Amicus lector
Does a jump in police calls tell us anything about Pettigrew Heights?

We revisited Pettigrew Heights this morning through the good work of Argus intern Nick Lowrey.

He wrote about the Sioux Falls Police Department’s “Walk A Block With A Cop” program.The blocks those cops are walking are in Pettigrew, a neighborhood pegged by police (and the media) as one that, um … struggles with crime.

Let’s not mince words. When we talk about Pettigrew, we’re talking about a bad neighborhood. It might be the most easily-identifiable shorthand for “bad neighborhood” Sioux Falls has to offer.

The area, roughly Minnesota to Grange and Ninth to 14th, has gotten a lot of attention over the past five years from organizers and city officials who want to keep it from becoming a throwaway neighborhood. Naming it Pettigrew Heights win 2008 was part of the plan, as I understand it.

There’s also the Pettigrew Heights Neighborhood Association, which has partnered with the cops for community policing purposes, pushed more community activities, supported foot and bike patrols by the cops, backed efforts to condemn and demolish rathole buildings, and cheered when the low-interest loans were offered to developers.

The “Walk A Block” program was meant to be another piece of the puzzle. It also gave us in the media yet another opportunity to check the number of calls for police service in Pettigrew.

As usual, the numbers are going up. Here’s what Lowrey wrote:

“Sioux Falls Police noticed a higher volume of calls last year for service in Pettigrew Heights in recent years. Police logs for 2011 showed an increase of 660 calls in Pettigrew Heights over 2010, and 2012 marked an increase of 319 calls over 2011. In response, officers started to make changes in the way they do business, including foot patrols.

Joe Sneve wrote about Pettigrew last summer, breaking down the crime calls by type. All of them, from family disputes to assaults and burglaries, had gone up. Mr. Bald N Surly wrote a column in 2011 after a neighborhood survey showed that kids start drinking in Pettigrew at a younger age than they do statewide (although he was arguing that drawing lines around neighborhoods can be problematic). I wrote a story citing an increase in calls for service about six months earlier.

A few things to keep in mind reading that kind of stuff: First off, as Lowrey noted, at least some of the increase has to do with an increase in foot patrols. Officer Jon Dravland said cops have walked through and caught people doing illegal stuff because they weren’t expecting to see cops outside their cars.

Second, as anyone who’s ever taken a college-level criminal justice class can tell you, call volume on its face is a notoriously inaccurate representation of safety. It could mean there is more crime happening, but it doesn’t have to.

It could mean people are more aware and more willing to call police than they were three years ago. Maybe a business owner gets fed up and decides to call the cops instead of turn the other way. A bar owner who tells his employees to call at the first sign of trouble could skew the numbers somewhat.

It could be that the city is growing, crime is growing right along with it, and any neighborhood would look bad with a spotlight on it.

It could mean little more than police paying more attention in more ways, as Dravland suggested. Cops on bikes ride around Pettigrew all the time. There are more cruisers on patrol there than you might see somewhere else in the city.

All this stuff reminds me of a truism about DUIs – the number of people caught for drunken driving is directly related to the number of police out looking for them. More police equal more arrests, and no amount of policing will catch everyone.

We like numbers in the news business. Police like numbers, too. It’s natural to want to measure things in what appears to be concrete and meaningful fashion. It gives a place to start from, something to interpret.

In the end, though, the only measure of safety that matters is how the residents feel. Do they feel safe talking their kids for a walk? Do they feel safe walking downtown? Do they feel safe driving or riding bikes from place to place?

Personally, I feel as safe there as I did in the neighborhood I recently moved away from. Some of my neighbors don’t think things have improved much. Others do. There are clearly some good things happening. Things like this and this.

If anything is unquestionably true about Pettigrew, it’s this: When there is trouble, there’s always a cop nearby.

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