By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Street robberies remain a top crime concern for the Southwest Precinct.
That’s what attendees heard at this past week’s monthly meeting of the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council, which also featured a Q&A opportunity with a manager for the SPD 911 center.
The robbery trend has continued since the meeting – with officers dispatched to three more robbery reports this weekend, one in The Junction, one in North Delridge, one on Harbor Avenue. We have no details on the latter but we know the first was for a purse and the second for a phone, which is what police say most victims are being targeted for. Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis and operations Lt. Steve Strand told the WSCPC that more than two dozen such robberies had been reported since the start of the year, often teens robbing other teens.
One attendee then spoke up to identify herself as the mother of a victim of a phone robbery and assault.
The holdup in the Hiawatha Playfield area was one of two reported in the vicinity on the afternoon of March 1st, according to SPD online records. The mother who was at the meeting said her daughter had been assaulted during the robbery, with four girls attacking her. She said the school principal had not circulated word about it and she wondered whether there should have been wider notice about it. She asked Capt. Davis about that. He said that often they work in liaison with a school principal about putting out a message. He said he hadn’t heard from the principal but would usually hear from others inside the school district. “That would normally be protocol, to put a message about something like that out.” The attackers apparently were not students and there was another incident, the mom said. Capt. Davis said he would bring it to the attention of a district official. He also promised to follow up on the case itself. She said she had spoken to a detective earlier in the day. “What happens to (the suspects in a case like this)?” she also asked. “Normally they would do some time in juvenile detention,” said the captain.
The mom also mentioned that her daughter was threatened “just while walking along the sidewalk” several months ago.
Precinct liaison Joe Everett mentioned that if she is fearful of harassment, she could seek a protection order – assuming the suspect(s) are identified – and offered his card to the mom.
As much of her concern had to do with how the school was, or wasn’t, responding to what had happened, we followed up. Our inquiry to WSHS principal Brian Vance was forwarded to Seattle Public Schools media liaison Tim Robinson, who replied:
(L)etters are sent home to school communities when there is a determination that an event is widespread and/or impactful enough – or potentially impactful – that it may engender discussion between a student and the student’s family.
Not every circumstance that involves a student of a given school rises to the level of a principal or anyone else from SPS making the determination to send a letter home.
Principal Vance on 3/4/19 included the following in his regular communication to his school community:
“Safety Reminder: We are hearing reports of some property crimes happening in our neighborhood and in particular thefts of cell phones or air pods. I just want to remind parents to have conversations with their students about how to be smart and safe while off campus. A couple of these reports are from our students who had their cell phones or air pods stolen while off campus in the past few months. We are in close contact with Seattle Police and our district security around any reported incidents. Here are a couple of recommendations/reminders for students who are off campus before, during lunch or after school:
Keep cell phone and other electronics out of sight, including air pods.
Don’t walk by yourself when possible
Come back on campus or go into a store if you sense something is not right or you are not feeling safe.”
Back to the WSCPC meeting: Police say they believe a “ring” is responsible for at least some of the robberies. In both March 1st incidents, police reports say, the robbers used, or threatened to use, pepper spray.
In other police updates:
Property crimes (the classification does not include robbery, which is a violent crime) are down 23 percent year-to-year “but the year is still young. … we’re going to try our darnedest to break that cycle.” That includes bicycle teams and Anti-Crime Team (“our more-covert crew”).
Overall, though, the recent warm weather brought criminals out of hibernation, Capt. Davis reported. “Our criminal element has woken up quite a bit,” he began. “… But what’s more important to know is what we’re doing about it.” He mentioned the “series of emphasis patrols,” including a specific strategy focusing on property crimes. Tactics include “area saturation,” “targeted enforcement” (focused on “prolific offenders”) – that includes prosecuting as well as arresting – “public awareness” (such as bulletins from the precinct’s Crime Prevention Coordinator Jennifer Danner), “tracking the offenders post-arrest” (to see who’s out and who’s not), “tracking … repeat call locations” (trouble spots such as drug-selling locations where crimes are repeatedly reported to see “what kind of covert response we can have”).
911 Q&A: Brian Smith, SPD 911 manager, began with some context, first explaining they’ve made changes in the past few years. They were working in an old facility with old equipment. They started by remodeling the center, which gave them additional work positions, and studied the operation to learn that they needed 60 to 70 more people, beyond the ~112 they had at the time: “Anybody calling 911 during that time, you might have experienced a delay …”
Over the past two years, he said, the city has worked to resolve issues – ~148 employees right now, still about 20 lower than they need, but they’ve gotten to the point where they can answer most 911 calls within 10 seconds or less. The non-emergency line is down to a 1:15 wait time, from 2 minutes last year, and even higher in the past – much higher at times, Smith said.
So now they’re working on improving the “quality of service we provide.” In 2002 when he started, they had three supervisors; now their “supervisor pool” is 19, he said: “We monitor many of the phone calls that we receive.” He invited participants to ask questions, and noted that the police and fire department operate separate 911 centers. “We do things a little differently here … but we work very closely.”
When you call, be clear what kind of emergency you’re having. “The questions we have are very direct … we try to guide you through the call …” Let the person answering the phone control the call and walk you through what they need to know to get you help.
Asked about how to describe locations, given that West Seattle has so many parks and trails, Smith says they’re getting some location information from certain types of cell phones now, particularly last December’s iOS update – “this one was a game-changer for us” – older types, it’s not as focused. A side discussion resulted in what kind of information they get about VOIP phones and other technical points. They have other technical upgrades to do to be able to be fully digital and deal with data intake, Smith said. But – as announced last year – you can now text 911. They’re not able to accept photos yet but hoping that feature will be added soon.
Smith also mentioned that a 911 operator might ask what a caller is wearing and/or looks like so they can share that information with an officer responding to the scene. He was asked why callers are asked about the “race” of a person – as opposed to simply asking for the description – and the attendee suggested “911 do a little soul-searching and figure out how to ask the question better.” Smith explained why it’s important that they ask that question. Wouldn’t it be better, the questioner pressed, if they asked for the person’s skin color or some other way of identifying? “Don’t use the word race.” Smith said they could talk about that.
That led into an explanation of the way they “process calls” – the caller describes what happens, and then the 911 operator describes it to the officer, and it can be “kind of like that old game of Telephone,” with some mistakes in the translation. So they are considering moving to a “protocol” for calltaking, he said – “what are the right questions to ask in the right order,” where a prescribed set of questions would come up for specific circumstances, providing a uniform way of processing a call, and fewer errors.
We asked about the difference between calltakers and dispatchers. Because of the size of the operation, the two functions are separated, though they might be shared in smaller departments – the person who answers your 911 call is a calltaker and takes in information that is relayed to the person who dispatches for that geographic area (that’s the voice you would hear if you are listening to police frequencies via a scanner as we do many hours a day). Their jobs, however, are all categorized as “dispatcher,” Smith added.
An always-popular question: When to call 911 vs. the non-emergency line? The national standard is to answer 90 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds – and they have beat that – but that’s one reason why they separate emergency and non-emergency calls. They do go to the same call center, and a call can be rerouted, plus you can be put on hold if it’s not an emergency. About 7 or 8 percent of the calls that come in to 911 are non-emergency, and that’s OK, Smith said, they can handle that. It’s really about the time element, he affirmed – if something is happening now, or just happened, call 911.
Wrapping up the meeting, attendees said they’d noticed an improvement in service level.
The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meets third Tuesdays most months, 7 pm at the Southwest Precinct (2300 SW Webster).