As discussion intensified in the comment section following our as-it-happened coverage of Friday night’s Alki shooting (original report here, today’s first followup here) – which sent a 19-year-old to the hospital, with the shooter/s still at large – many people asked about police presence at the beach — is it less than before; whether it is or not, should there be more? So we put in a request to talk with the man who’s in charge of West Seattle police, the commander of the Southwest Precinct, Captain Joe Kessler. First thing this morning, he sat down with WSB for more than an hour. Important to note, you will see him at some upcoming community meetings, including the Alki Community Council on May 21, so as we’ve said before, you will want to be there to directly voice any concerns you have. But as for some answers right now – here’s our story about the conversation with Capt. Kessler this morning:
(Friday night photos, this one and above left, by David Hutchinson)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Just one hour after a 19-year-old was shot at Alki last Friday night, WSB commenter “At the Beach” asked, “Shouldn’t there have been at least more (of) a police presence on a sunny Friday evening down at Alki?”
That’s one of the questions Capt. Joe Kessler, now in his second year as commander of the police precinct responsible for West Seattle and South Park, wanted to answer – even before we asked it. (Yes, he reads WSB comments too.) Right off the top in our conversation at the precinct this morning, he addressed a specific question about police presence, as asked by Cathy at 8:55 Friday night: “Remember that huge police RV, command center type vehicle which always seemed to be parked right across from Alki Auto? Haven’t seen it for a long time.”
According to Capt. Kessler, that’s because the “RV” — officially, a “mobile precinct” — got to be so old, it started “falling apart” and is no longer in service; it was used less last year than in years past, in fact, he says. The Southwest Precinct used to share it with another precinct, and is now without an official share of a “mobile precinct,” though if desperately needed, one could be borrowed from elsewhere. The captain says, however, it’s not what he considers the best use of police resources.
“Because of their equipment, the mobile precincts require personnel specially trained to drive and operate them. It takes at least an hour each way to go get them, set them up, and drive them here. And once you take one out, you can’t leave them – so if you have two officers with one of them (at Alki or elsewhere), they have to stay inside it … You can have a presence with a vehicle (like that), but I prefer a presence with officers, to get the most bang for the buck.”
While driving Alki on Sunday night, two nights after the shooting, we looked for police presence, and saw at least two units in the heart of the beach area — one driving Alki Ave by the boardwalk, and another parked close to the shooting scene, along the east side of Pepperdock, where we took this photo:
Will officers be routinely parked along Alki, we asked? Answer: Not always. One thing he notes about Alki: The traffic (human and auto) is inconsistent and unpredictable: “Some sunny days, there’s minimal traffic, other days, there’s so much, you can barely get down the street.”
He is frank about one situation: While city leaders have resolutely NOT cut police staffing – they are continuing to hire for open positions, and there are no officer layoffs (though the department is losing 10 civilian positions, none of those at the SW Precinct itself), he and other commanders have less “discretionary overtime” in their budgets. In the past, that OT is what funded special emphasis patrols at Alki and other areas around the city; now, beefing up in that way has to be done differently: “We have to give somewhere,” Capt. Kessler explains, “we have to move our resources. But we have other areas in West Seattle that need to be protected too, so where do we shift the resources (from)?”
One two-part answer: The Community Police Team (CPT) and Anti-Crime Team (ACT), which together include more than half a dozen officers in the Southwest Precinct. In regular times, members of those two teams do not routinely respond to 911 calls, but Capt. Kessler says that for summer, they will be on patrol duty, and those changes will take effect later this month. They’ll focus on places like Alki as well as other parks. As a result, he says, “I think we will have as much or more presence on Alki, and in Lincoln Park, as well as South Park, and other areas, maybe a little more coverage. But it does mean our CPT officers will not be as available (for the work they do otherwise) – I’ll be talking about that at upcoming community meetings.”
While the captain says he would of course like to have more officers, he says, “Our staffing levels are as good as they have ever been” — aside from some impacts caused by officers out on longterm sick leave (such as Officer Jason McKissack, viciously attacked 11 months ago while responding to a call) and even an officer and sergeant who have just been recalled to military duty. He says there aren’t spare people from around the city who can be redeployed to fill such positions — other precincts need their staff just as much as this one, in some cases (like the Rainier Valley, with multiple shooting incidents) even more. “Alki IS a city priority — as is downtown – as is the U-District – as is the Rainier Valley,” Capt. Kessler says, also pointing out that more than 20 new officers are in the citywide pipeline now and scheduled to start work sometime this summer. (As for overall staffing levels – there might be a dozen or so officers on any given shift on any given day, out of the 17 to 24 officers who are assigned to each of the three “watches” across the 24/7 calendar.)
However, Capt. Kessler comes back to the issue of whether police visibility would have prevented what happened Friday night. “Presence alone is not going to prevent every event like this. You have some young guy who has a gun who decides he’s going to shoot someone, it can happen, even with officers in the area – and there WERE officers in the area. … The presence of a crowd, of someone who could have identified him, didn’t even deter him.” He considers the police response after Friday night’s shooting “phenomenal” — though it happened close to shift-change time, so some “Third Watch” officers had to respond from the precinct (which is on Delridge, near Home Depot), he says at least 10 officers were there “within minutes.” (As you may recall, the shooting happened across from Pepperdock, but the victim was put into a car by friends and driven east; police intercepted them near Seacrest, where medics took the victim to Harborview Medical Center downtown.)
Looking at the big picture – you may think this is spin, but it’s actually something we asked about, not information that was volunteered. Violent crime overall is low in West Seattle. “It’s an incredibly safe place,” in that regard, Capt. Kessler says. But, he is well aware: “A crime wave is when it happens to ‘me’.” And he also knows that the higher rate of nonviolent crimes – burglaries, car prowls, etc. – is unsettling as well. He stresses again what those working for him have told us, and we’ve reported, too: If you see something suspicious, CALL 911. Not only because you may be providing first word of something worse to come, but also because “call load” helps police leadership make staffing-level decisions.
“Citizens do a fantastic job of calling police, letting us know what’s going on. If you see things, especially on those hot summer nights … call .. be vigilant. If you call and say, ‘there’s a bunch of young guys down here and it looks like it’s going to blow up’ … sometimes you can just tell (trouble is imminent). It would be ridiculous for me to say we are going to have officers in all places at all times. (But) we look at where call loads are, see what our trends are, and staff to that.”
The most frequent complaints from Alki are noise and traffic, and he says those will be priorities too when possible — “we’re going to ask officers to tighten up on the loud stereos, and probably increase traffic enforcement. We can’t throw every officer in the Southwest Precinct into one area, but I think right now we have enough officers to do the job.”
And he reiterates, he would rather have those officers on the move than parked in a set spot — pointing out that the beach zone is two miles long, and who’s to say the spot you pick to set up would be the “right” one to prevent or deter crime? It’s the on-duty supervisor who gets to make the call regarding “whether somebody just sits there,” though Capt. Kessler says he encourages officers to park somewhere with “visual impact” when writing reports.
Again, the redeployment of CPT and ACT officers will take effect later this month. (5:55 pm note: A question in comments on this story reminds us, we were also told deployment of bicycle officers also is being considered for Alki again this summer.) You will see either Capt. Kessler or Lt. Paulsen at some key upcoming meetings, including the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council (Tuesday 5/19 at the precinct, 7 pm) and Alki Community Council (Thursday 5/21 at Alki Community Center, 7 pm). If you have city budgeting comments regarding police staffing, the mayor’s office is accountable for budgeting; for a bigger-picture look, there is a briefing on 1st quarter SPD staffing scheduled at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting, 2 pm tomorrow.