Crime rises by over half in Pullman


Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Crime in Pullman jumped 56 percent in 2016, the largest increase in at least the past decade, with property crimes nearly doubling.

This is largely due to a major drop in crime the year before. Still, Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins said there has been a gradual increase in crime over the past several years, excluding the low in 2015, which he attributes to the tendency of crime statistics to vary widely in small communities.

The slighter, long-term rise in crime may be due to Pullman’s rapidly expanding population, Jenkins said. But over the past 15 years, as the town has grown 33 percent and service calls have increased 23 percent, the police department has added just one officer, leaving Jenkins with concerns for his department’s ability to keep up.

“I think we’re behind the curve on staffing right now,” he said.

In his presentations to the City Council over the past four years, Jenkins said he has recommended hiring more officers, ideally for a total of 34, or about one officer per 1,000 residents. The current ratio has fallen from 1.0 in 2010 to under .90, or 29 officers, whereas across Washington the average for towns of Pullman’s size is nearly 1.2, or 39 officers.

However, he noted the difficulty in balancing the needs of many departments. He will again make the case for more officers this fall as the council plans its budget.

One major consequence of the department’s understaffing is that officers must shift to reactive strategies and away from proactive ones. For example, Jenkins said with a larger workforce, the department could assign officers to address problems like the wave of car prowls in recent months.

He said he also worries they may have to start declining requests from the community for presentations and programs, things he believes are helpful to the department’s relationship with the people it polices.

“There’s a lot of negative impacts to not having enough staff really to be able to interact positively with the community,” he said.

The largest increase by far is in crimes against property, at over 90 percent. Of these crimes, the significant jumps are in larceny, vandalism and fraud. However, each of these varies widely from year to year.

The one other noteworthy increase is in forcible sex offenses, to an all-time high of 29 percent. Jenkins said it is difficult to gauge the meaning of this upward trend, as it could mean either that more incidents are occurring or that more people are reporting them. He suspects the latter, citing the university’s work in recent years to build support for victims of sexual violence.

There has also been a major growth in what Jenkins calls quality of life issues, which aren’t factored into crime statistics. Since 2010, welfare checks have consistently increased from 260 to 513, and Jenkins said this adds greatly to officers’ workload.

He said this may be the result of rising mental health issues, for which law enforcement largely picks up the slack. Until the state puts more resources toward mental health, Jenkins said these calls will likely keep going up.

Though it is difficult to draw comparisons, he said he thinks this year’s crime statistics are turning out similar to last year’s.

All of this underscores the need for more police officers, Jenkins said. This would be the most effective way to curb rises in crime, he said, and it is essential for addressing all the other needs of a growing community.

The department is looking into grants to fund officers temporarily, though the city would ultimately need to commit to paying them after the first few years.

Jenkins said he believes the City Council sees this as a priority, and that he is hopeful they can work together to add staff. He noted that feedback from residents on Pullman 2040, a long-term plan for carrying out community goals, has shown that people value living in a safe place.

“I think maybe sometimes we take that for granted,” he said, “because it doesn’t just happen.”

Statistics report issues

Several incidents of arson are missing from the annual report, most notably the 2013 fire that caused millions of dollars in damage to the Grove apartment complex.

Jenkins said this is due to an issue with the system used by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. State police departments send their crime data to the association, which then sends it to the federal government.

He said the association’s system sometimes gives error reports for certain statistics, and when this happens, the errors simply show up as zeros. They are revising this so either they or the Pullman Police Department will have to resolve the errors.

Jenkins said he does not know how many statistics were incorrect. He said he suspects it is not many, but he will not know until the system is fixed.