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With no spin, how does city's crime rate look?

Mayor Lary Coppola has made campaign boasts about a reduction in crime during his time in office, while a campaign flier mailed to Port Orchard residents tries to disprove the mayor’s claim.

Who’s got it right?

Well, the issue is not quite as black-and-white as a police cruiser.

Coppola, running for re-election to a second term, generally highlights the fiscal stability and improved business climate he’s fostered in the city, but he also frequently mentions that Port Orchard had the second-highest violent crime rate in Washington in 2007, when there were 9.6 violent crimes per 1,000 residents.

In 2010, the rate was only 5 incidents of violent crime — murder, aggravated assault, sexual assault, robbery — per 1,000 residents, ranking 20th in the state.

The flier mailed out by the political committee People for a Better Port Orchard focuses on increased property crime in the city, but makes selective use of statistics compiled in the police department’s annual reports from 2007 through 2010, which are accessible online.

And as one authority on local crime and law enforcement notes, the flier not only doesn’t mention the drop in violent crime, it provides no context about the city’s significant population growth from annexations over the past few years.

“It’s interesting how people can turn crime statistics into whatever they want them to be for political purposes,” Port Orchard Police Chief Al Townsend said when asked about the political flier.

“The flier states that property crimes have increased from 382 in 2007 to 592 in 2010. That is factual,” Townsend said. “But what you also need to look at is that over that time period, the city added new residential and commercial annexations and that a great deal of those property crimes are related to people being arrested for shoplifts in the big box stores that were annexed or added to our city.”

He said the biggest single factor in the increase in property crime stats are shoplifting incidents at the Fred Meyer store.

Another factor, although one that’s hard to quantify, that has contributed to more property crime is the economy, since many people are still coping with the effects of the recession.

“Clearly we’ve seen changes as the economy’s gotten worse,” Townsend said, noting that when many people are unemployed and nearly destitute, some will “resort to whatever option they can.”

The chief responded with a patrol officer on a recent call to the Albertson’s on Sedgwick Road, where a couple was loading a cartful of stolen groceries into a car until they were spotted by a store employee and fled. When the couple was later located at their residence, they gave back the stolen food and admitted the theft, and Townsend said they told him they did it because they had no money.

The People for a Better Port Orchard flier also compares the 58 DUI arrests in 2007 with the 2010 total of 82, characterizing it as “a nearly 41% increase in drunk drivers roaming our roads.”

But that number has steadily increased over the past four years, but has fluctuated considerably: 58 in 2007, 51 in 2008, 94 in 2009 and 82 in 2010.

Townsend was blunt in assessing the flier’s spin on DUI trends.

“The message about DUI’s is just absurd. It’s more likely that DUI’s are down,” he said, noting that police have focused on bars where there were frequent problems with over-serving drinks to intoxicated customers.

“And to measure the number of drunk drivers arrested as being the number of drunk drivers on the street is in no way correlated,” he added. “If the cops get busy with other things or we place different priorities on their jobs, the DUI arrests may go way down. That doesn’t mean there are less drunk drivers on the road. It just means we are arresting fewer.

“By the flier’s theory, if I tell my cops to stop arresting DUI’s in 2012, then I guess we solved the DUI problem by having stats showing that there were zero. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Townsend acknowledges that the number of vehicle thefts has spiked this year and may set a single-year record. He said that could partly be attributable to factors such as the Washington State Patrol eliminating its auto theft unit, the poor economy, and people convicted of property crimes generally not getting much jail time.

But one thing the police chief made clear is that he doesn’t attribute any changes in the crime rate — up or down — to whoever is mayor in a given year.

The only way elected officials have an impact is through funding of law enforcement agencies, he said.

“The City Council, as long as I’ve been here for the past 12 years, has been very supportive of public safety,” Townsend said.

And he’d prefer to keep policing and politics separate.

“While I’m not interested in taking political sides on a city election, I do take issue with people manipulating my crime stats for political purposes and turning them in to things they are not,” he said. “I have worked for three different administrations and will work well with new administrations in the future.  … I’m extremely proud of the work our police officers do every day and what they have done over the last several years to reduce crime in our community.”

 

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