Something’s changed over the past few years. The litany of local crime on the TV news puts off the weather report a minute longer, and local law enforcement officials utter phrases like “public safety emergency.” And it’s hitting closer: A friend’s garage is burglarized; two friends nearly die from a hit-and-run; our own police chief’s bike is stolen; local kids beat a beloved World War II veteran to death.
It’s time to reckon with the fact that despite our mid-sized-city mind-set, Spokane seems to be entering the realm of big-city crime.
For decades, local law enforcement ran their own fiefdom, free from real public oversight. As that world started to crumble, it all came into shocking relief, as we discovered we had been systematically lied to (as proven in the Otto Zehm case) and that the Police Guild was pretty good at politics. But it was the rank-and-file who got Mary Verner fired, with the announcement that local police would no longer investigate property crime (which was later retracted). It’s odd because our mayors and city managers have been very good to the Guild; our law enforcement workers are well compensated.
Today, I wouldn’t say trust has been completely restored between the citizens and their defenders, but it has been repaired. And law enforcement leaders know they need the community’s support — both Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Chief Frank Straub see the bigger picture behind our crime.
Chief Straub got in some hot water with national pundits when he dared to add context to the shocking murder of World War II veteran Delbert Belton. Yes, the alleged killers will get everything they deserve when judgment comes, but that’s not enough. We need to understand where all this crime is coming from to grapple with it successfully. And as much as it angers the just-get-tougher crowd, socioeconomics is at play — broken families and other factors that cops can’t solve alone.
But a coherent strategy needs to start with restoring order. The “broken windows” theory would help. Adopted by Rudy Giuliani in New York City, it argues that every broken window you leave unfixed is a message to the community that vandalism is tolerated, which leads to more crime and a general sense of urban decline. Property crimes are Spokane’s broken windows. We need to investigate all crime, and we need to make a public lesson of those we catch breaking the law.
But for now we have law enforcement being rationed. Our broken windows are staying broken. Yes, we need more social policy answers — diversionary courts, for example. And we need to care more for our kids and families. But it’s also time to fix those broken windows. It’s time we figure out how to get more cops on the street.