City crime rates fell in 2009

Rates for major crimes, including rapes, fell in 2009 even as many community members felt less safe because of a string of reported rapes during the winter.

The Ashland Police Department took 608 reports of major crimes in the city — covering murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft and larceny — in 2009. That's down from 764 reports of major crimes in 2008, according to an annual report Police Chief Terry Holderness delivered to the Ashland City Council on Tuesday.

"We have a very low violent crime rate," Holderness said.

After hitting about 800 reports of major crimes in 2005, crimes have been trending downward.

The police department is getting fewer calls from residents about both major and minor crimes. Minor crimes include fights, disorderly conduct and drug cases. Total calls dropped by about 200 from 2007 to 2008, and then by another 200 from 2008 to 2009 — falling below 1,200 calls last year.

The police department's crime clearance rate rose to 37 percent last year, while Oregon and national clearance rates hover around 23 or 24 percent, Holderness said.

The high clearance rate may be part of the reason why crime rates have fallen, he said.

"We're catching people before they have a chance to commit more crimes," Holderness said.

There were seven reports of rapes in 2009, down from 10 reports in 2008.

Ashlanders were troubled by highly publicized reports of rapes and attempted sexual assaults in December 2009 and January of this year.

As of Wednesday, the police department has handled three reported rapes this year, Holderness said.

If the rate of reported rapes stays at that level through the rest of the year, the department will handle eight rape reports.

While reports of rape fell in 2009 compared to 2008, Holderness cautioned that varying statistics show that only one out of seven to one out of 10 rapes is ever reported.

"The vast majority of sexual assaults are under-reported," he said.

Based on Ashland's size and the fact that it has a university, there are probably 50 unreported rapes in the city per year, if federal statistics are applied, Holderness said.

Police are working on education programs at Ashland Middle School, Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University, he said.

In 2009, the police department used force 31 times. Officers used control holds or took suspects to the ground in 28 of those instances. No officers used their Taser electric stun devices, pepper spray or guns.

"We displayed those weapons, but never used them," Holderness said.

The City Council asked for annual reports on the use of Tasers and other forms of force in 2007, when Holderness won the council's permission to equip every police officer with a Taser. The council's caution came after Southern Oregon University student Nick Hanson died after being Tasered by Ashland police in 2006. His cause of death was ruled to be an overdose of sleeping pills.

Holderness said that in 2009, no suspects required medical treatment from any of the department's 31 use-of-force incidents. Five officers suffered minor injuries.

Resident Philip Lang, an occasional critic of city government operations, came forward during Tuesday's City Council meeting and said back in 2008, a Medford Police Department officer and two Ashland police officers came to his house in the wake of his partner Ruth Miller's death. She had suffered from cancer and was treated at a Medford hospital. Lang said he blames the medical community for her death.

Lang said the police officers accused him of harassment and threatening. Then they accused him of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and threw him to the ground, hurting his back. He said the police officers told him not to pick up Miller's medical records, or he would be charged with trespassing. Lang said charges against him were later dropped.

Lang said he believes some Ashland police officers are violent and abusive, and that they harass students and transients.

City Councilor Eric Navickas said he apologized on behalf of the city if the incident with Lang and the police officers happened as Lang described it.

Navickas said several years ago, he was protesting the cutting of a gingko tree to make way for an Ashland Public Library expansion when a police officer put him in a pain compliance hold. Navickas said he insulted the officer, who then cranked on his arm, dislocating it.

Navickas said police officers should receive training not to respond when people who they are arresting yell at them.

Holderness said police receive such training.

"Police are people, too. They have good days and bad days. We are more restrained than any police department I have seen," said Holderness, who has worked for several different departments over a long career.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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