By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Outside of 911 calls when there’s trouble – what resources can police offer you to address chronic crime/safety problems?
A primer of sorts was presented at Tuesday night’s Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Coalition meeting, led by co-chair Kim Barnes.
The discussion started with Joe Everett, who is the (relatively) new City Attorney’s Office liaison to the Southwest Precinct. He explained that the position is meant to “address chronic problems as they are emerging … before they turn into really big incidents.”
The precinct liaison program was founded in 1995 and at the time, the attorneys were based downtown, but “over time, thanks to some federal grants, we moved out to the precincts,” and now the program is fully funded by city funds – with one liaison for each of the five precincts, which is also new; for a while South and Southwest Precincts shared a liaison, but as of last week, each precinct has its own liaison.
When there’s a problem, they work to “bring everyone to the table.” Day to day, he provides “proactive advice” to SPD as needed; he mentioned a recent case of a disturbance where a tow-truck operator hired to repossess a car “came into contact with a car owner who didn’t want to give up their car” and so he helped sort out “who needed to back down.” He also gets other agencies involved “when appropriate”; he also litigates code violations if a property turns into a nuisance and the city has to go to court. “And it’s my job to facilitate communications … if you have a problem in the community and you’re not sure who to call …” call him and he’ll do his best to put you in touch with who you need to contact.
On a larger sale, he mentioned some problem properties in South Park, a situation in which SPD and the Department of Construction and Inspections worked together, with the City Attorney’s Office; the property ended up getting boarded up and sold, and it will be torn down and replaced with multifamily units in the next year or so, Everett said. A specific ordinance covers nuisance properties, he explained, and a particular frequency of violations has to be documented before, for example, SPD can declare it to be such. That “triggers a duty for the property owner to work with the city to do something about it.”
What about foreclosed properties? Community Police Team Officer John O’Neil said that requires a little more of a process. They made contact with the bank that owned a nuisance property, for example, “and we were successful.” The process, he explained, is that first they get a complaint – maybe a house with squatters – and they have to contact the owner, which can be difficult. “Officers cannot just go in and remove them without legal authority … once we get a hold of the owner, we try to get them signed up for the trespass program.”
Operations Lt. Ron Smith picked up, “Especially if it’s a nuisance property and someone’s residing there, it can take a long, long time” – it took three years in one case. “Just because you’ve identified a nuisance property and can articulate (the violations), doesn’t mean it’s going to happen overnight. It frustrates the community and also frustrates us, but that’s the rules … we can’t go beyond the scope of our authority in clearing it up.”
An attendee noted that when it comes to rental properties that are nuisances, it seems to give the landlord impetus to get the problem tenant out and get the property fixed up, maybe even sold.
Another attendee mentioned a problem property and said, so if he calls it in, is that something they can look into? (Turned out that the house he was asking about is already on SPD’s radar.) Some neighbors are concerned about retaliation in cases like this, if they report something, it was acknowledged.
Everett noted that in most cases, you can find out via the SDCI website if there’s already a complaint/enforcement action in process. He also warned that a call to him doesn’t guarantee he can “go out and make it all better,” but he’ll do what he can. He also recommended the Find It, Fix It app (everyone at the meeting was familiar with it already).
Next, SW Precinct Crime Prevention Coordinator Jennifer Burbridge spoke, saying her job involved safety/security assessments and serving as “a civilian liaison between the community and the police.” She also helps facilitate and maintain Block Watches – and they all work differently, she noted, some with online groups where they are in constant communication, some with handwritten notes and postal mail that might arrive monthly. Contact her if you have questions – email@example.com.
She mentioned Block Watch signage – the city doesn’t buy or install them, though, that’s up to you, but they’re usually relatively inexpensive. “If anyone doesn’t have a Block Watch program, I highly recommend it,” said Barnes. She also said she wished the non-emergency SPD number had more resources. Burbridge explained that there are several ways around that – for example (as we’ve often reported is said during community meetings) just call 911 and let them decide how to prioritize your call, since the call-takers are all the same. Or, maybe what you’re reporting can be reported online (for example, an overnight car prowl with little to nothing taken).
Lt. Smith noted that officers are not dispatched from the precinct, so don’t call there to get an officer – call 911!
If you have a chronic problem to discuss, you can contact the Community Police Team, Officer O’Neil said, but ultimately they have to determine the best way to deal with it; Lt. Smith said they’ll discuss a situation before figuring out how to “triage what our response should be.”
CRIME STATS AND WESTWOOD VILLAGE EMPHASIS: All crime in West Seattle is down 6 percent – property crime down 5 percent – in the past month, Lt. Smith said. In the neighborhoods covered by WWRHAH, it’s down about 2 percent. One big drop – residential burglary is down by 41 percent, 46 incidents this past month compared to 78 in the same time a month earlier. Car prowls are down 34 percent, and motor-vehicle theft is down 18 percent. There was one street robbery, same as a year earlier. Commercial robbery was up 42 percent – often “shoplifting gone bad” (turned violent), he explained. Larceny/theft is up even more, but mostly because of a doubling of the shoplifting rate.
They’re continuing to focus on Westwood Village because what happens there has so much effect on the surrounding neighborhoods. CPT Officer O’Neil explained that he had met with the property manager and the new head of security at the shopping center, talked about their in-house security, their action plans. They also met with stores’ management, with nearby schools, and they are dealing with nearby RVs, coming up with a plan so that each individual business can address and help “bring down these numbers here.” The new “no panhandling” signs have helped too, he said. There’s a new WWV parking space for the Mobile Precinct, “and that’s a visible deterrent, especially in the holiday season. … Our command staff is committed, that we’re going to attack these issues.” The mobile precinct is there most days.
Everett said Rite-Aid is getting around to installing locked liquor cabinets, which should dramatically deter shoplifting.
Lt. Smith said they’re also talking with the county about dealing with Metro fare evasion – to cut down on people traveling over here that might be up to no good once they “get to the end of the route (and are) dumped out … without any money … what are they gonna do?”
The Larceny Action Plan also features “emphasis patrols,” and Lt. Smith said that downtown has given the SW Precinct a little bit of overtime to deal with Westwood/Roxhill problems. They’ve also made at least three auto-theft arrests at Westwood. And with the population growing, “we’re hoping to get more officers,” he said, but every precinct is making the same request, and it still takes a long time to get an officer hired, trained, and ready to hit the street – 9 1/2 months, generally.
The precinct also got funding for 50 warning signs in vulnerable-to-car-prowl areas; Burbridge said about 18 of them have been distributed so far.
About RVs – they tow more cars than RVs, police noted. And they don’t just show up and tow – “we offer (the vehicles’ residents) services … lots of options, lots of warning.” That’s city policy. “We’re not just kicking the door and yanking them out of their home on wheels.”
O’Neil mentioned the commercial, industrial, residential zone differentiations – and “we learned recently that there’s a large area of residential where they’re not supposed to be parked between midnight and 6 am if they’re over 80 inches … we’re trying to enforce the best we can with what we have.” Officer Todd Wiebke remains the main precinct point person on homelessness-related issues.
Also regarding RVs, we’re supposed to put a 24-hour sticker on them, said Lt. Smith, “but no one’s ever seen a 24-hour sticker … it’s just one of these things that was on the books. It’s a learning curve for us .. we’re trying to catch up with them.”
Regarding needles, Burbridge mentioned the recently announced city program – which we wrote about here.
About child-luring cases, Officer O’Neil said, please call in if there’s “even a perceived threat.” He mentioned recently reported cases of students being followed off buses – we reported one two weeks ago when local schools sent a letter to families.
What about suspicious people just standing around watching the playground? asked one attendee. Yes, police say, they can make a “social contact,” but if there’s no crime being committed, they can’t go beyond that. “Often times, though, just by doing that … if they’re thinking about doing bad things, they’re probably just going to move on.”
Burbridge added that if you call something in, “be very explicit about what you’re reporting … I often say ‘a person’s not suspicious, behavior is’.”
Don’t be afraid to call, ever, said Lt. Smith. And keep in mind that only a small percentage of what police deal with turns out to be criminal.
He also went over the latest stats on shots-fired incidents. West Seattle has 59 so far this year, “a little less than last year.” That number includes both non-injury incidents and two murders – the unsolved-to-date May shooting at Alki and the September Westwood shooting (in which two people have been charged). “A lot of the shots-fired right now involved Rainier Valley vs. West Seattle groups, (or) South King County gangs vs. South Park or parts of West Seattle.”
(For full shots-fired stats citywide, see page 3 of this recent SeaStat slide deck.)
The action plan for shots-fired incidents was shown as including “dedicated aggressive directed emphasis patrols, heavily patroling the areas where incidents occur, additional violence prevention emphasis patrols primarily on weekends and adjusted to meet the shots-fired events, assistance from gang unit/SWAT, directed patrol emphasis car working in the area of the shots-fired incidents, emphasis on collecting evidence, and suspect identification. ”
Every Monday and Thursday, Lt. Smith is on a Skype call sharing regional information about such calls.
ANNOUNCEMENTS: The meeting was running out of time – its site, Southwest Library, requires the meeting room to clear out at 7:45, since the library closes at 8 – so Barnes recapped some quick notes:
-Transit hub lighting still on the way (as reported here)
-Stormwater and Roxhill Bog – Rory Denovan said that Willard Brown of DNDA is working to set up a meeting with SPU about stormwater issues and Roxhill Bog; he mentioned the peat fire four weeks ago and the digging that had to be done – “we need to expedite efforts to get the bog fully restored.”
-Walkway project restored, as announced by SDOT that afternoon
-New website, to be configured more toward resources and information, which will be built out “more robustly” – wwrhah.org
The Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Coalition meets first Tuesdays most months, 6:15 pm, upstairs at Southwest Library (9010 35th SW).