Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said Friday that the disbanding of the department’s property crimes unit in 2011 is an “urban legend” perpetrated by former administrators looking to boost funding for the department.
“Someone, and I’m not quite sure who it was, or a group of people within the department, thought that it would help the police budget to say there’s not going to be a property crimes unit anymore and property crimes are not going to be investigated,” Straub said. He took over the department last autumn.
The unit exists, he said, but it also focuses on fraud and computer crimes.
The issue arose this week after Gail Gerlach shot and killed car thief Brendon Kaluza-Graham in north Spokane on Monday.
Whether Gerlach, 56, was within his rights to shoot the suspect is still under investigation, but the incident has people asking if the Police Department is doing enough about property crime or if citizens are being forced to vigilantism.
Former City Councilman Bob Apple said Friday that former Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick informed the council that police would stop investigating property crimes, but the idea was “vehemently opposed.”
What she told detectives to pursue was ultimately a departmental matter, he said, but it was clear that for a time property crimes were ignored in a bid to get more money from the council.
“She didn’t feel she had enough money,” Apple said. “I’m glad she’s gone because that kind of remark causes crime.”
The announcement caused a public relations debacle for the Police Department.
Apple said he assumed property crimes were being investigated less frequently because financing for fingerprint analysis dropped significantly after that announcement.
Kirkpatrick, now undersheriff at the King County Sheriff’s Office, was not available for comment Friday.
The Spokane Police Department is structuring its property crimes unit differently, Straub said, and uses data to prevent crime or catch criminals in the act instead of responding to a scene hours later.
A lot of the success of that model depends on the help of citizens reporting thefts, Straub said.
While not everyone who reports something stolen gets a call back from a detective, he said, the reports are used to analyze the areas hit most frequently.
Last year, the NW Insurance Council ranked Spokane as the city with the fourth-highest per-capita rate for vehicle thefts nationwide.
The rates continue to soar: So far this year, vehicle thefts are up 44 percent in the city. However, 75 percent of vehicles that are confirmed stolen are recovered, police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said.
Straub said he understands the frustration of property crime victims but that officers have to prioritize crimes in progress.
The reality of leaving valuables in cars, he said, is that their owners may not get them back.
“I hate to sound cynical; the reality is, you’re probably not going to see that iPad back,” Straub said. “Unless we’re very fortunate, you report it quickly, someone has a description of the subject and … we’re able to make a quick arrest.”
Even if it’s reported hours later, though, the data is still useful.
Each week, the department looks at the previous week’s crime stats to designate “hot spots” for various crimes and redirects patrols as needed.
A tangible result, Straub said, is that crime overall is down 10 percent in the west central area of the city and 12 percent in the southwest and downtown areas.
The more people report crimes, Straub said, the more targeted police will be in attacking the problem spots.
He urges people who see a crime in progress, however, to call police.
Straub said he acknowledges a person’s right to own a gun, but to “be very careful when you start to think about how you’re going to intercede in some of these issues.”
“What I would urge people to do is, if you see something, say something, and we’ll take it from there.”