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Burglaries, assualt trend worries chief

Oak Harbor Police Chief Steve Almon said he worries about a couple of disturbing trends in the city. The recently-released 2003 annual report for the department shows an increase in commercial burglaries and the number of assaults of police officers.

On the other hand, statistics show that the city has become a safer place to drive. The number of DUI arrests, criminal traffic infractions and plain-old traffic tickets seem to be on a downward trend. Almon said these numbers might suggest that police officers have less time to devote to traffic patrol, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The number of accidents are down, as are the total number of 911 calls for service. There were 290 reportable accidents in 2003, down from 398 in 2002. That’s a 27 percent decrease in a year. Non-reportable accidents were also down 4.7 percent.

Statewide, the State Patrol reports that accidents were also down, but the number of traffic-related tickets and arrests skyrocketed from 2002 to 2003. DUIs were up 21 percent; speeding tickets were up 8 percent; and aggressive driving tickets were up 54 percent. Collision involving injuries were reduced by 8 percent and fatal accidents were down 11 percent.

But when accidents do happen on Whidbey, they tend to be serious. The Oak Harbor detachment of the Washington State Patrol handled six fatal accidents in the last year, according to a spokesperson with the patrol. They investigated just 10 fatalities in the four years previous to that.

In Oak Harbor, Almon speculates that a number of causes led to the decrease in accidents, most notably the construction of “C-curbing,” which restricts turning, on Highway 20 in front of the Safeway plaza and in front of Wendy’s restaurant.

Other factors, Almon said, may include public awareness, the fluctuating number of people in the community because of Navy deployments and the efforts of the department’s two-person traffic unit. While the department has a total of 26 officers, which is four fewer than in 2000, Almon said he felt it was important to keep a unit dedicated to traffic.

“For us it’s not about numbers and it’s not about generating revenues,” he said. “Traffic enforcement is driven by our concern for traffic safety.”

Property crimes show increase

Other trends aren’t so positive. Almon said there was a “dramatic” increase in property crimes in 2003, particularly burglaries and auto thefts. A total of 139 burglaries were reported in 2003, which was up nearly 20 percent from the previous year and up 100 percent from 2000. Of those, 42 were commercial burglaries, which used to be much more rare in the city.

During the year, 21 arrests were made in burglary cases: 11 adults and 10 juveniles. Yet Almon said the number of burglars may not be up, it may just be the number of successful burglars. One man was recently arrested for a long series of church and commercial burglaries.

“That’s the thing about a community our side,” he said. “You can have one diligent, committed thief who can really skew your crime stats.”

To combat this trend, Almon said the department has used a variety of methods. They reassigned officers to do surveillance and offered rewards to the public for information about burglaries.

The department recently obtained a high-tech solution: a portable alarm system and portable camera system.

While the report of general thefts are down, there was a big increase in the number of auto thefts. Reports of car thefts dropped to just 14 in 2002, but jumped to 23 in 2003. There was also an increase in the theft of auto parts.

The reason for the number of property crimes, Almon said, is simple: drugs.

“I’m one of those people who believes a lot of crime is connected to drugs,” he said. “I’ve always believed that if your want to impact drugs, you need to impact drugs.”

That’s why, he said, the department continues to help fund DARE in the schools, maintains a full-time drug enforcement officer and brought in Yoda, a police dog trained to sniff out contraband. Sgt. Tim Sterkel, the drug enforcement officer, was responsible for 18 drug-related arrests and the seizure of $12,451 worth of property in 2003.

Officer assault trend alarming

Perhaps the most dangerous trend is the increase in the number of people assaulting a police officer while resisting arrests or obstructing an officer. The number more than doubled in a year. There were 11 such cases in 2002 and 25 in 2003.

“I’m tremendously concerned,” Almon said. “That’s a social problem when people are blatantly willing to assault an officer. You have to be concerned about that.”

While Almon is not sure what the trend means, he said the solution — in part — may again be technology. He was able to use 2002 surplus funds to purchase the newest model of Taser guns, which are electrically-charged, non-lethal weapons for controlling suspects.

“I have a lot of faith in Tasers,” he said. “I think we’ll see a dramatic change (in the number of officer assaults) because of that. They increase safety for both the officers and the person being arrested.”

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

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