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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Crime/Public Safety

Shawn Vestal: Property crimes – an unfortunate hallmark of our civic identity – are steadily going down

Sept. 26, 2021 Updated Mon., Sept. 27, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.

For a long time, we’ve been a property crime town.

We have violent crime, of course, including last year’s disturbing spike in murders. In terms of sheer numbers, though, burglaries, car prowlings and thefts have tended to define Spokane’s place on the law-and-order map.

We perennially rank high on lists of cities with the most property crimes. Our police agencies have tackled these crimes in various ways, creating task forces or deploying emphasis patrols to hot spots. For years, the most common complaints about local police was that they didn’t respond to lower-level property crimes – and police have sometimes responded by pointing out that they don’t have the staffing to investigate them.

But gradually, over the past five years, reported property crimes have gone steadily, dramatically down in the city of Spokane. Comparing year-to-date Spokane Police Department crime reports on the same date for the past five years – Sept. 11 – shows a 37% drop in property crimes.

That’s a drop from 12,103 to 7,686 reports.

The numbers have gone down nearly every year in nearly every category of property crime: home burglaries, garage burglaries, commercial burglaries, larceny. There is obviously some impact from the pandemic, but the trend lines were moving in this direction before it arrived.

“When I came into office, property crime was a huge, huge deal,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “You don’t hear people talking about property crime so much anymore.”

Violent crime has remained relatively flat over the five-year period, declining 1.5%, while showing much more year-to-year volatility. Most notably, homicides have veered from three to seven to four to 14 to eight. The spike in murders last year drove media coverage – in conjunction with the picture painted by police officials objecting to new reform laws and a certain hysterical tone with regard to homelessness – that left the impression that crime in Spokane is skyrocketing.

There are definitely areas of concern. Domestic violence is up 9% and rape is up 4%, but both categories have fluctuated, rather than followed a trend.

But the property crime numbers are steady and clear: Only twice in the past five years was there a year-to-year increase in any category of burglary or larceny.

‘People are home more’

Crime statistics can be volatile, and experts warn against reading too much into short-term changes and emphasize the importance of looking at longer-term trends.

These figures are as long term as Spokane crime stats get right now, because the department changed its method of tracking statistics in 2017. (The numbers in this report compare crimes from Jan. 1 to Sept. 11 of each year, in order to make a long-term comparison with the most current reports; year-end statistics show the same pattern, with a 28% drop in property crimes reported between the year-end reports in 2017 and 2020.

The five-year decline in property crimes holds true in the northern precincts (-35%) and southern precincts (-41%). Downtown crime reports have not declined as steeply, but are down 7%.

This trend also tracks nationally, part of steep and long-term declines in crime across the country that have been ongoing since the 1990s.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which compiles statistics differently than SPD, also shows declines from 2017 in burglaries, car thefts and theft, though not as steady or significant.

Ed Byrnes, an Eastern Washington University professor who has conducted research about and with the department, said that a reduction in property crimes could be the result of a number of factors, and there’s no single likely reason.

The pandemic has obviously had a big effect on the numbers in the last two years – for good and for ill. Both he and Kinnear noted the fact that so many people have been home more has likely driven down burglaries.

“The more recent changes, especially in garage burglary, I would attribute some of that to just COVID and the fact that people are home more,” he said.

The pandemic obviously affected another category of minor crime: shoplifting. The number of shoplifting reports plummeted 55%, during a time when many stores were closed.

But some of the largest overall drops came before the pandemic. The biggest drops in burglary, larceny and vehicle thefts – which are the three largest categories of property crimes – all came in the year before COVID-19.

Byrnes noted there has been a change in policing, locally and nationally, toward more proactive targeting of areas with high crime reports. These emphasis patrols – or “place-based policing” – are shown to have positive effects on crime rates in research, he said.

“Place-centered policing does reduce crime,” he said.

‘Let us know’

Julie Humphreys, SPD spokeswoman, also noted the importance of emphasis patrols in driving down property crimes.

Over the years, the department has adopted various strategies of focusing time, attention and resources on hot spots or prolific offenders; as reports merit extra attention, the department directs extra attention to places seeing surges in crimes.

Last year, the department adopted a “mission-focused” approach on identifying areas of high crime and directing resources and attention to them, modeled on a program operated by the Los Angeles Police Department.

“The department has a mission to reduce crime as a whole, and that (property crimes) category has really been affected in the last five years,” Humphreys said.

Still, the perception persists that we are in a time of increasing crime in Spokane. A ttitudes around street homelessness downtown are a big driver, along with the public attention paid to more serious crimes.

The drop in crime stats could reflect a change in the number of people who call the police. With burglaries and car prowling, in particular, there’s long been a sense that people just might not be calling as much because police don’t respond to less-serious crimes.

Councilman Michael Cathcart, vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, raised this possibility, and noted that it’s common to hear some version of that comment from residents.

“A lot of people feel like if they report something, there’s not going to be a response,” he said.

Humphreys said the department has tried to continue emphasizing how important it is to report crimes – even if it’s something like a vehicle prowling, when you can’t reasonably expect an officer to race over and investigate.

But for the mission-based approach to succeed, the department needs accurate data on where crime is occurring, and vehicle prowling is the kind of crime that a short-term emphasis patrol can affect.

“We’ve kept the messaging out there: Let us know,” she said.

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