Chief: Crime decline a mixed blessing

Last year about this time, when city Police Chief Janice Freehling gave her annual report based on the prior year’s statistics, she stressed that an overall drop in crime was not purely good news – attributing some of the decrease to a shortage of officers, due to a rash of departures.

On Wednesday, when Freehling gave her annual report for 2013, it was a similar story: an overall 9 percent decrease in crime and an officer deficit for much of the year – this time because of 11 retirements, plus some resignations, with most departures motivated by restrictions imposed by the city’s Act 47 distressed municipalities plan.

“It looks good,” Freehling said of the overall decline, driven by a 15 percent decrease in Part 2 or less serious crimes, which more than offset an 8 percent increase in Part 1 or more serious crimes. “But when you look at the categories – driving under the influence, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct – a lot of the decrease came because we were not out there [in numbers as great as before].

Such crime tends not to be recorded if officers aren’t there to seek them out or to witness them, so they tend to decrease statistically when officer numbers are down, Freehling said.

DUIs were down 17 percent to 174, public drunkenness was down 23 percent to 215 and disorderly conduct was down 29 percent to 46 last year.

Equally telling was the speeding ticket decline from 377 to just 63, due to officers working overtime to cover necessary shifts and being unavailable for speed details, Freehling said.

That probably contributed to the “alarming” number of fatal accidents – eight – up from the usual none or one or two, she said.

The roster remains down four from the budgeted 66, with the civil service board currently compiling an eligibility list.

Oddly, the officer shortage may also help account for the increase in the more serious crimes, as those – burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts, for example – are generally recorded as crimes even if not witnessed by police, and tend to happen more often when a depleted roster results in less police visibility, Freehling said.

Burglaries were up 15 percent to 259, larcenies were up 14 percent to 733 and motor vehicle thefts were up 19 percent to 43 last year, according to Freehling’s report.

Still, some of the most serious crimes went down, bucking that Part 1 trend seen in burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts:

Homicide was down 33 percent to two, rape was down 19 percent to 25 and robbery was down 9 percent to 29.

Overall, the department did a good job in a challenging environment, according to City Council members.

That challenge included not only working with a depleted roster, but without the “400 years of experience [that] walked out the door,” making the force a “very young” one, Freehling said.

“Everyone had to work very, very, very hard,” she said.

It didn’t help that 3,500 more calls brought the number to 30,600, Councilman Bruce Kelley said.

Under the circumstances, the department “did a real yeoman’s job,” Kelley said.

Helping the department deal with the challenge was its popular Facebook page, which has led to many quick suspect identifications and the tendency of residents to call in suspicious activity – especially drug problems – more quickly than before, said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

It will also help when the hiring and training of new officers is finished, according to Freehling.

“Hopefully, we’ll get back to a full complement,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.