Serious crime in Mesa fell 3 percent in the first half of 2012, which police attribute to an aggressive campaign to arrest gang members, career criminals and suspects involved in street-level drug activity.
This is the second half-year in a row that crime fell 3 percent – and part of a larger trend that’s brought the city’s crime rate to levels not seen since 1963.
Police Chief Frank Milstead said Wednesday that police have driven down crime by making more arrests, including a 36 percent spike in drug dealers taken off the streets. Police have made drug arrests a high priority because users and dealers have such a broad impact on the community, Milstead said.
“Many of the crimes are driven by drugs,” he said. “Normally people who do drugs and drug dealers, they aren’t really high-income wage earners, so they steal from you and I. They steal our identity. They break into our homes. They take things out of our cars. They steal our cars.”
Mesa has also worked to lower property crime with two clandestine operations in the past two years, resulting in 300 indictments. Milstead wouldn’t disclose other details about the undercover operations because they are ongoing.
And the police have deployed officers on a special summertime enforcement detail to reduce crime, which typically goes up 5 percent to 10 percent in the summer. Milstead said the initiative drove crime down by about 10 percent and has resulted in 656 arrests this summer.
Mesa arrested 18 percent more suspects in the first half of this year for Part I crimes, which include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and vehicle theft.
The city’s crime rate translates to 36 Part I crimes per 1,000 residents, compared with 40 crimes per 1,000 residents in 1963. In between those years, crime was dramatically higher.
The crime rate peaked in the 1970s, at about 100 crimes per 1,000 residents. Crime also rose during other bad economic times – though Mesa and many cities have bucked the trend during this downturn.
Milstead said the police department first made significant gains five years ago when it adopted a statistical analysis called COMPSTAT to help track crimes and deploy officers in response.
Mayor Scott Smith said the drop in crime is remarkable because it happened when Mesa had to slash its public safety budget during a recession. Police lost about 80 positions in the past four years, though five new positions were added this summer.
Smith said he and the City Council want to restore staffing levels but need to feel more confident about city finances. While tax revenue has improved, it’s been offset by higher public safety retirement costs and increasing health insurance premiums – which are beyond the city’s control, Smith said. The city is focusing on stabilizing its law enforcement efforts rather than launching an expansion that might need to be rolled back if the economy weakens, Smith said.
“We’re going to be cautious in that we’re not going to bite off more than we can chew,” he said.
Despite increased overall safety, Milstead offered several warnings to the public.
Police have seen more sex crimes that stem from online relationships. Milstead suggested greater caution when using dating or social media sites, which includes knowing more about a person before meeting and connecting at a safe place.
Also, drug DUI arrests exceeded alcohol DUIs for the first time ever. Prescription drugs and Arizona’s legalization of medical marijuana have been factors, Milstead said.
As a young motorcycle officer in the late 1980s, Milstead recalled being told 1 in 10 drivers on the road after midnight is impaired. He believes the percentage is higher now with increased drug impairment. Some of the most violent collisions occur at night for that reason, he said.
“When your parents told you nothing good happens after midnight, they didn’t lie to you,” he said. “It’s true.”
Milstead expects drug DUIs will become more of a menace as the state’s medical marijuana program becomes more established. He said people should get involved if friends or family talk about registering with the state to use marijuana legally.
“If they want to get a medical marijuana card, talk them out of it if you can,” he said. “It’s not good for them. It puts more and more people at risk.”
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