May 17 Daily News editorial
Preliminary statistics from the 2008 Washington Uniform Crime Report released last week would indicate that all law enforcement personnel in Cowlitz County deserve our thanks — thanks for a job well done.
The county’s 2008 crime rate was down nearly 12 percent from the previous year, according to Daily News reporter Amy M.E. Fischer. It was no one-year fluke. Cowlitz County’s crime rate has fallen 43 percent over the past five years. The county’s crime rate now ranks 11th in the state. Eleventh out of Washington’s 39 counties is a higher ranking than we’d like to see, granted. But it represents dramatic improvement in just a few years’ time. In 2003, the county’s crime rate was the highest in the state.
Longview Police Chief Alex Perez remarked Wednesday that, “We still have a ways to go.” He’s right, of course. But the distance traveled in less than six years should be a confidence builder.
Crime in the Longview and Kelso, the county's largest population centers, dropped 15.8 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively, between 2007 and 2008. Longview, which had the third-highest crime rate among Washington cities with more than 20,000 population in 2004, fell to 10th in the state in 2007 and 13th in 2008.
This rapid pace of improvement will be difficult to maintain, particularly given the depth of the recession and predictions of a slow job recovery. Still, all factors seem to point toward steady improvement in years ahead. Policing strategies are sound and under constant review. County and city officials focused on the issue. Longview city officials have made lowering the crime rate their No. 1 priority. And, while additional resources may be hard to come by in current down economy, one very important crime-fighting tool — a relatively new, 306-bed county jail — already is available.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Bill Mahoney told Fischer that opening the new jail was a big factor in bringing down crime rates in the county. Certainly, that opening day in July 2006 provided a big morale boost for all in the county’s criminal justice system. Previous to the jail’s completion, many lawbreakers were routinely cut loose because there simply weren’t enough beds available to jail them. The word was out to car prowlers, unlicensed drivers, the disorderly and shoplifters up and down the Interstate 5 corridor: In Cowlitz County, you’ll walk with nothing more than a ticket, and the ticket could be ignored without consequence.
The community was slow to respond to appeals for a new jail. County voters flatly rejected two tax proposals to fund construction of a new jail, first in 1997 and again in 2001. Cowlitz County Commissioner George Raiter and former Commissioner Bill Lehning deserve credit for taking the initiative. In 2003, they diverted money from the county’s landfill savings account to pay for the new jail. It was a smart, cost-effective move. Jail bookings increased 51 percent between 2005 and 2008, according to Fischer, while the corrections budget increased by only 24 percent. And, as we’ve learned, the crime rate declined significantly.
Dedicated elected officials and law enforcement officers have made the difference these past several years, along with a strong measure of citizen support.