Overall crime is on the decline in Federal Way.
Some of that can be attributed to the cyclical fluctuations of crime. And for the rest of it, residents can thank Mother Nature.
“Crime is cyclical,” Federal Way Chief of Police Andy Hwang noted as he shared with the Mirror crime information in Federal Way going back 27 years. “You’ll see that it is up and down. We are actually at a point where we are seeing the numbers are really good. We are seeing a crime reduction two years in a row.”
In 2017, Federal Way had an overall crime reduction of 10%, he said. The city had an 11% drop in crime in 2018.
And the trend continues into 2019.
During the first quarter, the city is continuing to see a 14% decrease in crime.
These crime numbers can be attributed to February’s severe snowstorm, dubbed “Snowmageddon.”
“We had two weeks where there was very little criminal activity,” Hwang said, noting that many people didn’t come out of their homes. “That two weeks was the biggest factor so it was just Mother Nature.”
These percentages are based off information the Federal Way Police Department submitted to the FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). That system tracks 25 crime categories.
Numbers from that system show the majority of tracked crimes in Federal Way dipped from 2017 to 2018.
Murders declined 86%, with seven murders in 2017, compared to one in 2018. Aggravated assaults also dropped 29%, from 227 to 161.
Hwang noted many people worry about a stranger assaulting them. However, the reality is most of these felonious crimes are committed by someone the victim knows or a family member, as they are predominantly domestic violence incidents, he said.
In addition, residential burglaries declined 6% from 423 to 398; motor vehicle theft is down 16% from 960 to 802; and larceny, or theft, is down 17% from 3,722 crimes to 3,095.
In first quarter comparisons of 2018 to 2019, crime is also trending downward.
Aggravated assault is down again by 49% from 39 to 20. The city also saw a 17% decrease in commercial burglaries and 31% dip in residential burglaries.
“I think we’re seeing some of the lowest residential burglary numbers in our agency’s history,” Hwang said.
Michelle Roy, a crime analyst for the Federal Way Police Department, attributes the reduction in residential burglaries to technology, including home video surveillance and “all of the things that homeowners have now. And I think there’s a lot more flexibility with people working from home now than there used to be in the past.”
She noted how remarkable it is that the city’s population is nearly 100,000 and less than 400 homes were burglarized in 2018.
Criminals also put the brakes on motor vehicle theft in first quarter comparisons, with a 35% decrease from 239 to 156.
“It’s hard to steal a car in the snow,” Hwang said. “I think that played a big role.”
Looking back 27 years
The police chief also offered a six-year glance at the city’s crime statistics, and a look back 27 years to put the numbers into perspective.
During the past six years, the city has undergone a population surge, according to the Office of Financial Management. In 2013, the population was 89,720 and experienced 9,580 crimes.
Those crimes ballooned to 10,156 crimes in 2016, which was a “bad year” for Federal Way, Hwang noted. The city also saw a population surge of nearly 3,000 people as Federal Way became the fourth fastest-growing city in the state that year.
But the cyclical nature of crime made no rhyme or reason with the city’s population, as more people moved to Federal Way the next two years — but crime decreased. As overall crime decreased over the next two years, the city grew by another 3,000 people in 2017 to 96,350, and increased to 97,440 by 2018.
According to statistics from the FBI’s NIBRS system, violent crimes — including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were high in 1992, Hwang said. There were 676 violent crimes at that time, with a city population of 69,142.
But violent crimes hit a “significant” downward trend over the next 27 years, decreasing to 310 crimes in 2002 with a population of 85,729, Hwang said. In 2014, there were 385 violent crimes with a population of 93,551.
During that same 27-year span, property crimes also decreased. This includes burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. In 1992, the city had 7,736 property crimes, which reduced to 5,967 by 2014.
Robberies on the rise
But the statistics are not all good news — something the police department is aware of.
That’s why one of the department’s goals this year is to try and reduce the number of robberies, which has seen a 35% spike from 170 to 230 robberies from 2017-2018.
“This is one of the areas we want to work on this year,” Hwang said.
Commander Kurt Schwan said the department’s crime analyst, Roy, has identified which areas of Federal Way have seen an uptick in robberies and the department has deployed direct patrols in those areas. That includes some Federal Way City Council-approved overtime for officers to oversee those areas.
Roy and her team are also working to educate the community on ways residents can help prevent robberies.
He said most of the robberies that occur in Federal Way are not your convenient store-type where a suspect holds up a cashier with a gun. Instead, most robberies are internet-related and involve people meeting up to sell or buy items via an online arrangement.
Schwan said people selling or buying items online should pick a place that is safe, well lit and frequented by many people. And do so during business hours, he urged residents.
“Come to the police department and do [the transaction] in the parking lot,” he said. “If people won’t come there — that’s a red flag.”
Comparing crime to other cities
Some residents have been critical of the city of Federal Way, which hasn’t compared its data to other cities like some other cities have.
Federal Way police officials do not compare their crime statistics to other cities because there are too many variables. For example, Roy said some cities will not take some residents’ theft reports if the amount stolen does not meet a certain monetary threshold.
“So we don’t try to compare to other cities because it’s not [a true representation],” Roy said. “We as a city, if you report a crime to us, we take it … We don’t involve ourselves in ranking too much. We just look at how we’re doing as a city.”
Roy added there are many other variables that skew rankings, including city’s varied populations, business to resident ratios and socioeconomic factors.
For example, the city of Tukwila’s residential burglaries are very low, but the city has very few residential communities and a huge business population, she noted.
“So per capita, they’re always going to have a higher crime rate, but they have a small population base,” Hwang said, noting the same is true with the city of Fife.
The FBI also urges agencies not to compare data from its NIBRS system from other cities. Currently, only 43% of law enforcement agencies across the U.S., representing only one-third of the national population voluntarily use NIBRS, which tracks 25 crimes. The other agencies are still transitioning from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, which only tracks nine crimes. The FBI will soon retire the UCR program as it is requiring all agencies to transition to NIBRS by 2021.
“It’s not apples to apples,” Hwang said of trying to compare crimes between cities.
“We will not always be reporting a continual crime reduction, I can assure you that we’re going to see an uptick,” Hwang said of the city’s cyclical crime patterns. “And there’s so many variables as to why the crime rate goes up and down.”
Drugs is a huge factor, he said.
“We’re in a drug epidemic right now,” Hwang said, noting that approximately 80-90% of all crimes in the city “have some sort of nexus to drugs … If we can reduce the demand for drugs in this country and our society, we would dramatically reduce crime — period.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the cocaine epidemic drove violent crimes, especially murders, across the nation. Federal Way also responded to many meth labs in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and trained officers how to respond to them, Roy said.
But federal and state policies changed with pseudoephendrine — the main ingredient in meth — imposing limits on the amount of drug a person may buy and a pharmacy may sell. Now, the city rarely sees meth labs, Roy said.
The city and nation is currently in the thick of a heroin epidemic. But Hwang senses that some changes are coming at the state level, and hopes policy decisions will help reverse course for the heroin epidemic, as former policies did for other drug epidemics.
And the solution to curbing crime won’t simply come from hiring more police officers, he said. Policymakers must make decisions that will impact socioeconomic factors.
“Obviously people want to feel safe, they want that violent offender off the street — I get that. There’s a very important role that the police department has,” Hwang said during a Parks, Recreation, Human Services & Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday at City Hall. “But in order to have a safe community, there’s a lot more things that need to occur: Supporting our schools, making sure families who live here are gainfully employed — all of those things that impact the quality of life.”
Quality of life impacts crime.
“It isn’t because the Medina Police Department is so much more effective that they have less crime per capita there, or Mercer Island, it’s really social economic factors,” Hwang told the council members on the committee. “So whatever policy decisions that you make at your level about our schools, about employers … increasing the number of middle income households, giving a hand up to families — those are the things that really impact crime.”
He added that residents and the business community also need to partner with the police department by reporting and remaining vigilant of suspicious activity. The police department is there to make sure that the community is protected — that is government’s primary goal, he said.