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Shawn Vestal: Low police funding leaves crime victims feeling helpless

Mona Ashbaugh was robbed of her purse on Feb. 22 near the corner of Third Avenue and Stevens Street in downtown Spokane. The suspect tried to buy $137 in food with her stolen credit cards at the nearby McDonald’s. (Dan Pelle)
Mona Ashbaugh was robbed of her purse on Feb. 22 near the corner of Third Avenue and Stevens Street in downtown Spokane. The suspect tried to buy $137 in food with her stolen credit cards at the nearby McDonald’s. (Dan Pelle)

It wasn’t exactly the crime of the century. Or, even, the crime of the day.

But when Mona Ashbaugh was robbed by a young punk on a bike, what happened left her deeply rattled – both about her own security and about Spokane’s. So Ashbaugh, a recent transplant, is making a campaign out of her case.

Ashbaugh wrote an impassioned letter to the police chief, the mayor, the City Council and others – urging them to do something about the staffing levels in the police department. She has investigated the case herself, obtaining security camera footage and talking to people at the McDonald’s where the thief unsuccessfully tried to buy $137 in McFood with her credit cards.

She has simply raised hell about it.

“They need to hire more police officers,” she said. “Especially in the hub of downtown, there needs to be some kind of police presence.”

She knows it’s not the kind of thing that will rise to the top of the police department’s priority list. “My instinct was to say, ‘Oh forget it,’ and go on, because I have papers to grade, I have stories to write, I’m busy … but no.”

Ashbaugh simply hasn’t lowered her expectations. She hasn’t lived through the will-they-or-won’t-they drama of the police department’s response to property crimes, or been here for the debates about whether we should raise property taxes by a few bucks to hire an extra cop or two. She hasn’t learned the unfortunate skill that many of us have – shrugging it off.

I know Ashbaugh and came across her story on Facebook. She moved to Spokane last year to teach and study creative writing in the graduate program at Eastern Washington University, and she was part of a workshop I taught there.

Around 7:30 in the morning on Feb. 22, a Friday, she was walking to the STA Plaza from her home on the lower South Hill, to catch the bus to Cheney, where she teaches freshman composition classes. She was carrying a reusable Trader Joe’s bag with her things: her wallet, a stack of student papers, and her lunch. It was snowing, and she had the hood of her coat up.

At the corner of Stevens Street and Third Avenue, she felt a blow to her shoulder and the bag was torn from her hands. She looked up to see a young man riding away on a bicycle, carrying her bag.

Stunned at first, Ashbaugh gathered her wits and chased the kid for several blocks, hollering and cursing. I wish you could hear her describing this moment in all its unprintable glory, but you’ll have to take my word for it. At some point, she said, she asked herself, “OK, Mona. … What’s your plan if you catch him?”

So she went looking for a cop.

Ashbaugh moved here from Sonoma County in California, where she taught at a law school. She was accustomed, she says, to seeing police around town; she presumed that in the downtown area at 8 in the morning, she would find a police officer or car somewhere, and she began walking.

“I wasn’t hurt, so I didn’t want to call 911,” she said. “I just wanted to report it.”

By the time she reached the COPS shop at 120 N. Stevens St., she hadn’t seen an officer, and she found the front door there locked. Doesn’t open until 9. She walked to City Hall, where she called police and waited for around 40 minutes for an officer. She says that the clerks at City Hall and the officer himself were both wonderful to her; she doesn’t fault them. But the officer also shared his frustrations with her, she said – about the city’s staffing level for police.

In the end, Ashbaugh was not out any money. The thief tried to use her cards, unsuccessfully at McDonald’s, and used one to buy a bus pass, but Ashbaugh got the charge removed. She has obtained security camera footage from the STA Plaza, but it doesn’t show the thief’s face.

She understands that her crime won’t be a police priority. She understands that a force with limited officers has to make decisions about where to deploy its people and resources. But she also does not want to merely accept that her morning walk to the bus stop must be shadowed by this robbery.

Here’s what we’ve gotten accustomed to in Spokane: The city has the highest overall crime rate – the number of crimes reported per thousand residents – in the state, at 78. Spokane County has the highest crime rate among Washington counties.

And we’re not just tops in the state. We’re among the most crime-ridden cities in the nation. Our violent crime rate is not quite twice the national average; our property crime rate is well over twice the national average. The website Neighborhood Scout, in its comparisons of cities based on FBI crime statistics, concluded: “Few other communities of this size have a crime rate as high as Spokane.”

The website gives Spokane a crime index ranking of 2.

On a 100-point scale.

Meanwhile, we’re running a police force on the cheap. We have 1.3 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents; in Tacoma, a city that’s roughly the same size and is right behind us in the crime rate, there are 1.9 cops per thousand residents. They have 100 more officers than we do, and our force is not getting any larger.

But this is old news, isn’t it? We’ve just gotten used to it, haven’t we?

Mona Ashbaugh hasn’t. Her story is a reminder that we shouldn’t either.

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