Eastern Oregon police wary of crime statistics

Written by Pat Caldwell, for The Observer December 12, 2013 07:58 am

(Photo Illustration by PHIL BULLOCK)
(Photo Illustration by PHIL BULLOCK)
 

FBI numbers show Baker City with one violent crime in 2012, while La Grande has 22 in same time period

Baker City revealed the lowest number of violent crimes of three Eastern Oregon cities situated on the Interstate 84 corridor, according to 2012 data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Statistics from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division for 2012, show that Baker City listed one violent crime case, while La Grande recorded 22 and Ontario documented 82.

By comparison, Woodburn — situated in the Willamette Valley and with a population of about 25,000 people — recorded 73 violent crime cases in 2012, according to the FBI. 

The FBI statistics are generated by that agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Under the FBI’s UCR agenda, violent crime consists of four offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. 

While the statistics are a good starting point for law enforcement regarding fighting crime, Baker City Police Chief  Wyn Lohner said it is important to keep the numbers in perspective.

Lohner pointed out that variances in the method each law enforcement department uses to track cases plays a significant role in how the crime numbers are tabulated and evaluated.

“Everyone tracks stats a little bit differently. Everyone clears cases differently,” he said.

While Lohner noted that Baker City is relatively safe, he also said that there can be, and often are, a number of factors at play when crime data is calculated.

“I don’t put a lot of faith in those numbers. I’m not saying that agencies are trying to be misleading. But there are some inconsistencies in reporting from agency to agency, primarily, as I said, in how cases are cleared,” he said.

La Grande Police Department Lieutenant Derick Reddington agreed with Lohner regarding assessing crime stats. Too many factors — such as how a particular crime is initially charged by an officer making the arrest — play an important, and often overlooked, role.

 

“I would agree with Wyn, I don’t take a lot of credence in (statistics) either. Maybe, for example, I charge a little differently than an officer in Baker City. Realistically, my 22 serious crimes, once they go through the legal process, could be lower or higher,” he said.

Lohner said the effort to make a firm comparison between violent crime rates in Baker City compared to, say, Ontario is at best an awkward exercise.

“The dynamics are completely different,” he said. “(Ontario) has a big influx of people who come in to shop.”

Ontario Police Chief Mark Alexander acknowledged that his city — with a population of just over 11,000 — encounters a routine boost in people.

“Our daily population could be 60,000 people,” Alexander said.

Ontario — situated on the Idaho-Oregon border along the Snake River — serves six small to medium-sized townships on each side of the border and is a recognized shopping hub for Southeastern Oregon. That daily invasion — fueled by a lack of a sales tax in Oregon — often creates law enforcement challenges, Alexander said.

“We are the major city in the county. We attract a lot of people. People move back and forth from Idaho like we change shoes. It think it’s the location — that brings issues,” he said.

Alexander said Ontario remains a secure city.

“People put themselves in bad positions, whether it’s the lifestyle they lead or who they associate with. You and I are going to be pretty safe,” he said.

Still the 82 recorded violent crimes in Ontario 2012 is a number Alexander said he is not comfortable with.

“Some things I’m still trying to figure out. Why are we in a reactive mode? Why aren’t we like Baker City? Our numbers compared to Baker City’s are off the charts,” he said.

Recently, public safety took center stage at an Ontario City Council meeting when city manager Jay Henry requested an outlay of funds — nearly $57,000 — for a consulting agency to evaluate Ontario’s fire and police. The council, now in the midst of a complicated 911 dispatch center consolidation, declined to move forward on Henry’s request.

Ontario City Councilman Norm Crume said he always remains cautious regarding spending large sums of taxpayer money but added a public safety study may be necessary sooner rather than later.

“I had a problem with how much (the public safety study) cost. But we may have to go and get it done,” he said.

Crume conceded Ontario has a crime problem.

“No question,” he said.

Lohner said one key difference is the location of each city. Ontario, he said, is situated on a border where criminals can — and often do — slip across the Snake River and disappear. That, combined with the fact that Baker City does not see a 10- to 20-thousand expansion of people every day as Ontario does, makes a difference.

“We don’t have the big fluctuations. In Baker City people know when something is out of place,” he said.