East side hardest hit as drug use, budget cuts leave their marks

Michael Nelson of Parkrose Hardware has already spent top dollar on theft deterrence for his store Ñ everything from advanced surveillance systems and magnetic tagging of merchandise to extra personnel.

Nelson, corporate director of operations for the business, said he hasn't noticed a significant rise in crime. However, he worries that with a climbing crime rate citywide Ñ especially on the east side Ñ it's only a matter of time before another cycle hits.

'I think that as word continues to get out that there's less and less money for prosecutions, the deterrent will drop, and, unfortunately, businesses will suffer even worse,' said Nelson, whose store is at 10625 N.E. Sandy Blvd. 'There's no doubt, in my opinion.'

Portland Police Bureau crime statistics for the first quarter of the year show that nearly every category of crime has increased this year over the same period last year, with the most dramatic rises occurring in east Portland.

Topping the list are property crimes that police said are driven by drug addicts:

• Residential burglaries, up 19 percent citywide and 40 percent in East Precinct

• Shoplifting, up 10 percent citywide and 42 percent in East Precinct

• Auto theft, up 12 percent citywide and 24 percent in East Precinct

Violent crimes also are up citywide Ñ but only slightly.

Police cited at least three factors in the escalating crime rates: the burgeoning methamphetamine trade, which has hit east Portland the hardest; the temporary transfer of police resources during the downtown antiwar protests; and the lack of court sanctions that came into place after the Measure 28 tax proposal was voted down.

East Precinct Cmdr. Cliff Jensen estimates that at least 90 percent of the property crimes in his jurisdiction are driven by methamphetamine addicts who steal items to convert into cash to feed their habit.

'We're just getting nailed with meth,' he said. 'There's so many meth-affected people out here, it's sad. Everybody we stop and arrest is affected by meth Ñ if not directly, then they know someone who is affected.'

He said officers have seen addicts shoplift everything from shopping carts full of meat from grocery stores Ñ sold on the street at a reduced price Ñ to power tools from stores such as Home Depot and Target.

They are able to repeat their crimes with few sanctions. In the wake of the state budget shortfall, Oregon Chief Justice Wallace Carson Jr. on Feb. 4 ruled that since there were not enough defense attorneys to represent indigent people charged with misdemeanor offenses, the bulk of misdemeanor and low-level felony offenses would be delayed until the start of the new fiscal year in July.

For misdemeanor crimes such as trespassing, prostitution, mail theft and shoplifting, officers now cite offenders instead of arresting them. Most of those cited don't show up for their court date, police said, and a warrant is issued for their arrest. Even if they are arrested on the warrant, they typically receive probation.

'We really have no control over shoplifts,' Jensen said. 'We looked into this a few months ago and interviewed a couple (of shoplifters) that were caught. They said we do it because nothing happens to us.'

For felonies such as burglary and auto theft, police said, an officer can arrest the person, but the offender usually is released within the day or the next several days by the judge or by corrections officials. Jensen said East Precinct currently is running a crackdown on burglars.

Police Chief Mark Kroeker said this week that he expects the crime rate to get worse before it gets better. The rising rates come 'at a time when we really haven't seen the coming storm of the effect of the defunded criminal justice system,' he said. 'That's on the way.'

Rosanne Lee, an East Portland crime prevention specialist, agreed. She said people should be vigilant about protecting themselves and their property and take advantage of free resources available at the city's crime prevention office.

For example, her office gives consultations to retailers about how to improve their security.

'My gut instinct is, we're going to have bigger problems with the property crimes this summer because people don't have jobs' and authorities 'can't prosecute the crimes,' Lee said. 'Here we go again, through the revolving door. Our crime rate goes up, and our morale goes down.'

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