By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
What did dominate the evening was a wide-ranging discussion on various neighborhoods’ problems and what can, can’t, and – in some neighbors’ view – should be done about them.
First, the crime-trend update:
LOCAL CRIME TRENDS: Auto theft has remained the same – a high level, but “we’re starting to make some arrests.” Car prowls are “down drastically.” So said precinct operations Lt. Ron Smith, representing precinct leadership at the meeting – he said car prowls are down to 11 in the past week, compared to 18. A new way of handling the data is being implemented soon, he said, so that could make a change. Nonresidential burglaries are down; residential burglary is down 40 percent from an average week, 6 compared to the average of 10. “We’ve made a couple arrests, and that might have made a difference – names known to the community.” Strong-arm robberies, usually 1 a week, this past week we’ve had two (both reported here).
Asked about the strong-arm robbery, Lt. Smith mentioned – without specifying the location – the Sealth student who was walking to school when her phone was stolen. They don’t know yet for sure whether the robber is a student or not, though “similar age group” to the victim. Sometimes the response time is hampered by the fact the robbery isn’t reported until they tell their parents hours later. He says this type of robbery has now been dubbed “Apple-picking.”
Asked about shoplifting, aggravated assault, drug-dealing arrests, Lt. Smith said he doesn’t have numbers on those categories but can get them. He says the Anti-Crime Team is going after drug crime right now, though, and that drug dealing is being addressed “through other methods” – CPTED, such as lighting, removing phone booths, cutting back shrubbery, and talking to businesses to let them know it’s their responsibility to keep watch on what’s happening on their property.
NUISANCE HOUSES: A question is asked about a South Delridge block and a particular house on 17th SW. Lt. Smith says they’re aware of several trouble houses. Precinct liaison Matthew York from the City Attorney’s Office, seated next to Lt. Smith (photo at right), gives his card to the asker. Another man says there’s a similar problem in his neighborhood – stolen cars dumped, an unregistered sex offender who they say had a teenage girl in his house, someone else who was wanted on warrants and “had a sawed-off shotgun.” The house in question had “constant turnover,” troublemakers in the back yard – they would report the problems, police would show up, and be deterred by a locked gate and people going into hiding. “With (houses like this) you can look at the 911 calls – 197 on that block – (people have) called constantly.” Someone else says “it’s kind of like we’re at war” but it has quieted down a bit with the involvement of the Community Police Team.
People are pulling up in cars and smoking heroin, a resident went on to say. “If you see someone smoking heroin, that’s a 911 call,” says York. Is a photo evidence of what happened? the resident asked. The officer generally has to see the crime being committed, York replies. They can’t just stop someone because someone says they stopped them doing something. Another attendee asks, what if that person is driving under the influence, then, can they be pulled over? York explains the legal issues. “They can stop and arrest him, but whether they can prosecute him … comes down to a whole lot of case law.”
The prior resident says that he thinks there’s a “whole lot of value” in seeing police driving past, say, the drug-smoking person sitting in their car. And then comes a discussion about living next door to chronic offenders who are out of jail “and they know I put them there … we’re surrounded by felons whose rights are more elevated than ours. We’ve been victimized by them all this time.” She said she didn’t have a complaint about police response, just the situation in general that has left them next door to the felons. York says he’d like to talk to them offline.
Should this go before the City Council? Is there a place to get more help? asks another attendee. “It’s a complicated legal situation,” says York, but maybe, for example, the Department of Planning and Development might have an ordinance that would apply.
Another attendee points out that this sounds like the nuisance-house situation at 36th/Morgan that was addressed with the help of the City Attorney’s Office. “Is there something that could be done without us having to come to a meeting like this” to get help? she wonders – perhaps the Community Police Team? The South Delridge residents say the CPT has addressed their situation and it’s “quieted down” somewhat as a result, as those officers “have been real direct” with the chronic offenders next door.
Lt. Smith points out that 911 calls are what get the most attention for trouble spots – repeated 911 calls. “Foreclosed homes” are a problem right now, “and you wouldn’t believe how many we have in West Seattle.” He says that one particular (unnamed) bank owns “85 percent” of the vacant, bank-owned homes in West Seattle, and they have a contract with that company that allows them to cut right to the chase if action is needed at a particular address.
Another attendee suggests neighbors might threaten to take offending neighbors to small-claims court; she mentions living next door to a house whose owner wasn’t the problem, “but they had rotten relatives.”
Keep calling 911, urges Lt. Smith.
Finally a question about Saturday’s robbery in Morgan Junction – a man cites the WSB comment from someone who wrote about seeing suspicious people in the area a short time earlier and reported being told, when calling 911, that nothing could be done if a crime wasn’t being committed.
“What was the crime?” York asked repeatedly.
“A–holery,” it was suggested.
But – that’s not a crime, it was repeated. Another man said that near 17th/Henderson, he had encountered someone who behaved threateningly and not gotten much of a response. “If you want police at the doorstep right away, tell them you’re going to do to the person what the person is doing to you,” he said, and that’s the only way to get a response.
Back to the Morgan parking lot, “suspicious behavior is at the bottom of the priority list” in terms of what police can report to. If reported as “they’re slowing down cars and harassing people,” that might be a crime, but if you just say “they’re walking in front of a car and slowing it down,” the operator might not perceive that as the type of problem you’re seeing.
Don’t be nice about it when you call something in, said Lt. Smith.
At that point, a TV reporter identified herself from the corner and asks about the Morgan robbery case and the surveillance video mentioned in our earlier coverage. Lt. Smith looks into a sheaf of report copies he’s brought, to try to find information about the case.
If suspects are identified, will their photos be made available? it’s asked. Not if they’re juveniles, York says, unless they are charged as adults.
Is it legal for someone to walk around with their face covered (as was one of the robbers) – let’s say, if it’s not freezing cold weather? Yes, it is, the law enforcers reply.
Coming back to the subject of the 911 call made earlier that morning, another man in the corner mentions again that you have to be very direct with police – you can’t just say you think something MIGHT be happening, you saw someone who kind of sort of made you wonder. You have to be factual and direct. (No one here had firsthand knowledge of that call, including police, so they were just speculating that perhaps the caller was not.)
Another attendee asks about the prioritization mentioned earlier. Lt. Smith said it depends on what else is going on. The attendee goes on to ask about staffing – “do you have enough officers to respond in a reasonable amount of time?” Lt. Smith says shortly thereafter, “Yeah, we need a lot more officers. We have the amount of officers we had in the late ’60s. We need more officers not only in West Seattle but citywide.”
“Is it a recruiting issue or a funding issue?” asks an attendee.
Both, says Lt. Smith. Personally, he says, as a 35-year cop, he wishes far more money would go toward police services – but where do you take it away? Social services? Fire Department? Roads? “What I have to do is work with the number of officers we have. And we have an incredible bunch of officers here.” He notes that the Southwest Precinct remains a popular place to work.
An attendee goes back to the Morgan robbery, wondering if anyone had seen a gun when the people reported in the street, who might have been the robbers. Another attendee points out (from the report we published earlier) that the gun didn’t come out until after the first robber had asked the victim about the time.
From another attendee: “These things happen in cities … the majority of us here are concerned about the underlying (situation)” such as nuisance houses and chronic offenders.
“We go through phases,” said Lt. Smith. “Right now, community policing is taking the lead” for SPD, the City Attorney’s Office, etc. He brings up the work done to clear encampments. “It sounds simple ‘just clear them out’ – in the city, it’s not that simple, because of the political environment and the legal environment. … we have to follow a proper step-by-step process and it’s time-consuming as heck, but (once we do) we get the people who need help, social services.”
York notes that the Community Police Team has two officers in this area right now but they hope to be getting a third back.
The nuisance-house neighbors say that they wish they could have found an FAQ that would tell them what to do about problems like this, and possibly even have access to knowing that police have been to their neighborhood recently, so they know that officers are on the case – “could we type in ‘house on 19th’ and see” – Lt. Smith says the followup visits don’t always generate new report numbers; the attendee says even if they did, it’s hard to follow.
York says the FAQ idea is a good one, noting that the City Attorney’s Office is redoing its website and that might be something for it.
Neighbors go on to talk about various other problems – including stolen shopping carts, and no prosecution, with store reps showing up. “Did the store owner follow up and want to charge them with a crime?” asked Lt. Smith. The neighbors didn’t know.
Now an attendee speaks up and says, some of these robberies are happening in the morning – is there a standard patrol that’s happening? Lt. Smith mentions that first watch, 3 am to noon, is the shortest-staffed time period. The attendee says a concern is that she can’t tell her teenage daughter, avoid a certain area – “it’s happening all over West Seattle.” Replies Lt. Smith: “It’s happening all over the city.” He also acknowledges that SPD is reactive – if a pattern erupts, they focus resources in a certain area. But by “the next meeting,” there might be a request for resources elsewhere, because the previous problem has been alleviated.
From the other side of the room: “The community is relying on you guys to protect them and come out to calls … I don’t live here, I work here, but like my community, I see a lot of you wanting to do something and not knowing what to do … how can you put out the word that this is a community to be reckoned with.” She says she teaches workshops on “how not to be a victim.”
“Our big thing is Block Watch,” Lt. Smith noted, and more discussion ensued about ways that neighbors can talk with each other.
So what’s being done about addressing the underlying causes? he was asked. What can be done about chronic offenders?
He didn’t have a pithy answer – but did recount a story from his days as a foot-beat officer, how a young offender changed his ways – “People change.”
Another man said that a civic-minded attitude can help. “In our neighborhood, I look around, and I don’t see anything for kids to do.” Somebody suggested that we put out a list of things for kids to do. (We actually do have listings on the calendar. The city-run community centers also have pamphlets full of listings.)
“Volunteer at a school,” suggested one person. “I don’t have time,” was the reply.
Someone else brought the conversation back around to “crime.” She said she’s seeing an increased presence on 21st SW, where she says she’s lived since childhood, but it’s “never been as bad as it is now … I’m really glad to see people here, because I’m not willing to just see it” (fall apart). She then asks a question about some of the side streets, such as Juneau and Brandon, and how she interacts with neighbors when she’s out for a walk. She said she has encountered some who saw suspicious behavior but didn’t report it. Then she mentions one neighbor’s report of what seems to be youth camping in a wetland area, “surrounding by electronics … that they probably didn’t buy.”
“It’s illegal to camp in Parks property,” said York.
The talk then came around to, the issue of seeing “suspicious” behavior, and when police can be called in and when they can’t. “If you take a picture of someone behaving suspiciously, what do you do with it?” asked one man. “Just walking down the street,” you can’t do much with that. “But if (the suspicious person) is putting a safe in the back of their car …”
He asked to clarify: So the Community Police Team officer would be the first point of contact about the suspicious behavior? Yes, said Lt. Smith, noting that the CPT officers on duty right now are Jon Flores and Erin Nicholson. (Find contact info for the CPT on the SPD website, here. Officer Nicholson is filling in this month for Officer Kiehn, per Lt. Smith.)
A woman then voiced hope that once arrested, convicted, and put behind bars, offenders would be trained so they could get jobs “and be a good person” when they get out. Lt. Smith agreed that “correctional” facilities don’t seem to be “correcting” anyone.
At that point, WSCPC president Richard Miller asked for ideas of topics to address at future meetings. Graffiti vandalism was mentioned – “a police perspective on the trends,” for example.
Another suggestion: How various departments/agencies work together on crime/safety issues, so that the public can better understand.
The WSCPC meets on third Tuesdays most months, 7 pm, Southwest Precinct.