Safety is a base-line measurement of a community's quality of life. If citizens feel less secure than they did five years ago Ñ and that's the case in Multnomah County Ñ there is reason to act.

The Multnomah County commissioners, sheriff and district attorney should take immediate action to reverse that trend.

Someone's 'feelings' about safety may seem like an intangible measurement, but such beliefs are in fact the truest indicator of livability. How can this region build a strong economy and vibrant communities if many residents don't feel safe walking neighborhood streets at night?

A recent survey of 1,600 Multnomah County residents indicates that in some parts of the county, more than a third of residents would not feel safe walking alone in the evening. The same survey reveals that more than one-fifth of respondents countywide were the victims of crime last year, yet only three-quarters of them bothered to report the crimes.

This disheartening declining sense of safety comes at a time when the official crime rate is dropping. But we don't believe crime statistics tell the story. Rather, residents are reacting to what they see.

Petty crime takes its toll

People don't feel safe when they observe increasing gang graffiti or when they hear their neighbor's home was burglarized. They aren't comforted when they encounter more mentally ill people in the streets instead of in treatment. They are disturbed by aggressive panhandling, low-level assaults and disorderly conduct.

As Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk points out, 'We have to take care of the little stuff.' We believe the public sense is that it's not little at all.

For financial reasons, Multnomah County has failed to deal with this matter over the past five years. Another set of statistics shows why quality of life is increasingly threatened:

• The number of jail beds per 1,000 county residents declined over five years.

• The average length of stay for inmates fell, meaning offenders were released into the community more rapidly.

• The number of youth offenders participating in accountability programs was curtailed dramatically as the programs were reduced or eliminated.

As jail beds disappeared along with opportunities for restitution and community service, offenders no longer felt consequences for their actions. But as any parent knows, a lack of accountability only breeds more poor behavior.

Give crime a consequence

Portland and Multnomah County must halt the safety slide before citizens lose confidence in the system's ability to respond. As for solutions, Schrunk has worthy ideas:

• First and foremost, make sure each crime carries a consequence.

• Encourage joint budgeting between the county and city police agencies so resources are deployed where needed.

• Strive for a balanced system. There's no use hiring more cops if the county doesn't have the staff to prosecute crimes, or jail beds to house the people arrested.

• Determine how to help the county's mentally ill residents.

To affect citizen perceptions, officials must consistently address petty crime, bring people to trial, incarcerate violent offenders and help citizens realize it's not a waste of time to report a crime.

This isn't about retribution. It's about livability, and any public official should have that cause at the top of his or her list.

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