A greater level of community involvement was one of the recurring needs mentioned during a workshop in Winlock held Feb. 9 discussing the status of the city's law enforcement resources.
Held at the request of Council Member Arron Mummert, who had put forward the idea of a workshop during the council's Jan. 26 meeting, Mummert and other officials have said they are concerned about complaints from citizens that Winlock is being perceived as a safe haven for criminals who want to get away with their behavior, as evidenced by recurring property and drug crimes taking place in the area.
During the workshop, Mummert shared how, in 2012, the city paid $14,353 to the Lewis County Jail for incarceration of suspects, while they paid $5,670 in 2013 and $6,941, with Mummer stating he wanted to know if this was an indication of a recent reduction in arrests.
"Is the city going to take care of the criminals and start prosecute them to the fullest and put them in jail, even if it does cost the city money?" he stated, adding he is concerned, if the city is failing to arrest or prosecute individuals to save money, the community may end up paying for such decisions in other ways.
City Attorney Erin Hillier said, as it relates to Winlock's jail costs, the city pays only for misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offences, the most severe of which include fourth-degree assault and third-degree theft, while the prosecution and incarceration of felony-level crimes are paid for by Lewis County rather than the city.
"All of these other crimes are handled on the higher level," she said.
Police Chief Terry Williams added, with regard to the arrest and prosecution of suspects as reflected by jail expenditures, Judge Steve Buzzard, who oversees Winlock Municipal Court, is sensitive to the budgetary needs of the city and has been willing to impose alternative sanctions to help keep costs down, such as electronic home monitoring (EHM) as opposed to jail time.
"We actually make money on EHM, because they have to pay up front," said Williams, stating costs associated with the Lewis County Jail are paid by the inmate after time is served.
Hillier advised the council should look at specific arrest and prosecution figures from both the city and the county when wishing to determine how severe Winlock's crime problems may be, with officials indicating they will follow up on such information.
But officials said, without looking at specific figures, there remains the perception among many residents that something must be done to stem the criminal element in Winlock, with Council Member Sarah Gifford stating the end result of law enforcement efforts in the city needs to be an environment where criminals don't feel welcome.
"I would like to see us make it uncomfortable for people that want to do crime coming into our town," she said. "I want them to say, 'I don't want to drive through Winlock, because I'm going to get busted.'"
While other officials and members of the public echoed support of this idea, Council Member Jerry Rader said the city needs to be mindful that the criminals and those suspected of criminality are citizens themselves and still have rights that must be upheld.
"They're still members of the public," he said. "Criminals have more rights than the police do."
As a former police reserve in Winlock, Rader said Winlock has overcome high concentrations of crime in the past by dedicating a large number of paid officers and volunteers to keeping an eye on suspects, stating the city had, at the time, "more cops than bad guys."
When asked how the problem could be addressed today, Rader said the city would need to hire more officers, or find some way of encouraging more members of the community to volunteer.
Along the lines of community involvement, Deputy Clerk Ginny Boylan said residents who bring a complaint about local crimes to the city are often unwilling or afraid to file a complaint officially, preventing the city from following up on their concerns.
"There are people who come in and want to complain and don't want to sign form," explained Boylan, "but the complaint must be signed in order for the city to act."
Boylan said, as a matter of policy, the city does not accept anonymous complaints because they want to ensure complaints received by the Police Department have not been fabricated, and she said the information of those filing complaints will remain confidential. But residents still remain uneasy, she said, and she hopes the community would realize the city needs their support to act on their concerns.
"That's the only way I think that the community can come together and maybe solve some of these problems is to work with the city," said Boylan.
Hillier also mentioned other communities have found themselves successfully engaging residents through neighborhood watch programs and other groups, and said the most important thing a citizen can do to help solve the problem of crime is to vigilant report suspicious activity.
"Continue reporting, always," she said adding witnesses willing to assist in prosecution are also important to have. "That's what you have to encourage your citizen's to do."
At one point, the council discussed what it would take to have cameras installed throughout the city, as the presence of cameras can deter many criminals, but due to privacy issues, cost concerns and public disclosure requirements, the idea did not go any further.
The council is expected to continue discussing the status of their law enforcement needs in upcoming meetings. Those who wish to report what they feel has been a crime or saw suspicious behavior are encouraged to contact the Winlock Police Department at (360) 785-3891, while emergencies should be reposted to 911.
Anonymous tips may also be made to Lewis County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-748-6422.