High crime in Puyallup: perception or reality?

Despite complaints to the contrary, crime in Puyallup is not at an all-time high.

In fact, it’s trending down.

At least, that’s what the numbers say.

Using Crime in Washington annual reports from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, The News Tribune compiled crime rates dating back 30 years.

They show, for the most part, that the city is in better shape than it’s been in past decades.

As of 2018, the property crime rate in Puyallup is the lowest it’s been since 1990, while the violent crime rate has stayed fairly steady.

In an effort to match reports from years prior, The News Tribune counted “property crimes” as burglary, larceny theft offenses, motor vehicle theft and arson. “Violent crimes” include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

There were 60 property crimes committed per 1,000 people in Puyallup in 2018. In 1990, the property crime rate was 73 property crimes committed per 1,000 people.

Violent crimes rates, while much lower than property crimes in number, have remained steadier in the last 20 years, ranging from 2.5 crimes per 1,000 people in 1990 to 3.2 crimes per 1,000 people in 2018.

Can the numbers be trusted?

When the Puyallup Police Department shared on Facebook in January its crime rates were down, not everyone was convinced.

Former City Council candidate Matthew Cuyle, who was defeated in the August primary, noted how he’s seen the city change over the past decade. Cuyle said crime has gotten worse, noting break-ins on his property and that of nearby neighbors.

“It’s one thing to look at what’s reported. It’s another thing to talk to the citizens,” Cuyle told The News Tribune. “In the last five years, just the house across the street has gone through multiple owners. A lot of people just want to move somewhere safer.”

Others have a similar perception.

“Thanks to Puyallup PD for their efforts but these stats don’t really jibe with community experience as evidenced by previous comments about numerous crimes that go unreported,” commented one Facebook user.

“It has just become a way of life in Puyallup,” said another. “I do appreciate the police. But there is no way that the crime rate is down.”

Candidates in this year’s City Council election have prioritized public safety.

District 1 candidate Curtis Thiel said he doesn’t feel crime is down in Puyallup.

“My perspective is based off of knocking on the doors,” he said. “I think where we’re at now is people aren’t reporting the crimes.”

Candidate Curt Gimmestad shared with the Puyallup-Sumner Chamber of Chamber in June that the company he works for, Absher Construction, often falls victim to property crimes, including stolen tools and equipment.

“It’s a problem, and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and we need to do something about it,” Gimmestad said.

State crime-rate trends paint a different picture of Puyallup — one that suggests things are better than they used to be.

“It’s great to see that crime has been trending down — it goes to show that our folks are doing a good job out there,” said Puyallup Police Department officer and spokesperson Ryan Portmann.

New Hope

For years, crime has been a hot topic in Puyallup, with homeless services provider New Hope Resource Center often at the center of the conversation.

Complaints paint the area around the drop-in center as a hot spot for sanitation and security problems, theft, littering, illegal drug use, indecent exposure and other negative impacts since it opened at 414 Spring St. in 2014.

New Hope is often a target on the Clean Up Puyallup Facebook page, which has gathered more than 5,000 followers. Moderators of the page are frequent speakers at Puyallup City Council meetings.

Stats don’t show a spike in crime in 2014 after the opening of New Hope, or in 2015 or 2016. Property crime rate trends citywide have been decreasing since New Hope opened, while violent crime has remained roughly the same.

“We also have been watching the crime statistics very closely, and we have also seen the downward trend,” said Sheryl Borden, president of Homeward Bound, which runs the New Hope.

Borden told The News Tribune it’s frustrating to hear “rhetoric” about abundant crime on the New Hope property.

“We know that’s not true,” she said.

Better or worse?

Sitting at a table in the deputy chief’s office at the Puyallup Police Department last April, Portmann took a look at the packet of reports collected by The News Tribune.

While hesitant to speak on specifics of the report, he said Puyallup’s trends are on par with statewide and national ones.

“Nationally, crime has been trending down for years,” he said.

Portmann said Puyallup’s crime rates are slightly higher compared to surrounding cities, but that it’s hard to compare because people travel to and from the city frequently. That includes many who don’t call it home.

“Our community has the hospital, has mental health treatment facilities, it has the fair, it has the mall,” Portmann said. “We’re a city of 40,000 that has a lot of large transitory population, as far as the day-in and day-out business that goes on here ... While our population is 40,000, there are days when we have 120,000 people at the fair.”

Prevention programs implemented by the Puyallup Police Department in recent years might have contributed to decreased crime, especially property crimes.

Puyallup’s Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) Unit was created in the early 2000s and works to engage the community in crime prevention programs.

Over the past 30 years, violent crime rates were at the highest in 2008 at 4.1 crimes per 1,000 people. Property crime rates were at the highest in the year 2000, reaching 103 property crimes committed per 1,000 people. The population in 2000 was 30,940.

When asked about it, Portmann had a hunch of what had caused it.

“The meth epidemic,” he said. “That’s what drove a lot of that.”

At the time, a county-wide effort was ongoing to tackle meth use. When he was appointed in 2000, then-Puyallup police chief Rodger Cool said that “meth labs probably are our first and foremost concern,” according to News Tribune archives.

Puyallup Mayor John Palmer said the city has taken recent action to combat crime. The city has funded 10 new officer positions in the last few years, he said.

“(Crime) is not gone, but we have seen improvements,” he said.

The methodology

While the Crime in Washington reports are a good indicator of crime in Puyallup, they’re not perfect.

How offenses are documented has changed over the years.

By 2010, Puyallup had officially changed its method of submitting crime statistics as part of a national movement to more accurately document offenses. Prior to the switch, not all crimes were recorded — for example, if an incident involved both a murder and a car theft, only the murder might be recorded.

Now, specific crimes are counted in detail. What used to be called a rape offense under the old method, for example, is now part of “forcible sex offenses,” which include rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object and fondling.

Even the state reports caution comparing data between cities.

“There are several variables which contribute to crime in a particular jurisdiction, including the demographics, economic, and cultural make-up of the population, the local industrial and economic base, its dependence upon neighboring jurisdictions, the transportation system, its economic dependence on nonresidents (such as tourists, shoppers, or other day-time visitors), and its proximity to military installations, correctional facilities, universities/colleges, or state hospitals,” the report states.

Puyallup Councilman Jim Kastama, who’s been vocal about increased crime in Puyallup after the opening of New Hope, maintains that crime rates collected by the state don’t account for everything.

He said the stats don’t account for the personal actions taken by residents and the city to prevent crime after New Hope opened, such as installing security cameras. The statistics also don’t account for concentrations in crime — such as whether crime in the vicinity of New Hope has increased or decreased.

It could be that crime has decreased because citizens have taken more preventative measures against the “fear of crime,” Kastama said.

“The response (to criminal behavior) has been tremendous on the city and a personal level,” said Kastama, who’s been vocal about the impacts of New Hope.

Kastama said that there should always be an effort to reduce crime.

“Regardless of the rationale for any of those numbers, we intend to bring them down,” he said.

Perceptions of crime

A Clean Up Puyallup Facebook post on Aug. 3 claimed that people are “taking advantage of our generous spirit, people who don’t care about our town and it’s people.”

“This is wrong, this is scary,” the post continues. “The crimes are becoming more brazen, more aggressive, more violent. We can not continue in this direction.”

Social media may have contributed to a perception of increased crime, according to Puyallup police.

“In our (Facebook) blotter we’re much more transparent … than we’ve ever been,” Portmann said. “We have more Facebook followers than we have citizens in Puyallup ... People that are out there, they’re seeing us, they know what’s going on. They’re informed, but that information sometimes causes fear.”

Visible homelessness can also lead to perceptions of crime, said Borden.

“I think there’s fear that occurs just because there’s a group of homeless people in one spot, and that’s always going to cause the people around that area to maybe have concerns,” she said.

Portmann said visible homelessness has increased.

“When I first got to Puyallup in 2003 as a patrol officer, there were maybe eight or 10 regular homeless folks that we all knew and that has now grown,” Portmann said.

Still, calls to police about New Hope aren’t typically about criminal offenses, he said.

“A lot of the calls for service that people feel is criminal activity often aren’t criminal,” Portmann said. “Poor behavior doesn’t always translate into criminal behavior.”

Borden said the homeless drop-in center works closely with police.

“The police department in Puyallup is top notch — they do a great job and they’re always trying to do a better job,” Borden said. “If there’s any illegal activity (on site) we’re going to involve the police.”