When Sgt. Mike Fratusco pulls his black SUV into the dusty skate park parking lot, a group of kids, sitting under the shade of a tree, immediately perks up. As he puts his car in park, a few start to stand up and move toward the vehicle as others watch. When Fratusco gets out of the car, he’s met with warm familiarity from the group of smiling teens and tweens.
When he has time, Fratusco makes sure to visit the kids at the skate park. He’s been doing so for about a year now, and he’s become something of a local figure to the kids at the park. Whereas once he would be met by cautious glances or confused looks, he’s now greeted with the casual affection of old friends.
Spending time at the park has been part of the Kuna Police Department’s move toward “community policing,” an effort to which they give credit for the city’s dropping crime rate. Community policing, or gaining the community’s trust through meaningful, personal interactions, has helped them steadily lower Kuna’s crime rate over the past five years.
In 2014, the crime rate, or number of crimes per 1,000 people, was 32.5. In 2015, it was 29.3; in 2016 it was 31.7; in 2017 it was 27.8, and in 2018, the last year on record, the crime rate hung around 27.5, according to data from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
Ada County overall is also seeing a decreasing crime rate, which dropped by 6% from 2017 to 2018, the Idaho Press reported.
The actual number of crimes being committed in Kuna has fluctuated over the past few years, from 522 in 2014, to 548 in 2015, 567 in 2016, and 538 in 2017. As the population increases, the rate goes down, despite the few small upticks in crimes being committed.
To Fratusco and Kuna Police Chief Jon McDaniel, community policing has played a huge role in dropping Kuna’s crime rate, even amidst the town’s growth. An increase in officers and more proactive policing has also kept the rates down despite Kuna’s growing population, which since 2010 has increased from 15,210 to 23,000.
Community policing, in the eyes of Fratusco and McDaniel, looks like trust between officers and residents, and the skate park has materialized as a go-to example of the tactic. Before officers started building relationships with the kids who spend time at the park, more crimes were being committed there. Now, however, it’s not unheard of for kids to call the officers to let them know about suspicious activity at the park.
“We spend time at the skate park building those relationships and knowing those kids by name; knowing that when you pull up, instead of how it used to be, when they would just sit there and look at you and wonder why there’s a cop there, now they come up to your door and I have them asking, ‘Hey, Fratusco, can I sit in the back of your car? It’s too hot out here.’ And yeah, I’ll pop it open and let them sit in it,” Fratusco said.
Within the past two weeks, the kids have called to report someone driving recklessly and endangering pedestrians, and to report a teenager trying to sell vapes to younger kids. They do so, Fratusco said, because they don’t want people to ruin their experience in a place so close to them, and because they trust the officers will take care of them.
“This is what we call home,” said one of the kids.
In order to employ the kind of community-based patrol that they aim to, the Kuna Police Department needs the officers to make it possible. Having more officers allows them more time to spend in the community building relationships, and the upcoming budget may help them do just that.
This year, the police department asked city council for an additional $295,000. If approved, the money would help fund two additional officers, bringing the total staff number to 19.25 — with .25 accounting for a school resource officer who works part time in the summer.
The goal, they said, is to have one officer per 1,000 residents. Though they’re not quite there yet, funding from city council would help push them toward that goal, said Mayor Joe Stear.
“We’ve been working towards that goal, and actually, with this year’s budget, we’re going to get a lot closer to that,” Stear said. “We’re going to have a couple more officers. What that does is give them a lot more time to go out and do some community policing and mingling with the community.”
The budget will be approved during a city council meeting on Aug. 6, when the public is welcome to provide oral or written comments. According to McDaniel, they’re expecting to get the funding they were hoping for.
Last year, the city council approved a budget increase of nearly $292,000 for the police department, an amount which funded two more officers. Before that, though, they had a seven-year stretch without the addition of any more officers. During that time, McDaniel said, the department just had to make do. But now, with the growth the city is experiencing, the council and mayor have made it a priority to get the personnel the department needs.
Adding two more officers to the department would enable them to have two officers per shift — one day shift, one graveyard shift and one swing shift. As it stands, there are times when they lack the coverage they need, at some points only having one person on shift.
“At some point with 23,000 people — and that’s why I really appreciate the council and mayor’s support — there’s no time with a city this big that we should have one person on shift,” McDaniel said.
More officers also means more time to do proactive policing, or catching and stopping crimes before they happen. In recent years, officers have put an emphasis on halting drunk driving, by simply showing a presence outside of bars and on highways.
“It’s about community policing,” Fratusco said. “Like the chief said, we can’t solve problems unless we have the community help us. That’s what we need, and it starts with responding to calls and building relationships in the community with the kids and that kind of stuff. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to do things.”