The city is using new funding to hire four more officers and expand programs, including traffic enforcement and a new K9 unit
BATTLE GROUND — It’s not often you hear that a growing city is calling police less often, but that seems to be the case in Battle Ground.
During a report to the City Council this week, Police Chief Mike Fort said calls for service in Battle Ground declined from 7,102 in 2019, to 6,134 last year.
“That is significant to me,” said Fort. “That indicates to me that this is a very livable city, it’s a very safe city, people feel safe.”
Battle Ground was the only city in Clark County to see calls for service decline though, outside of Vancouver, most jurisdictions remained relatively flat.
Overall, crime in the city was down sharply as well.
Person crimes, including homicide, kidnap, assault, robbery, and sex crimes fell 41.4 percent over 2019, said Fort. Property crimes were down 34.2 percent.
The major increases came in fraud cases, which rose from 50 in 2019 to 72 in 2020, and commercial burglaries, which increased from 21 to 26.
Residential burglaries, meanwhile, fell by 58.8 percent, from 34 in 2019 to just 14 last year. Basic theft cases dropped from 368 to just 171.
For person crimes, driving under the influence cases dropped by nearly 62 percent, from 81 in 2019 to just 31 last year. There were 81 misdemeanor assault cases in 2019, compared with 57 in 2020.
Most of those numbers dropped sharply starting in March, said Fort, when lockdowns over the COVID-19 pandemic started increasingly keeping people home.
The department also adjusted how they responded to calls, with officers self-initiating responses at a far lower rate than normal in an attempt to enforce social distancing.
“We didn’t know how to engage with people so much without the proper PPE for a while,” said Fort. “We intentionally, as a county-wide law enforcement consensus, agreed to reduce those kinds of in-person contacts if we could.”
In exchange, says Fort, officers increased their efforts to be visible in the community, especially around businesses shut down by the pandemic, in an effort to discourage criminal behavior.
“I get lots of phone calls from different people, and emails about how they saw their police officer out in our community,” Fort told the council. “I truly believe that that’s what made that difference.”
Fort added that he’s hopeful officers can begin to re-engage with the public later this year, including resuming the National Night Out campaign, Coffee with a Cop, and other efforts to engage with the public in a “proactive and positive way.”
Gun sales skyrocket
Notably, the city saw a massive increase in private firearms sales and Concealed Pistol License applications.
CPL applications were up 42.4 percent, said Fort, going from 170 in 2019 to over 240 last year.
Firearms transfer permits were up even more sharply, from 145 in 2019 to 343 last year, a 136.6 percent increase.
Fort said the process for CPLs was admittedly slow earlier in the year, after the city moved to an online application process, but that they had largely caught up by the end of the year.
“There was a big lag there for a while during the summer,” he admitted. “We’re not stacked up like we were initially. We had a big push when we first rolled that out.”
COVID complaints down
In response to a question about people calling police to complain about someone violating orders on social distancing, mask wearing, or other pandemic-related mandates, Fort said those have dropped off sharply in the second half of the year.
“When this first kicked off, people didn’t know what to say or who to complain to, or what,” said Fort. “And frankly, neither did we. We had to work through that.”
Fort said he didn’t have the numbers on COVID-related complaints, but has heard that they had dropped off to almost nothing by the end of the year.
“This was an odd year for everyone,” Fort concluded. “COVID kind of took us apart but what it also did is it brought us together as a city, and brought us together as a community.”
More officers inbound
As part of the voter’s decision to annex Battle Ground into Fire District 3 for fire and paramedic services, the city was able to free up budget capacity for a number of things.
That includes a $550,000 bump in the Police Department budget.
That money will fund four more officers, two of whom are already on patrol. Two of those replace other positions, so the department’s overall size will increase by two.
“It was a successful year. Three new officers were hired last year,” said Fort, “that’s incredible for us.”
Part of that was the reintroduction of the K9 program, with officer Clint Frazier and K9 Charlie replacing Luca and his handler Sgt. Chris Crouch who retired in late 2019.
Fort said the department is looking to increase traffic enforcement in the city with a dedicated program. They are also joining the Clark County Major Crimes team, as well as the Southwest Washington Independent Investigation and Response Team, which assists with investigating officer-involved shootings.
The city and Battle Ground Public Schools also received grant funding to hire a second School Resource Officer. That hiring has been put on hold with most children not in classrooms, but Fort said they anticipate having that position staffed up before the beginning of next school year.
For more on the Battle Ground Police Department plans, check out Fort’s open letter to the community written in Sept. 2020.