Crime

When it comes to crime, we’re No. 1 statewide

Tacoma ranks first in the state for violent crime, according to recently released statistics from the FBI.
Tacoma ranks first in the state for violent crime, according to recently released statistics from the FBI. The News Tribune

It’s not a talking point for civic boosterism, but Tacoma owns a fearsome trophy: The City of Destiny ranks first in the state of Washington for violent crime, according to recently released statistics from the FBI.

Numbers for counties are a bit fuzzier, but Pierce County holds the same ranking among the state’s 39 counties in the FBI’s annual report of crime in the United States, recently updated with figures from 2016.

It’s hardly a shock. The FBI’s numbers reveal similar patterns over the past decade. Each year three Pierce County cities — Tacoma, Lakewood and Fife — battle for the dubious No. 1 distinction. The only competitor is Tukwila in King County, which has its share of violent crime, but invariably leads the state in property crimes per 1,000 residents.

In other words, flippant Twitter hashtags such as #KeepTacomafeared and #FierceCounty aren’t so flippant. They have a basis in reality. But why? What makes the region such a consistent locus for crime?

In other words, flippant Twitter hashtags such as #KeepTacomafeared and #FierceCounty aren’t so flippant. They have a basis in reality. But why? What makes the region such a consistent locus for crime?

Tacoma’s Assistant Police Chief Ed Wade runs the department’s administrative service bureau, which includes crime analysis. He freely admits he can’t put his finger on it.

“If I could find out that one sole thing that caused us to have that type of violent crime rate, I think I would be able to bottle it up, write a book, solve it and ship that out to other places,” he said.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor was equally stymied when asked to explain the region’s persistent crime rates.

“If I knew that, I’d be a rich criminologist,” he said.

Violent crime, as defined by the FBI, is a four-legged stool: murder, rape, robbery and assault. Each leg has its subsets, but all four involve “force or the threat of force,” according to agency standards.

Tacoma’s statistics list 13 reports of murder or non-negligent manslaughter in 2016 — one more than the previous year. By contrast, Seattle, with a population three times greater, reported 19 murders.

Drawing conclusions from crime statistics is a tricky business, often subject to misinterpretation. The FBI refuses to “rank” areas solely on the basis of crime data, though news outlets and various businesses make a habit of it.

“There are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place,” according to a statement on the FBI’s data website. “Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.”

Diving deeper into local numbers, Wade and Pastor pointed to a combination of factors that contribute to local crime.

“We have a fairly transient population,” Pastor said. “We have a fairly young population. We have a mental hospital (a reference to Western State Hospital in Lakewood). Until recently, we had two prisons.”

We have a lot of major medical facilities. We have a military base within close proximity. We have a very large retail base. Large cities tend to be a hub for a lot of social services and charitable organizations that try to help the people that need it the most. You attract people in in need but you also attract the people that tend to prey on them.

Tacoma Assistant Police Chief Ed Wade

Wade’s assessment added more potential factors: “We have a lot of major medical facilities,” he said. “We have a military base within close proximity. We have a very large retail base. Large cities tend to be a hub for a lot of social services and charitable organizations that try to help the people that need it the most. You attract people in in need but you also attract the people that tend to prey on them.”

On a per-capita basis, the federal numbers from 2016 show 9.5 violent crimes per 1,000 people in Tacoma, an uptick from 8.2 in 2015 and 7.9 in 2014.

 

The numbers for Pierce County stood at three violent crimes per 1,000 people — lower than Tacoma, but the highest rate of the state’s 39 counties. Tacoma, with a population hovering around 209,000, has 336 commissioned officers in its police department. Pierce County has 268.

For Pastor, that number is daunting. The population of unincorporated Pierce County stands at 392,695, according to statistics compiled by the sheriff’s department, using statewide population data.

“If unincorporated Pierce County were a city, it would be the second-largest in the state of Washington,” he said. “We also have the second largest number of square miles. We are not a sleepy little rural jurisdiction. We do wilderness, suburban, rural — we have more things expected of us. Police departments don’t register sex offenders. We do.”

If unincorporated Pierce County were a city, it would be the second-largest in the state of Washington.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor

The points gain urgency in light of ongoing budget debates in Tacoma and Pierce County, where public safety tends to be biggest driver of expenses, even as law enforcement leaders explain the need for additional staffing.

In that setting, crime statistics become the basis for fiscal arguments. Over the past decade, the numbers in Tacoma and Pierce County follow a similar track: a steady rate of violent crime and property crime starting in 2008, a slight dip starting in 2010 and a gradual increase dating to 2013.

Some of those effects correlate with the great recession, tightened budgets, and reduced hiring at both agencies. Wade, looking at a decade’s worth of staffing numbers, noted several years when hiring was minimal.

“There’s a few years where we didn’t hire anybody because we were trying to shrink,” he said.

Wade pointed to another hidden factor. The late 1980s and early 1990s were marked by tough-on-crime initiatives that led to expansion. Many of the officers hired in that period are reaching retirement age now.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were marked by tough-on-crime initiatives that led to expansion. Many of the officers hired in that period are reaching retirement age now.

“We’re gonna have to surge our hiring to contend with that,” he said.

Pastor sees similar trends in his agency over time.

“We lost people,” he said. “We had vacancies we did not fill.”

Wade said the department has emphasized data analysis and programs aimed at predictive policing, helping the department gain efficiencies and tackle the types of crimes that lead to public concerns. A violence response team has yielded good results, as has the department’s homeless outreach initiative.

Pastor and his commanders referred to similar programs at the sheriff’s office, such as a proactive property crime unit, and community liaison deputies. He referred to another oddity in the crime statistics, noting that crime has risen as the economy has begun to recover.

“When economic activity increases, crime increases,” he said. “It is ironic and it is counterintuitive. I am not here telling you that crime’s going through the roof. But you will see, in the next few years, a little more crime.”

 
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