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Busy Signal? 

by Pia K. Hansen


Outside the first trailer in this West Spokane park, a couple of big dogs are chained up. One of them looks like a husky. As far as his chain reaches -- probably four feet -- the ground is flat and smooth. The other smaller dog sits on top of what looks like a small shed. The husky doesn't bark. He surveys the dead cars spread along the alleys of the trailer park, some propped up on logs, with their guts hanging out or partly missing. A handful of trailers -- most pre-1980 -- are spread evenly on this small parcel of land, bordered by a motel, a street and a wooded area. The parking area has run out of pavement. Cars now park on the mustard-colored grass instead. There's not a person in sight.


Robin and Glenn Nutter's trailer sits a little back from the entrance and the motel's peeling pool, full of leaves instead of water. A black dog is jumping up and down behind the gate, barking and whining, until a slight woman with blonde hair and glasses comes out and grabs it by the collar.


"Hi," says Robin, "this is it -- come on in."


We head inside and sit down on one of the big couches lining the trailer. Seated across the room from me, Robin looks a little like she expects to be blamed for something she didn't do. Behind her, a window is covered with a floral-pattern bed sheet, with little purple flowers running in lines. Her kids play in a bedroom, dinner is cooking in the small kitchen, we get coffee in mugs -- it's just another Wednesday afternoon.


But Robin is fed up, frustrated and just plain mad. For the last two years, she and her family have been fighting what they believe is their trailer park's drug problem. They haven't gotten a lot of help.


"I get so frustrated," she says. "You know, you watch the news and they say, 'Call Crime Check if you suspect a drug house down the street,' and then when you do, Crime Check does nothing about it."


Back in June, Robin says she began to notice people coming and going at a trailer just kitty-corner from hers, and to a specific room number at the nearby motel.


"The traffic was just crazy. The cars would pull up and the people go inside and come right back out and leave," she says. "I've seen guns out there. It was just so obvious what was going on. We've called Crime Check all summer long, and nothing has changed."


Her husband Glenn, a truck driver, fans out a handful of snapshots he took one summer evening: Toyotas, Hondas, a Chevy, a VW bus, a truck, a small red car full of people making faces, taunting him as they drove off.


"They aren't of much use, I guess, since the flash went off on the camera," he says. That turned the license plates into bright white rectangles so that he can't read the numbers. He's fed up with the drug dealers living in the trailer park and their customers.


"They just make fun of me, you know, taunt me," he says, looking more and more angry. "It's like they know I can't do anything and that nothing is going to happen to them."


Robin says that when she first called Crime Check, she asked for an incident report number, but the operator refused to give her one.


"They said, 'Did you see the drugs pass from one person to another? If you didn't actually see the drugs, how do you know it's drugs?'" recalls Robin. "They said that since there was nothing to report, they weren't going to give me a number." She says the cars stop at two different trailers, then go to the nearby motel, honk their horns and wait for someone to come out, then leave.


In one of the many phone conversations Robin says she had with Crime Check, the operator suggested that she start writing down the license plate numbers of the cars that come and go.


She got together with her neighbor Aurellia Richey, and recorded 33 different license plates in late July. There are plates on her list from Washington, British Columbia, Idaho and Montana as well.


"We just sat at the picnic table out here," says Richey, who has just come over. "We didn't get everyone. No way could we ever get everyone."


Robin adds that there's been a lot of foot traffic in the trailer park as well, any time of the day and night.


"They carry backpacks and this attach & eacute; case that looks very heavy," she says.


They've found needles and other drug paraphernalia -- even money -- on the muddy tracks between the trailers.


Richey has people knocking on her front door, wanting to buy drugs.


"I'm the end-trailer now, and it used to be that they could get drugs at another end-trailer," she says. "I just tell them to go away. It's clear what they want. They are here to buy drugs."


The two women sent the neatly handwritten list of license plates to the Spokane Police Department on Aug. 25.


"We sent it to the Drug and Gang Unit and there was an officer assigned, but he never called back," she says. Since then, she has called twice, just trying to find out what happened to her list of license plates.


"I've left messages. I've heard nothing back," she says.


Robin's experience with Crime Check is the same.


"You call and call until you are blue in the face and nothing happens," she says.


Her husband Glenn agrees. "We have kids. We shouldn't have to go around and pick up needles. We shouldn't have to be out there taking down the license numbers either -- the cops should be out there," he says. "Yes, we live in a mobile home park. They probably think we're all on welfare, but we're not. I'm sure if the cops lived here, it would be taken care of."


The Nutters have finally found a solution: they have bought some land in north Spokane County and they are moving out.





Keeping Crime In Check -- The Nutters are not alone. A couple of months ago, neighbors were fed up with what they say is drug activity at a house on East 17th. They, too, had called Crime Check on many occasions and didn't get anywhere. Then there's Dave Darnell, who owns a couple of old houses converted into apartments on the South Hill. He claims a tenant of his was dealing drugs from one apartment.


"I can't just evict people because I don't like them -- that's against the law," he says. "And quite frankly, if the police officers took care of the drug problem, I wouldn't be in this situation. If you call Crime Check, like I did, I would say that you are trying to do something about the problem."


We had a hard time getting answers, too, as the Spokane Police Department refused to answer our questions about Crime Check and the specific citizen complaints cited in this story. But the volunteers at the city's COPS stations were not so tongue-tied. One COPS volunteer -- who wants to remain anonymous "to still be able to work in the organization" -- said many volunteers have stopped calling Crime Check altogether because the operators are rude. They talk to their neighborhood resource officer instead.


"I once helped this woman make a phone call to Crime Check about some threats she had received on her cell phone," says the COPS volunteer. "When the operator asked for a date of birth, the woman didn't know it. I know that's strange, but she wasn't quite with it. The operator then declined to take a report. So what's that telling her? That it's okay for someone to threaten her?"


Another woman said she'd called Crime Check because she heard gunshots outside. "The operator asked 'Where are you?' and the woman said she was inside her house, hiding under the couch. Then the operator said 'What are you afraid of, if you are inside the house?' and hung up," claims the volunteer.


Crime Check is a joint city and county operation, which also answers 911 emergency calls.


"We have 33 full-time staff, five part-time staff and eight supervisors," says Sgt. Laurie Johnson, who's the 911 coordinator. "In 2001 -- I don't have any newer numbers than that -- Crime Check got 285,000 calls. We put in 142,000 incidents to dispatch and completed 47,000 reports." That's an average of 780 calls a day, or a little more than 32 calls an hour, day and night. Compared to that, 911 got 227,000 calls of which 84,000 went to dispatch, says Johnson.


So it's not as if Crime Check simply leaves the phone off the hook. Still Johnson can't answer questions about the specific incidents in this story.


"You are not giving me a lot to go on here," she says. "If I have the date and the exact time of the call, I can go back and go over the conversation on the tape." But the Nutters, like many other people who call Crime Check, often only have rudimentary records of their phone calls.


Johnson says the decision whether to dispatch officers depends on what exactly is going on at the time of the call. Crime Check takes down information and passes it along to the appropriate agency, the SPD or the county Sheriff.


So did the Nutters do the right thing, calling Crime Check about all this suspected drug activity?


"Most of the time that would be a Crime Check call, you know, if it's an ongoing thing and the caller says, 'I suspect this is going on,'" says Johnson. "That's opposed to the caller saying, 'There are people outside my house, right now, exchanging baggies with drugs and there are kids around and needles.' We also have to consider when a situation becomes a public safety issue." She adds that operators do follow a certain procedure when talking to callers, but that there are a lot of bizarre things that are reported to Crime Check as well.


"Crime Check does not dispatch at all -- I would like to emphasize that," says Johnson. "What level of service citizens get is totally up to the appropriate department."


If lists are sent in -- as in the Nutters' case -- or if there are other suspicious circumstances or if it's likely that a crime has been committed -- a report is filled out and filed with the appropriate police or sheriff's department.


"If it's [drug-related] traffic, it's put on a tip form and forwarded to the drug unit -- they decide what to do with it," says Johnson. She adds that Crime Check does not ask people to go out and write down license plates or anything like that.


"We take down the information people call in. We do not encourage people to do anything specific," says Johnson.


Robin Nutter maintains that she was told to write down license plates by a Crime Check operator.


So does Crime Check get a lot of frustrated callers? Johnson hesitates: "Well, yes, people sometimes do get frustrated, but depending on where they live, we refer them to the police or the sheriff's department."


Does she feel like Crime Check has enough staff and sufficient technology to fulfill its purpose?


"We are in the process of building a new facility. Right now, we are in a very small place with shoulder-to-shoulder space only," says Johnson. She hesitates again, then continues: "But once we get the new facility, whether or not we get more staff depends on the level of service the police department and the sheriff's office wants to provide for the community."





You get what you pay for -- The level of law enforcement service depends on how a police department allocates its resources and, of course, on how many resources are available in the first place. Does the money go toward traffic enforcement or the drug unit, toward K-9s or prostitute stings, or toward Crime Check? These are just some of the choices police officials have to make.


Any police officer will tell you that his or her job is about crime prevention more than anything else -- just as it should be -- and that getting people involved in watching their own neighborhood and what goes on there is highly effective. But it seems like the line between the citizens, and to some extent Crime Check, has been disconnected somewhere.


For families like the Nutters, who suspect drug activity next door, or who have their cars broken into or their garage doors spray-painted with graffiti, those incidents take on giant proportions in that particular family's life. But when looking at the entire police force and all the calls and incidents that are reported every day, anything that's not life-threatening quickly becomes low-priority. When it comes to allocating staff to deal with these incidents, resources are limited.


Mike Erp is the executive director of the Washington State Institute for Community-Oriented Policing at WSU-Spokane, and he says citizens need to realize that, as with anything, you get what you pay for.


"I read the letters to the editor in the paper," he says, "and I shake my head at these people who say they pay taxes and why do they have to go pick up needles, or there was a prowler in their house and why didn't the police come right away?" If someone is breaking into my car, that's an emergency to me -- but is it life-threatening? As it is, there is barely enough staff to handle the first-priority calls."


Erp is the former police chief of Clarkston, Wash., and aside from his work at WSU, he also serves on the Board of Directors for COPS.


"I'm not a spokesperson for the police department, and I'm not trying to apologize. I'm just trying to explain," he says. "And what I find, in my opinion, is that the people who want the type of feedback we are talking about here are not willing to support the level of taxes that that level of feedback would require."


Erp blames what he calls the plethora of initiatives that Washington voters have passed the last couple of years for cutting police budgets to the bone.


"The money has to come from somewhere, and as long as we continue to vote for these initiatives, like I-695 and all the rest of them, it's going to have an impact on the level of service we get," he says.


If citizens want an officer to call them back every time they have made a report to Crime Check, or every time they have sent in a list of license plates, they need to consider how that would be done.


"How is that going to happen? Do we want to take an officer off the street to return these phone calls? Or how are we going to do that?" asks Erp.


The fight for funding of police protection is an endless source of friction. Sheriff Mark Sterk has had success in adding deputies, at least in part because Spokane County's financial picture has been rosier than the city's. That doesn't mean the city has scrimped, however, as public safety has grown as a percentage of the city's General Fund, from 28.5 percent in 1997 to 32 percent today.


Still, the City of Spokane has a staffing level that lags behind much of the nation, says Erp, with about 1.35 police officers per 1,000 people. By comparison, Chicago has 5.5 officers per 1,000 people. In New York City, hailed as a success story in the nation's ongoing war on crime, there are 36,000 cops.


The biggest concern may be the effect of such ratios on criminal behavior. From identity theft to meth use, whenever police officials tell the community they're overwhelmed, it may be the truth -- but doesn't it give potential criminals confidence they won't be caught? Isn't it just an admission that the enforcement of the laws isn't what it should be?


"I was just in New Haven, Conn., where Yale University is at," Erp says. "There are about 125,000 people and 488 police officers. That's almost four officers per 1,000 people. When I told them that we get by with 1.35 officers in Spokane, they said, 'Are you kidding me? How do you survive?'"


You probably guessed the answer to that question.


"It's community-oriented policing that's making the difference," says Erp. "It's the SCOPE program in the county and the COPS program in the city. It's the fact that people know their neighborhoods and know what's going on and who's coming and going. That's what makes the difference."


So what does he have to say to the people who feel neglected by Crime Check even though they have tried taking the community-oriented policing approach, right down to writing down license plates and sending them in?


"I really don't think there is a disconnect between the citizens and the police," says Erp. "I really don't agree with that. If people want an officer on every corner who they can go talk to just in case they see something -- well, I can write you a budget that will support that. But nobody is going to approve it. Any city council wouldn't, any mayor wouldn't, you wouldn't. It's as simple as that."





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