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Attack crime and enhance livability

Wednesday's public-safety summit settled any question about whether crime is a significant issue in Gresham.

Now, the discussion must concentrate on what can be done to lower crime and protect the community's livability.

Mayor Shane Bemis has identified crime reduction as his top priority. During last fall's election campaign, Bemis heard from many Gresham residents whose lives had been affected by crime. That's what motivated him to organize the summit, and the testimony presented on Wednesday demonstrated that Bemis was right about the depth of the problem.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence of crime in Gresham was in abundance at the meeting as both professional law-enforcement officers and ordinary citizens told the same story from two different perspectives:

• Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso discussed the roots of crime - rising poverty rates in Gresham - as well as the results of those trends - a total of 77,734 incidents handled by her department in 2006.

• Rockwood resident Tammy Zuniga - whose car windows have been shattered 10 times in three months, and whose daughter was terrorized by gang members - talked about the reality of crime in her everyday life.

• Several law-enforcement officials discussed the rising gang presence and accompanying violence in East County.

• Business people reported the problems they are having with widespread graffiti and the perception it creates for our community.

Move swiftly on task force

No one who attended the summit walked away without a greater appreciation for the impact crime has on the community's livability and its image. For many longtime Gresham residents, it is difficult to admit that one of the qualities that attracts people to live here - a feeling of safety - is fast fading away.

But even after confronting that truth, the harder chore remains. Community leaders and citizens now must decide how to attack the problem and ultimately whether it is important enough to deploy new resources to regain the upperhand.

Bemis is suggesting a logical next step - the formation of a blue-ribbon task force to investigate all facets of Gresham's crime problem and recommend solutions. We believe the mayor ought to press ahead with the task force quickly, while he has the public's attention.

Gresham needs strategies to involve citizens in the crime issue and to find greater resources to bolster the police department. To that end, we believe the task force needs to investigate the following questions:

• How can citizens become more engaged in combating crime? And how can the police department encourage better communication with citizens? Wednesday's summit brought forward many frustrated residents who are willing to help in any way they can, whether it is energizing the Neighborhood Watch program or simply becoming more active in - and aware of - their immediate neighborhoods. The city must take advantage of this citizen asset.

• Are there efficiencies to be gained from even greater cooperation among metro-area police agencies? One bright spot at the summit was the recognition that the cities of Gresham and Portland, the county, TriMet and federal law-enforcement agencies already collaborate on major crimes, gang enforcement and other issues of mutual concern. It might be hard to squeeze more efficiencies out of further cooperation, but the possibility must be explored.

• What can be done to reduce crime - and the perception of crime - along mass-transit corridors? The city of Gresham must work assertively with TriMet to make the MAX line and its stations more comfortable for riders and neighbors. A good first step will be installation of security cameras at several East County MAX stations, but the effort cannot end there.

• And finally, what new resources are needed to bring Gresham's police department up to a similar staffing level enjoyed by other police departments, and how will the city pay for this? On a per-capita basis, Gresham's number of sworn officers is well below its peer cities. Unless this personnel shortage is corrected, Gresham cannot maintain the quality of life its citizens desire.