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As Spokane jail holds fewer people due to COVID-19, is crime up?

The Spokane County Public Safety Building.   (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)

It’s unclear what effect the release of jail inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic has had on local crime rates, according to both data and Spokane-area law enforcement.

Overall, violent crime in the city of Spokane from Jan. 1 and July 25 of this year showed a 12% drop compared to the same period in 2019, while property crime dropped by 11%. That’s according to the most recent data from the Spokane Police Department through CompStat, a standardized system police departments use across the nation to collect data.

Not every category of crime, however, is down. Arson and commercial burglary, for example, are up from last year, according to the CompStat report.

Spokane Police Department spokesperson Terry Preuninger said the department expected commercial burglary to “skyrocket” as some businesses have been closed and left empty during closures and reopening phases, while the rise in arson is more mysterious.

And the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has found a different trend. Assault, burglary and vehicle theft are all up from 2019, while theft is down, according to the June 2020 monthly crime statistical review.

Despite protests in May, which gained attention for being destructive after a group looted the downtown Nike store, overall rates for damage, destruction and vandalism were down in May 2020 (229 instances) compared to May 2019 (287 instances), according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. CompStat does not report crimes in a vandalism category.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has attributed earlier spikes in some kinds of crime, including property crime, to recent COVID-19-related releases of offenders.

Now, Knezovich said it’s preventable deaths that weigh on him. He said blood spilled in the county over the years is “starting to feel very, very heavy.”

“In the last two months, we’ve had people released from the jail and they’ve killed people,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich pointed to Jordan Knippling, who is suspected of stabbing a man to death. Knippling had been arrested and released several times before the murder, including for allegedly stabbing his roommate.

Murder is the least frequent crime by far in each data chart, but is up from four murders in the first half of 2019 to six murders so far in 2020, according to the CompStat report. Sheriff’s Office data shows no change, with three murders in each year.

Preuninger warned against taking homicide data without a grain of salt. He said many deaths aren’t immediately reported and filed as homicides, but gain that label after an autopsy. Preuninger said the CompStat report numbers are wrong for that reason. Eleven death investigations have officially been labeled homicide so far in 2020, while the report shows just six homicides.

Preuninger said the overall decline in crime seen in SPD’s report does not necessarily reflect that people released from jail are not going to commit crimes again.

The downward trend in crime is not as a sharp as it should be, Preuninger said, considering COVID-19’s effect on social activity, travel and the economy. He said it says more about the pandemic’s effect on the general public than about the release of inmates.

“When you look at the lack of mobility in the community, crime should be down,” Preuninger said. “I would think crime should be down much more significantly.”

Preuninger said there are usually many thousands more people moving through the Spokane area, including significant numbers from Kootenai County, for work and shopping. Now that people are less mobile, police expected a dip in crimes.

The Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center inmate population has remained at unprecedented lows since March, when court orders required many defendants to be released to reduce crowding and prevent COVID-19 spread in local corrections facilities .

The jail and Geiger Corrections Center held a total of 644 inmates on Tuesday, according to the inmate roster, while the combined population of the two facilities has hovered between about 900 to 1,000 for years.

Preuninger said he imagines the pandemic will offer crime researchers a trove of good information to sort through, though it will also be messy.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in our recent generations,” Preuninger said. “So it’s hard to say how much of an impact any one factor has.”