Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced the creation of a property crime task force Tuesday afternoon, attributing its need to a spike in reports he connected to recent COVID-19-related releases of repeat offenders.
Data for all areas patrolled by sheriff’s deputies show notable increases in garage and commercial burglaries during March and April from the first two months of the year.
Exactly how many of those crimes were committed by people who were released from jail due to COVID-19 precautions is unclear.
In Spokane Valley, there were 30 garage and 53 commercial burglaries from March 1 to April 25, according to county crime statistics That’s nearly double rates of the previous 56-day period, when there were 17 and 28, respectively. More than 80 commercial burglaries have been reported since January, compared to about 30 during the same period in 2019.
Spokane police have also noticed a less dramatic but still consistent increase in those types of burglaries in recent weeks, according to Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a department spokesperson.
About 67 garage and 75 commercial burglaries were reported between January and February, according to city crime statistics. Those numbers rose to 94 and 85, respectively, for March and April, with nearly 50 commercial burglaries during the first four weeks of April alone.
Spokane police began emphasizing patrols around unattended commercial properties and businesses to combat potential burglaries in March.
“We have interrupted some burglaries in progress,” Preuninger said.
Cheney Police Department Capt. Rick Beghtol said his jurisdiction has seen a few more auto thefts, thefts from unattended construction sites and other “crimes of opportunity” than usual.
Cheney police are addressing that through frequent patrols of empty businesses and construction sites, Beghtol said. Officers are completing more reports from their cars to increase their visibility to the community as well.
Beghtol said the department also has seen a slight spike in reports of domestic violence. Spokane city data indicate those figures are down compared to last year.
Unincorporated areas of Spokane County saw 51 garage burglaries from March 1 to April 25, following 20 during the preceding eight weeks, according to county crime statistics. Thirty-five commercial burglaries have been reported since the beginning of the year, more than double the 17 reported during the same period in 2019.
“This is unacceptable,” Knezovich told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Undersheriff Dave Ellis, who is spearheading the task force, said the sheriff’s office will redeploy available investigative resources to target repeat property crime offenders, as well as integrate crime and investigative analysts with the task force. And the shifts investigators work will be changed to cover all hours during the day.
Ellis said the task force will also cooperate with community partners and other law enforcement agencies to solve crimes, then communicate with prosecutors about who the most serious offenders are.
The sheriff’s office will send out weekly reports tracking the progress of the task force, including who is arrested, who is released from jail and how long it takes deputies to rearrest them, according to Knezovich.
“This isn’t the first rodeo,” said Knezovich, who remembered standing up a property crime task force from about April 2012 to January 2013 in response to rising burglary rates.
Knezovich said the sheriff’s office hasn’t recorded a major increase in property crime since, though the department has had emphasis task forces on and off over the last several years.
He said the problem in 2012 was due to the Spokane Police Department dissolving its property crime investigation unit earlier in 2011.
This time around, Knezovich attributes the uptick to repeat offenders who have been released from jail in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said he believes advocacy groups took advantage of the crisis to reduce jail populations.
“COVID has victimized this community across the board,” Knezovich said Tuesday. “I think it’s time for us to not allow it to create more crime victims just in the sense of trying to release people from jail.”
“We are going to go after our hardcore, career criminals. We know who they are,” Knezovich continued. “And we intend on putting them back in jail.”
Knezovich said he had a list of people who have been arrested multiple times recently and released, but he did not immediately give that information to reporters.
Preuninger said Spokane police recognized the number of property crime defendants slated to be released from jail and said that “our fear was those numbers would be even higher.”
But that fear has not come to fruition.
Nearly 50 low-level municipal court defendants were released in mid-March, after Spokane County Detention Services urged local judges, police and prosecutors to reduce the jail population during the pandemic. Spokane County’s district and superior courts followed suit, prioritizing the release of inmates held on bonds below $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.
At the end of March, the number of people being held between Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center was around 620, compared to an average daily jail population of between 900 and 1,000.
About 550 people were jailed at the two facilities Tuesday night, according to jail records. Nearly 90 were booked into the jail Monday and Tuesday, while an equal number were released in that span.
Local advocates say it’s unfair to blame any rise in crime on their efforts – because they’re unhappy with recent jail releases as well.
Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson, who also is a Smart Justice Spokane executive committee member, said advocacy groups asked for the responsible, transparent release of people who did not need to be in jail.
“And what we saw was sporadic and, at the beginning stages of it, nontransparent,” Robinson said.
Robinson said advocates also asked for investment in alternative criminal justice methods, community policing and treatment resources.
“We never asked for people to willy-nilly be let out,” Robinson said. “What we are doing is continuing to hammer the issues that were evident long before COVID hit and are more evident now.”
Rather than release people from prison, Knezovich said the state Department of Corrections likely could have prevented the spread of COVID-19 through distancing inmates, despite overcrowding.
As for Spokane County, he said a new jail with room for distancing should have been built more than 20 years ago to combat persistent problems with overpopulation.
“There’s no evidence that shows building a bigger jail makes any area safer,” Robinson said. “What makes a city safer is investment in resources.”
Robinson said advocacy groups are still awaiting more information about recent jail releases, such as race, gender and ZIP code, to determine if they have been equitable.
Both Robinson and Knezovich acknowledged the bulk of the jail population tends to be people awaiting trial. And Knezovich said recently many people have been arrested multiple times, only to be released before their first hearing.
“We’ve got to do better,” Robinson said.