The overall crime rate in University Place remained relatively flat last year with a few spikes in property crimes that mirror national and regional trends.
The city handled 814 serious crimes that ranged from aggravated assaults, rapes and burglaries in 2014 and 824 serious crimes in 2015.
“We have crime, but not a lot of crime,” UP Police Chief Mike Blair said. “We have our moments.”
The department serves the city of 31,000 people with just 15 commissioned officers, after two rounds of staff cuts in the last year that ended an in-house investigator and deeply cut walk-in reporting from 35 hours a week to just nine hours. The department had a police force of 25 officers at its peak after the city incorporated a decade ago.
UP now has one of the lowest levels of law enforcement rates in the state with one officer for every 2,000 residents. Puyallup has 65 officers for a population of 35,000. SeaTac’s 25,000 residents are served by 40 officers, while 32 officers patrol the 31,000 people in Burien. But comparing UP to those comparably sized cities just on their police forces doesn’t tell the full picture. UP, for example, contracts with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department for officers. That means UP can pull from the sheriff’s office for major investigators, forensics, and evidence storage that are all rolled into the city’s service contract with the sheriff that independent cities have to staff themselves.
Another statistic rounds out those statistics. The city is patrolled by 15 officers, with two officers per shift around the clock. The eight-square-mile city generates 11,000 crime reports. Officers followed a “no crime to small” approach to police reports until this fall, but now collects about 27 percent of its crime report information over the telephone or “self reporting” of routine calls.
“We do need more cops on the street,” Blair said. “But I’m not beating that drum. We can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem.”
Ideally, Blair would like to bring back the in-house investigator and add staffing to allow for three patrol officers per shift. That would not only keep investigations localized to someone within the department but allow for officers to have backup if one officer is taking a suspect to jail, a trip that can take 45 minutes if not hours if central booking at the Pierce County Jail is busy. The investigation and booking for a drunken driver suspect could take two or three hours, meaning one officer is patrolling UP alone. When that currently happens, the lone UP officer is relying on “mutual aid” agreements with Lakewood and Fircrest for backup.
“We back each other up,” Blair said “We deeply lean on each other because we are at each other’s back door.”
The cuts also created partnerships that target the root cause of crimes as a way to control crime in the city rather than simply arresting criminals after crimes were committed. It’s known as “attractive nuances” in police jargon. The idea is to reasons why specific sites draw criminal activity. The department had a spike in calls on a commercial strip, for example. After a little footwork, police learned the reason was because people were either diving into the trash for items to take or using the bin to shield their criminal activities. The store locked the trash bin after hours and moved it into a lighted area. The criminal activity ended.
The high hedge at the former Captain Nemo’s restaurant was allowing people to hide in the abandoned parking lot. Crews cut the hedge, and the criminals moved along. Officers also visit homeowner associations and neighborhood watch groups to present crime prevention tips that seem simple but residents often don’t follow.
“I always say that whatever you leave in your car, you should be ready to give away,” Blair said, noting that many people leave purses, briefcases and valuables in plain sight in their cars and don’t even lock their car doors under the false assumption that the items are safe in a car parked in their driveways. It is not unheard of for crooks to drive through neighborhoods only to open unlocked car doors and take whatever is left in backseats and trunks from several cars on the block.
More cuts to the police department haven’t been ruled out as the City Council seeks ways to cover a projected $600,000 budget shortfall in 2017. It was that shortfall that prompted the city to announce late last year that it would stop all but basic park maintenance next year. A citizens group formed and gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the April ballot to form a Metropolitan Parks District that would be a junior taxing district. That district would gather property taxes itself and operate parks services outside of the city’s general fund.
Police funding could follow a similar route, with a special police levy. But a 3.5 percent tax on utility gross earnings a year ago failed to sway voters. That plan would have raised a household’s average utility bills of $250 about $8.75 a month to help fund police services. The proposition failed by 9 percent of the vote, 45.7 percent voting yes to 54.2 percent voting no.
The University Place Police Department is holding a free series of workshops for community leaders and residents to learn about police issues.
March 24 – Introduction to policing in University Place & Course overview—Chief Blair
March 31 – Protecting your property—Jennifer Hales
April 7 – Patrol Procedures & Use of Force—Sergeant Glen Carpenter
April 14 – Nine Flashpoints in American Policing —Sheriff Pastor
April 21 -- SS911 Communications Officer Dave Lovrak/ K-9 Demo, —Deputy John Munson
April 28 – Legalized marijuana and its impact on public safety—Deputy Nordstrom
May 5 – Personal gun ownership in America —Deputy Hacker & Deputy Lincoln Hales
Register by calling 798-3141. Space is limited.