Story by Tracy Record
Photos and video by Patrick Sand
West Seattle Blog co-publishers
Anger flared at times as a standing-room-only crowd filled the South Park Neighborhood Center last night to hear from, and talk with, city reps who declared themselves committed to community safety.
The meeting was requested by community members weary of dealing with issues from gunfire to garbage to squatters, and suggesting a “disconnect” between city words and community reality.
We recorded it all on video, which you can watch, unedited, below:
“I understand your issues well,” said Kathy Nyland, Department of Neighborhoods director – and Georgetown resident – opening and facilitating the meeting.
She thanked the crowd for its patience while the city got the meeting organized.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose district includes South Park, said its issues have been at the forefront since she took office but it’s clear “I need to do more. … It takes a lot of vigilance to address issues in this community and other communities that are difficult and complex.”
Herbold said a task force that has been working on South Park issues will bring forth recommendations “in about a month” as the council moves into its budgeting process.
Also at the meeting, at-large Councilmember Lorena González, who chairs the council’s Public Safety committee – “the woman with the juice” related to such issues, as Herbold described her. González said she has a special place in her heart for South Park because she lived there for two years before moving to West Seattle.
González said it’s vital for South Park to be livable and safe. She said she hopes that some work done in the Chinatown/International District area has set a precedence for that.
Nyland mentioned other city initiatives in the Duwamish Valley, and noted that her department has community-engagement coordinators, whose supervisor Frank Nam was at the meeting, along with community liaisons.
On the signature issue behind the meeting, public safety, three departments – Parks and Rec, Department of Construction and Inspection, and Seattle Police – all had high-level reps in attendance to talk about “what they’ve been doing in your neighborhood” before they answered attendees questions.
From Parks, recreation director Kelly Guy said they were asked for more hours at South Park Community Center and have dramatically increased those hours, with community visits increasing by 26 percent as a result. Fees also were cut for drop-in programs.
Guy also mentioned programs that are geared toward youth involvement and safety, with dozens of paid internships resulting. Parks also has shepherded certification programs that have brought youth certificates in specialties such as food-handling safety.
Another parks briefer, Cheryl Eastberg from the Facilities division, said they are working on a master plan with an eye toward future improvements at the Community Center, both on its grounds and for its interior.
Elsewhere in South Park, she said that Duwamish Waterway Park “has been going through a community-design phase,” with money being raised for improvements, and “there’s a new park property that’s been purchased next to the bridge” with the design process for a plaza starting next year.
The Parks-specific questions included how to request dog-park facilities (answer: find out more about that on this page). Second, how to find out what percentage of Parks funding is spent in South Park – Parks personnel said they can look into that. The third person suggested that the city look at equity when deciding on funding, and Councilmember Herbold said they already have policies for that, working to first address “those who have the least,” but agreed they need to evaluate whether they’re “walking the talk.” Councilmember González added that a “gap analysis” for the neighborhood might be merited, to see if they’re making the proper investments for livability, walkability, etc.
One more Parks question: What’s up with the Marra Farm plan, since “there’s not been much happening over there”? Parks’ Eastberg said that stormwater-management decisions were holding (the plan) up but it’s set to be built next winter and spring.
Next up, SPD. A major impetus for the meeting was an increase in shots-fired issues and vandalism targeting local businesses.
“South Park is very very important to us,” said Deputy Chief Carmen Best.
She said in addition to wanting to make sure everyone is safe, that includes wanting everyone to feel comfortable reporting crime, and reiterated the policy of not checking immigration status. (That drew applause.) She says SPD has hired youth from the area over the summer. “We are all in this together – this is about all of us – our city, our neighborhoods, our people, and we’re invested in it.” She said the department “has a strong commitment to making sure that this community is safe.”
Next to speak from SPD, Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis. He said he appreciates the community “hold(ing) our feet to the fire – and we’ve gotten singed.”
He said they’re working on shots-fired issues, explaining they are often linked to gang activity, as well as property crime. “Our numbers are quite low at this point in time,” he said, while other SPD reps handed out printouts of maps and stats. (You can look up the latest info here.) Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the numbers don’t tell the full story of what’s happening in neighborhoods, “and if we’re not hitting the mark, I want to hear about it,” he said.
Capt. Davis mentioned the precinct’s full-time bicycle squad, which has been in operation for a few months now, with six full-time officers, supervised by a full-time sergeant, “and that resource, I can put anywhere.” He says they’ve spent “a lot” of time in South Park. He said he welcomes suggestions of where they can do the most good. He also mentioned the “more covert” Anti-Crime Team, whose activities he can’t say much about, but “when we have something that we can report,” they will, he promised. Gunfire cases are being addressed by regional task forces, he said (this too has been mentioned at past community meetings at the precinct). He said those issues have mostly “subsided,” though there continue to be “certain problematic houses here in the South Park area,” being addressed by SDCI as well as by police. He said they’ve also been working to get overtime resources for hot spots. Overall, though, he reiterated, crime is down (a contention that drew loudly and profanely expressed disbelief from some in the crowd).
Nyland acknowledged that “stats might not make you feel better.”
Questions for SPD: “Up the hill at Arrowhead Gardens, can anyone fill us in on what’s been going on with the RVs? A lot of the people who live there are women, and they have animals, and they have to take them out …” Capt. Davis said the department’s Navigation Team – tasked with handling homelessness-related issues – is dealing with “a lot of the RVs” but said that campers come back once cleared out. He said there are “emphasis patrols” in that area.
The next questioner said he’s been in South Park since 1992, next to Concord International School. He said he’s been broken into, threatened, been shot at. “I’ve called the Seattle Police Department, and you’ve responded very late, and never taken reports. I think this is unacceptable.” Capt. Davis says he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Someone else in the room says that some officers respond acceptably, some do not. The man says that “a lot of displaced people” is part of the problem, and many people have nowhere to live, are living on the slope over 509, and “are feeding on this neighborhood and destroying it.” He went on to say that he never sees patrolling.
Chief Best at that point said they’d like to hear what everyone has to say, so people were invited to ask questions, with answers to be provided after those questions were all asked.
The next person said there’s a problem with “arrest and release” and she knows how quickly it happens. “That’s a major problem in this city and it needs to be addressed …hours later just putting them back on the city.” She also said, “The group that’s on Myers Way now is beyond despicable .. there’s a motor home with more things sitting outside it than I have in a 750-square-foot residence … it’s just sitting out there.” Nyland promised that SPD and the Human Services Department could follow up on that.
Next, an Arrowhead Gardens person who said “the gunshots are increasing” along Myers Way.
Then: “I understand the Fire Department will always have full staff. You guys – if there are (supposed to be) 15 people on staff, do you always have (that number) or are there people gone, on vacations … Does the City Council provide (SPD) with the ability to come with the amount of people you should have on staff?”
Then, a concern about community trust, and getting to know people in the community so that the trust level really does exist.
Next: A woman who said that there was a murder in her alley and it needs to be more accessible to police.
And then, a question about how police and Parks are working together to address safety issues in public places, which “in South Park seem to be more of the center of criminal activity” – he mentioned an area by the bridge that he said is overrun with everything from gunfire to prostitution to drug activity. “What’s being done to ensure that safety is built into (new) public spaces” too?
Then, the responses:
Chief Best said that working on the “intersection of public health, addiction, homelessness” is frustrating, and brought up the Navigation Team again because “the issue is not just here, it’s across the city, and we’re working on it … it’s not going to change overnight … and quite frankly, it’s not just in Seattle.” She added, “We’re as frustrated as anyone. … We don’t have answers; if we did, it would be fixed already.” About the trust issue, she lauded those present for showing their trust and caring just by being there, and stressed the concept of community partnership. About staffing, she said there is a minimum level to which they can get before they have to bring in backup.
With more staffing questions from the back of the room, Assistant Chief Steve Wilske – who hadn’t spoken during the initial presentations – explained the sectors in the Precinct and said that if they have people out sick or other reasons that lead to them dropping below minimum allowable staffing, he’ll bring people in on overtime.
Chief Wilske (at left in photo above) – a past SW Precinct commander – said precincts also have an overtime budget they can use for particular reasons – the recent vandalism rampage in South Park, busy nights on Alki, etc. He also mentioned the fulltime pair of officers that works proactively – not responding to 911 – and said it’s one of five in the city doing that.
A woman then said she had called police about living near a meth dealer who she said frequently beat his girlfriend, and despite the fact she had called police and had a beating on video, an officer refused to take a report – “so your statistics don’t mean anything and we have to live with (the violence) … there’s a huge disconnect between what you’re saying here and what’s happening in our community.”
Chief Wilske said he would follow up on any specific incident brought to his attention. The woman said she doesn’t want to follow up on something that happened – she wants him to talk to officers so they’ll behave appropriately. Wilske continued to say that if there’s a problem, he wants to hear about it – “I check my e-mail seven days a week – I will check the in-car video,” and whatever else it takes to find out what happened. “If you call 911 and don’t get the response that you want, it’s my job to fix it.”
“I have sent so many f-ing e-mails!” yelled the man who had previously complained about police response.
Nyland tried to intervene at that point, saying this was an issue of customer service.
“When it’s violence, it’s not customer service!” protested the woman who mentioned the assault.
At that point, Nyland turned the meeting over to the final department that was supposed to present, Department of Construction and Inspections, whose jurisdiction includes code violations on private property. “You’re diverting the conversation!” protested one man.
Nathan Torgelson nonetheless took the microphone and explained his department’s role in “code compliance” – “we’ve seen a lot of issues in this neighborhood,” he said, explaining that issues could be overgrown vegetation, junk storage, and more.
(Photo from December 2016 walking tour of nuisance houses, led by community advocate Jeff Hayes)
SDCI inspector Faith Lumsden said she had hoped to be able to say “we’ve seen a lot of progress in South Park,” but she couldn’t – “we’ve seen SOME progress.” One person had mentioned properties owned by one owner, and most had been cleaned up – “that took a lot of effort; we’ve been in a lawsuit with a prior owner for a lot of time.”
She also mentioned the 14th/Cloverdale south side properties purchased earlier in the year by a group including West Seattle’s John Bennett (who was among the ~150 at the meeting).
She said there was a court order to clean a house where human waste had accumulated openly, twice, “but it doesn’t last long” – they’ve also had a court order to vacate the house and board it up – “I don’t think the city has ever done that in a circumstance like that” and they have to strategize how to do that, and how to find someplace where the woman who lives there can go, “not the park …” That will take “some amount of time,” she said. She also acknowledged issues with a vacant house that has caught fire, “and we have not done very much with that piece of property,” yet, though “we are working on it” and she expects an order “to get that structure torn down … I don’t know if the property owner will do that,” and more likely, they’ll have to go to court, and eventually hire a contractor to get it torn down. “We are working … we are probably slightly more proactive in South Park than we are in other parts of the city … some of these properties are all related … we’re working on it.” She invited people to share addresses of trouble spots and expressed some optimism that “it’s going to get better.”
One woman subsequently urged everyone to use Find It, Fix It, to report problems, saying it’s “really effective” and she always gets responses to what she submits through it. A man who spoke next wondered how the various departments are coordinating for a “unified response” to safety issues in South Park. Nyland said something like this very meeting is one part of that response – she said about 10 city departments are responded here. She also mentioned that the community-engagement coordinators can help by being the “eyes and ears” helping surface issues to the city – for this area, Yun Pitre now has that role.
Nyland also insisted that “this is just the beginning of the conversation … to let you know, we hear you.”
The next questioner wondered what’s the best way to report a recurring problem …like a peeper she says she sees over and over again. Capt. Davis said 911 is the way to report. She said she did the first time. “Did an officer come out?” “I told them they didn’t have to … it was 2 o’clock in the morning …” She then said she thinks she sees him breaking into houses. Call 911, reiterated the captain – and Chief Best underscored that, too.
Next question: If a question is surfaced – is there an audit trail, to figure out what happens with it? A complaint to SDCI would create a case, for example, was the response – you can give your name or remain anonymous. For SPD, if you have a problem, again, 911 is the number to call if it’s happening now. For Parks, you can call, and they will route you to the right person. For Neighborhoods, they are hoping to get a tracking system from IT in the next few years. Meantime, they are looking into making Find It Fix It available in more languages – and making videos to show how it works. Councilmember Herbold said when her office is contacted about issues, they have a technology system – customer-relations management – “and what that allows me to do is take your complaint, help them put it in their system, and we have a system to (check back) if we haven’t heard back in a certain amount of time.” And they CC constituents on the e-mails so they can see that the councilmembers’ staff is checking back. “We’re kind of building it as we go.”
8:30 arrived and Nyland acknowledged that’s when the meeting was supposed to end, promising that “This is not the only meeting – Department of Neighborhoods is going to come back with many of the departments we’ve talked about and many of the resources that will get to solutions – we’ve heard a lot of things – we’re going to send out the meetings, send out the questions we’ve heard, follow up with answers – “You’re going to get tired of our faces.”
South Park community advocate Paulina Lopez had words of caution, saying she remembered a similar event in 2005 – but “we are still having the same conversations.”
Nyland said that her meeting preparation had brought up no fewer than four past “action agendas,” so now, she suggested, “let’s focus less on the agenda and more on the action.”