The new arson task force has been so successful that City Council members are inclined to continue it despite the city’s deep fiscal constraints.
The task force costs $261,000 a year and was created last fall in hopes of dealing with the city’s growing arson problem.
The trial period has been a success, Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco said when he defended his budget before a council finance committee.
Arson investigators — a firefighter, a lieutenant and a captain — have made six felony arson arrests between May and October of this year. Five more are pending, Della Rocco said. He’s so pleased with the results that he said he’d rather lose his assistant chief and deputy chiefs than lose the task force.
“I’m not holding out much hope for the assistant chief and deputy chief positions, although I do need them,” the chief said when he was asked what could be cut from the Fire Department’s budget.
But, he said, the arson task force is too important to lose. With the first series of arrests, other people who were setting fires in the city have stopped even though firefighters have not yet arrested them, Della Rocco said.
“Now activity has decreased a lot,” he said. “Whether these people moved away, or took our arrests seriously, I don’t know.”
The Fire Department has had arson investigators since the 1980s, but police did most of the arrests. They solved few arsons, so the City Council created a three-person task force in the 2012 budget. Della Rocco said the budget for three full-time firefighters “reinvigorated” the task force.
The theory was that firefighters were better trained in the science of proving arsons, and had more time than police detectives, who were overwhelmed with many other crimes.
And Mayor Gary McCarthy said police investigations had a “less than impressive” solve rate.
Under the firefighters, he said, “If you look at the number of cases that have been closed out — dramatic improvement.”
The task force started operating in May with a lieutenant who had been injured fighting an arson fire and could perform only “light duty,” Della Rocco said.
Lt. Michael Hynes asked to be assigned to the new task force as he recovered. He has now been cleared to return to full-duty firefighting, but he’s asked to stay in the task force.
“He’s taken a very personal interest in this,” Della Rocco said.
Task force members have also received law enforcement training and peace officer status, allowing them to make arrests. They’ve collaborated with the with federal investigators on their investigations, and work with many social services groups to identify children at risk of becoming arsonists.
Hynes said the task force has been successful because firefighters can now focus on each arson.
“It’s because we have full-time people,” he said. “Arson cases are the hardest ones to prove. It takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of science.”
For those who have committed an arson, Hynes uses the Oregon Fire Scale to determine how to proceed. The scale differentiates between children who are playing with fire and children who are using fire as a dangerous outlet to cope with more serious problems, ranging from neglect to sexual abuse or mental illnesses.
He described two cases — without naming the children involved — to highlight how his approach differed.
In one case, a teenage boy set a fire in his basement while his family was upstairs. That’s a class-B felony — which carries many years in prison and is just two steps down from the most serious charges in the criminal system.
“Basically he was bored and got into some fire play,” Hynes said. “He initially lied to us. We went back two days later [after an investigation] and laid all the cards on the table,” Hynes said.
After showing that they knew he did it and the seriousness of the crime, they asked him to confess. He did.
In an evaluation, the Oregon Fire Scale showed that he wasn’t dangerous — just naively certain that he could keep the fire from getting out of control. So the District Attorney’s Office was willing to offer a plea deal to misdemeanor arson.
He was required to attend the Fire Department’s fire safety course for juvenile fire-setters, and perform community service. He is now in college.
“That was a success,” Hynes said. “My partner told him we all do dumb things as teenagers and we all deserve one mulligan — so long as nobody gets hurt.”
But another child, who was referred to Hynes by other agencies that suspected he was setting fires, didn’t fare so well.
When Hynes evaluated the child using the Oregon Fire Scale, “he was off the charts.”
The child admitted to setting 17 fires, and to using fire violently — including an incident where he put a lighter to his brother’s chest.
“He definitely had major red flags,” Hynes said. “This was way beyond what we could handle.”
The boy was using fire as an outlet, he said, so simply teaching the boy to avoid fire wouldn’t help.
“If it’s not fire, next it’s substance abuse,” he said. “They need to get to the root cause. Neglect, abuse.”
That boy was placed in a residential program where he can get specialized care.