of Nathan John Calvert.

Spokane Valley police had good reason to believe a Jeep packed with items they found last fall was stolen – the suspect said so in a video posted on his Facebook page.

But building a case against Calvert wasn’t easy because detectives couldn’t find police reports on the missing items. That isn’t uncommon, but detectives suspect the Spokane Police Department’s announcement it they would no longer investigate property crimes contributed to the lack of documentation regarding obvious thefts, Nowels said.

“I can’t see how it wouldn’t affect it,” Nowels said.

Police eventually returned much of the property after people identified the items through photos posted on the Valley police department’s Facebook page.

Addressing prolific criminals

Nowels said maintaining property crime investigations in Spokane Valley is a priority for city and law enforcement officials.

“Property crimes are such a huge amount of what citizens are victim to,” Nowels said. “Not many people are victims of assault, but there are a lot of people who are victims of property crime.”

But he recognizes the tough position budgets cuts have put police in.

“If I was the chief of police and I had to decide whether to investigate homicides or property crimes, obviously that’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I’m sure the city would love to have more detectives. Wouldn’t we all?”

The Valley’s approach to property crime seems to be working.

Of the 500 cases assigned last year, 91 percent were resolved. That’s compared with 88 percent of 429 cases in 2010.

“We’re being more efficient,” Van Leuven said.

That mirrors what Meidl and Stephens said the SPD is hoping to do: restructure property crimes investigations through patrol and other detectives, and hope the downward trend continues.

“I’d like to at least get to a point where we are addressing the most prolific crime trends and patterns and hitting those people that are really victimizing the community,” Stephens said.

Nowels said the public’s lack of faith in property crimes investigators is disheartening.

“It’s almost kind of sad that people don’t expect to see their stuff again and they’re thrilled to get it back,” Nowels said. “They’re paying for a service. They should expect us to do what we can to get it back.”


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