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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local developer releases video suggesting cure for downtown Spokane crime

Spokane developer Larry Stone released “Curing Spokane”, a 17-minute video that focuses on downtown crime and lays out four proposed solutions to address it, on Thursday. (Screenshot)
By Chad Sokol and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Spokane isn’t dying, but it needs curing.

That’s the argument made in “Curing Spokane,” a 17-minute video released Thursday and produced by Spokane developer Larry Stone.

The video comes five months after the controversial KOMO-TV special “Seattle is Dying,” which sparked a debate about the severity of the problem of homelessness in not only Seattle but also Spokane.

Curing Spokane” begins by describing Spokane as “a beautiful gem of the Pacific Northwest.” But while it is “definitely not dying,” according to the voiceover, the city “does have some serious problems that need to be addressed.”

The video goes on to focus on downtown crime and lays out four proposed solutions to address it, noting that the city’s property crime rate is greater than that of Portland, San Francisco and New York City.

The video proposes a new, increased-capacity jail outside of the city center; increasing downtown policing and more aggressively prosecuting misdemeanor crimes; replacing the Spokane Transit Authority plaza with a new underground station; and improving downtown parking.

To highlight the problem downtown crime presents, filmmakers interviewed several downtown business owners and city residents about their experiences. The narrator describes “Curing Spokane” as a “video about crime, not about homelessness.”

The idea for producing the video came to Stone following the airing of “Seattle is Dying,” he told The Spokesman-Review on Thursday.

“This is not meant to replicate that, but it certainly made one aware that people are frustrated with criminal behavior,” Stone said. “I thought, ‘I’m in a position to do something, and other people aren’t stepping up.’ ”

Pre-election release

Curing Spokane was released less than three months before an election, but Stone said he has not endorsed either mayoral candidate.

A regular contributor to political campaigns and organizations, Stone donated $970 to Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart’s mayoral campaign this year. He has also supported the City Council candidacies of Cindy Wendle and Lori Kinnear in the 2019 election cycle.

In a statement, Stuckart described the video as “embarrassing, inciting and shaming our people to make a political point.”

“I don’t see how Larry can watch his own film and decide the solutions are parking spaces instead of mental health treatment, underground bus stations instead of affordable housing, and a bigger jail instead of programs that get our people out of poverty,” Stuckart said.

Woodward said she “just heard about it (the video) and saw it today,” but said she appreciated that a local developer was “willing to spend money to bring to light a problem that has been going on in our city.”

“It reiterates everything we’ve been saying since the very beginning of the campaign, and that is we need to enforce our laws to make our neighborhoods and our downtown safer,” Woodward said. “That video illustrates the crime problems downtown and how important it is … to relocate a police precinct back to the core of downtown.”

In quantifying the crime problem and offering its solutions, the video centers on comparing Spokane to Boise, describing the two as “nearly identical.” Both are positioned on major interstates and have similar populations and racial demographics, but both the crime rate and number of homeless people in Spokane is significantly higher, the video argues.

The video does not note the median household income is 24% higher in Boise ($54,547) than in Spokane ($44,768), according to the Census Bureau. In addition, a higher percentage of Spokane residents (19.4%) live in poverty than in Boise (14%).

“They’re definitely not twin cities, but they’re a lot more similar than they are different,” Stone said.

The video does not note that since a peak in 2013, the number of reported property crimes in Spokane decreased every year but one through 2017, the most recently available year of FBI data.

According to the city’s CompStat Reports, property crime – which includes residential burglary, garage burglary, commercial burglary, larceny and arson – has decreased 16% through Aug. 24 compared to the same point last year. In the downtown precinct, overall property crime reports have dropped 16.5% compared to this point in 2018.

Stone attributes the drop in crime to a decline in reporting due to a lack of response from police, who are “overwhelmed.”

“People don’t bother to call in,” Stone said.

County jail

The video also seizes on an ongoing debate about the future of Spokane County Jail, which has been overcrowded for decades.

Some local officials have mulled whether the county needs additional jail space while others argue crowding should be alleviated through charging, sentencing and bail reforms.

In arguing that Spokane County needs a new jail, the video presents some misleading statistics. With a bar chart, the video illustrates the Ada County Jail in Boise has space for more than 1,200 inmates while Spokane County’s downtown and Geiger facilities hold about 950.

However, space in the two cities is much more comparable. Each facility was designed to hold significantly fewer people, and each has been renovated over the years to pack in more inmates. Jail populations fluctuate, and the maximum capacity depends on logistical factors, such as staffing.

The Spokane County Jail, built in 1986, was designed to hold about 460 inmates but overflowed within 10 years, forcing the county to “double-bunk” cells and make space at the old Army barracks at Geiger. The combined population of the two facilities reached an all-time high of nearly 1,200 inmates in 2008.

The Ada County Jail, built in 1977, has been overcrowded, too. Last year, the Idaho Press reported the jail had a total of 1,224 beds, as the “Curing Spokane” video states. But the Ada County sheriff said the recommended population was much smaller, at 949 inmates.

The video also notes that more than 100 jail beds in Spokane are reserved for federal agencies to support the claim that Boise has “up to 40% more local jail capacity than Spokane.”

The video does not mention that many inmates in Ada County’s custody – an estimated 20% last year, according to the Idaho Press – are held on behalf of the Idaho Department of Correction. Combined, federal and state agencies account for only 16% of Spokane County’s jail population, according to a recent presentation by the JFA Institute.

“Curing Spokane” implies there is a direct relationship between crime and jail population, but it is complex.

The number of people jailed in any given city depends on the discretion and enforcement priorities of the local police and sheriff’s departments, and on the charging practices of the local prosecutor’s office.

This is evident in the county, where Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s office files felony drug possession charges at a per-capita rate nearly double the state average.

After watching “Curing Spokane,” Sabrina Ryan-Helton, who works for the Bail Project in Spokane, said in a statement that it suggests the wrong cure for Spokane’s homelessness issues.

“We’re facing a major public health crisis in our city, and it must be addressed,” Ryan-Helton said. “But if history has shown us anything, it is that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem.”

The nonprofit Bail Project works to bail people out of jail and connect them with resources in an effort to curb the use of pretrial detention.

“That misguided approach is what made us the most incarcerated nation on earth,” Ryan-Helton said. “It obviously hasn’t worked. Jails don’t heal people. They destroy. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. If we truly want to break these cycles of addiction, poverty and vulnerability, let’s invest in treatment and affordable housing, not jails.”

Stone, meanwhile, said he believes Spokane citizens will fund the construction of a new jail.

“I’ve watched our citizens step up every time we’ve asked them to step up on a major project,” Stone said.

Downtown policing

The video advocates for an increased police presence downtown and more aggressive policing of misdemeanors.

“They have to be doing enforcement, and that means the minor nuisance laws and the important ones, all of them. If the crime is allowed to go, to me, you’re just butting your head against the wall,” former Spokane police Sgt. Sean Nemec told filmmakers.

Stone said it was “frustrating and demoralizing” for the police force to see people arrested for misdemeanors be immediately released from jail.

The video does not mention that, thanks to funding from a public safety levy passed by voters earlier this year, five more police officers are expected to be assigned to the downtown police precinct in 2020. Stuckart led the effort to put the levy on the ballot. Woodward has said she opposed the tax.

The downtown precinct has 10 officers, and at least two members of the current City Council want to study the feasibility of relocating the downtown police precinct to a more central location.

“Curing Spokane” does not mention a federal appeals court ruled last year that Boise’s anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional, creating ripple effects here.

The three-judge panel said any policy that criminalizes homeless people for sleeping on the street is a violation of the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, unless the city provides enough shelter space.