By Mike De Felice, Kitsap News Group
Statewide, violent crime is up 12.3 percent, and, probably not coincidentally, there are fewer cops on the street.
Both of those trends hold true in Kitsap County.
Robberies in 2021 increased by 10 percent while aggravated assaults went up 15.4 percent, says the crime report of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The number of murders — not a major problem in Kitsap County — climbed to 325 last year, the highest rate since WASPC started collecting data over 40 years ago.
Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese, Port Orchard police chief Matt Brown and Poulsbo chief Ron Harding talked about the local crime numbers.
“We are seeing more violent crime, especially in the robbery and aggravated assault categories,” Gese said. “We also have more domestic violent crime where a weapon was used.”
Deputies have seen robberies go up nearly 71 percent — there were 24 in 2020 and 41 in 2021. “That is a five-year high,” the sheriff noted. “Most of the robbery numbers are coming from retail thefts where a clerk or a loss prevention person try and stop somebody at the door, and there is a tug-of-war over the stolen items or [the perpetrator] is basically pushing past people.”
The use or the threat of force can elevate shoplifting to a robbery.
Aggravated or serious assaults covered by the sheriff’s office increased 44 percent, with 236 in 2020 and 340 in 2021.
Regarding sex offenses, the sheriff noted rapes are down 16 percent, but incidents of fondling (sexual contact without consent) skyrocketed 172 percent from 36 in 2020 to 98 in 2021.
Gese, however, does not believe there was a spike as much as it was because kids returned to classrooms after being in remote learning the previous year. “The schools were closed and staff there are mandatory reporters for a lot of those types of crimes. But with kids not in school that whole pipeline was shut down for almost a year at least,” he said.
Chief Harding said, “Violent crime has gone up as far as assaults. In particular, this past year — and we have seen it continue in 2022 — we are seeing more crimes that involve weapons. We have seen a lot more incidents where handguns are displayed and, in some cases, have even been fired. That is a little alarming for us.”
Serious assaults have skyrocketed 183.3 percent. There were six aggravated assaults in Poulsbo in 2020 and 17 the following year. Robberies went from one to four.
Sexual offenses also increased, according to crime statistics. Rapes in Poulsbo doubled from three to six. The city also experienced a dramatic increase in fondling cases of 300 percent, with two in 2020 and eight the following year. Harding attributed those numbers to perpetrators who allegedly abused multiple victims.
Fraud and drug offenses dipped in Poulsbo as in other parts of the county. Both dropped over 85 percent in 2021 from the prior year.
Violent crimes also increased in Port Orchard, chief Brown said, adding crimes against people are up 17.4 percent and crimes against property 14 percent. Fondling saw a dramatic 600 percent jump with two incidents in 2020 and 14 in 2021. Robberies rose 75 percent, moving from eight to 14.
Fraud and drug crimes were substantially down, each for good reason.
Fraud offenses decreased nearly 59 percent. In 2020 when COVID relief funds were distributed by the government, there was a massive effort to illegally obtain those funds in Washington state, reportedly by an organized group outside the country. After the widespread fraud operation ended the number of fraud cases returned to normal, Brown said.
Drug offenses dropped 67.3 percent due to a decision by the state Supreme Court. In State v. Blake, the court declared Washington’s drug possession law unconstitutional. After the ruling, police were unable to arrest people for possession of small amounts of drugs, including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine, the chief explained.
The legislature later revised the struck-down drug possession law. Now, when law enforcement contacts a person with small amounts of illegal drugs, in the first two incidents the person is referred to drug treatment. On the third contact, the individual can face a misdemeanor charge.
Weapon violations, like drug offenses, went down nearly 70 percent in Port Orchard. “Drugs and guns go together,” Brown said. Not being able to arrest and search someone who possessed drugs likely resulted in some weapons getting missed, he added.
Why higher numbers?
An anti-police trend nationwide that led to reforms spurred by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and offender-friendly court decisions contributed to the rise in assaults, robberies and other crimes, local law enforcement officials say.
“There seems to be an increase in fear and an increase in frustration in society right now,” Harding said. “I think people are unsure of what’s going on. We have a cultural war that exists.
“We have defund movements. Property crime has gone up. Every day people are inundated with stories on the news about crimes. Folks are also uncertain about police response and what law enforcement can actually do,” he said.
Brown agreed a variety of factors contributed to higher crime. “There are also some socio-cultural factors that are involved. We have a significant political divide where people scream at each other instead of talking through issues and that’s a breakdown of the social contract,” Brown said.
The pandemic also played a role, Gese added. “I have to believe that COVID did have an impact, whether it was mental health or the desocialization that occurred while the country was going through COVID.”
The pandemic impacted the criminal justice system and changed how police did their jobs, Gese said. “We had to restrict the number of people in jail. We weren’t booking a lot of non-violent felons.
“That impact still lives on today. Also, the courts were almost closed down for a year or better with COVID. It’s my understanding the court now has a couple of years of backlog with people waiting for trial and finalization of their charges.”
Some police reforms that came out of Olympia also impacted police, officials said.
One piece of legislation limited when police can conduct car pursuits. The law restricted police chases to when a driver of the other vehicle is suspected of driving under the influence, is involved in a violent or sex crime or poses an “imminent threat” to others. The law, police said, led to officers being unable to do high-speed pursuits of someone driving a stolen car, for instance, since car theft is only a property crime.
“Officers will come across a vehicle they know is stolen because they’ll run the plate. All they can do is attempt to make a traffic stop, and if the car doesn’t pull over, they have to let it go,” Harding said.
Gese added that once the law took effect a year ago, “We did see a dramatic spike in car thefts, and that was seen across the state.” Statistics show in 2021 motor vehicle thefts rose nearly 69 percent for the sheriff’s office, 85 percent in Port Orchard and 60 percent in Poulsbo.
The defund police movement has led to a huge drop in the number of police protecting our streets. Many officers took early retirement, and it’s been hard to attract new members to a profession that is under attack. Some communities cut police budgets, instead putting money into social service agencies.
The WASPC crime report says there are 495 fewer police statewide. Notably, the state ranked last among the 50 states for having the fewest number of officers per capita. The number of officers per 1,000 state residents is 1.38, which is way below the national average of 2.33, according to FBI data.
Kitsap County, like many other areas statewide, is in need of more police officers.
The three local law enforcement agencies in this story are each down approximately 20 percent. The sheriff’s office has eight open positions and 10 new deputies who are undergoing training and not yet able to work solo on the street. The Poulsbo force is down three officers while Port Orchard is down two and is training three others for street duty.
Smaller staffs mean police departments are limited to responding to emergency 911 calls instead of doing proactive policing, like special speed enforcement patrols, police administrators said.
“We can cover 911 calls currently — the primary service — but we know our community wants more,” Harding said. “They want us to be more proactive and patrol high-crime areas. They also want us to do community education and safety assessments for businesses and some basic training about what to do if someone was to come and start shooting.”
Reduced staff results in delayed response times, Brown said. “When we are short staffed, as we often are, it may mean that it’s going to take us longer to get to a 911 call because we have to triage things. It may mean that instead of an officer contacting you in person, they call you on the phone.”
An example recently involved a fender-bender car accident just outside the Port Orchard police station. No officer was able to respond for 90 minutes and by then the parties had left the scene.
“We were at minimal staffing, and our officers had responded to an incident where an individual was undergoing a behavior health crisis and needed to go to the hospital. That incident took two hours and was a much-higher priority for us than responding to a non-injury collusion.”
The WASPC puts out its annual crime report using data from 232 state, county, municipal and tribal agencies. The report is designed to give residents and officials information about crime in their communities, its authors say.