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Serious crime up in Morris 2011, but remains below national average

MORRIS, Minn. - A few bad apples returning to the Morris area caused an increase in serious crimes in 2011, but the overall crime rate in Morris is still below the national average, Morris Police Chief Jim Beauregard told members of the Police Civil Service Commission last week.

Overall, the crime rate for serious crimes is around 19 percent - "Anytime you can crack 25 percent, you're doing well in your community," said Beauregard. Even the crime rate for areas that saw increases in 2011 - property crimes like theft and burglary - are at around 25 percent.

In 2011, the department responded to 4,199 calls for service, which include calls where officers were dispatched to crimes, dispatched to provide services or initiated some sort of activity. In 2010, the department responded to 4,317 calls.

Over the last 10 years, the department has maintained a force of eight sworn officers, and responded to between 2,801 and 4,317 calls per year.

"Sometimes, things go up and down for us in the City of Morris," said Beauregard. "We have a population that sort of turns over for our community every year, with the university, for example. We have a large number of rental and apartment buildings in our community, so we often do have turnover within our population."

This year, the department moved to a new record system that allows calls to be categorized in great detail and add new categories for calls. Beauregard said he hopes that by the end of 2012 the system will be better-tuned to reflect the nature of calls the department receives.

Common calls in 2011 included a warning for a traffic violation (343 calls), opening a locked vehicle (258 calls), assisting other agencies (239 calls) and public assistance (202 calls).

Beauregard said the department typically sees a reduction in calls for service during June, July and August, but that was not the case this year.

"Partly, the result of that was we had more university students that stuck around for the summer, and when that happens we get a little busier," said Beauregard. "Additionally, we had some burglary issues in those particular months as a result of three people who got out of prison and came back to our community in the early summer."

"In a community like ours, a few people can make an impact on our stats."

Last year, Morris saw an increase of more serious crimes, from 414 reports in 2010 to 572 reports in 2011. The areas with the biggest increase included burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, vandalism, driving under the influence and disorderly conduct.

A big concern for vandalism complaints is the the old elementary school property. The department was using cameras inside the building to try and monitor vandalism issues, but the equipment is not compatible with the department's new radio system. Beauregard said the department had budgeted for new video equipment, which they hope to purchase soon.

"We patrol around there constantly, but there are so many ways to get into that school - and they go up with crowbars and pull the boards off," said Beauregard.

In total, the department made 159 arrests last year - 147 adults and 12 juveniles, up from just 131 arrests in 2010 and 141 arrests in 2009.

However, the juvenile crime rate has been steadily falling for the last five years, said Beauregard, thanks to regular contact with juveniles in the community and because "there are a lot of good kids in our community."

The department has also stepped up crime prevention presentations on bullying at both the elementary school and the high school. School Resource Officer Anita Liebl has been spending time monitoring bullying in the hallways and around the school, which Beauregard said has decreased bullying incidents.

"The biggest thing we've run into over the last couple of years is the sexting issue with students - sending naked pictures of themselves back and forth," said Beauregard. There were three sexting incidents last year that Beauregard said the department was able to address quickly, thanks to the training that Sergeant Ross Tiegs has received in computer forensics.

An ongoing challenge for the department is to increase it's online presence and learn how to incorporate social media into the department. However, there are liability concerns about joining Facebook or allowing residents to send in 911 requests via a text message.

"We're trying to work through how we, the Morris Police Department, is going to work through that social technology," said Beauregard. "We're starting to fall behind. That's me, I haven't made a commitment on how we're going to do that because there's so much liability with that."