The rate of violent crimes reported in Salem has been on the rise over the past 15 years, more recently skyrocketing as police officials say they’re turning their attention to serious crimes against people.
The city’s violent crime rate last year was up 42% from 2008, when there were 338 reports per 100,000 residents of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. That rate has climbed to 480, according to newly released data from the Salem Police Department.
The rate takes into account growth in the city’s population, which has grown from around 154,500 in 2008 to 179,600 last year, as opposed to the total count of reports.
“Violent crime can swing wildly year to year,” said Police Chief Trevor Womack, presenting his department’s data at a Jan. 20 Salem City Club meeting.
Over 15 years, that rate never swung above 400 until 2018, when the rate was 442.
The rate of reported violent crimes steadily dropped to 404 over the next two years. But it spiked to 464 in 2021 and went to 480 last year.
Womack said at the city club meeting that his department has shifted its attention to the rise in violent crimes and fatal crashes in Salem.
“That’s what’s drawing us in,” he said. “We’re having to focus more our efforts in that area, at the cost of some other things, including property crime.”
Data shows reports of property crimes have meanwhile stayed relatively flat over the past 15 years, and the rate has trended down since 2017. The rate was 3,972 per 100,000 residents last year and 3,965 in 2021, compared with 4,777 in 2008.
Womack told Salem Reporter that violent crime investigations take more resources, which are limited and must be pulled from other investigations.
He said that’s also the case for fatal crashes, which “take a lot of time and expertise” to investigate. When there is a rise in fatal crashes, his department diverts its traffic team “away from the potential traffic enforcement or education” to focus on investigating crashes, he said in an email.
The department has also created the Safe Streets Task Force to focus on reducing violent crime involving high-level gun trafficking. The task force joins the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon, giving the Salem police access to additional resources to boost a small team of detectives, according to Womack.
Among violent crimes, the rate of homicides can vary widely from year to year, Womack said at the meeting.
Salem had a homicide rate of 2.8 per 100,000 residents last year. That’s down from 5.1 in 2021, and compared with 3.9 in 2008.
The rate of rapes reported last year was 17.3, compared with 15.2 the previous year. The rate 15 years ago was 36.2.
Aggravated assaults have largely been on the rise in Salem since 2016, when the rate per 100,000 residents was 227.7. The rate was 362.5 last year and 350 in 2021, compared with 202.6 in 2008.
The rate of robberies was 98 last year, 94 in 2021 and 95.8 in 2008.
Among property crimes, reports of burglaries have dropped significantly since 2008, when the rate was 720, according to the data. The rate was 416 last year and 394 the previous year..
The rate of motor vehicle thefts reported in Salem was 676 last year, compared with 600 in 2021 and 432 in 2008.
Reports of larceny have dipped in the past three years. The rate per 100,00 was 2,800 last year and 2,894 in 2021, compared with 3,599 in 2008.
The rate of arsons reported in Salem has nearly tripled since 2019 – ranging from 64 in 2020 to 80 last year. The rate 15 years ago was 26.
Womack said he gets the question all the time: “Does Salem have a crime problem?”
“Anecdotally, what makes crime unacceptable in my community right now are the things that have been happening recently,” he said at the meeting. “When you have a woman jogging at Minto-Brown (Island) Park and gets pulled into the bushes and assaulted, that’s unacceptable. That’s a crime problem.”
Womack referred to a shooting a month earlier in which police said two men, 19 and 22, were hospitalized with injuries after someone fired shots from a vehicle and fled on Dec. 6.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.
The chief said his department is seeing fatal crashes on the rise, including those in which pedestrians are killed. He recounted three fatal crashes in Salem around the holidays.
Denise VanDyke, 54, a longtime local government worker, died on Dec. 19 after a driver struck her as she was crossing State Street at the intersection with Northeast High Street in downtown Salem. The following day, a driver struck and killed Linda Louise Wisher, 74, in a hit-and-run as she was crossing the driveway to an apartment complex along Southeast Madrona Avenue, Salem police said at the time.
Days later on Christmas Eve, police said 33-year-old Stephen William Sacchi of Beaverton died after he veered off the road and crashed into a tree near the intersection of Southeast Commercial and Owens Streets.
“These are tragic incidents in our community,” Womack said.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.