Vehicle thefts and prowls increased in Thurston County in 2015, with the trend continuing into this year.
The car-related crimes have become such a problem that local law enforcement agencies have created a joint task force to combat them.
“It’s a big problem across the country. We’re not sure why it’s happening, but we’re doing our best to stop it,” said Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower.
But apart from the increase in car thefts and prowls, crime rates across Thurston County remained about the same from 2014 to 2015.
The Lacey Police Department responded to 41,784 incidents in 2015 — about 1,000 more than in 2014. Chief Dusty Pierpoint said not all those incidents are related to 911 calls. Business checks, traffic tickets, arrests and other interactions between the police and the public are also counted as incidents.
He said that the increase in incidents could be partially explained by a push to have officers interact more with Lacey residents.
Police responded to 54,781 calls for service in Olympia. Calls for service are tracked the same way as incidents in Lacey — business checks and other police contacts are included. Lower said the number is similar to 2014’s number.
Thurston County Sheriff’s deputies responded to 23,281 calls — about 500 fewer than in 2014 — in unincorporated Thurston County.
The problem, Sheriff John Snaza said, is staffing those calls with the Sheriff’s Office’s limited resources.
“We’re doing our best to reduce response times and keep people safe,” Snaza said. “But that’s been hard.”
Detective Jen Kolb, a spokeswoman from the Tumwater Police Depatment, said her department does not compile year-end crime statistics, as the department doesn’t employ a crime analyst. The Tumwater Police Department provided no crime statistics for this story.
According to year-end crime statistics, the Olympia and Lacey police departments saw a significant increase in car thefts. In Olympia, the number of reported cases jumped from 156 in 2014 to 210 in 2015, a 34.6 percent increase. In Lacey, car theft reports increased from 77 to 129 in the same time frame, a 67.5 percent increase.
Car thefts increased 67.6 percent in Lacey and 34.6 percent in Olympia in 2015.
In unincorporated Thurston County, the number of car thefts stayed about the same — 186 were reported in 2014, and 181 in 2015. But there was an increase in car prowls, with 357 reported in 2014 and 444 in 2015 in the unincorporated county, a 24.4 percent increase.
The number of car prowls jumped 39.2 percent, from 250 to 348, in Lacey. In Olympia, they increased 17.1 percent, from 467 to 547.
Car prowls increased 39.2 percent in Lacey, 17.1 percent in Olympia and 24.4 percent in Thurston County in 2015.
“There really has been a surge,” Pierpoint said. “We used to tell people to lock their cars, but now we have to tell them not to leave anything in their cars.”
There doesn’t seem to be one hot spot — cars are targeted in large parking lots and residential neighborhoods alike.
As in years past, the big targets in car prowls and thefts are 1990s-era Hondas. Lower said this could be for a couple of reasons: Many of these cars are easy to start, and there are still a lot around.
“We all know Hondas are great vehicles,” Lower said. “They run and run and run. So there are still quite a few of them out there.”
Sometimes, the cars are found in other areas of the county or in neighboring counties. Some just disappear, Lower said.
That could mean the cars have been driven farther afield, or they were dismantled in chop shops, he said.
There really has been a surge. We used to tell people to lock their cars, but now we have to tell them not to leave anything in their cars.
Chief Dusty Pierpoint, Lacey Police Department
Pierpoint said he has high hopes for a task force created to tackle these vehicle-related crimes. Earlier this year, the Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater police departments and the Sheriff’s Office created the team, which is made up of detectives from each agency.
He said car thieves and prowlers don’t pay attention to city boundaries, so arresting someone in Lacey, for example, could affect the number of car thefts in Tumwater.
While it’s early days for the task force, Pierpoint said a few people have been arrested.
“We can actually see a dip in crime when we arrest certain people in this county,” Pierpoint said.
Kolb said that Tumwater has also seen an increase in vehicle thefts and prowls.
While the number of incidents in Lacey may have increased slightly from 2014 to 2015, there was a small decrease in the number of arrests.
The number of arrests fell 10.2 percent, from 3,109 in 2014 to 2,792 in 2015. This trend is consistent with previous years, with the number of arrests in Lacey dropping 8 percent between 2013 and 2014.
Lacey arrests fell 10.2 percent in 2015.
Pierpoint said the drop in overall arrests can partially be attributed to how juvenile suspects are handled. He said the county’s Law and Justice Council, an interjurisdictional group that aims to decrease crime and improve justice in Thurston County, and the juvenile court have advocated for alternatives to incarceration.
“We may be seeing a ripple effect in Lacey,” Pierpoint said.
One of the biggest changes, Pierpoint said, is the community’s perception of police officers. He said that in the wake of officer-involved shootings throughout the country and in neighboring Olympia, local residents have become more critical of police.
“Police are under the microscope right now,” Pierpoint said. “We’re paying attention to that.”
Lacey officers will undergo “fair and impartial policing” training in April and training on de-escalating situations later in the year.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts announced in November that his officers will also get training in fair and impartial policing.
Pierpoint said that in his 30 years in law enforcement, he has seen a lot of change — and the public’s opinion of law enforcement has changed several times.
“National events can play a big part in how people see us locally,” Pierpoint said. “For example, after 9/11, people loved us.”
Lacey also launched a new community survey program. Pierpoint said each officer is responsible for conducting at least five surveys — and about 180 have been conducted so far.
Participants are asked to rank the department on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being poor and 5 being excellent, in four categories: public safety, fairness, approachability and responsiveness.
A majority of respondents gave Lacey police a 4 or 5 in each category, he reported.
National events can play a big part in how people see us locally. For example, after 9/11, people loved us.
Chief Dusty Pierpoint, Lacey Police Department
Pierpoint said that the sample size of the survey is too small for it to be considered “scientific,” but having police officers talk to residents — people they may not normally talk to — is a benefit in itself.
“When you meet someone, when you talk to them face to face, you start to build trust,” Pierpoint said.
In 2015, the Olympia Police Department focused on burglaries — both residential and commercial, Lower said.
While the overall number of burglaries stayed about the same from 2014 to 2015, the number of residential burglaries dropped 11.6 percent, from 275 to 243.
In Olympia, residential burglaries dropped 11.6 in 2015.
The number of commercial burglaries increased 22.8 percent, from 125 to 162.
Lower said the increase was largely due to commercial burglary sprees along Martin Way and Harrison Avenue that started in late 2014 and continued into 2015. In January 2015 alone, 26 commercial burglaries were reported in Olympia.
But, by early February, the burglaries stopped, almost as suddenly as they started. Lower said police aren’t sure why this happened.
“We are assuming that somewhere along the line, we arrested that person for some burglary,” Lower said. “Or maybe they left the community for some other reason.”
He said department officials are proud of the decrease in residential burglaries, and the change was likely the result of an emphasis on burglary patrols last year.
“Residential burglary, in our opinion, is a crime that’s worth paying attention to,” Lower said. “For most victims, it feels really personal. Someone is invading your personal space, and people are taking things you’ve worked hard for.”
But the success comes with a caveat, he said. While the number of residential burglaries was down citywide, the northeastern area of the city saw an increase in the crime during summer months. But the number in that area dropped back down to normal levels in fall and winter, Lower said.
In unincorporated county
Last year was characterized by limited resources and low staffing levels in the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Snaza said.
In November, the county’s Board of Commissioners allocated $604,000 in the 2016 budget to fund five new deputy positions, but Snaza said that he still expects to be short-staffed and to rely heavily on overtime.
Part of the problem, he said, is that there aren’t enough deputies to absorb the impact of injured staff — which becomes more of a problem as the workforce ages and deputies are injured more often.
“Right now, we’re running overtime at almost every shift,” Snaza said.
People in the county need to know that if something happens, we can get there in a reasonable amount of time.
Sheriff John Snaza, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office
Hiring new deputies also has been difficult, Snaza said. As the economy picks up, police departments statewide are hiring more, which increases competition for officers between departments.
He said the Sheriff’s Office still hasn’t filled all of its new positions. “It’s always been hard to find good people, and it’s just getting harder,” Snaza said.
Snaza said one of his main concerns is response times.
In 2014, the average response time to a priority 1 call — calls involving serious crimes such as assaults and robberies — was about 11 minutes. The time increased slightly in 2015 to 11 minutes and 20 seconds.
The average response time for priority 2 calls — calls for crimes that aren’t an immediate threat to a person’s safety — in 2014 was 13 minutes and 37 seconds. In 2015, the time increased to nearly 14 minutes.
Snaza said that without additional staff, the Sheriff’s Office won’t be able to decrease the response times and improve community safety.
“People in the county need to know that if something happens, we can get there in a reasonable amount of time,” Snaza said.
“We need to invest more in law enforcement.”