Matt Driscoll

Crime is not up in Puyallup, no matter how it feels. City leaders need to act accordingly

Puyallup is going to hell in a handbasket.

At least according to some.

You don’t have to search long and hard to hear the terrified cries about a perceived increase in lawlessness. They’re currency in places like the Clean Up Puyallup Facebook group, and commonplace in other dark and often deluded corners of the internet.

The problem? Well, at least according to the data we have — those perceptions don’t match reality.

Far from it.

In fact, as The News Tribune’s Allison Needles reported earlier this month, in 2018 the rate of property crime in Puyallup was actually lower than it’s been in nearly 30 years. That dates back to 1990, which is about the time this hack columnist was learning reading, writing and arithmetic in a North Hill elementary school that’s long since been razed.

Over the years, the rate of violent crime in Puyallup has stayed fairly consistent.

Faced with the numbers, however, some remain predictably convinced that it simply can’t be true.

Crime must be up, they say, because it feels like it’s up.

“It has just become a way of life in Puyallup,” said one online commenter quoted in Needles’ story. “I do appreciate the police. But there is no way that the crime rate is down.”

So what do we make of this, aside from using it as a reminder that people’s impressions and the anecdotal evidence they rely on rarely tell the whole story?

First, the phenomenon is hardly Puyallup specific. It’s actually commonplace, according to University of Texas at Dallas criminology professor Alex Piquero.

“It happens all the time,” Piquero says simply.

The reasons, Piquero explains, are complex and multifaceted, but two simple factors typically play a role.

The emergence of social media platforms like Facebook coupled with the actual media’s coverage of crime can lead to the perception that things are worse than they actually are, he says. While media coverage of crime is typically valid and necessary, Piquero says, the inundation factor can have a real, negative effect on public perceptions.

Look no farther than the nightly news. Piquero says if viewers are constantly bombarded by stories about crime and criminal activity, it’s not surprising when these same viewers begin to perceive the problem of crime to be much worse than the data suggests.

This, of course, leads to the impact that false perceptions about crime can have.

According to Piquero, there’s a real risk that we should all be familiar with at this point.

“Once people’s perceptions become solidified,” Piquero says, it’s often “hard to break that down.”

“For some people, no amount of science or data is going to change their mind,” Piquero says. “If you believe something is true, then everything else from that belief will flow out of that.”

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, it perhaps goes without saying that, in conversations around the dinner table with your belligerent uncle, that can be annoying and tiresome.

When it starts to influence or even guide public policy?

That can be downright dangerous.

Take a city’s response to homelessness, for instance, which is naturally top of mind when it comes to Puyallup.

First, Piquero notes that the methodology available for quantifying increases and decreases in homelessness are inexact at best. That means it’s very difficult to get a precise read on what’s actually happening and to what extent the situation is worsening or improving.

More importantly, while it’s not unusual to find that areas with higher rates of crime often also have higher rates of homelessness (and poverty and unemployment, for that matter), that doesn’t necessarily mean homelessness contributes to crime, Piquero says.

Still, that doesn’t stop many places where visible homelessness has increased from falling victim to false perceptions that crime is also on the rise. In short, people see homelessness, they keep hearing about crime, and one thing often leads to another.

In turn, that doesn’t stop many places — including Puyallup — from basing many of their their homelessness policy decisions around the false premise that crime is up (even when it’s not) because homelessness is up (even when that’s a difficult thing to track with accuracy).

Unsurprisingly, when this happens, poor decisions are made.

On a personal level, sometimes that results in embarrassing vigilante justice escapades.

On a municipal level, sometimes it manifests in punitive proposals that end up hurting more than helping.

Other times, it means an already vulnerable population — like those experiencing homelessness — end up targeted for no good reason.

Which, sadly, is exactly the kind of approach many in Puyallup seem to be advocating for.

All of this makes it vitally important, Piquero says, for city leaders to act responsibly when comparing perceptions to reality.

Piquero acknowledges it’s hard when constituents — or your “50,000 bosses,” as he puts it — keep telling you something is a problem. But good policy, he says, flows from using data (and what’s really happening) to guide decisions.

Yes, leaders should listen and understand where constituents are coming from, Piquero advises, because sometimes they’re onto something.

But cities shouldn’t let that feedback negate the science, and a thoughtful pause is often necessary.

Tough situations require tough decisions, in other words, and even ones that sometimes risk angering voters.

“What local and city and state leaders need to do is the right thing, and stop worrying about (their) constituents being ticked off. History will judge you kindly,” Piquero says. “They have to be true to the mandate they have been given, which is to be the best steward they can be.”

“I tell my students all the time: I’m glad you feel that way. That’s really great. But that doesn’t matter. We can’t make policy on feelings,” Piquero continues.

Sure sounds like advice a few elected leaders in Puyallup could use right about now.

Unfortunately, my guess is they’re not really feeling it.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.