By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Auto theft has “skyrocketed” in the Southwest Precinct area lately, police acknowledged toward the start of last night’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting.
Operations Lt. Ron Smith presented the crime-trends update, after the 15+ attendees were greeted briefly by newly appointed precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis (standing in top photo), who declared himself “glad to be back” while also explaining he’s still “catching up.”
Lt. Smith said the jump in auto thefts is due in part to “a pattern we’re seeing – vehicles are being stolen from elsewhere and dumped here in West Seattle, so we’re having an increased recovery rate here- or, they’re being taken here and dumped in South King County.” with 19 incidents in the preceding week. They’re hopeful the rate will be dropping with recent arrests and the identification of four other potential suspects.
He also said street robberies are back to their average – 3 per week – after the spike earlier this year. The added bicycles are on patrol now, he said, but priorities remain the mandatory 911 levels, so you might not always see 2 bicycle-riding officers per sector if staffing does not allow. “We’re trying to modify our staffing to get the maximum return,” he said. Car prowls are trending downward, as are non-residential burglaries – one in the past week – residential burglaries are currently averaging about 3 per week, less than half the usual rate. “Auto thefts have skyrocketed – there’s 19 vehicle thefts in the past week – but after the recent arrest of juvenile suspects, the rate started going down again, even though they are “not certain they’re (responsible for all).” Four other suspects have been ID’d, said Lt. Smith.
Then came Q/A on community concerns, before the night’s featured guest:
An Arbor Heights resident mentioned a “marked increase in crime where she lives” and wondered “why?” and “what can we do about it?” Lt. Smith replied that “it’s a trend” but they are still working to verify the pattern, while “working to apply additional resources … hopefully you’ll notice an increase in the amount of officers.” The recent local auto-theft arrestees “had shaved keys – so these are not amateurs,” he said. He added that the auto thefts themselves are generally not the only crimes the thieves are committing. Asked by another attendee if the suspects were still in custody, Lt. Smith said he didn’t know – and pointed out, that’s not a decision the police are able to make; it’s up to judges. If they’re adults, precinct liaison Matthew York pointed out, you can check the jail register. (In this particular case though, the suspects are juveniles.)
WSCPC president Richard Miller asked about someone who was knocked down by a skateboarder at Westwood Village. Lt. Smith said warm weather will bring an increase in activity in general at the shopping center, and those kind of clashes might happen.
A nuisance house in South Park – on South Donovan – is being abated, said Community Police Team Officer Jon Kiehn, something they’ve been working on for a long time. Officer Kiehn reminded everyone of the power of Block Watches – catching one suspect might solve 20 to 30 crimes. Lt. Smith reminded everyone that “proper procedures” have to be followed, however – frustrating as it might seem. “But if we apply enough energy and resources, it can get done … if you see a problem, you have to tell us.”
CITY ATTORNEY PETE HOLMES: The meeting’s featured guest was the elected City Attorney, Pete Holmes, who pointed out that some things “offloaded” onto police need to be handled elsewhere – “and that’s where we come in.”
He talked about his background including 30 years as a lawyer, with this his “dream job … actually using the law as it’s intended, to promote public good, make the city a better place to live.” He has been in Seattle for 30 years, and both his kids “are native,” he said.
His office’s staff includes 100 lawyers, and its divisions include civil, criminal, precinct liaisons, administration: “Compared to a private law firm, we’re extremely lean,” Holmes said. “Our 100 lawyers work at considerably less per hour than any private law firm can supply – and yet that’s what we are for the city, its private law firm.” He said the criminal division has just moved into Columbia Center, and now the entire department is in one building, after historically being spread among up to four.
In the criminal department, all the misdemeanors in the city are handled by the City Attorney’s Office, while the felonies are handled by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (that includes all drug crimes, he noted). “SPD is our largest client,” he added. It is his department’s job to defend the city and its employees, and the City Attorney’s Office has “slashed” the amount of judgments paid out, he continued.
That side note took a side turn into the issue of public-disclosure requests, and the laws requiring them to be granted. Holmes allowed that it would be easy to spend an entire meeting on public-records laws, describing himself as a “wonky lawyer” who loves to discuss such things. Side discussions included the privacy rights of domestic-violence victims; that springboarded to another mention of privacy laws. “Domestic violence is a huge issue for us,” said Holmes, mentioning how cases proceed through his department and are intended to lead to “a change in behaviors. … I’d like us to handle DUIs and assaults” in the same way, he said, maybe something for the longer term.
Explaining what the precinct liaison does, Matthew York, who holds that position for the Southwest and South Precincts, listed a variety of areas – nuisance houses, animal issues, sometimes “the most random things you can think about, things I never thought I’d have to be expert in” – while he’s not there to “be your attorney,” they try to help resolve disputes – particularly ones that relate to public safety, as Holmes noted. The subsequent slide with a list of what precinct liaisons do went all the way to “hookah bars,” gang activity, park issues, forfeitures, trespass, encampments, prostitution, nightlife, more.
Listed on a slide of the office’s priorities: Race & Social Justice Initiative, Driving Under the Influence, Mental Health Reform, Domestic Violence, Prostituted People/Sex Buyers, Code Compliance, Police Reform, Drug Policy (Marijuana) Reform.
Regarding DUI, York noted that the City Attorney’s Office has “taken a lead in legislative reform of DUI” – suggestions he said he made years ago are now becoming law, “several things that have made it easier to get the story to the jury, (the story of) what happened,” and changes regarding sentencing.
Holmes also touched on laws regarding mental health, and the process of restoring competency for mentally ill defendants – treating them so they can be determined competent to make a plea or stand trial – and how he and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg had been campaigning for mental-health money to be spent on other things.
Marijuana had been billed as one of the focus topics of the night. What about smoking marijuana in public? Holmes was asked. He mentioned Senate Bill 5052, to combine “the unregulated medical marijuana market with the regulated 502 market,” and said “that will go a long way toward dealing with what we all knew would be a transition period” toward a legal market. “We believe that youth access, cultural norms around where to use it, will follow in time,” including 502’s prohibition on smoking in public.
Most of the problems right now, Holmes said, focus on what he called illegal storefronts and open-air drug markets: “The city has to step up and do more enforcement, especially as illegal supply steps up – there are fewer and fewer excuses for people to patronize their corner dealer or get a marijuana card when they didn’t really have a condition to qualify … it’s going to take time.”
Questions on other topics:
So if neighbors sued the city over, say, a DPD decision, the City Attorney’s Office would be defending the city? Holmes was asked. He said yes, but they try to advise the city so that it doesn’t get to an adversarial point in the first place.
He also talked about working toward operational efficiencies.
“Who do you answer to?” asked one attendee.
“You,” Holmes replied. “I’ll be up again [for re-election] in 2017.”
The discussion also turned to what Community Police Team officers can do – and Lt. Smith noted that this is the only precinct in the city where the number of CPT officers went up. He said he’d like to have twice as many if he could.
Holmes mentioned the case of the Sisley property in Roosevelt and how neighbors’ reports of problems were what it really took to bring millions of dollars in judgments against the owner.
“What the public did was call those numbers – DPD had complaints mounting, and mounting – sending inspectors out – drug use was going on at these abandoned homes … DPD would issue Notices of Violations and those would come to my office … What we did, was try to resolve it as best we can … (one at a time) … Finally we said, we’re not compromising any more with him, he has to pay every nickel of every judgment – Then about a year ago, he finally got it, when he wanted to give one of his properties to his daughter and (the city had a lien on it) .. we said, ‘you can (free it) by writing a check for $3 million’ …” The City Attorney’s Office had to figure out how he was “gaming the system” and how to make it more expensive for him to ignore the law than to comply with it.
WHO WAS THERE? In addition to police and City Attorney’s Office personnel, about 15 attendees were on hand, listing their neighborhoods as Arbor Heights, Morgan Junction, Puget Ridge, South Delridge, Gatewood, Westwood, Highland Park. Aside from its board members, the WSCPC is not a membership group – anyone from any neighborhood can show up and participate, or just listen/observe.
NEXT MEETING: WSCPC meets on third Tuesdays, 7 pm, at the precinct, so the next meeting will be May 19th.