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Getting a handle on Spokane’s property crime problem

Sun., June 23, 2013

When he was 7, Aaron Crummett got his first bicycle for Christmas. It was stolen from his front yard.  He got his second bicycle for his eighth birthday. It was soon stolen from his side yard.  He got his third bicycle last Christmas. It was stolen in May, gone within five minutes after he parked it on his front porch to run inside and get a snack.

In three years, the Crummett family, which lives near Gonzaga University, has been the victim of five property crimes. Aaron’s dad’s bike was taken from the yard, and his mom’s keys recently were stolen from a locker at the downtown YMCA. If it seems like thieves and criminals are running amok in Spokane, it’s probably because they are. One out of every 11 Spokane residents was the victim of a theft, burglary or other property crime last year.

If it seems like police struggle to effectively combat those nonviolent crimes, there’s truth there, too, but authorities say it’s mostly because the Spokane Police Department is stretched thin. Attempts have failed in recent years to find money to beef up the police force, a costly challenge in Washington, where special labor laws for public safety workers have contributed to police wages well above average for officers in many comparably sized cities across the United States.

Spokane City Hall, however, is again considering plans to bolster the local police force.

Statistics show why it’s become such a priority.

Property crimes in Spokane jumped 23 percent from 2011 to 2012 and are up more than 4 percent so far this year. The property crime rate was higher last year – in most cases significantly higher – than any of the six other Washington cities with more than 100,000 residents and also tops the 10 American cities closest to Spokane in population.

The department has fewer employees to combat and investigate crime than cities of similar size. Last year, there were 72 crimes for every Spokane police officer. All other Washington cities with more than 100,000 people dealt with 46 or fewer crimes per officer. Of the 10 cities nationwide closest in population to Spokane, the next-highest number of crimes for each officer was around 59, in Modesto, Calif.

Mayor David Condon says he’s committed to increasing the size of the force by about 25 officers; it’s currently budgeted for about 275 officers. It’s unclear how he’ll pay for that or even how much it would cost, as contract negotiations with the city police union, which has worked without a contract since the end of 2011, remain at a standstill.

The Crummetts aren’t waiting around for crime to fall in Spokane. They plan to move out of the city by the end of summer. They hope that Aaron’s fourth bicycle – a recent gift for his ninth birthday – isn’t stolen before then.

Mehra Crummett, Aaron’s mom, said she understands that investigating the theft of a child’s bike isn’t a huge police priority, but repeated thefts have made her feel unsafe.

“I filed reports every single time, and I haven’t heard anything at all,” she said. “I’m tired of replacing things.”

Police Chief Frank Straub, whose own bicycle recently was stolen from his garage and later recovered, said the department is making an impact on property crime by focusing its staff. But the force is limited in its reach.

“Let’s face it: If you Google ‘Spokane’ now and you go on some of the real estate-related Internet sites, what do you find? A discussion about crime in Spokane,” he said. “Well, that conversation about crime in Spokane has to come to an end. In order for it to come to an end, we have to realize that we have to put a commitment of resources – financial and human and technology – into our law enforcement agencies.”

Listening to Straub, it sounds like crime already is falling. But when he talks about falling crime, he means the rate is falling – it’s up, but by a lower percentage than it was up last year. And he says he’s confident the rate will reverse as the force continues to use crime data to identify and target high-crime areas.

Spokane’s violent crime rate isn’t as bad. It’s high compared with other Washington cities – though Tacoma’s is higher. But Spokane’s violent crime rate puts the city in the middle of the pack among the 10 cities closest in population across the nation.

Straub plans to implement a precinct system in which each patrol officer will be assigned to one of three police precincts citywide. The goal, he said, is for “the command staff and the officers to have an intimate relationship with those neighborhoods.” But the implementation of that plan is on hold because he says he needs a force of 300 officers to make it work.

Even with its limited staff, the department is not without success stories.

At the start of the year, Straub reassigned more officers to work the beat downtown. Before then, just two neighborhood officers were assigned specifically to downtown. Now there are seven, providing coverage for most the day. They’re often on bicycles, and they interact much more with people on the street and with business owners than do officers working patrol, who cover large areas and mostly respond by car to calls from 911.

Violent crime and property crime have fallen downtown by more than 15 percent since staffing was increased.

In a brief stretch at lunchtime Wednesday, Officers Shaney Redmon and Deanna Storch politely told a homeless couple that they couldn’t sit on the sidewalk next to the Parkade, directing them to benches or area shelters. They gave treats to dogs walked by two other homeless men. They gave directions to two German tourists.

The officers say they believe increased officer presence is why crime has fallen downtown even though it’s up in five of the city’s seven other districts.

Experts say reducing crime is about much more than hiring officers.

Bryan Vila, a criminal justice and criminology professor at Washington State University Spokane, said if a police force is understaffed, it often means many officers work longer hours. His work shows that departments that are overworked tend to be involved in more car collisions and have more injuries. He’s currently researching the impact of fatigue and long work hours on decisions officers make in deadly encounters.

Vila said Straub is doing the right things in Spokane – focusing on data, for one – so that hiring more officers could make an impact on crime. But the community also needs to get on board by reporting crime and suspicious activity.

Condon says he’s convinced Spokane’s force is too small. Like most of Spokane’s other elected leaders, he says he’s committed to beefing the staff to around 300.

The question is how to pay for it.

In December, he said he was considering whether to put a property tax increase before voters this year.

But negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild remain stalled.

Condon says he prefers to only ask voters for more money if he can tell them how much is needed to pay for a specific number of additional officers.

“How do you go to the public when you don’t know what you’re going to be paying for and say, ‘Will you please pay for more cops?’ when we don’t know how much more cops is going to cost us?” Condon said.

Even if the city doesn’t ask voters for more money to boost the force, Condon says he plans to push forward with moving the force to 300 officers.

That could mean deep cuts to other portions of city government to increase the size of the police department.

“We’re going to have to make some strategic decisions, yes,” Condon said. “The definition of ‘deep’ or what we should be doing or shouldn’t be doing is a discussion I want to have with the public.”

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