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Kent Police working to reduce city crime rate; emphasis patrols, grant dollars to help
Kent Police officer Jennifer Prusa pulled her patrol car behind a woman parked at the McDonald's restaurant parking lot across from Kent-Meridian High School, stepped out and approached the vehicle.
"That lady's been sitting here, I'm going to have a chat with her," Prusa said.
The woman got out of her car as the officer walked toward her.
"My friend just came here to use the bathroom," the woman said. "Why are you harassing me? All of the police know me."
Despite the woman's raised voice, Prusa remained calm.
"I'm just doing what the city asked me to do," the Kent officer replied.
Prusa had spotted the woman during saturation police patrols on a recent Friday afternoon near the high school. Police officials decided to increase patrols in the area after four high school students were robbed of their cell phones at the McDonald's parking lot following a Saturday night football game Sept. 11 at French Field, which sits next to the high school.
Police arrested a 15-year-old Kent-Meridian student in connection with that case. But another cellphone robbery just east of the high school remains unsolved. Police also have received reports of large crowds and drug dealing in the strip mall parking lot across from the school.
Prusa noticed several girls walk up and away from the woman parked at McDonald's. Nobody visiting the woman had purchased food or drinks at the restaurant.
The woman drove away after her chat with police. Prusa used her car laptop computer to run a background check on the 20-year-old woman and discovered she had done time for a robbery conviction.
"She's had contact with the police: that's why they all know her," Prusa said.
As many as six patrol cars canvassed the business and apartment complex parking lots as part of the recent Friday-afternoon crackdown on crowds across from Kent-Meridian. Police officials hope the extra presence reduces crime in the area.
Prusa and several other officers exited their cars to disperse crowds of students and others who gathered outside of McDonald's after school let out at 2:15 p.m.
"If you are not going inside McDonald's, split," one officer said as he stepped out of his unmarked Dodge Charger.
"Move in or move out," another officer said over his car's loudspeaker.
With the recent robberies as well as reports of drug dealing, police commanders ordered the patrol units to focus for more than an hour after school let out at the East Hill businesses across from Kent-Meridian.
"It's always busy after school at McDonald's and at the bus stop along the street," said Prusa, who has worked 18 months as a Kent officer after 15 years as a deputy for the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office in Kelso. "It's a very crowded area. Anytime you have a crowd, there's a possibility crime might occur."
During their emphasis patrols, police arrested an 18-year-old man on a burglary warrant. Officers stopped the man near the 76 service station after he had left the area and later returned.
The officers also spotted several young men around McDonald's who live in nearby apartments and have claimed to be gang members.
"Most of the problems are not with the students but with those who prey on them," Prusa said. "We had reports of a lot of (drug) activity near McDonald's that was brought to the attention of our administration. That's why we are here today."
Robert Mutton, store manager at the McDonald's, said he's inside most of the time so he doesn't always see all of the activity outside the restaurant.
"We call them (police) if we need them," Mutton said in a phone interview. "We're not getting robbed. It could be we call for anything, even a car parked in the lot."
Mutton said the restaurant had more problems before the company rebuilt the store in 2009.
"We used to have to hire security guards at the old restaurant," Mutton said. "I think any McDonald's across the street from a school you're going to get rowdiness. This area has gotten a lot better."
What sits across from a high school makes a huge difference.
Police have not had any problems with afternoon crowds near Kentridge High School, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
"Kentridge does not have a commercial area surrounding it like Kent-Meridian," Prusa said. "There's not the same issues at all. There is no loitering, grouping or gathering because there's nowhere to hang out."
Kent Police received an $84,000 grant in August from the U.S. Department of Justice to help reduce crime in the city. The grant included funds for six Panasonic mobile computers for $3,000 each. The computers allow plainclothes and bicycle officers the same access to computer data and photos as patrol car officers. The computers weigh about 2 pounds each and feature about a 6-inch screen.
"It takes what we have in patrol cars and makes the computers mobile for bicycle officers and plainclothes officers," Kent Police Lt. Rafael Padilla said. "The units can fit in a backpack and be used in the field."
If problems persist at the businesses across from Kent-Meridian, plainclothes officers might be used to combat the issue, Prusa said.
The federal grant also paid for an electronics and video device forensic workstation upgrade as well as the training for two investigators to process videotapes.
"This allows us to access (more) store video," Padilla said. "We have the ability now but we only have one person and the amount of video we are getting is unprecedented."
Police used videotapes from McDonald's and other businesses to help catch the boy arrested for robbing four students of their cellphones.
"I know they've looked at our videotapes," Mutton said. "I don't know what they found."
The technology advances in computers and videotapes does help catch criminals.
"The grant is not adding more officers," Padilla said. "But this falls under the goal to reduce crime because the equipment goes to specialized units so they can do their jobs better."
Prusa appreciates everything she can do with a laptop in her patrol car. She looks up records of individuals and even glances at photos of suspects the police are trying to find. Kent has a crime analyst who breaks down trends weekly for officers and provides them with photos of wanted individuals caught by store or bank video cameras.
"It's great to have actual photos at your fingertips," said Prusa as she called up the photo of a suspect wanted for a recent Kent bank robbery.
Often, however, it's still the actual presence of police officers that can stop crime before it happens rather than simply responding to incidents. That's what brought so many officers recently to the area around Kent-Meridian.
"It's not fair to the other 90,000 citizens that we pull all of our resources," said Prusa, who normally patrols all over the East Hill rather than one small area as she did for two hours on a recent afternoon. "But if we do it we have more of an impact. We hit hard for a short period of time rather than respond to all the problems. You hate to leave your area to solve other problems but it's worth it in the end."
As Prusa left the East Hill to return to police headquarters downtown, she felt confident the heavy patrols across from Kent-Meridian to disperse crowds of anywhere from a few to more than a couple of dozen, made a difference.
"When there are no groups of people to victimize, crime goes down," she said.