By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It’s the neighborhood where West Seattle’s most-recent murder happened, the still-unsolved shooting death of Stephen Jeffries Jr. on New Year’s Eve 2013:
(WSB photo from April 2014 vigil)
It’s the neighborhood where drive-by gunfire hit at least one car during a rampage two months ago:
(WSB reader photo from April 2015)
And – as a result of those cases and more – South Delridge is a neighborhood where people are pleading for more police presence.
Residents from South Delridge made their case face-to-face with Southwest Precinct police on Tuesday night at this month’s Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council meeting. While they’re not in the boundaries that semi-new council has been serving, that was part of the point – since they are not affiliated with an existing community group, their area doesn’t have its own “micro-policing plan” … yet, though WWRHAH co-chair Amanda Kay Helmick pointed out she had added it as a priority in theirs.
More than two dozen people were in the upstairs meeting room at Southwest Library as neighbors told their stories and heard what police and other city representatives can and can’t do.
(From left, CPT Officers Kiehn and Flores, City Attorney’s Office liaison York, CPT Officer Nicholson)
SPD had four reps, including Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis and three of his four Community Police Team members, Officers Jon Flores, Jonathan Kiehn, and Erin Nicholson. Also there: Matthew York, SW and South Precincts’ liaison from the City Attorney’s Office, plus a representative from the city Department of Planning and Development.
Helmick opened by introducing a resident who brought a list of eight properties that he described as problematic for the neighborhood, with problems from squatters to drug use, and worse.
Two were described as “burned out”; one was mentioned as recently demolished. “Serious drug problems, serious homeless issues,” and no arrests, he said. “We have multiple properties with visible and open drug dealing going on,” as well, he said, as prostitution, shootings, stabbings, and a night of drive-by gunfire within the past few months. “Not having that pop up on any micropolicing plan is a problem.”
Another neighborhood resident talked about a “significant squatting problem” in the house that has since been demolished. “Whenever something happens, we’re just individually calling police, calling landlords, trying to tackle episodes as they happen, so we’re feeling a lot of frustration on inconsistency in responses we get or didn’t get.” She spoke about someone having sat in a truck, in some kind of physical distress, “twitching,” for hours, outside their houses. “We were worried about her, and called the police, and asked for an ambulance.” She tried talking to the woman, who apparently was waiting for someone on a nearby work crew. Police eventually came, she said, but they determined the woman wasn’t a danger to herself or others, and there was nothing they could do. “That’s one of many people who have been cruising through our neighborhood – heavy foot traffic – they look really bad, covered with sores, (suspicious) behavior, we’ve seen drug dealing.”
A third resident said, “The 7-11 is a huge issue.” She said she felt endangered by someone outside the store once and couldn’t get the store to call police for her. She echoed that the empty houses were a magnet for squatters and troublemakers, she said; the recently torn down house once had “25 or 30 pacing around (a neighbor) and I as we were talking to each other.” She walks to her car with her children and “it’s very unsettling.”
Another attendee talked about walking to White Center to dine or shop and seeing people at the bus stop, relieving themselves in public, or calling out to the residents and taunting them. “It’s really intimidating.” The bus stop itself was the scene of a shooting we covered on a rainy night two and a half years ago:
As the neighbors began discussing the situation with each other online and in e-mail, another explained, they started to realize that the troublemakers are connected. “These problem houses seem to be a symptom of the dysfunction we have, with a lot of drug dealing on top of that … I’ve started feeling a lot more unsafe, especially after the drive-by shooting … me and my wife were walking our dogs a few minutes earlier by that corner. These people know we’re watching them; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are armed.”
Helmick expressed outrage that people would have to be afraid to speak in public for fear they’re being watched.
Pulling from the Westwood-Highland Park neighborhood plan written more than a decade ago, the man seated next to her read that the concerns ranged from “maintain police presence” to preserving single-family housing. “The top three to five are still our top three to five.” Especially, he said, maintaining police presence is their main concern. And he mentioned the area has many small children, “who have everything to gain by good things happening in our neighborhood.”
That’s when Jeff Hayes from South Park spoke up. He said, “We are having the exact same experience that you are having up here – I wouldn’t change a word of what you are saying.” Hayes has been a community advocate for more police presence in SP to combat nuisance houses, open drug problems, etc.; he also organized last week’s “South Park Shows Up” candidate forum. He said he’s sorry to hear that South Delridge is going through problems akin to what’s plaguing South Park.
The South Delridge neighbors summarized: No micropolicing plan is written to address their concerns, so they want to know what SPD is doing to address them.
That’s when Capt. Davis got up and started by saying the problems aren’t new, but how SPD is addressing them now is. He says they are using data to create the community policing plans, but the data doesn’t always correlate to what people are saying – while a certain address might be described as the source of repeated problems, the SPD logs might not show many calls having been made about it. But they need those calls and complaints to get a true picture of what’s happening: “We try to get real precise in what we’re doing, almost surgical, in getting down to the main individuals who are committing these crimes.” Once they find and arrest those people, they make a dent in what’s going on.
“Just because your area is not described as a neighborhood per se, doesn’t mean that you don’t get the same level of policing,” Capt. Davis continued. “We want to attack this not only as a police problem and a neighborhood problem, but as a team.” That means, for example, they could bring Metro Transit Police into the bus-stop situation.
He also said that they can’t publicly discuss everything they are doing, including commenting on unsolved murders. Regarding nuisance houses (here are the city policies), he said that they can track down their owners but if they’re bank-owned properties, that’s tougher to address. “Sometimes we pull OUR hair out in frustration, trying to figure out how we can rid the community of (a) problem. … It takes all of us to get this thing going.”
CPT Officer Kiehn said it was important to note that the neighborhood-policing plan was initiated to gather information first, and then push information out. He reiterated what Capt. Davis had said, that people are not treated differently depending on whether they are part of a neighborhood or not.
Then things turned specific: One property that came up is in the 9200 block of 17th SW. Officer Kiehn said it’s been the target of suspicion for a while but police didn’t get specific complaints; DPD did, so they started working with that department and the property manager. Earlier this week, while police were there having the manager secure the house, Officer Kiehn said he’d seen two people come down the driveway – remember, this is supposed to be an unoccupied property – and an hour later, they got a report of people matching the description, squatting about a mile away: “We flushed them out of one house and the same day, they’re in another property.”
The challenges of dealing with vacant properties was subsequently described in great detail, including by York from the City Attorney’s Office, explaining that the property owner must confirm that the person in question is not supposed to be there: “An officer going by an abandoned property can’t just pull over” and make an arrest. A lot of properties are in foreclosure, and that makes “not supposed to be there” authority even harder to get, he said, as the owner and bank are often still “arguing.”
Some hope has arrived via a pilot program in which SPD can obtain trespass authority for vacant properties. The SW Precinct is the second in the city to participate; Officer Kiehn said that as of this week, eight houses in West Seattle/South Park are part of it.
So in the meantime, an attendee asked, how do you get attention for nuisance houses? When reporting problems via the city app Find It/Fix It was mentioned, he said he’s sent things in and never even received an acknowledgment. Well, then, call us, said the DPD rep; in some cases, if it’s a vacant house and no one is inside, they can get it boarded up in short order. (The DPD complaint hotline is 206-615-0808, by the way.)
Said York: “All we can promise you is effort.”
Helmick asked, what about squatters who are mentally ill or otherwise in crisis? We want to help them. York brought up the Crisis Intervention Team. “When you call 911, mention that it’s a mental health problem,” he said. Kiehn then offered the reminder that people have just as many constitutional rights when in crisis as people reporting them do, and officers have to follow the law.
One man asked about SPD’s understaffing, saying he’s called about problems and nobody arrived. “We are constantly hiring,” said Davis, “but we could still hire 300 or 400 more officers and not be where we want to be.” (Mayor Murray has promised 100 more during his term.) Hiring “takes a while,” Davis explained, especially in finding “very good candidates.”
Kiehn also said that some of the houses on the list have had zero reports to police – that piggybacked on what Capt. Davis had said earlier.
“If you see someone in crisis, call 911,” said York. He said the effectiveness of LEAD is still in question. “So far we’ve had one success story.” He mentioned programs in the City Attorney’s Office, including Community Court. Drug offenses are always felonies, but don’t often get prosecuted, though there’s Drug Court, he added. And he stressed that people “have to witness something, or an officer has to witness something,” they can’t just respond to “people are going in and out of a house.” But, he stressed, you still want to call 911 because it generates statistics, which drives plans, enforcement, etc. “We need better communication in both directions.” York said that the non-emergency line can be used to report graffiti vandalism and that does generate a statistic. (At this point, there was a bit of back-and-forth about who handles graffiti; the DPD rep pointed to Seattle Public Utilities, which handles public-property problems with it.)
“I’m not as concerned about the graffiti as about the gangs that go with it – instead of a ‘welcome to Highland Park’ sign, I’m seeing a (specific gang) tag,” said the neighbor at the front of the room. “The gangs and the shootings and the drugs and the foot traffic, that’s all connected.”
CPT Officer Nicholson told him that SPD had plans to meet with Metro this week at the aforementioned Delridge/Barton bus stop, along with the city’s Urban Forestry division, for a CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) evaluation, to see if the city can get Metro to make changes.
CPT Officer Kiehn said the house they cleared out a day earlier was home to some of the people causing trouble at the bus stop. “What we’re doing in South Park and here is shuffling them … we start the process over again (when they take over another property)… it takes a month, month and a half” to get authority to clear out some sites. That’s why, York said, they are trying to get the trespass program going, because then they can go right in and arrest trespassers: “Hopefully we’ll shuffle them faster than they can run, and they’ll start to think West Seattle is not a place to be.”
“I hope you guys feel better,” said Helmick as the meeting wrapped up. She also mentioned to the audience that Roxhill Park is an ongoing high priority too.
The South Delridge situation took up almost the entire meeting, except for these two items:
COUNCIL CANDIDATE: In the ongoing series of City Council District 1 candidates visiting neighborhood councils, WWRHAH heard from Shannon Braddock. They also heard from Pigeon Point Neighborhood Council‘s Pete Spalding, inviting them all to PPNC’s D-1 forum next Monday (June 8th), 7 pm at Pathfinder K-8‘s cafeteria (1901 SW Genesee).
UPDATING NEIGHBORHOOD PLANNING: Helmick and a neighborhood volunteer are working on the 2035 Comprehensive Plan update, particularly regarding the South Delridge area and its integration with the Westwood-Highland Park area that’s already in the city plans as an “urban village.”
The Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council meets first Tuesdays, 6:15 pm, Southwest Branch Library, and is online at wwrhah.org.