Stolen vehicles and car thefts were up in 2020 and 2021, but West Linn was recently named the safest city in Oregon
An apparent uptick in car break ins and stolen vehicles in town has left some members of the West Linn community wondering: Is West Linn safe?
While the frequency of property crime has alarmed many in town, overall crime in West Linn has decreased from 2021 levels in the first two months of the year.
At a recent meeting of the West Linn City Council, Police Chief Peter Mahuna presented crime data from the past five years, emphasizing the rising number of car prowls and thefts of vehicles.
Mahuna said there was a 28% increase in thefts of items from vehicles between 2020 and 2021, noting, “That is a massive increase in one crime category.”
Data from the West Linn Police Department reported to the FBI noted there were 105 reported thefts from cars in 2020 and 134 reported in 2021.
Despite this increase, SafeWise, a site that researches home safety and security systems and examines crime trends, recently named West Linn the safest city in Oregon for the third year in a row based on its analysis of the FBI’s crime data.
However, with 12 reported thefts from cars in January and February 2022, West Linn is currently on pace to return to 2019’s rate of theft from cars.
Mahuna also noted West Linn does not have a lot of violent crime.
The city’s violent crime rate has been fairly steady over the past four years, when between 58 and 75 violent crimes were reported each year. In the first two months of 2022, West Linn reported eight violent crimes.
Over the past five years, the most common violent crimes reported in West Linn were simple assault (actions resulting in minor injuries, seriously threatening words or behavior) and intimidation. Twenty-one simple assaults were reported in 2021, as well as 21 reports of intimidation.
Sexually violent crimes also appear to have remained at a constant level over the past five years, with around 10 reported each year (only six in 2020) between 2017 and 2021 (though according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, only 310 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police). No violent sexual crimes were reported to West Linn police in the first two months of 2022.
Though Mahuna did not bring it up with council, WLPD also tracks “crimes against society,” which in 2021 were at the lowest level of the past five years. Crimes against society are typically victimless offenses, often crimes relating to drugs, gambling or prostiution. West Linn’s most common crime against society was DUI. The number of reported DUIs dropped from 282 in 2019 to 150 in 2020 and down again to 132 in 2021.
Numbers aren’t the whole picture
Elliott Young, a professor of history at Portland’s Lewis and Clark College specializing in immigration, incarceration and criminal justice, said it’s important to take a broader look at the crime data.
“Since 2017, there has been a slight increase in property crimes, but if you have a broader perspective what you see is in fact an overall decline,” Young said.
He pointed to an FBI database which shows the same crime statistics Mahuna used, but reaches back to the 1980s.
According to the FBI data, violent and property crime have declined in Oregon and nationwide since the mid-early 1990s. Even in West Linn, after a rise in property crime in 2020, the overall crime rate was less than half of what it was at its peak in 1997.
(The FBI’s charts count fewer types of crimes as ‘total property crime’ than WLPD. The FBI’s property crime count includes reported burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft, but WLPD counts 10 types of property crime.
Like with its property crime counts, the FBI includes significantly fewer total crimes in its violent crime count than WLPD. The FBI only counts murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as violent crime. These are among the least common violent crimes in West Linn, according to WLPD data.)
“Year-to-year trends are often not indicative of longer-term trends,” Young said.
Young noted the overall decrease in crime — not just in the Portland area, but across the country — since the 1990s. While Young said criminologists don’t have a clear understanding of the declining crime rate beginning three decades ago, he called attention to the broader economic trends of the age, and in particular the increase in overall prosperity of the 90s.
However, he said, “There are too many variables to be able to pin it on one thing.”
Does West Linn need more resources?
During the council meeting, Mayor Jules Walters asked Mahuna what resources he needed to deter the recent uptick in car prowls and stolen vehicles.
While Mahuna said that many of those thefts could be prevented by educating residents and reminding them to lock their doors, he also noted he could use more officers.
WLPD was “spread thin” in 2020 and 2021, according to Mahuna. The chief said the department was six officers short of a full staff.
“The number of bodies we have right now doesn’t allow us to be very nimble to respond to things,” Mahuna said.
However, Mahuna said he was happy to report the recent filling of five open officer positions.
Those new recruits still need training through the academy and likely won’t be able to go on patrol on their own for another year, Mahuna said.
But more officers might not be the best solution, said Fred Groves, a West Linn resident who served on the city’s Police Oversight and Accountability Task Force.
“Most problems we’re seeing right now could be fixed with people locking their things and being more vigilant,” Groves said.
Groves also noted he feels “totally safe” in West Linn.
The idea that more officers are needed to deter a rise in crime is a common narrative among politicians and police departments seeking a larger budget, Young noted.
Young also believes hiring more officers to prevent car prowls and thefts is not a good solution.
“I don’t think there is any evidence that police are effective in preventing car theft,” he said. “You’d have to have a cop on every block in the city.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, roughly half of vehicle thefts are due to errors by the driver like leaving keys in the car and failing to lock doors and windows.
Mahuna told the City Council WLPD has attempted to raise awareness in the community about taking simple measures to protect cars and possessions. The department recently included a message in the West Linn rate-payer’s monthly water bill reminding people to lock their car doors (Groves noted that many residents like himself have automatic bill pay and never saw the notice). Mahuna said the department has also tried using social media to educate people, but neither approach appeared to have slowed down thefts.
Mahuna suggested having more officers visible would deter would-be thieves.
He conceded, however, that additional officers was only a temporary fix.
The broader picture
If you ask Young, a better and more permanent solution would be funding social services to meet people’s basic needs.
“Thefts of cars and catalytic converters are crimes of desperation from people who are very poor, possibly houseless, possibly addicted,” he said. “To solve that you need to address the underlying issues causing people to commit those crimes. Policing our way out of these problems is not going to work. There’s no evidence it will work.”
Locally, most social services are provided through Clackamas County, rather than the city. However, in the last year, the cities of Lake Oswego and West Linn jointly hired a behavioral health specialist to work with their police departments.
Young is not alone in asserting that broader access to mental health and social services will decrease crime.
As noted in a Stanford University Institute for Economic Research article, a 2020 study of young men in South Carolina by a Stanford University researcher found that “Providing health coverage to individuals with mental illness seems to be one way to significantly reduce their criminal involvement.”
According to the study’s architect, Elisa Jácome, a postdoctoral researcher focusing on immigration, health care and criminal justice, this conclusion resembles findings from other research on the subject: “(Researchers) studied three randomized control trials in Chicago and find that low-income adolescents who took part in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) programming were less likely to be arrested for both violent and non-violent offenses.”
Another approach Groves suggested was organizing neighborhood emergency response groups, which he thought could help by improving communication among neighbors and making them more inclined to watch out for one another.
Young also pointed out that police are not solving most of these property crimes, as indicated by the clearance rates included in the FBI data. Even as West Linn property crimes rose to above 300 (according to the FBI data) in 2020, the number of property crimes “cleared” for the year was just 18, according to the FBI. The FBI counts a crime as cleared when a suspect has been arrested, charged and turned over to prosecution. Occasionally, cases are also cleared by “exceptional means.”
WLPD cleared less than 30 property crimes each year between 2017 and 2020.
In an email to Pamplin Media Group, Mahuna explained that clearing property crimes is difficult because they often occur when homeowners aren’t around.
“We rarely have viable suspect information to follow up on. Even if the crime is captured on video, (Ring Doorbell video) there is a very low likelihood we will be able to identify a suspect,” Mahuna wrote. “Another barrier we face is that people often don’t have the serial numbers of the stolen property to provide to police when making a report. This limits our ability to reunite it to the owner IF a police officer comes across it and runs the serial number.”
In 2020, WLPD cleared less than half the violent crimes reported and counted by the FBI (five cleared crimes of 12 reported).
An increase in car prowls and thefts and a top “safest city in Oregon” rating have put West Linn in a confusing spot. In their meeting with Mahuna, city councilors didn’t have any sure-fire solutions for the chief. Councilor Rory Bialostosky asked if a license plate reader would be helpful and Councilor Todd Jones asked if the city could employ its neighborhood associations to help spread the message about locking doors. Walters suggested collaborating with other agencies to figure out how to attract more officers to the profession.