Hat low and eyes peeled, Spokane Police Officer Ben Green drives down Pacific Avenue, past the masses knotted in front of the House of Charity homeless shelter. Green’s conspicuous, he’s looking for wrongdoing, and that’s the point.
“I thought they were looking for someone in particular,” says Chris Schultz, an unemployed handyman who lives in a van across Division Street from the shelter. “I had no idea things were so bad they needed to patrol it so much.”
Green normally patrols a wide swath of southeast Spokane, but every shift, he takes an extra 15 minutes to patrol nine blocks surrounding the shelter. The area ranks among the highest in the city when it comes to calls about fights, robberies and other misdeeds, according to police data. And last March, the department chose this site and another in North Spokane as pilot locations for a “focus-area emphasis” patrols.
This longstanding police tactic puts officers in troubled areas for extended periods of time. The idea is that with more presence in these blocks, police will be able to thwart criminals and prevent crime before it happens.
“Anything we can do to reduce violent crime is worth it,” Green says. “Eliminate the little crimes, it reduces the big crimes.”
The new patrols seem to be reducing crime, according to two months of data released by the department earlier this month. But it may also be causing criminals to take their bad behavior to other parts of the city.
Emphasis patrols have a long history, and not just in the world of policing.
“They’ve been doing emphasis patrols, targeted patrols, call it what you like, since Wyatt Earp was patrolling the streets of Dodge City,” says Maj. Frank Scalise, who is in charge of the police’s operations bureau.
The Royal Air Force used similar tactics to deal with Nazi air raids on London during World War II, Scalise says, and Spokane’s model is adapted from techniques tried in Philadelphia and Sacramento.
Carly Cortright, an analyst for the police, says the 8400 block of North Nevada Street used to lead the city in burglaries and take second and third for car prowling and car theft, respectively. In the two months since it became the location of an emphasis patrol, she says there have been no calls for burglary, car prowling or vehicle theft.
“So it’s a very promising indicator that there were no reports of these crimes for this area in May. There were also no calls of this type in April, either,” Cortright says in an email. “We still need more data for a more thorough analysis (two months could simply be a fluke — maybe the rainy spring kept criminal activity down, not police presence, for example.)” Citywide, calls for service to the police are up by 26 percent over their five-year average. In the southern pilot location around House of Charity, they are up 8 percent.
But the same statistics showed that at the south area’s control location — a close-by section of town where the police aren’t doing anything differently — calls for service are up 56 percent.
“You always will see some percentage of the crime that you get rid of from the area that you’re targeting crop up somewhere else. Some of it will leave the area, some of it will pop up in a more disperse form,” Scalise says. “You continue to do that long enough, you can bring your net crime level citywide down. You’re never going to get rid of crime entirely, but it would be nice to get it down to exceedingly small levels.”
Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich used a model similar to the focused patrols to fight property crimes in his jurisdictions. It worked out, he says, well enough that a man and woman from Spokane Valley allegedly drove up to Pend Oreille County to commit burglaries there. They were caught in Idaho.
“Crime may move around from neighborhood to neighborhood, but eventually you’re going to reduce the crime because those that are committing the crimes will be taken off the streets and they’ll be incarcerated and hopefully when they are incarcerated, they’ll be placed in programs to break whatever is the cause of their behavior,” Knezovich says.
Maria Haberfeld, chair of the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at City University of New York, says the patrols will likely cause those who survive off crime to move to another area. But those who commit crime because they’re mentally ill will stick around in the emphasis area.
“There is only a short-term benefit for the saturated area but no long-term solutions,” Haberfeld says in an email. “But sometimes having a period of safety and security — no matter how brief — is badly needed by the local population.”
Margie Taylor, shelter case manager for House of Charity, says the patrols haven’t necessarily stopped people from acting out — she related a story of a man who smashed a flowerpot in a drunken rage — but since they’ve started, she’s noticed a change in how officers act.
“SPD has been more responsive, they’re here a lot quicker, they’re responding to incidents in the neighborhoods a lot faster,” Taylor says. “It’s been helpful for us.”
Knowing the police are paying extra attention has allowed Schultz, the man living in his van, a measure of security in a neighborhood where little can be taken for granted.
“We’re just trying to get by, but there’s no place for us park, there’s no place for us to be safe,” he says. “I’m constantly nervous all the time.”
Schultz crossed paths with Green when he was with two other men hanging out on the steps of a boarded-up building.
Green had the option of issuing a citation for loitering and having an open container of beer, both crimes the police are targeting in that area. But Green opted not to write a ticket. “My job down there is to deter crime by contact every possible violation in the hopes my presence deters everything,” Green says. “My job is not to put people in court or collect fines. It’s to achieve the greater goal of reducing crime.”
Shortly thereafter, Schultz left the stoop.