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The city’s view: Eugene’s response to the West University Neighborhood

Accounting for only 0.9 percent @@.3875 mi(sq) by 40.54 mi(sq)@@ of the city’s land area and 4.3 percent @@6748 by [email protected]@ of its population, the West University Neighborhood may not seem like a topic worthy of special acknowledgement from city officials.

But Eugene mayor Kitty Piercy@@[email protected]@ speaks about the neighborhood as if she lives there.

“It’s a monoculture,” Piercy said. “There’s an imbalance between homeowners and renters. We don’t have a balance between ages, and we don’t have a balance between people who work in the community and people who are students.

“It’s a very unique neighborhood with unique problems.”

Piercy believes the neighborhood needs an entirely new neighborhood association. The problems of the neighborhood, she says, are beyond what just a couple of the homeowners can understand and try to fix. She also asserts student input is essential.

“Trying to put together a neighborhood association where students themselves take some responsibility for their neighborhood in a stronger way makes sense to me,” Piercy said. “It’s one of the steps that should be taken.”

As a resident of the crime-filled Whiteaker neighborhood, Piercy is familiar with criminal activity happening around her home.

“West University Neighborhood is an attractor,” she said. “I myself would never dream of leaving anything sitting in my car that was visible because I would know that, no matter where you are in the city, it could be an invitation for somebody to try and do a quick swipe.”

City of Eugene Chief of Police Pete Kerns @@[email protected]@pointed out the neighborhood has many problems, but the biggest one is the lack of jail beds.

“The circuit court judges will sentence somebody for 45 days, and they won’t serve a single day,” Kerns said. “It’s a pretty dysfunctional and anemic system.”

Because of the lack of jail beds, many criminals are caught, held for a couple of hours, then released on parole. But even if the criminals violate their parole, they usually cannot be incarcerated any more time than they were the previous time.

“There are just enough beds in the Lane County Jail to hold the most serious violent offenders,” Kerns said. “But low-level violent offenders — domestic violence, repeat property offenders and people who steal large sums from retail stores — aren’t held for more than a few hours.”

In essence, the criminals who are largely preying on students in the neighborhood cannot be held for more than a couple of days, in most cases. The most frequent crimes in the neighborhood — burglary, robbery and assaults — are all crimes that would fall into the category of which Kerns speaks.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Kerns said. “I don’t even know yet what we might invent. I think working harder and harder isn’t necessarily the answer, though. We need something new.”

For now, the Eugene Police Department is enlisting the help of crime victims in order to try to figure out who the perpetrator was and how to prevent the same crime from happening in the future.

Another crime prevention technique the Eugene Police Department is using more frequently is called data-led policing@@[email protected]@. Computers gather data from arrests, 911 calls and reports and then compute them into graphs and charts that tell officers where crime might happen again, or at least where it happens most frequently. From there, they apply crime-prevention methods, concentrate their patrols and focus on the offenders who are causing most of the problems.

“I think it’s paying off, but it’s hard to prove whether or not it’s working,” Kerns said about data-led policing. Other cities that have the jail beds and resources to hold criminals are showing that it has an impact.

“Lane County should probably have a jail with 1,000 jail beds, but instead it has fewer than 200 jail beds for local offenders,” Kerns said. He brings up that between 2008 and 2009, when 84 jail beds were taken away from Eugene, crime went up at an alarming rate. In 2009, they got the jail beds back, implemented data-led policing and neighboring Springfield’s municipal jail opened. That year, the crime rate dropped lower than it had been before in 2008.

“It looks as though we are making a difference,” he said. “It’s tough to prove, but it looks that way.”

To both the mayor and the chief of police, the neighborhood is an important aspect to the city of Eugene.

“A lot of the health and thriving on the community is based on our University and its students. (Their) safety and well-being is important to us,” Piercy said. “But, I don’t think we can deliver it to them. I think they have to be part of working with us.

“It is what it is, and we need to figure it out.”

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