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Vestal: Regular crime rate reports a good thing

Fri., July 19, 2013, midnight

The mayor and police chief have made a point lately of talking up their downtown efforts – efforts to stymie crime and nuisance, to show a stronger police presence, to spiff up the gateways into the city.

The new downtown police center, in the STA block, has merited not one but two news conferences in 21 days. And that doesn’t count Chief Frank Straub’s appearance before the cameras this week to tout a decrease in downtown crime – a response to the complaints of a business owner who blamed unresponsive police, in part, for his bar’s closure.

If the “messaging” is a little extra “consistent,” they can be forgiven. These steps are welcome. Not only that – they are an important corrective to a certain molehill-to-mountains attitudes about downtown nuisances, many of which are routine urban realities. To hear some tell it, you might imagine our most pressing problem is panhandling skateboarders.

Still, it’s good to know that the city is paying attention and that the attention seems to be paying off. Straub noted that crime reports downtown have dropped 10.5 percent since last year; he also emphasized that police had responded to the vast majority of complaints in the troubled Ridpath block.

Reducing crime, in any quarter, has not been the most common news in this city of late, and so this is welcome. The SPD’s summary of initial incident reports shows that, through July 13 of this year, there have been 874 preliminary reports of crime in the downtown district, down from 978 during the same period last year. The trend holds in both violent crimes and property crimes.

Straub says that is the result of targeted efforts to go after crime hot spots downtown. It’s part of his “data-driven” approach to policing, in which staffing and patrol decisions are made quickly and directly based on patterns seen in incident reports. A positive byproduct of this effort – called CompStat – involves providing weekly, district-by-district reports on crime to the public.

It’s a wonderful tool for accountability and citizen involvement – allowing someone, say, to quickly go online and check the assertions that leaders are making about crime. (The Web page is www.spokanepolice. org/leftnav/crimemap/.)

Take the 10.5 percent decrease in crime downtown. It checks out. Good news. If it is indeed the result of aggressive police response and presence downtown, then all the better; it’s telling us that when we really go after a problem, in terms of public safety, we can show progress.

Other districts in the city are also showing a decrease in crime. The Central District, which includes West Central, showed a 5.4 percent drop; the Northwest district had a drop of 2 percent.

But CompStat tells us some other things, too. Citywide, the July 13 report paints a picture that resembles a frantic game of Whack-A-Mole: Crime is down in some quarters, and up – sometimes dramatically up – in others.

In the Northeast District – which includes Hillyard, Logan and Bemiss neighborhoods – crime reports are up 24 percent. In neighboring Neva-Wood, they’re up 9.5 percent. The Southwest District – a large part of the South Hill and West Plains – is up 6.3 percent.

Overall, the number of criminal incidents reported to police is up 4.5 percent citywide over last year. That amounts to an additional 440 incidents a year. And our car theft problem seems to be resisting all forms of intervention.

Car theft and car prowling are quintessential Spokane crimes – petty, drug user-ish, linked to poverty. If the Baltimore of “The Wire” was Murdaland, Spokane is Car Theft City.

The rate of car theft in Spokane has been among the nation’s highest for years, and the police department has targeted it, gone after it aggressively, developed a task force to fight it – in short, thrown a bunch of different strategies at the problem without much success.

And now, CompStat shows, our already high car theft problem is getting worse: So far in 2013, it’s up 28 percent from the same period last year. In the city districts where crime is increasing the most, car thefts are a big reason for it.

The department says that in the vast majority of cases, cars that are stolen are recovered. They also say they’ve targeted certain high-crime sectors and had success bringing down car theft in some districts.

The true, overall picture presented in the crime reports is one of a large, complex city dealing with large, complex problems. We can be grateful for the positive signs and concerned about the ongoing negative ones – but the fact that the department is providing a fast and regular accounting is an excellent development.

The chief says he “owns” the crime rate in the city. He’s putting the numbers where his mouth is.

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

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