A Snapshot of Washington County Community Safety

Recently, I joined several colleagues at the Westside Economic Alliance (WEA) on a panel about “Building Safe, Strong and Thriving Communities.” Our discussion focused on community safety.

Judge Oscar Garcia, Sheriff Pat Garrett, Tigard Police Chief Kathy McAlpine, District Attorney Kevin Barton, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue Chief Deric Weiss
Judge Oscar Garcia, Sheriff Pat Garrett, Tigard Police Chief Kathy McAlpine, District Attorney Kevin Barton, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue Chief Deric Weiss

In addition to expressing our gratitude for the honor to serve our community and our appreciation for the hard-working professionals we represent, we discussed how although we live in a safe county, its growth presents challenges requiring our continued focus on collaboration and partnerships to keep our community safe.

Bottom line: we live in a safe community. But statistics indicate a recent rise in crime rates, both violent and property. And while they are still well below both the national and state crime rates, we must reinforce our collaboration and partnerships, as well as hiring, training, and equipping our professionals in order to remain the state’s safest major urban county.

Below is a county-wide “snapshot” about safety that provides some context to safety statistics (and context is always important when dealing with statistics). It compares crime rates in Washington County to the other most populated counties in Oregon. You can see that Washington County’s crime rate (combined violent and property crimes) has consistently trended below the other high-population counties in Oregon.

A comparison of combined property and violent crime rates in Washington County and other urban counties since 2011. (See shaded box below for additional information on crime rate reporting systems.)
A comparison of combined property and violent crime rates in Washington County and other urban counties since 2011. (See shaded box below for additional information on crime rate reporting systems.)

Cities in Washington County are frequently recognized for being safe. In 2019, six of the 20 safest cities in Oregon were in Washington County. But communities outside cities (unincorporated Washington County) are also safe. Even with the previously mentioned rise in both property and violent crime rates, as these charts show, Washington County’s unincorporated crime rates are still well below state and national averages.

Property crime rates in unincorporated Washington County are up 14% since 2016, but still well below Oregon and U.S. property crime rates.
Property crime rates in unincorporated Washington County are up 14% since 2016, but still well below Oregon and U.S. property crime rates.
Unincorporated Washington County violent crimes rates have risen 49% since 2016, but again remain low when compared to both the state and U.S.
Unincorporated Washington County violent crimes rates have risen 49% since 2016, but again remain low when compared to both the state and U.S.

If you’re interested in trends rather than comparisons, the following charts are interesting. The straight line is the trend line.

In unincorporated Washington County, property crimes declined steadily  from 2011 to 2016, then rose in 2017, although they remained below our  2014 levels. The overall trend is downward.
In unincorporated Washington County, property crimes declined steadily from 2011 to 2016, then rose in 2017, although they remained below our 2014 levels. The overall trend is downward.

From 2011 to 2016, outside cities, the violent crime rate rose and fell at a nearly even rate, then increased 45% from 2016 to 2018. The overall trend rate is upward.
From 2011 to 2016, outside cities, the violent crime rate rose and fell at a nearly even rate, then increased 45% from 2016 to 2018. The overall trend rate is upward.
[Of note, in 2015, Oregon law enforcement agencies began transitioning from reporting crime data in “Uniform Crime Reports” (UCR) to the “National Incident Based Reporting System” (NIBRS). The two systems measure crime differently, so 2016 marks a statistical ‘break’ when using both systems. For long-term trending, UCR reporting continues. While pertaining to Washington State, a good summary of the difference between UCR and NIBRS is here for those wanting to take a deeper dive into the statistics. And you can access these statistics yourself here. They’re also available on the WCSO website. Neither site plays well with Explorer.]

At the WEA, I and my colleagues also discussed several indicators that show that the overall workload of our public safety and justice professionals is increasing. These indicators include:

  • As referred to above, the recent rise in crime rates, which is consistent with prolonged, rapid urban area population growth
  • A 6% climb in jail booking rates from 2017 (47 per day) to 2018 (50 per day) – this equates to about 1,095 more annual bookings which translate to more demands on the Jail, more investigations for deputies, officers and detectives to resolve, more cases for the DA’s Office, more stresses on an already full court docket, and a higher probation officer case load.
  • Increased calls for service – annual Sheriff’s Office public calls for service rose 8% from 2015 to 2019 (4,167 more calls/year) while total county population grew about 7.5% (42,900) during the same time period, according to the county figures drawn from Portland State University’s Population Research Center.
  • More reports to the Sheriff’s Office of suspected child abuse – these increased 34% from 2015 to 2019 (from 1,904 in 2015 to 2,556 in 2019)
  • More frequent mental health-related calls for service – Police Chief McAlpine and I agree our law enforcement professionals are responding to more calls involving mentally ill persons. These calls require more time to resolve and/or connect the individual with needed services.
  • More offenders being sentenced to local jails and probation, and fewer people are sentenced to prison due to Oregon legislative action in recent years.

While we live in a safe community, our cities and county continue to grow at a fast pace – about 10,000 new county residents each year. To address this growth and the workload challenges it brings, I ask you to join me in supporting the county’s public safety local option levy you will see on your May ballot. Levy funded services have existed for 20 years and provide key support to critical public safety and justice services that protect victims and survivors, hold offenders accountable, provide supervision as offenders transition back to the community, and provide those in mental health crisis with resources rather than being taken to jail. Levy funding is an important part of keeping our community safe.

Discussing public safety issues with other panelists reinforced the truism that partnerships get results in public safety. We are fortunate in Washington County that our agencies and departments prioritize being collaborative which helps us adapt to the needs of a growing, changing county. Law enforcement agencies, the jail, fire and emergency medical agencies, prosecutors, probation officers, and our many community partners understand we cannot do our best work alone, but only in partnerships do all boats rise.

Thank you for your support of all our public safety professionals!

Pat