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Shawn Vestal: It may not seem like it, but crime in Spokane is down

Spokane Police Chief Criag Meidl photographed Friday, June 7, 2019. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Chief Criag Meidl photographed Friday, June 7, 2019. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Would it surprise you to know that crime in Spokane – and crime downtown, in particular – is down significantly so far this year?

Or that the year-to-date crime statistics in the city reflect an even larger drop?

That is not a particularly loud and distinct part of our discussions about the state of the city these days. But the numbers compiled by the Spokane Police Department’s CompStat program show that crime reports are down 13%, compared with last year at this point. Violent crimes are down, broadly, as are property crimes. Citizens have reported nearly 1,000 fewer crimes this year than they had by the first of June 2018.

And last year’s reports at this same time of the year were down 4% from the previous year.

Take those figures with a spoonful of salt. Crime stats are notoriously variable and volatile, many crimes are underreported, and there have indeed been some spikes in some kinds of criminal criminal activity in some parts of town for some time periods.

Last summer, for example, there was an increase in aggravated assaults downtown; some have tried to connect that primarily to the homeless population, but you can find a clue to where the bulk of the problem lies when you realize how the police department responded: with extra patrols targeting certain downtown bars.

Generally speaking, since the department adopted a new way of tracking crime figures in 2016, the trend has been modestly downward. If you look at the only available complete-year figures since the SPD adopted a new statistics method in 2016, you see a similar pattern: The final report of 2017 showed a 7% drop in crime from the previous year, and the final of 2018 showed a 2.6% drop.

It may be no accident that this trend accompanied a significant increase in the size of the police department – the addition of 50 officers over the past five years.

That’s been a critical improvement in the long-understaffed department, and the passage of last year’s public safety levy will add 20 more cops to the streets in the next few years.

Chief Craig Meidl welcomes the new stats, while emphasizing that crime trends should be viewed over a longer term than a couple of years to be really meaningful. Significant problems remain – chiefly theft and other property crimes, driven in large part by drug-addicted repeat offenders – and Meidl said that the public’s sense of safety is influenced by a lot of factors beyond the crime rate, including the prevalence of garbage and graffiti downtown, or their own personal experiences with crime.

“We’re not saying it’s safe all the time, 24/7,” he said in an interview last week. “We’re saying the overall crime rate is going down.”

Here are a few highlights from recent reports:

    As of June 1, the year-to-date statistics show a 13.4% drop in preliminary crime reports. That’s down from 7,217 reports to 6,249. The initial report from June 2018 reflected a 4% drop from 2017, in which 7,486 crimes had been reported during the first five months of the year.

    The overall drop includes a decline in the number of property crimes (13.5%) and violent crimes (12.3%)

    Some areas did show increases: Commercial robberies rose from 30 to 37 (23%), personal robberies rose from 77 to 81 (5%) and burglaries also increased.

    The patterns are very similar in the downtown precinct, where the year-to-date crime reports are down 17%, including drops in both property crimes and violent crimes.

    The downtown statistics also showed a drop in aggravated assaults, from 61 last year to 46 this year (25%). But that follows a year in which aggravated assaults rose significantly downtown, and remains higher than the total number of such reports from 2017: 28.

Within the figures are realities of Spokane crime that have remained stubbornly true for many years: Our biggest single crime problem, by number, is larceny, which makes up the vast majority of all crime reports. This included car break-ins, which are a rotating plague across the city, and other forms of theft.

Larcenies are down 14% so far this year, but we’ve surpassed 4,000 such crimes already. And the main driver of that category, Meidl said, is an unfortunately familiar one: repeat offenders, stealing to fund drug habits.

How to handle that particular problem has been a subject of lots of discussion and debate in the town, and will surely continue to be – as the community considers proposals for new jails and other potential changes to the criminal justice system.

In the meantime, Spokane is not experiencing a crime wave – not citywide and not downtown – though you might get the idea that it is. We’ve got our problems, but there’s good news, too.

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