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Police chief ready to focus on community efforts

BEMIDJI - Mike Mastin is looking forward to a new focus in the coming months.

Bemidji installed its newest police chief on Dec. 1. Since then, Mastin has concentrated on getting his department fully staffed.

The department was authorized in January for 31 officers. But due to retirements, resignations, family leaves and injuries, it has been operating with 25 officers or fewer.

"In (130) days, it's been personnel, just establishing or re-establishing the personnel in the department," he said.

But now, poised with an almost-full staff, Mastin is looking to focus less on personnel and concentrate on operations.

He last week introduced the police department's 2012-2014 Strategic Plan, "a roadmap, if you would, for our department, where we are and where we are going."

Bemidji has the third-highest crime rate in the state at 21,556 crimes per 100,000 residents, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

There was an increase in Bemidji's crime rate from 2000 to 2006 and, since then, about a .73 percent decrease a year, Mastin reported.

His goal for the next two years focuses on expediting that decrease: a 2 percent reduction in the city's crime rate by 2014.

The Bemidji Police Department received 20,320 calls for service in 2010, but that differs strongly from the crime rate. Many of the calls for service include medical calls, suspicious activities, anyone with a concern.

"It's not necessarily a crime, but things we help out on," Mastin said.

The BCA calculates crime rates based on its Uniform Crime Report, separating crimes into two categories. The more serious, Part 1, include crimes such as murder, rape, aggravated assault and arson. Part 2 crimes include assaults, fraud, vandalism and stolen property.

In 2010, there were 1,071 Part 1 crimes and 1,881 part 2 crimes in Bemidji.

Trends have been observed locally in the last 10 years, Mastin said, highlighting a 12-year decrease in motor vehicle thefts. The Police Department, like the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, has for more than a decade had a grant that funds a full-time auto-theft investigator.

Smaller reductions have been observed in vandalism and weapons calls.

Conversely, the number of family crimes, such as neglect and endangerment, has increased significantly.

Bemidji, according to the BCA, has a 46 percent clearance rate for crimes, meaning that they are concluded with an arrest or citation.

A number of factors contribute to that rate, Mastin said.

"Many of our highest non-cleared crimes are crimes of opportunity, where there is no chance of naming a suspect," he said. "Those bring our clearance rate down, which is unfortunate."

Mastin reported that only about one-third of all reported burglary, theft, vandalism and fraud cases end with a citation or arrest.

"These cases are typically committed without the benefit of eyewitnesses or usable surveillance video, thus they remain unsolved," he wrote in the Strategic Plan.

Someone might go on a spree on one night and break into 50 cars, which results in 50 theft reports, Mastin said. That one night alone could affect Bemidji crime rate by half a percent.

Also affecting the crime rate are non-crimes, even if they are reported as such. For instance, a woman might find she is missing her purse and reports it as stolen. The next day she might find it in a crevice in her vehicle. But if she doesn't call back to say that it was found, it still is listed as an uncleared theft report.

The clearance rate for family crimes is about 11 percent, he said, because, in part, most neglect and endangerment calls for service do not reach the threshold for criminal behavior. They are often referred to social services.

In talking with the public, the police chief said he wants to increase the department's attention to "quality of life issues."

"People are very concerned about quality of life issues," Mastin said, noting irritations with animals running through residents' yards, peace disturbances and loud cars. "I hope to focus on that."

Specifically, his goal is to hire an additional community service officer, who, like the one currently on staff, would focus on quality of life issues and local ordinance enforcement.

"I think we'll see a lot more satisfaction from the community," Mastin said.

Part of that, too, is fostering community involvement.

"Nobody knows their neighborhood better than the people who live there," he said.

That idea was referenced by Bemidji City Councilor Rita Albrecht, who after hearing the plan, asked if the police department would strengthen its involvement in National Night Out, an annual event aimed to bring together neighbors.

Mastin said he supports those events, but noted, too, that the police budget has challenges.

"It's going to be a task to find the money," he said.

The department operates on a $3.16 million annual budget, which is a .64 percent increase from 2010 and 3.25 percent decrease from 2008, he reported.

A little more than 80 percent goes to salaries and wages. Computers, squad equipment, office equipment and vehicle maintenance claims another 7 percent. Law Enforcement Center rent, heat, electricity and fuel costs cover more than 10 percent while the remaining 2 percent is dedicated to capital improvement equipment.