Sheriff: Numbers only part of picture in law enforcement work

John Turner says there are many good ideas for fighting crime, but all require resources.

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There were 114 fewer violent crimes recorded in Walla Walla County in 2011 than in 1980. Property crimes saw a similar downward trend over the same time period.

The figures, based on uniform crime reports provided to the FBI by local and regional law enforcement agencies, mirror national trends.

From 2000 to 2011, the most recent year for which crime statistics were reported, violent crimes dropped from 219 to 168 in Walla Walla County.

Both city and county agencies saw corresponding trends, with violent crimes in the unincorporated parts of Walla Walla County dropping from 27 in 2000 to 25 in 2011, with a recorded low of 18 in 2008.

Property crimes, too, were down, dropping from 2,241 to 1,951 countywide. Property crimes in the unincorporated parts of the county dropped from 400 to 368.

The decrease in crime statistics is a good sign, according to Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner, but they don’t show the whole picture, which includes an upward spike in criminal activity since 2010.

“Over the last five to 10 years, the types of crimes that we’re seeing, the complexity of the crimes and the nature of them because of the Internet, has really changed,” Turner said in a recent interview. “They require increased training because they require a certain level of expertise in technology to track the crime.”

As crimes become more complex and serious, they can eat into law enforcement budgets, according to Turner, who said that while crime has decreased, the number of arrests have gone up, affecting the jail population.

This year, according to Turner, the jail has had to increase food deliveries from once per week to twice per week.

“Those are the types of things that chew into a budget that you don’t really think about,” Turner said.

Turner also said while crime rates may have dropped, law enforcement officers feel busier than ever.

“They feel like it’s very busy,” Turner said. “They feel like their activity level has increased in recent years.”

While much of that activity may be linked to the types of crimes being committed, there are other facets, including a change to have deputies on duty 24 hours every day.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, that just wasn’t the case in the past,” Turner said of the change in how shifts are run. “We’ve found we’re making arrests during the hours of the night when, historically, no one would have been on duty.”

Turner also said gang activity in Walla Walla has continued to be a problem that requires resources. Turner said the state Department of Corrections recently published a report that shows Walla Walla County ranks fourth highest among counties for number of convictions for gang activity.

“They are definitely here and definitely something we think about,” Turner said, adding the zero-tolerance approach to gang activity the Sheriff’s Office has adopted during recent fairs has shown good results.

Proactive efforts with other law enforcement agencies and local groups, according to Turner, has helped deter gang memberships and prevent crime. Turner cited the Gang Resistance Education and Training program, D.A.R.E, and local Crime Free Rental Housing programs as valuable resources.

“We have a citizen who is using a program called Nextdoor.com to utilize modern technology for kind of a modern neighborhood watch.” Turner said. “Some law enforcement agencies participate in that. We’re just not at a level we can do those things.”

Turner added that there are a number of valuable programs that can affect and help prevent crime, but limited resources keep the Sheriff’s Office from participating as much as Turner would like.

One area where Turner would like to extend more is with the Walla Walla Traffic Safety Task Force.

“We really struggle with the ability to be an effective partner with Nancy (McClenny-Walters of the task force) just purely because of the lack of resources,” Turner said, adding that he sees a wide range of good ideas that could help prevent crime.

“There’s tons of great ideas out there, and there’s tons of ways to address these issues, but they all require people, or training or resources,” Turner said. “Given the resources we have … we are indeed maxed out in terms of the level of service that we can provide.

Turner said that doesn’t mean the Sheriff’s Office ever stops trying to better serve the community, adding that his vision for the Sheriff’s Office is enshrined in the agency’s mission statement, and includes not just catching criminals.

“In our mission statement it says, ‘our mission is to safeguard the lives, property and rights of the people we serve, and to reduce the incidents and the fear of crime,” said Turner. “Regardless of crime statistics, the fear of crime can be just as crippling and debilitating to a community as actual crime.”

According to Turner, engaging the public is a crucial piece of the Sheriff’s Office efforts to reduce the fear of crime.

“That’s through engaging with the public, talking with the public, sharing what’s going on, taking (the public’s) concerns and addressing them,” Turner said. “If you’re the victim of a crime, whether it be burglary or violent crime, I don’t think the fact that you could tell that person, ‘well, we have a downward trend (in crime) in this community,’ (makes) them feel any better.”

Statistics are great, according to Turner, but they’re a small portion of the law enforcement picture.

“Downward trends in crime statistics are great,” Turner said. “That doesn’t mean you can give up on your efforts to make things better.”

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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