By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Frustrated Puget Ridge residents came to the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting tonight to ask Southwest Precinct police what they’re doing about the gunfire problem plaguing their neighborhood.
First – the monthly crime-trends briefing:
“Our criminal element is alive and kickin’,” as is unfortunately usual in the warmer months, began Capt. Pierre Davis, Southwest Precinct commander. “Right now, the crime du jour is car prowls, up all over the city, and our regional partners are having the same type of issues.” In some areas, it’s doubled. Highland Park, Morgan Junction are getting the biggest increases right now.
He mentioned a spike in drug use, “and a lot of that activity is driving the car-prowl increase right now.”
He also said a reduction in theft is expected because encampments are getting closed by Community Police Team officers, including “in the woods.” Overall, regarding the theft/prowl problem, “We’re also putting just about everything that we have to bear against this,” including plainclothes officers. They are trying to “bird-dog prolific offenders that are out there … we just gotta keep at it. With the situation right now, we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem” – treatment for the drug users is important too. He says they’re talking with the police chief and mayor regarding strategy.
At the same time, he said, people tend to leave windows open in warm weather and “that invites thieves to climb in and steal your stuff,” though residential burglaries are in “something of a lull right now,” he said, but might not be for long. Be careful not to leave the house with windows open. Do pay attention to tips on preventing burglaries and car prowls, he said, distributing a flyer.
Contact police if you see something, including “problem locations” — and when you do, “articulate fully what you are seeing,” Capt. Davis explained, in response to an attendee saying “what if all you are seeing is people coming and going?”
Operations Lt. Ron Smith clarified that if it’s a situation happening right now, call 911, which at least “puts up a record” of the situation. “Lincoln Park is a hot spot too,” he noted. It’s a draw – and a hot spot for car prowls. “Let’s say, if there are less targets for these car prowlers, they’re probably going to skip your neighborhood … we can’t just leave things around [in cars] like in the past.” He recalled a recent WSCPC speaker noting that car prowlers might hit 15-25 targets a night.
If they get reports, they’ll know where to put resources, Capt. Davis said.
He was asked for further clarification of when to call 911 and when not to. Again, the answer is to articulate what you’re seeing and what you think is going on – you think someone is casing a house, for example. Lt. Davis added, they need a “reasonable suspicion” in order to stop someone – maybe it’s 1:30 am and someone’s walking around with a flashlight. Or you’re at Westcrest Park and someone without a dog is walking around by cars. Maybe later people find their cars have been broken into, but no one called, though later they think, “I saw someone, I knew he was up to no good” … but they didn’t call. Call, Lt. Smith stressed. “Someone’s gotta tell us … we’re not there all the time.”
If you’re talking about something that you see repeatedly in an area, that’s a matter for the Community Police Team, for example, a chronic problem.
An attendee brought up a nuisance house in Upper Morgan where activity seems to rev up late every night. “Is that someone you call 911 about?” One neighbor, another attendee elaborated, is afraid to call because they’re afraid of retribution. But they also feel they can’t call 911 because they don’t see anything overtly illegal. She told her story and Capt. Davis said it definitely sounded like “something weird” was going on. She also mentioned having talked to a CPT officer some months back; the activity ebbed, and then resurged, she said. Capt. Davis pointed her to another CPT officer in attendance at the meeting.
Another attendee asked about the fear of retaliation and what police could say about that fear. “When you have sessions like this, we don’t tell people ‘your neighbor across the street said so and so’ – if you call 911, you can keep your name completely anonymous.” But if they get someone convicted, and they are up for sentencing, Capt. Davis said, it’s important to have community members speak up and say they object to that person being released – “judges really listen to that,” he said.
“If they have a scanner, do they hear the information (officers get)?” asked an attendee.
“No,” said Capt. Davis. Lt. Smith elaborated that information is usually sent to officers’ computer terminals – not said over the air, beyond the initial dispatch to an address.
Here’s where the Puget Ridge gunfire discussion began, continuing for most of the rest of the meeting.
A resident asked: “Is there an increase reported to you beyond historically what’s been going on? And – is it associated with the car-prowl issue or a different issue?”
“Different issue,” said Capt. Davis. “And it’s also up twofold around the city. … We have noticed an increase here in West Seattle … pretty localized and usually surrounded by a house or individuals that are in question. … When it’s called in, we track every single gunshot incident there is … once it’s called into us, we put officers on it, if there’s shell casings or other evidence collected … in hopes of finding the catalyst … there’s some very good police work by officers in our precinct and (southeast Seattle).” He explained that sometimes the gunfire happens because someone sees someone they’re “beefing with.” Sometimes it depends on “who’s in jail and who’s not.”
Some people from other neighborhoods “bring it over here because they know someone over here …” and they are followed by other troublemakers, he said. “Our business is to put those troublemakers in jail … one thing will beget another, and a kite string of issues” will result. “Unfortunately good people get hurt, or their properties …”
So if we hear gunfire in the same location repeatedly, are those drive-by shootings? an attendee asked.
Not necessarily; the precinct leadership said some incidents include “just individuals getting their jollies popping off rounds.”
Another attendee mentioned a nexus of 16th, 18th, 21st that seems to have repeated problems, and graffiti vandalism now popping up that she feared meant people are “starting to stake their territory.” She said shots had been heard again earlier today. Capt. Davis stressed the importance of calling that in. Tagging could be a coincidence, or not, he said; they “read the graffiti that’s out there and try to identify the gangs that are involved.” The attendee said they had counted 18 nights of gunshots since the first of the year. “If it’s called in, officers are dispatched,” Capt. Davis reiterated. If they collect evidence, it will be checked for any links to other cases.
A frustrated Puget Ridge resident then mentioned having brought up the problems at the last meeting – gunfire and speeding vehicles. She said Capt. Davis had subsequently promised some specific information for the neighborhood but they had not received it, and that some neighbors were so unsettled they’ve been sleeping in their basement. “What do you actually know? Were there fingerprints on the bullets? Was the guy arrested on Delridge the same guy who shot into (a Puget Ridge) house? … We don’t know if they’re specifically trying to terrorize our neighborhood.”
“There’s no great big conspiracy over there that they’re trying to take over a specific neighborhood,” Davis responded. “We see a lot of individuals with propensity to (commit crimes),” so they’re trying to gather evidence that might lead to arrests.
The resident pressed further. “Are there detectives in our neighborhood? Are they hanging out? One night I saw some police cars. Give us some assurance.”
Capt. Davis then said he had ‘cruised” the neighborhood last weekend for more than 2 hours. And he said the Anti-Crime Team is working in the neighborhood. He was reminded: “It’s not just one street – it’s 16th, 18th, 21st.” Aside from some speeders, he said the neighborhood was mostly quiet the night he was there. “It’s after 11:30 pm” that it starts up, an attendee said.
Another woman identifying herself as a new resident with two sons said that the area has a great amount of neighborhood networking “and I’d like to see it grow.” But her question was whether the gang members “are people living in the neighborhood” – she mentioned a child’s playmate talking about “being a gangster.” She said she wasn’t advocating locking people up just for that, but wondered about “restorative justice” and getting more people involved in the community. Can they get involved with the Gang Unit? Can there be education? she wondered. “I’m concerned for my sons’ safety -” either via trouble with gang members, or by police officers mistaking them for gang members. Capt. Davis offered to put her in touch with the CPT and reiterated that “we’re not going to arrest our way out of this. … (but) there are some individuals out there (responsible) for the burglaries and the shootings … (who should be) put in jail, and hopefully there’s some treatment opportunities.”
“I’d like to know the police officers in our neighborhood … we should be working hand and hand … I’d like them to know my sons’ names,” the attendee said.
For the speeding problem, Lt. Smith suggested, they can probably get a signboard placed in the area. But they generally need to be in school zones.
“There are options we can explore,” added Capt. Davis.
Yet another attendee said he really wanted to be sure they understood the frustration and fear, but when he called 911, he wasn’t sure that they really cared. Capt. Davis then mentioned the work that’s had the operators in different quarters with fewer lines (as reported here) and how 911 operators work (as explained in WSB stories including this one) and what they are actually doing when you’re concerned they’re not paying attention to you. “But calling 911 is basically the bread and butter of what we do right now – think of it as a pin map, and every time an individual calls, there’s a pin on the map, and that’s information we desperately need.”
An attendee said that besides targeting the “bad guys,” they need to (help) the good guys, and he expressed concern about speed enforcement catching neighbors “just trying to get to work.” Capt. Davis said he understood that but “if the good guys are doing the same thing the bad guys are doing, 9 times out of 10 (in enforcement) they’re going to get caught too.”
From there, a conversation erupted regarding the speed humps in part of Puget Ridge. And before it devolved into too many side conversations, Capt. Davis said “that’s exactly why we have a forum like this” for conversation.
A longtime resident said that the area has never had problems like it has now but she’ll “be damned” if she’ll let that chase her out of her neighborhood. And whenever she sees police, she waves them down to say hello and thank them for being there.
They expressed a hope of getting ongoing information and organizing a smaller meeting – maybe even a “living room” conversation (here’s our coverage of one a few years ago). Capt. Davis invited Puget Ridge to send a representative to the Southwest Precinct Advisory Council meeting, which has representatives from other neighborhoods.
One last question: How long might it take for something like this to calm down? Depends on whether they arrest the people involved, but sometimes having a presence can make a difference too. “We really want to cycle down into what the catalyst for this is,” he said. “That’s where it takes all of us – when we have some of that information coming from you guys …” – via calling 911 – that helps.
CODE COMPLIANCE: Two people from the Department of Construction and Inspections were the special guests – they didn’t get the floor until 8:15 pm because of the intensity of the preceding discussion. “What we try to do is manage those little problems in your neighborhood that make your quality of life not so nice – there’s junk in the yard, (a neighbor) opened a car-repair business, they left their house open to entry and it’s a vacant house … We do enforcement of city codes.” In particular, they said, the Housing Code, Weeds and Vegetation, city codes relating to tenants, Land Use Code (zoning and “uses in places where they shouldn’t be”). Some of it may “sound mundane … but it can make a difference in your neighborhood.”
In 2014 they received 17,000 complaints; in 2015, 25,000 complaints. The list is topped by weeds, vacant buildings, and junk storage, and West Seattle brings the most complaints.
Is there a limit on tenants? asked one attendee. Yes, was the reply. The attendee went on to talk about vehicle problems, tall-growing grass bringing rodents – “they’re not keeping up with that, so what can we do about it?” Reply: “Call the city complaint line … for that sort of complaint, it would be probably about 10 days … Keeping inoperable vehicles is considered junk.”
In some cases, they said, they might need a court order. There’s no grass-height law, though. But if there’s a rat problem, King County Health might get involved; they mentioned a 7-unit building in the area that is “full of garbage” and is drawing county rat abatement but required a court order to get to that point. “The place is so bad that it has to just be torn down – we’re getting a court order to try to do that … when it gets to a health issue,” they might not have any choice.
85 percent of their cases are voluntarily complied with; another 10 percent, after a few warnings, they comply; then, 5 percent, they wind up going to court.
A complainant can remain anonymous, they said, or confidential, so that they do their best not to even release it on a public records request, though if the case eventually went to court, your name might become public.
Their first point of contact is always the owner, not the tenant, they said. But keep in mind – “this is a process; it may take 3 to 6 months.” She mentioned someone who has been building into the right of way for many years, but someone has only been complaining for the past few months, and since she has been working with him, he has not been cited so far.
Other questions included how many cars people can park on their property (depends on the type of property), whether you can pave a planting strip to turn it into a parking space – that’s an SDOT issue, they noted – what about a tree that seems in danger of falling onto an alley. “Alleys are tricky,” and that too is an SDOT issue – relating to the “right of way.”
What about graffiti? Seattle Public Utilities handles it on public property. But “if you think it’s gang-related always call police,” said Community Police Team Officer John O’Neil. He would respond, for example, and take photos. But they wouldn’t remove it – that’s up to the property owner.
One last topic – vacant buildings. There are guidelines for how they are supposed to be closed down – fitting the board to the window space, for example. “We’ve had a huge huge increase in buildings being broken into and occupied by squatters.” They work with CPTs to try to get people out, but sometimes it’s hard – she mentioned the former Seattle Times building downtown. “There were 100 people in that building. They’ve gotten through welds, they’ve gotten through metal plates, super persistent. We have 250 active vacant building cases. … A big problem now is all these development projects, people move out, (the developers) are trying to get their permits and they can sit vacant for a long long time.”
The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meets at 7 pm third Tuesdays of most months at the Southwest Precinct (2300 SW Webster).