Major crime rate drops 1% in Tri-Cities

Tri-City police plan to continue to put heat on gang members and drug users in 2011 as they work to keep the community a safe place to live.

Cooperation among local, state and federal agencies is key to the Tri-Cities' low crime rate, the region's law enforcement leaders said, and they plan to use their partnerships to put pressure on gang members.

"Even the slowest criminal ... should understand we're going to hunt you down, and we're going to put you in jail," said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg on Thursday as the area's top cops announced 2010 crime statistics.

Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim added, "We recognize that's what needs to be done, but it's also what citizens are asking us to do."

Overall, major crimes in the region dropped by 1 percent last year as agencies recorded 83 fewer felonies in Benton and Franklin counties than in 2009.

Violent crimes dropped 11 percent, and there was no change in property crimes, Pasco Police Chief Denis Austin said.

Violent crimes tracked as a Part 1 crime reported to the FBI are homicide, rape, robbery and assault. Property crimes are burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.

"We are very pleased with these numbers," Austin said.

The 2010 crime rate for the Tri-Cities was 27 victims per 1,000 population, which is significantly lower than the national average of 34 per 1,000, and the state average of 40 per 1,000, he said.

The individual city and county statistics for 2010 were announced at a joint news conference in Kennewick. Hohenberg, Lathim and Austin were joined by retiring Richland Police Chief Tony Corsi, West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy and Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane.

Washington State Patrol Lt. Roger Wilbur also provided statistics on 2010 traffic fatalities. The Tri-Cities had 11 fatal crashes, up one from 2009. But troopers saw a noteworthy reduction in the number of impaired and unbuckled drivers among those killed.

Last year, 18 percent of fatal collisions involved a DUI driver, compared with 50 percent in 2009, while unbuckled motorists were a factor in 18 percent of fatals compared with 60 percent the year before, Wilbur said.

Richland, Pasco and West Richland reported reductions in their overall crime rate, while Kennewick and the two sheriff's offices saw slight increases.

Richland reported a 14 percent drop in overall crime and a crime rate of 21 victims per 1,000 population. But, Corsi cautioned, numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

"If you're very proactive, the numbers are going to be higher. If you're reactive, the numbers are going to be lower," he said.

He said his agency has been fortunate that it's been able to be proactive and focus on gangs, drugs and other crimes and get those criminals off the street before they turn to more violent crime.

Pasco reported a 15 percent reduction in violent crime and a 6 percent drop in property crime, with a crime rate of 29 victims per 1,000. Chief Austin said the 2010 crime rate is the lowest on record, noting at one point it reached 158 victims per 1,000 population.

"We've come a long, long way," he said.

He attributed Pasco's success to community-based policing and proactive initiatives to interrupt criminals' agendas. He also noted that about 10 percent of the population commits about 80 percent of the crime, so officers will continue to focus on the problem individuals.

"We're not going to tell them when or where, but we're going to be there," Austin said. "We're going to come after them."

Pasco did have three homicide cases last year that left four dead, including an almost full-term baby. Benton County had two homicides, and Prosser, which did not present its statistics Thursday, had one homicide.

"Homicides are difficult to stop because they're crimes of passion or crimes of opportunity," Austin said.

West Richland reported 184 Part 1 crimes last year, a 2.6 percent decrease from 2009, with slight increases in the number of rapes, robberies and assaults. Chief McElroy also credits proactive policing with the decline in property crimes.

Franklin County had an overall crime increase of 11 percent, but Sheriff Lathim said 2010, with 205 major crimes reported, was still the third lowest year in the past 30.

Benton County had a 4 percent increase in overall crimes, with property crimes -- vehicle theft, theft and burglaries -- contributing to the increase. Auto thefts were up 33 percent, but Keane said officers recovered 27 of the stolen 48 vehicles.

He also said many thefts were crimes of opportunity, with farm equipment and ATVs left out in rural areas being swiped and stripped.

Kennewick saw an 8 percent increase in overall crime, primarily due to an 8 percent property crime increase, Hohenberg said.

Violent crimes dropped 6 percent.

Thefts -- including all shoplifting and vehicle prowls -- increased by 11 percent and burglaries by 10 percent.

For years, officers have focused on reducing violent crime, and they will continue those efforts, but this year they also want to educate the community about how easy it is to prevent crimes of opportunity, Hohenberg said.

About half the burglary reports involved unlocked homes, and many thefts from vehicles involved unlocked cars or cars with valuables left in plain sight, he said.

"We don't want people to be victimized. They can help us," he said.