By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
More than 100 people packed a room at Neighborhood House’s High Point Center for a meeting about community “safety issues” – heavy on concerns but light on specifics.
Opening last night’s meeting, Heather Hutchinson from High Point community management described the reason behind it as a “diverse set of issues” – from car egging to “definitely more big parties happening in Commons Park” with disturbing debris afterward to “larger groups of teens wandering and really sort of engaging in … (behavior including) knock-down-drag-out fights” to “drugs, people seeing drug sales, people thinking they’re seeing drug sales,” to “some real sense that maybe there’s gang colors being worn …”
But before opening the floor to comments and questions, she asked attendees not to get specific about units or addresses.
“It’s not a homeowner or a renter issue,” stressed Seattle Housing Authority community builder Shukri Olow from SHA. “it’s an ‘everybody’ issue.”
Other representatives included Sean McKenna, who said he manages the 600 rental units and various related programs. “We’re here to have a conversation,” he reiterated, added, “I live in High Point and I see people walking around all the time … (but) it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an issue or a problem. … We’re here to serve everybody. Everybody who lives here in High Point has an investment.” He stressed, without saying it exactly this way, that both renters and owners had that investment – one wasn’t greater than the other.
High Point Neighborhood Association president Deborah Vandermar spoke as well, mentioning that rather than participate in National Night Out in August, HP would have one of its own on September 14th.
From SPD’s Southwest Precinct, Community Police Team Officer Kevin McDaniel – whose jurisdiction includes High Point and other SHA properties around WS – was in attendance; he said he spends 80 percent of his time at HP.
Asked about trends, he said he’s “hearing that mainly there’s been a lot of what’s perceived as gang members showing up in High Point now, people hanging around in parks, more fights … I’m here to tell you that every summer, my entire career, you will see a small spike as soon as these kids are out of school, in criminal activity, fights … I know it becomes a nuisance when you’re trying to relax at home and get some rest and (this activity happens), but it’s not only happening at High Point, it’s happening at … every park in West Seattle.” But he urged, “if you see something happening and your gut feeling tells you it’s wrong, make the call .. to the police.” He said some don’t do that because they’re afraid their name will be known and there’ll be retaliation; he said people can call police anonymously and say they don’t want contact: “When in doubt, just make the call and 911 operators will determine if it’s something they need to dispatch officers to or not.”
Hutchinson reinforced that, saying that it seemed people had been posting about problems or concerns online without bringing it to the attention of High Point management, much less police. “We have the ability to start recognizing patterns or trends,” she explained. “Please do let us know if you see something.”
The first attendee with a question asked Officer McDaniel: “Why is this the first time we’ve had to have a meeting like this?”
“It isn’t the first time,” he replied. “(But) it only happens when there’s a spike.”
The attendee observed this kind of spike didn’t seem to have happened last year and asked if any reason why it was happening this year. Officer McDaniel repeated that it was because youth are out of school.
Second question: If people are seeing particular potential troublemakers, and can identify them as linked to particular rental units, would it affect those tenants’ eligibility for subsidized rental housing? “It might,” said McKenna. “But everybody has rights … What I do as a landlord, whenever I hear information about people being perceived as maybe having done something, that’s where we do follow up, and we do exchange e-mails back and forth (with police) about things like this …” He said that he would typically schedule a meeting with the household in question and talk about what might be going on – he can’t just pursue eviction because of something that “might be going on.” Whether subsidized or not, he said, “renters have rights …I’ve got to give them an opportunity to comply (with the rules). …I don’t have an automatic right to remove (possible rulebreakers).” McKenna added, “We have done lots of stuff” regarding past trouble.
Next question was whether any lease had been terminated in the past 12 to 24 months. “Yes,” McKenna replied, elaborating that if a member of the household has caused trouble, he would give the head of household the chance to comply – or, if they didn’t, he might “move the whole household.” He said at least six households and dozens of individuals had moved or been moved as a result in the past few years.
The next person to speak talked about “(approximately) 12 young men who sit in the park,” non-residents, and said they have asked security guards to remove them – but “unless we work as a community to push them out,” they will keep coming back. She said she’s out at 1 am looking for visitors who “do unnecessary things .. whatever we (the community) allow them to do.” She suggested other community members could help. “They know me and they respect me and if I say hey, you gotta go ….they go.” She said she is the mother of a teenager who she works hard to keep away from the troublemakers.
Hutchinson emphasized that “making it unpleasant for (troublemakers) to be here” could indeed help. “Make them understand, that behavior is not welcome.”
Next speaker brought up the perception that security had been cut, and mentioned a “brawl” two weeks ago, with police called and responding. He said it seemed like more of a security issue when people are in the parks after their closing time at 9:30 pm.
“Does security do what we need them to do?” Hutchinson asked.
“No,” called out many in the audience.
“If there’s any sign it’s turning into a fight or brawl, call 911,” Hutchinson urged. She added that lighting is on the way for Bataan Park.
McKenna then interjected that “security’s job is not law enforcement…. When in doubt, call 911, don’t rely on security to break up a fight.”
The man concerned about security pressed the point about shorter hours – saying security could defuse situations that didn’t need anything more seriously, maybe teenagers challenging each other, and taking it to a basketball game instead of anything more serious. McKenna said the feedback could have them requesting different shifts so security is there more often when it’s needed.
Next, a woman suggested game programs in parks – including board games or cards – might help. Olow said a grant for youth activities would be kicking in “any moment now.” It was pointed out that the youth might not be connected to those programs and “parents need to be more involved with their kids.”
Then, a woman said, “When we call the police they don’t come.” But she also suggested her fellow residents not be afraid to speak to the “kids,” And she drew laughter and applause by suggesting SHA give the youth summer jobs “pulling everybody’s weeds.”
Officer McDaniel said police cannot decline to go to a call – but when calls come in, they are prioritized, and if there’s a call in which somebody’s life might be in danger somewhere, they have to respond to that first – “we don’t have a hundred officers here in West Seattle,” he said. “Bodily harm will get a faster response than kids hanging out in a park.” He also noted squad cars have GPS so there’s no chance of claiming they were somewhere when they were not.
Security would seem like the way to address that, said the next attendee to speak. In summertime, she said, there are always people in the parks late at night, after closing time. She was followed by someone who said that situation meant living next to a park was not “the amenity” it was supposed to be. She then said there’s a “known drug house on the park. … There’s more than one drug house in this development. … It’s not just this group of teenagers you guys are talking about that, school’s out and they’re causing trouble. It’s a lot deeper than that.”
She suggested rollback fencing for the parks; Hutchinson said that’s not likely. But she said the initial lighting could be added to later, because a “junction box” will be installed making that possible. Instead, “establishing a culture” dissuading people rom hanging out in the parks, also including signage, could help, including more authority for security if they can point to posted rules.
She said the “situation (the resident) was speaking to” regarding drug activity was on the radar. The resident said it was obvious, with people in the house for “two minutes,” coming and going. “Has it been reported to police?” Officer McDaniel asked. “Yes,” she replied. He started to say they couldn’t just barge in at any time and make accusations; “Do you want us to take pictures?” she asked. He said he couldn’t tell her to do that; “there are steps we have to take in addressing these types of (situations).”
Someone then spoke from the audience saying they had faced with a situation like that and after a year and a half, it was handled.
“It’s a lot of activity,” the woman said regarding the current situation, and for a moment, the audience erupted in chatter, with some calling out suggestions that she use a video camera.
HPNA’s Vandermar urged that everything be reported, online if needed, so police can see a pattern, including when they respond to a certain address which then has a history of calls.
Another brief question came from the audience: “Do our homeowner dues support security?”
“No,” said McKenna. When something is reported, though, to SHA or police, specifics are vital – you can’t just say “a group of teens,” he said.
From the back of the crowded room, a resident brought up burned-out lighting in several areas, and hoped that perhaps they could get fixed by Labor Day. McKenna said he was somewhat aware of the problem, but asked everyone to “let someone know and I’ll try to get maintenance over there to replace that bulb as quickly as possible. … You’re right, there are more lights out now than there should be.” In the middle of that exchange, Hutchinson asked everyone to keep their porch lights on.
Then a resident who said she works with an anti-violence group and other community organizations said there might be a communication issue, since she only heard about this meeting at the last moment. “Communication doesn’t get OUT to us,” she said. She said many young people come over to her home because she is a mentor and a friend, so some who don’t know had assumed hers was a potential trouble house. “… We need to come together more,” she said, observing that as a very longtime HP resident, it’s much more “cleaned up” than it had been in the past. However, she did say she didn’t recommend anyone taking matters into their own hands, while also urging people not to make assumptions about groups they might see.
She won a round of applause.
And then came someone who said she had trouble reaching security or police; she was urged to call 911, NOT the non-emergency number. Following her, a man wondering how often SHA staffers submit “activity reports” to their management and how residents could see those reports and find out what they are doing. He said his patio fronts on a park and “some nights it’s a living nightmare,” including a big fight his wife witnessed one night. Managers’ jobs are not 9 to 5, he admonished.
Hutchinson said yes, she reports to two boards of directors, on everything from community feedback to budgetary matters, but they’re not necessarily granular. And, she said, “I’m not going to be here every night, from 8 pm to 2 am.” However, she said, “we have been talking to security” in recent weeks, regarding specific tasks – “sweep the parks (after they close),” for example.
She mentioned lighting again, with other parks involved in addition to Bataan – Viewpoint and Pond Park, for example, And perhaps they could look into more lighting, she acknowledged.
After an hour and a half, about a third of the crowd had dwindled. McKenna was trying to explain that his role had a lot to do with management beyond specific incidents and events. “And I’m right here in the building – I’m more than happy to sit down and meet with people,” Hutchinson added. She said that she, McKenna, and McDaniel had been meeting at least once a month, while McDaniel and McKenna might speak multiple times a day.
As the meeting was being wrapped up moments later, a woman who had long been holding up her hand in the back was called on. “There is a gap between the hours you guys are available and the resources that are available – so I’m asking, what can we do in the moment? I think we should have more resources than this .. and we need to take this out into the community, to (people who) didn’t attend this meeting … ”
“Communication is a huge pice of the puzzle, and one that we struggle with for various reasons,” said Hutchinson. She has an e-mail list to hit 300 owners quickly, for example, but does not have a corresponding list for renters, she said. However, “if you are somebody who likes to be a communicator and would like to facilitate (getting information out) -” they could use the help, she acknowledged.
The every-other-month newsletter could use writing help too, she added.
Olow suggested a neighborhood e-mail list could be helpful, with both homeowners and renters; other SHA communities have one, she said. “Or, become a Block Watch captain, and be able to share with your neighbors resources and issues in the communities.” She invited the concerned resident to come to her officer in HP and speak with her about it.
McKenna acknowledged this meeting was called on short notice and that he had talked with two people about it late in the day, and ideas that came up included having groups out walking around, who might recognize people who are hanging out and can “sort of get a little exercise and socialize with each other as a group” … not just looking for trouble, but looking for the “good things that are happening, too.”
Before the meeting wrapped up, a resident expressed concern that SPD’s online-reporting page mentions that many reported crimes might be reviewed but not investigated. Officer McDaniel expalained that does NOT mean they are not seen – he gets all the reports for this area, for example. “But how does the community find out?” the resident repeated. They might not, if it’s not relevant, said McKenna. “I can’t necessarily share everything I get with everybody who cares to know.” The resident wasn’t placated. “You keep saying, come talk, we’ll talk one on one, one on one. I don’t need (that) – but I do need to know overall what’s going on in this community, some link, not to say that you are responsible, but … what is the linkage that’s going to bring us an overall confidence that things can go forward and we’re in this together, not meeting in individual conferences.”
Olow said residents are sent flyers about activities, “but I’m sure there’s more we can do.”
Another woman interjected that HP management should organize a meeting out in the park so hundreds more people can
While SHA reps acknowledged the idea as having potential, Hutchinson reiterated regarding the overall concerns: “This won’tbe something we can solve top down.”
As attendees departed, out in the hall, the community Peace and Safety Team was taking signups – for a role Hutchinson described as “not enforcer, not vigilante, just … be out in the community.”