27 Nov 2010

Free crime-prevention help offered to Spokane businesses

1 Comment Health, Human Resources, Nonprofit

A tragic criminal episode in Spokane’s past led to the formation of community policing in the city, and the organization created in the wake of the tragedy continues to educate businesses and citizens on mounting a proactive response to crime.

The Spokane C.O.P.S, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was launched in early 1992, following the shocking murders of two young girls, who were snatched from a front yard in Spokane’s West Central Area. C.O.P.S stands for Community Oriented Policing.

“One girl’s body was found under a pile of burning leaves in Riverside State Park,” says Christy Hamilton, director of Spokane C.O.P.S. The other child’s body was never found. The chief of Spokane’s police department at that time was Terence J. Mangan, who is now retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The timing was right for community activism,” says Hamilton. “Terry [Mangan] was ‘an outside-the-box thinker,’” she says. “Mangan and Dave Ingle thought about making it a nonprofit, and in 1992, Bob Lipe donated space for the fledging effort, she says.

With a dozen neighborhood C.O.P.S shops now in Spokane, and 300 trained volunteers, the organization is unique in the nation. “It’s the only community policing that is purely non-profit and not police driven,” says Maurece Vulcano, C.O.P.S program manager.

Today, there are new threats to businesses and their employees that were not yet on the radar in 1992: identity theft and cyber crime.

For those businesses and city residents who don’t think they have the time to learn about crime prevention, “being a victim of crime is going to rock your schedule huge,” says Hamilton.

Cindy Shackelford’s position with the C.O.P.S program, as a crime-victim advocate, is combating the rising tide of identity-theft victims, and is funded through a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s office of crime-victim advocacy.

“It’s a way bigger piece than we had envisioned it to be,” says Shackelford. “It’s the number-one crime in the country.” Shackelford says it’s easy, fast, and rarely prosecuted. “They don’t need that much information to steal your identity.”

Hamilton says a criminal who gains access to your garage can be the beginning of an identity-theft nightmare. “Cut shrubs, don’t leave your laptop in your car, take your insurance information out of your glove compartment. There are rings of people that will steal everything from you,” she says. “There’s so many avenues criminals can use to commit ID theft.”

The good news is that there are a lot of things business owners and employees can do to create a safer work environment, when it comes to protecting against crime, says Hamilton.

For businesses, C.O.P.S offers assistance in launching a Business Watch Program, in which neighborhood businesses work together to prevent crime. It’s similar in concept to Block Watch, a national crime-prevention organization.

Businesses can form a business phone/email tree, says Vulcano, alerting one another when there’s strange activity or crimes occurring in the neighborhood, or if there’s a noticeable uptick in vagrancy or “dumpster diving,” for example.

C.O.P.S staff offers businesses help with crime prevention, and will guide business owners in creating a safety plan. This includes analyzing what specific crime-deterrents are needed in a business — such as placement of convex mirrors for better aisle visibility — and devising a more open floor-plan, as well as holding drills and doing training for employees on how to respond to a criminal attack, or to prevent one, said Vulcano.

“Having a safety plan for employees who work there, and protocols for opening and closing the business,” is important in case a crime occurs, says Hamilton, particularly if it’s something as dangerous as armed robbery.

“Also, look at landscaping,” says Vulcano, taking note of areas that provide potential cover for criminals. “We look at crime prevention through environmental design,” she says. “Look at lighting outside and inside. Look at window presentations. The more visibility on both sides of the window, the better.” She urges businesses to take advantage of C.O.P.S.’s free services. So much of crime prevention takes so little time, she says.

The problem may soon be worse. “If budget cuts come through, there will be less officers,” says Shackelford.

Another service the nonprofit offers is training for multi-family housing landlords and property managers. The two-day training session covering document management, tenant screening, evictions arising from criminal activity, and crime prevention is offered twice a year for a modest fee.

“All of us do presentations. Nobody calls back. We’ll work with people on implementation,” says Shackelford.

“People need to step up and take ownership of their own safety, but it’s like leading a horse to water. It’s very hard,” says Vulcano. “Taxes pay for this, but it’s human nature — we don’t like change. We want to stay in our comfort zone. ‘Leave me alone.’”

Spokane’s C.O.P.S shops, which are open to police 24 hours a day, also provide a safe haven, with online connectivity, where officers can fill out reports, says Hamilton — a refuge that became all the more important after the tragic shootings a year ago in a Tacoma suburb, in which four police officers were shot to death while sitting in a coffee shop. She says police officers make 20,000 visits a year to the C.O.P.S shops.

“They can get out of the car and decompress for a few minutes,” she says.

“If you are a victim of a crime, we can help you walk through the steps to decrease the impact on that for you in the future,” says Hamilton.

Visit the website for more information on Spokane C.O.P.S.

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