Feb. 19 Daily News editorial
Falling crime rates offer area residents some relief from a steady drum beat of disappointing economic news these past few months. On Tuesday, Kelso Police Chief Wayne Nelson reported that the city’s overall crime rate marked a seven-year low in 2008. Crime in Kelso is down 29 percent since 2002.
The latest data available for Longview has been equally encouraging. This city’s crime rate dropped by 24 percent between 2003 and 2006, then declined another 19 percent the following year. The two cities’ police departments are to be commended. Their efforts are clearly making our communities safer.
Still, as Chief Nelson noted in his report to Kelso City Council members, good police work is just part of the equation. According to Daily News reporter Amy M.E. Fischer, Nelson also attributes the sharp crime reduction to community support, partnerships with other agencies — including those that deal with mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence — and ample jail space for criminals.
Having enough jail space is a big factor, as most who have lived here more than a few years should know. It was just a little more than two years ago that the county’s new, 306-bed lockup was completed and opened for business. That opening day in July 2006 provided a huge morale boost for all in the criminal justice system.
Previous to the jail’s completion, police and the courts were simply unable to lock up large numbers of lawbreakers. Fifty or more offenders were being turned loose following arrest each week and many warrants couldn’t be served — all for lack of jail beds. The word was out to car prowlers, unlicensed drivers, the disorderly and shoplifters as far away as Portland: In Cowlitz County, you’ll walk with nothing more than a ticket, and the ticket could be ignored without consequence.
Nelson is right to give some credit to the new jail for the drop in crime rates. And he’s right to emphasize the role community support plays in crime fighting. In truth, the broader community was slow to support the jail. County voters flatly rejected two tax proposals to fund construction of a new jail, first in 1997 and again in 2001. Credit Cowlitz Commissioner George Raiter and then-Commissioner Bill Lehning for taking the initiative to end the practice of catch-and-release. In 2003, they voted to divert money from the county’s landfill savings account to pay for the jail.
Community support, dedicated elected officials and good policing — it’s all required to achieve the kind of progress witnessed in Kelso and Longview over the past several years. Building on that progress in the next year or two may be especially challenging, given the recession. Crime often trends upward in hard economic times. And with city and county revenues declining, it may be impossible to provide law enforcement additional resources.
But we take encouragement from the record of success both Kelso and Longview police are building — and from Longview Police Chief Alex Perez’s message to city officials a few weeks ago. Perez noted that recent improvements in the city’s crime rates had come without extra funding. “We’ve been working with what we’ve had. … “I’m not discouraged. It just raises the bar for us, and we’re up to the challenge.”