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Unexpected cash infusion helps Spokane fight auto theft, property crime

OLYMPIA – The Washington Legislature is offering Spokane law enforcement $300,000 to help knock the community off national lists that no one likes to be on – the ones for auto theft and property crime.

Tucked into the 2016 supplemental budget the Legislature passed Tuesday is up to $100,000 each for Spokane police, Spokane Valley police and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for a task force to fight auto theft and other property crime.

Sometimes a task force is the Legislature’s way of punting on a problem when it can’t reach agreement, but this is not that kind, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said. This is money to the agencies to do something about the problem.

“We just knew everybody’s been a victim or knows somebody who has been a victim,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “Hopefully, it’ll be able to help.”

Baumgartner, Padden and Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, lobbied budget writers to add the money in what’s known as a proviso, a paragraph with specific instructions in a 352-page budget with some $38 billion in spending.

Local law enforcement officials agree auto theft and other forms of property crime are a big problem. Some groups that track crime statistics have Spokane as high as No. 6 in the nation for auto theft and Washington No. 1 for property crime, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.

Auto theft has been “off the charts” in the first three months of 2016, while burglary and other property crimes are also on the rise as some thieves who have been convicted and jailed a few years ago are getting out and “going back to their old habits,” he added.

But the money came as a surprise. A pleasant surprise, Spokane City Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt said, but definitely not something the department sought.

“I didn’t even know about the money until I read about it in the newspaper,” Knezovich said.

The departments are trying to come up with strategies to spend the money. It’s a one-time appropriation, Padden said, so they can’t use it for an ongoing cost, like hiring more officers, because the city or county would have to pick up that expense after a year.

In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office formed a task force to crack down on property crime, shifting personnel around and getting county commissioners to agree to pay overtime for long hours officers needed to concentrate on that effort. “Criminals don’t work 9 to 5,” Knezovich said.

It worked. Some of the worst offenders were convicted and the rate for those crimes went down. The total bill for overtime was about $55,000.

But the department has fewer officers now than four years ago, and similar personnel shifts and use of overtime might not be possible, Knezovich said.

A few days after the budget passed, McDevitt and department leaders asked commanders in the field and officers working on property crimes for suggestions on ways to use the money. He’s not in favor of using the money for overtime because the department has had some heavy expenses for overtime lately, including some $15,000 for the first Bernie Sanders visit.

The department might buy more automated license plate readers or computer software to spot vehicles reported stolen or involved in other crimes, McDevitt said. It’s also considering more cameras, or increased outreach to citizens to make them aware of the problem and the best ways to avoid being a victim.

Craig Meidl, Spokane’s assistant police chief, said the funding is “a phenomenal infusion of money” the department wasn’t expecting but has to be careful using: “We want to make sure we spend it right and not go out and spend it on the newest, shiniest gizmo.”