Police chief says case load has been consistent; department still understaffed

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The St. Helens Police Department released its annual report this week indicating call volume, case load and items of interest for the 2016 calendar year. Data from the St. Helens Police Department show a drop in call volume last year, but department officials say the case load hasn't decreased.

St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss released the police department's annual report, which outlines call volume, case load, key accomplishments of the department and other vital statistics, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, during a St. Helens City Council work session.

The report shows SHPD responded to 1,000 fewer calls for service in 2016 than it did in 2015; however, the number of calls involving domestic violence, theft and suicide attempts significantly increased.

In 2016, officers responded to 15,534 calls, compared to 16,643 the year prior.

As a general trend, Moss noted that St. Helens officers are seeing a consistent call volume and have not had major spikes in calls for public safety service.

Last May, at least one high-profile burglary and theft case resulted in some public perception that St. Helens was an unsafe community, Moss explained. A man who was attempting to steal from a home on 16th Street last spring was stopped by the homeowner, who caught the suspect in the act. The homeowner was assaulted during the incident and the suspect fled on foot. No suspect was identified or charged in that case, Moss said, and in the aftermath, many St. Helens residents expressed fear about a potential spike in violent home thefts, he explained.

Despite that incident, the trend for burglary and theft cases over the past several years doesn't point to a sudden rash in crime that should cause serious concern about public safety, Moss explained.

"It's not anymore than last year, or than the year before that," Moss said of the trend. "We didn't see a lot more burglaries, but just had a couple more high-profile cases."

In spring 2014, a string of nearly 60 burglaries in and around St. Helens over the span of a month left residents missing jewelry, firearms, cash and medication. Two suspects were eventually arrested, but victims still testified in court that they felt unsafe in their homes.

The newly released statistics do, however, show an upward trend in the number of calls related to suicide threats or attempts. Last year, SHPD noted 148 calls for such an emergency. That figure has nearly doubled from 2013 when just 79 calls were taken.

Other highlights of the report include a significant increase in traffic stops conducted by SHPD officers. In 2016 police conducted 2,048 stops compared to 1,809 in 2015, a nearly 12 percent increase, but issued fewer traffic citations overall. The most common citation was driving while suspended, followed by driving uninsured.

Moss noted that while the number of traffic stops may be increasing, the amount of traffic complaints received by SHPD sometimes exceeds resources. Officers simply don't have time to monitor the roads as often as residents might like.

"The number of traffic complaints is going up, but the number of traffic stops that officers are doing is going the other direction," Moss said. "Officers aren't spending as much time doing discretionary stops to do the enforcement aspect."

The police chief has been vocal about the need to increase staffing levels to properly handle the department's call load. SHPD relies on a staff of 16 sworn officers, but several of those positions are vacant. One vacacny was filled earlier this week when Officer Seann Luedke was sworn in.

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