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Crimes and clearance; Bemidji crime rate high, but so are cases that are solved

BEMIDJI -- Bemidji may have the unwanted distinction of having the highest crime rate in the state, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and released last week, but that's a misnomer that doesn't represent the city's position as a "regional hub," Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said Thursday.

"I'll be the first to admit that I think the crime rate is a little bit skewed," he said. "Part of that is that it's based on population versus raw number of crimes. But the argument that we are the regional hub is completely accurate."

In 2012, the rate reached 27,151 crimes per 100,000 people, according to the BCA. That number represents offenses identified as ranging from serious (rape, robbery, aggravated assault) to petty (DWI, fraud, receiving stolen property). And those crimes were identified as a result of investigations stemming from 22,627 calls to Bemidji police last year. Between 29 and 32 officers with department handled that volume. Those calls "steadily increase every year," Mastin said.

"We have a tremendous workload. The guys, even though they're working their tails off, they're finding out who's doing what."

Their work has paid off, Mastin said. The Bemidji Police Department had a clearance rate -- determined by an arrest made, a citation issued, or a determination reached that a report of a crime was unfounded -- of 66 percent for 2012. Mastin touted the figure as an improvement, compared to the 46 percent clearance rate for 2010, one year before he became chief of police.

"I guess I'm disappointed that our crime rate is as high as it is, but I am overwhelmingly happy at the significant improvement in our clearance rate. Our guys have embraced the idea of going that extra mile and solving the problem."

Thefts were up, Mastin said. But family crimes -- the target for police following 2011's report -- were down. Bemidji police handled 1,203 thefts last year, in addition to 31 stolen vehicles, according to the BCA. Of those, 45 percent were cleared with an arrest, citation or discovery of being unfounded. The remainder represent cases in which little evidence was available for police to investigate the crime.

"The cases of theft have significantly increased, disorderly conducts have almost doubled, vandalism has significantly increased. ..." Mastin said. "So those are the areas we're going to have to shift our focus to."

Thefts, often referred to as "crimes of convenience" are just that, Mastin said. And police need the public to make their property less available for larceny.

"The community really needs to help us out. ... paying attention to their neighborhoods, getting used to who lives there and who doesn't, identifying suspicious people and suspicious vehicles."

Since 2005, the department, along with the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, has tracked stolen goods, solved crimes and arrested thieves thanks to a city ordinance-required tracking system at area pawn shops. But there is no such safety net for the web.

"We don't have the manpower to search all these venues for selling and getting rid of stolen goods," Mastin said. "We can't sit on Craigslist all day."

One statistic in particular might be disturbing for anyone with a family member in law enforcement, and is one Mastin said comes a result of a high crime rate combined with a large volume of calls: 12 officers were assaulted last year; four of them suffered injuries.

"That's not a proud statistic to have, but I'd attribute it to the number of calls we have," he said. "The more calls you go to, the more you're going to get hurt. The more your guys get hurt, the more you have to backfill."

The department is currently in the process of hiring two officers, bringing the total back to 32.

"If you look at just the raw numbers, our numbers are comparable to Burnsville, Brooklyn Center, Maplewood and Woodbury, who have between 47 and 74 sworn officers. We have 29. That's a significant difference," Mastin said. "Our officers really work hard, and even though they take a lot of calls, they solve crimes."

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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