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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Police officer builds fence for North Spokane resident after repeated burglaries

Pam Silva moved into her rental house on West Shannon Avenue five years ago, and she’s been averaging a burglary per year.

Break-ins at her garage and home have cost her power tools, a lawnmower, Christmas presents, electronics …

“I’m out $10,000 worth of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years,” said Silva, a 64-year-old home health care worker.

She’s taken a lot of steps to secure her home and garage along the way. She purchased a motion sensor and a baby monitor “so I can hear anything that’s happening in my garage,” she said. She’s put up a security camera above the garage door and uses an in-home security system through her cable company. She’s gotten a dog and a pistol – a .380 with a laser sight. “They stole my security camera, so I had to go out and buy a new one,” she said.

Still, her garage was open to the alley – the only unfenced garage on her alley block – and she had become a target. At least until she called the police after the last burglary in April.

After that, Neighborhood Resource Officer Traci Ponto said she sat in the alley behind Silva’s house in her cruiser, thinking about what was happening to Silva. Ponto had come to know Silva fairly well over the past years, and was frustrated by the string of crimes. A “notorious” nearby duplex had become a center of criminal activity, including drugs and a homicide, and it was spilling over into Silva’s life to such a degree that she dreaded coming home after work. She would have panic attacks, she said. She was frequently in contact with Ponto, sending pictures and emails of suspicious activity, and growing increasingly frustrated.

“I didn’t know what else we could do,” Ponto said. “I just got exasperated. … What could we do to stop people from breaking into her garage?”

Ponto’s answer went well beyond the extra mile – she built Silva a fence. On her own time and on her own dime, Ponto and her husband, Sean, bought the wood, poured the concrete footings, and put up a 14-foot cattle gate with wooden fencing attached to the outside.

“I’m a farm girl so of course I go for the cattle gate,” Ponto said.

It cost about $300 and took a couple of weekend days of work, and there has not been a burglary at Silva’s home in the six months or so since.

“The police get a lot of negative publicity and Traci – she takes her work, what she does in this community, she takes it way beyond her job description,” Silva said. “She has been way awesome.”

The story of Silva’s fence comes from the uncovered annals of Spokane police stories of 2014. The burglary was in April, and the Pontos built the fence in the summer. So it’s not new, but it is – at least to my mind – news. In terms of what the community needs from the police and what the police need from the community, it is arguably as important as many of the other reasons that police find themselves in the news these days: a simple, individual act of kindness and community.

“She gave me peace of mind,” Silva said. “I can come home now and not worry that someone’s been in my garage or house.”

Ponto is a 20-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department, and she’s been the NRO in West Central for around seven years. She said she was wary of the neighborhood at first – with its reputation for poverty and crime – but she was won over immediately by the commitment of the residents, and their willingness to contribute to what the police are doing.

“West Central changed my mind within a week,” she said. “How can you not want to work for them?”

The neighborhood might have taken a little longer to grow on Silva. She moved there in July 2009, and shortly thereafter her garage was burglarized for the first time. She lost her power lawnmower, tools, her grandson’s bike and other items. In February of the following year, her home was broken into and she lost a TV and game system. In November 2010, someone went through her garage again – taking the power tools she’d just replaced, a GPS system and CD player out of her car, and some Christmas presents she had stowed in the trunk.

Again and again. Sometimes the people were caught and charged, sometimes they weren’t. After she took every preventive measure she could think of, things improved somewhat, but this April, she and her grandson heard something on the baby monitor early one evening, and sure enough, someone had used a crowbar to break in again.

“He’s lucky I didn’t go out with my .380,” she said.

That was the case that got Ponto thinking about the fence.

So, does Silva finally feel safe at home?

“I do now,” she said. “No. 1, I do have a gun now. No. 2, I feel so much more secure that nobody can get through my back fence. I do feel safe.”

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

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