By Dr. Patrick Jones
As a student at Whitman, I once visited the home of a “townie” friend of mind. As we all left the house together, his mother didn’t lock the door. I was a bit surprised because that was not my family’s habit. “No need to in Walla Walla,” she explained. But she quickly admonished me not to tell anyone.
That encounter took place a few decades ago. Do some Walla Wallans still have this sense of security?
They might, considering the recent property crime rate in the county. In 2021, there were 1,247 incidents reported by local law enforcement. As Trends indicator 6.1.1 reveals, most of these fell in the category of theft, or larceny. Very few (208) were burglaries and fewer yet (97) were incidents of motor vehicle thefts.
These annual totals represent a huge decline over the past quarter century in the County. In 1995, with a much smaller population, total incidents amounted to 3,500. Since then, the count has dropped by almost two thirds.
This progress is reflected in the rate of property crime per 1,000 residents shown by indicator 6.1.1. In 2021, it was about 20 per 1,000 residents, or two per hundred. In 1995, the rate stood at a little over 63. The recent decline in the rate (since 2018) has been the steepest since the late 1990s. Except for two years, the rate has come in lower than the state rate. And the gap to the state has grown.
Walla Walla’s property crime rate is nearly the lowest among Eastern Washington metro areas. Lowest in 2021, by a considerable margin, was the greater Wenatchee area, at 14.5 incidents per 1,000. The highest was in Spokane County, at 37.0. (Rates for the other metro areas are accessible on Walla Walla Trends by clicking on the homepage map.)
All metro areas, thankfully, have registered significant decreases in their property crime rates over the past 25 years. Most, however, reported rate increases in 2021, rising from over pre-pandemic lows. In fact, the increase in the greater Tri Cities during the pandemic years was substantial. Yet, Walla Walla, along with Yakima County, avoided any rate rebound.
Does the count of men and women in blue affect the local crime rate? Trends indicator 6.3.1 tracks the number of commissioned officers in the county over the same past quarter century. Not surprisingly, the count has climbed from 68 in 1995 to 88 in 2021. And given the downward path of property crime over the same period, it is not surprising that the association between the two measures is negative. But just how strong has the association been?
A correlation statistic between the two series points to a strong association. The coefficient is -0.91. (Correlation coefficient values range from -1.0 to 1.0, with values around zero showing little movement together and values close to -1.0 or 1.0 showing strong movement together.)
Has the increased number of commissioners led to lower property crime rates in the County? We cannot claim that, since other factors may be in play, such as an aging population or a broadly declining unemployment rate over the same period. Correlation is not equivalent to causation.
Yet, the strength of the negative correlation is so strong that this observer thinks that some causal effect between the number of officers and crime rates exists.
How low a community would like its crime rates to be undoubtedly varies. It is worthwhile pointing out that while Walla Walla enjoys low crime rates relative to Washington State, its rate has consistently been higher than the U.S. rate. If a greater law enforcement presence has some effect on crime, the question for local officials and the residents who elect them is what an acceptable rate should be. A response to that question, in turn, depends on both the ability and willingness to spend public dollars on this function of government.
As Trends indicator 6.3.2 reveals, Walla Walla taxpayers have, for many years, paid a higher share of the income to law enforcement than throughout the state. Currently, that is about $0.50 for every $100 of a resident’s income, but it has been as high as $0.75 for every $100. Might the current outlay return to those earlier levels?