A record murder count of five in 2005 and a 50 percent spike in burglaries prompted the Sunnyside City Council on Monday to add jail terms for misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges.
Crime figures for 2005 were presented by Police Chief Ed Radder prior to the council's consideration of jail terms.
Radder provided graphs detailing Sunnyside's crime statistics and police presence back to 1997.
In addition to homicide and burglary, arson cases rose from one in 2004 to 12 in 2005. Auto theft cases more than doubled during that same time.
Radder attributed the rise in burglaries to increased meth use. "Burglary is a crime that people can have a significant impact on," he said in suggesting that residents can place serial numbers on valuables and form neighborhood watch groups.
"If you see something suspicious in your neighborhood, don't hesitate in calling us," he said.
Radder noted that arson cases, including the million dollar TV Towne fire, primarily involved juveniles. He said these types of fires can be discouraged if property owners remove debris from around their buildings.
"Auto theft is not unique to us," Radder said of that rising crime rate.
He noted there have already been six auto thefts reported this year, five of which could have been prevented.
"In two cases the people left their car running, two left their keys in the ignition over night and one was a child running away from home," Radder said of the other five.
On the other hand, some crime rates are decreasing in Sunnyside, according to Police Department statistics. Larceny cases dropped slightly in 2005, and robberies declined from 10 in 2004 to six.
At the same time, the statistics show a gradual decrease in police officer staffing. In 2005 Sunnyside had 22 sworn police officers, compared to 26 in 2002. Radder attributed the decrease to phase outs of federal law enforcement grants.
He said staffing in 2005 was actually less than 22 officers due to medical issues and some officers on leave.
City Manager Bob Stockwell noted that Sunnyside will increase the number of officers to 23 in 2006.
Radder said police shifts have been reworked so more officers are on duty during times when crimes are more likely to be committed. There are some shifts, he added, when Sunnyside has up to five officers on duty.
Previously, Sunnyside had the same number of officers on duty throughout the day, regardless of work load.
"Every citizen in Sunnyside deserves the right to be safe at home and in the streets," said Councilman Bill Gant upon hearing the crime statistics.
Councilman Bruce Epps wondered if Sunnyside needed increased law enforcement, "There is an increase of 1,000 case loads per year over the last five years. Do we need additional officers?"
Stockwell replied that, budget permitting, perhaps the city could increase the number of police officers by one in 2007, just as it did for this year.
In public comments on the crime rates, Pete Sartin expressed support for police efforts and jail time for more offenses. He said he plans to form a neighborhood watch group.
"There are a crazy number of kids who are dying," former councilwoman Bengie Aguilar said of Sunnyside's murder rate. "They are dying on our streets and this is unacceptable."
Calling it an "urgent matter," Aguilar urged council to partner with the school district in coming up with a program to counter gang and drug influence among young people.
The crime discussion was a prelude to council's decision to impose possible jail penalties for misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes.
In 1986, when Sunnyside formed its own court, the city did away with jail time for crimes such as possession of stolen property due to financial constraints and a small, 13-bed capacity jail.
"I used to have to see how many beds we had available," said Judge Steven Michels.
Today, Sunnyside has an 82-bed jail facility, and council seemed ready to use them in passing an ordinance increasing the number of jailable offenses.
"It can help to nip a budding crime career in the bud if people realize they'll have to go to jail," observed Radder.
Michels said it put the court in an awkward position to have someone who had been before the court many times, but had to be set free because possession of stolen property was not a jailable offense."
Other crimes now punishable by a jail term include disorderly conduct, malicious mischief and graffiti.
Misdemeanors are punishable with a fine up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. A sentence of up to one year and a fine up to $5,000 can be doled out for gross misdemeanor crimes.