March 24, 2012 in City

Theft victims will phone it in

City police say remote reports more efficient for recovery
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Spokane police Officer Holt Widhalm’s patrol car is equipped with a camera system that scans license plates it drives by to locate stolen vehicles. Officers will no longer take reports of stolen vehicles in person. Police say Crime Check can take reports faster.
(Full-size photo)

Number to call

For nonemergency crime reporting, call Crime Check: (509) 456-2233.

Spokane police officers soon will no longer respond in person to take reports of stolen vehicles.

It’s a move, officials say, to “work smarter” and more efficiently after several rounds of budget cuts. They also say some cars could be recovered more quickly if victims provide information about their stolen car by phone instead of waiting until an officer can respond.

Mayor David Condon said ending the practice means keeping officers on the beat where they’re more likely to find stolen cars.

“Many of us wish we could have a police officer on every street corner, but at the end of the day (car theft victims) want the crime solved,” he said.

But Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who was approached by city officials about crafting the same policy, said responding in person to car theft is important customer service. He decided Spokane County deputies and Spokane Valley police officers will continue to respond in person to take stolen car reports.

“I just don’t know how much more erosion of customer service would be good for the region,” Knezovich said.

Instead of waiting for an officer to arrive, car theft victims within Spokane city limits will provide information about their missing cars to Crime Check, the nonemergency crime reporting line that serves Spokane County.

Capt. Brad Arleth, who leads the department’s patrol division, said the policy likely will be implemented within the next several weeks.

For the past decade, thieves have stolen between 1,500 and 2,300 vehicles each year within Spokane’s city limits. Police say most are recovered with varying degrees of damage and missing parts.

Knezovich said besides meeting expectations of the public, responding in person is good policing. By going to the scene, deputies sometimes discover that the person who reported a car stolen is making a fraudulent claim to cover up a drunken crash.

“It’s just another tool for making sure that you have a complete investigation,” Knezovich said.

Spokane police officials stress that officers will continue responding to the scene when thieves leave evidence behind and also will continue meeting victims when stolen cars are found. They also will continue to respond in person to home burglaries.

“There’s really no change to anything except who is taking down that report,” Arleth said. “Plus, we’re freeing up that officer to work on other police problems that require police presence.”

In recent years there have been about nine stolen vehicles per 1,000 residents in Spokane annually. That number has remained close to two per 1,000 outside city limits. In Spokane Valley it hovers closer to five per 1,000.

Condon made declining police service related to property crime a centerpiece of his election campaign last year after the department announced it had disbanded its property crime detective unit.

Department leaders stressed that while there is no longer an investigative unit solely focused on property crimes, detectives still investigate thefts and burglary cases. This week, Spokane police arrested two men they believe were connected to a north Spokane “chop shop,” which disassembles stolen cars for parts.

Police officials say it’s unlikely the property crime investigations unit will be fully restored, but Condon said the city is crafting a plan to improve property crimes investigations.

“There will be new resources focusing on property crimes,” Condon said. “It will include increased resources. How many and how we do that is what we’re in the middle of now.”

Like most other Spokane patrol officers, Holt Widhalm often responds to at least one report of a stolen vehicle on each shift. But there’s usually little he can do but talk to the victim and take a report.

Widhalm said considering the time it takes an officer to arrive on the scene, take a report and have the handwritten report entered into the database that tracks stolen cars, the change may improve service to car theft victims.

Not until the report is entered into the database can the car be found by the police department’s plate-reader cameras or by an officer who happens to run a suspicious vehicle’s plates.

“It’s actually going to get to us faster if it’s taken by phone,” Widhalm said.

Widhalm drives one of the department’s two patrol cars that scan license plates in a search for stolen vehicles as he completes his normal patrol duties.

Since he started driving it in January, the cameras have found one stolen car, though the software wasn’t working correctly for the first several weeks, he said.

Arleth said although some car theft victims would prefer contact with the police, budget cuts have forced the department to consider service changes.

“We don’t have that luxury,” Arleth said.

“That’s why we have to work at being more efficient and more effective with what we have.”


There are 38 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email