Violent crime drops in city

While there was an increase in the number of burglaries, Oak Harbor Police Chief Steve Almon says crime statistics show that Oak Harbor is a very safe place to live.

The police department’s recently-released 2006 annual report is crammed full of statistics, graphs and narratives Almon hopes paints a picture of a responsive department that does its part to keep the community safe with fewer than average officers.

The report highlights the number of burglaries last year, which was 145. That was up from 93 the year before, though 145 burglars struck in 2004.

“It’s a more typical number of what we had experienced in the past,” he said. “Two or three prolific burglars can really show up in the statistics.”

In fact, officers caught a couple of different serial burglars last year — one who focused on businesses and another on churches — which may translate into a smaller number this year.

Also, Almon said continued cooperation between the police, the Island County Sheriff’s Office and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on drug cases is one of the best ways to combat burglaries and other crimes.

“Each drug arrest affects the crime rate,” he said.

Almon said he’s more concerned about identity theft crimes, though the numbers actually went down slightly in 2006. The problem is that criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated.

“We’re continuing to see a dramatic increase in the creativity of identity crimes,” he said. “That’s scary. It’s the best word for it.”

To combat the threat, Almon said a detective has specialized training and the department even invested in a specialized computer. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” he said.

Almon said the department continues to emphasize traffic patrols. The focus began in 2005 in response to a big jump in reportable traffic accidents. The numbers went from 246 accidents in 2004 to 390 in 2005. The City Council authorized an additional patrol position last year.

The strategy is working, Almon claims. While there was only a small decrease in the number of accidents last year — to 369 — he points to a big jump in the number of traffic-related contacts. From 2005 to 2006, the number of traffic citations issued increased from 1,655 to 2,174 and the number of traffic stops went from 7,329 to 7,912.

But at the same time, the number of arrests for driving under the influence fell to a 10-year low of 73. In the year 2000, police arrested 180 drunk drivers in the city.

Almon just isn’t sure what it means.

“I don’t know if it’s an education thing where less people are drinking and driving,” he said, “or if it’s an enforcement thing, where we’re just not doing a good job of enforcement.”

But all in all, Almon said residents should realize they live in a safe place.

In 2006, violent crimes were reported in the city at a rate of 1.6 crimes per 1,000 people, a decrease of 5.3 percent from the previous year. The rate of property crimes increased by nearly 17 percent, to 27 crimes per 1,000 people.

Those numbers are well below the state average of 3.4 violent crimes per 1,000 population and 44.7 property crimes per 1,000 people.

In the statistical report, violent crimes consist of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crimes are arson, burglary, larceny and car theft.

The city has more violent crime than other parts of the county, but property crimes is a mixed picture.

In unincorporated Island County, the violent crime rate was 0.6 per 1,000 in 2006. Coupeville didn’t have any violent crimes in the last year and there was one rape reported in Langley, putting the rate at 0.9 per 1,000.

When it comes to property crimes, the county is also safer than the city, with a rate of 24.9 crimes per 1,000 people. But Coupeville had a much higher rate of 47.8 crimes per 1,000 and Langley recorded 46.4 crimes per 1,000 people.

Compared to nearby cities of comparable size, Oak Harbor has significantly less crimes reported. Anacortes and Mount Vernon, for example, had violent crime rates in 2006 of 1.9 and 2.6 per 1,000 people, respectively. Their property crime rates were, respectively, 43.2 and 75.8 per 1,000.

Almon believes there’s a number of reasons that the city has a comparatively low crime. He points to the watchfulness and involvement of the community and the fact that Oak Harbor is relatively isolated on an island, away from mainland and Interstate 5 crime.

He also feels his officers deserve some credit for having a strong presence, even though the department has a comparatively small number of officers.

Oak Harbor has 29 commissioned officers. The rate of officers per 1,000 inhabitants is 1.3. That’s one of the lowest rates among the 30 police departments in the state — that don’t contract police services — from cities with populations between 10,000 to 25,000. Only five cities have lower rates.

Anacortes, for example, has a population of 16,170 and has 25 commissioned officers. That’s a rate of 1.55 per 1,000 residents. Coupeville, population 1,820, regularly has five commissioned officers, which is a rate of 2.75.

Almon said his officers are good and getting better, with a big increase in training last year. A total of 1,829 hours last year translates to an average of 43.55 hours for each of the department’s 42 employees.

“We had training across the board,” he said. “We’re trying to keep up with as much as possible.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynews or call 675-6611.

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