Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
About a dozen Junction-area residents turned out at Ginomai tonight for an information-packed meeting of the Junction Neighborhood Organization. Much of the meeting centered around the guest speaker, SPD Officer Tom Burns, who talked about neighborhood crime trends and a range of issues relating to SPD activity in the Junction retail district and surrounding neighborhoods. In particular, Burns touched on some growing gang activity, homeless people living in cars on neighborhood streets, recent bank robberies, and ongoing challenges SPD officers face in dealing with crime.
JuNO President Erica Karlovits opened the meeting and introduced Officer Burns, who told the group that he grew up in West Seattle and knows its neighborhoods very well. He began by assuring the attendees that the community is safe. He said that most of the crimes SPD deals with in the Junction area are non-violent property crimes, though he admitted that lately there has been a group of about troubled teens that the SPD has been watching. They are roughly a dozen members who have been promoting themselves as the “Junction Bloods.” The group is led by a couple of young men who are actually gang members, and the rest are just aspirational teens who aren’t in school. Burns said their activity has largely been a nuisance thus far but that their activity has been escalating from petty crime and vandalism to dealing an increasing amount of marijuana and, lately, organized street robberies where the gang members work in concert by creating distractions.
Burns said the police first approached the parents of these teens but that most were completely disinterested in doing anything to help. He also said the efforts of the SPD have been hampered by the limits and peculiarities of the juvenile laws. Officer Burns added that many troubled teens seem to know how to work the system, noting in some cases that the living conditions in juvenile detention are an improvement over the bleak circumstances facing them at home. And Burns said that, unless the crimes in question involve violence, the City doesn’t seem to have much interest in prosecuting juveniles. So SPD has been working with Junction businesses to aggressively enforce no-trespass contracts, which seem to work better as there are monetary tickets attached to the violations, of which he says the City seems to take more seriously. Burns said the group has been selling drugs to middle- and high-school kids, some of whom catch buses at Junction stops. But he also said that the violence of the group has been growing and that they recently assaulted a homeless man.
Homelessness was another issue for which the group had many questions. Some of the residents present brought up cases of homeless people who have been living on various streets around the Junction. Burns first addressed a direct question about the man who was found dead in the Junction on April 12th (WSB coverage here).
(April 12 WSB photo)
Burns said that the case was ruled an overdose. He said the man was a heroin addict who had gone downtown to get his allotted free dose of methadone and then stole two other doses from his friends and took all three at once. Burns said that many transients see West Seattle as a relatively safe place for them but that their presence often makes residents feel unsafe. He said the best strategy is to have a sense of compassion, seasoned with a healthy dose of concern. He cautioned residents about the dangers of approaching homeless people in cars and encouraged those concerned to call the SPD out to at least run a check on them. Burns said that in many cases much of the property crime around the Junction is being committed by transients and other people who do not have a stake in the neighborhood.
Burns did not have kind words for the Real Change program which, in his assessment, started out as a worthy program but has devolved. He said he has personally made calls to the program’s director that go unreturned. And he claimed that a high percentage of the people soliciting donations for Real Change are indeed heroin addicts who are using the money illegitimately, and that they see the citizens of West Seattle as easy pickings.
Of the people who have chosen to live on the streets, Burns ticked off the significant resources, shelters, soup kitchens, and even medical and dental care that is made available to homeless people in Seattle. He said “You could eat for free seven times a day if you wanted to.” He added that many of the most problematic homeless people he deals with are those who refuse to take advantage of services and who, for whatever reason, stubbornly refuse to conform to society.
The conversation moved to the subject of recent bank robberies in West Seattle; Burns said the issues of drug abuse and bank robberies are closely related. “The banks in the Junction and the banks in the Admiral district are prime robbery candidates because you can get on the West Seattle Bridge quickly and be gone,” says Burns. He said that 99 percent of bank robbers are caught because, since most of them are drug addicts, investigators can usually look at the amount of money that was stolen and calculate when the robbers will strike again based on the burn rate of how quickly they’ll go through the money buying drugs. Additional patrols can be put in place on the days that police determine that robbers will return. He said repeat offenders have a declining success rate: “90% the first time, 50% the first time and 10% the third time.”
From there Burns talked about some individuals who live in and around the Junction that the SPD is watching closely, including a violent sex offender who has made repeated threats against police officers and a man who has been strong-arming some local businesses for merchandise. Burns encouraged residents to not be afraid to call 911 if they think something is happening. He added that residents who give police officers a careful description of suspicious individuals or criminal activity provide police with their best chances of locating suspects. “Sometimes our work is only as good as the information we’re getting,” says Burns, “But don’t intervene. Call the police and let us handle it.” He told a story about a woman who called 911 because her fourteen year-old son refused to do the dishes, saying they do get some frivolous calls that waste resources and time. Though he emphasized that communications is a catalyst to fighting crime so people feeling comfortable calling 911 is key.
He mentioned the sentencing of Junction-area residential burglar Larry Weeks, a young man who appeared to be well-dressed and clean-cut. Burns said, “You can’t tell what criminals look like” so you should not look at their appearance but “their behavior.” Burns told the group about a tremendous neighborhood-wide effort near the Junction in which residents organized an “immediate neighborhood telephone and e-mail alert list” that was instrumental in driving down some persistent criminal activity in their area. (More on this story tomorrow.)
Officer Burns related many of the challenges that Seattle police officers face with the classic revolving door of criminals being returned to the streets because of lax courts and sentencing. In his view, he said, problems range from out-of-touch judges who live in million-dollar houses to prosecutors who plead down cases in order to maintain a high conviction rate. Burns obliquely referred to the current investigation into a videotaped incident involving an SPD officer using racially charged language and kicking a detainee while investigating a crime in South Lake Union, noting that the SPD took 650,000 calls last year and yet there were only 25 internal affairs investigations department wide. Burns said that he understands why police officers must be held to a higher standard and that, while there will always be a small percentage of those who make serious mistakes, that his experience within the department has been that Seattle has the benefit of a Police Department with a very high level of accountability and very little corruption. He also noted that, perhaps reflecting the education level of the City’s population overall, that the department has a remarkable percentage of well-educated officers. Burns encouraged West Seattle residents to take advantage of the SPD ride-along program, saying it offered a first-hand experience of what officers go through on their shifts. “I will see more stuff in a month than most people will see in a lifetime.”
Though he admitted that it might sound obsequious, Burns finished his talk by saying that the SW Precinct is especially lucky to have Captain Kessler at the helm and that he has been instrumental in putting in place additional resources, including an “09” car that is not dispatched on calls but focuses on investigations and community policing.
Burns wrapped up and a few residents of Alaska House expressed their concerns about noise levels of last year’s West Seattle Summer Fest music stage near the intersection of Alaska and 42nd. Karlovits told the group that the planning committee for the festival has made some changes to the locations of the stages, partially to address previous complaints. The larger stage, which will feature musical performances later at night, will be the stage up by the post office. Karlovits said a smaller stage, with music ending at 9:30pm, will be relocated to the very center of the Junction.
The same residents of Alaska House also expressed concerns about cars illegally turning through the crosswalks at 42nd and Alaska, asking what the SPD might be able to do to make the crosswalks safer, especially with their high level of use by seniors and people with disabilities. Officer Burns suggested that a request be made for an increased detail at that intersection. He referred the group to SDOT in response to their question about whether the “walk” period of the lights could be made slightly longer.
Before the meeting ended, Karlovits encouraged local residents to participate in upcoming meetings of the Triangle Planning Advisory Group (which meets at 6 pm at the Senior Center), tomorrow (May 12th) and June 9th. She also invited people to join her at the June 2nd meeting of the Southwest District Council, which she co-chairs (7 pm at South Seattle Community College), which will be attended by Mayor McGinn, with Q&A time expected.
She told the group that, in response to a recent letter sent to the current owners of the Fauntleroy Place/Whole Foods site, that she would be meeting with the owners for a site visit that she hoped would begin a dialogue about safety and aesthetic issues regarding the current state of the site.
Lastly, Karlovits reminded the group that the dedication ceremony for Junction Plaza Park is scheduled for June 29th at 6 pm and that, as soon as more construction progress is made with some of the internal elements of the park, SDOT will be coming in to completely rebuild the surrounding sidewalks, including the section that reaches all the way up to Cupcake Royale (WSB sponsor).
Note: In the top photo, you may recognize 34th District House Position 2 candidate Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy, to the left of Officer Burns. He didn’t get a chance to speak because the agenda was so busy, but was invited to return in the future. (He did speak at the Admiral Neighborhood Association meeting a bit later, which will be included in our coverage as we add to that story in the morning.)
The Junction Neighborhood Organization meets the second Tuesday, every other month, 6:30 pm, at Ginomai.