By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Hours before a protest group gathered outside the Southwest Precinct, its new commander was talking about police reform at the first online meeting of the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council.
Capt. Kevin Grossman and his second-in-command, Operations Lt. Sina Ebinger, had a lot more to say – from West Seattle’s crime drop, to police staffing.
The WSCPC, rather than an organized group, has long been a monthly gathering of whoever shows up, coordinated by community member Richard Miller, often with special guests as well as local police leadership. Meetings went on hiatus after February because of the pandemic; last night, the WSCPC returned, with the help of SW Precinct Crime Prevention Coordinator Jennifer Danner.
Capt. Grossman opened with a recap of his background (which we’ve covered at other community meetings, as well as in our interview with him). Then – the trends:
“We currently have crime rates much, much lower than 2019,” he said, while making it clear that the pandemic and bridge closure were undoubtedly major factors.
How low? 17 percent lower than this time last year. Both violent crime and property crime are down. Not every individual category, though – his top priority, shots-fired cases, are up from last year, 29 so far, compared to 27 at this point in 2019. “Still less than the rest of the city,” he noted. But it’s worrisome that almost a third of those incidents, 9, were just in the past month. And there’s no cluster or common attribute, he said – his crime-analysis detective has taken a close look but the incidents are “really all over the place.”
His #2 priority, auto theft, is up 1 percent in West Seattle from last year. As his predecessors often explained at WSCPC meetings, a small number of thieves tend to be responsible for a large number of cases, so one arrest can significantly “disrupt” the trend. He also discussed prevention – Danner obtained a grant to buy and distribute steering-wheel locks, and he’s hoping they’ll be able to do that again.
His #3 priority, burglary, is down in a big way – 22 percent less than last year. As Capt. Grossman told another recent meeting, there’s a bit of a cluster in The Junction that they’re watching – 9 burglaries in 4 weeks. Two of those, he disclosed, were at LA Fitness, possibly with access through a stolen card that’s since been deactivated. He said they’ve also been noting burglaries in what are supposed to be secure apartment garages – often the burglar will follow someone in and steal bicycles or items from storage areas. Danner, he said, will be following up directly with buildings that are having issues.
ALKI BEACH: He addressed the ongoing trouble there, saying he’s heard a lot from community members about traffic noise, fires, alcohol, fireworks, racing, and more. Without getting into the specifics of the recent short-lived plan for Seattle Parks to cover officers on overtime, he nonetheless lamented a lack of resources.”I’ve never seen a point in my 24 years where we are stretched this thin on resources … and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” He said he’d like to use the precinct’s 6-officer Anti-Crime Team at Alki, but those officers often instead are deployed – as are others from precincts around the city – to deal with downtown/Capitol Hill protests. (Last weekend police were deployed in SODO during a protest outside the Seattle Police Officers Guild HQ; he was asked how many police that had involved, but said he wasn’t sure.)
Shortly thereafter, Lt. Ebinger joined in on the topic, after a bit of self-introduction (21 years with SPD after 11 years in the military; her SPD career has covered a wide range of roles, including the Traffic Unit, the Crisis Intervention Team, and the Navigation Team). She started answering questions that attendees were posting in the teleconference’s chat feature. “We are tapped, we are SO tapped,” but they’ve brought in some Traffic Unit resources here and there to help with issues from speeding to road rage.
Questions: How many officers might the precinct lose under the budget cuts recently passed by the City Council? “Too early to tell,” Grossman said. And he warned that it’s not just a matter of “defunding,” but the fact that the pandemic has taken a giant bite out of city finances. The city and state rely on taxes that “just aren’t coming in right now.”
But he added that he has an “ask” for the City Council regarding police reform: “I hope we can have a good conversation about what the police should be doing and … should not be doing.” As he’s said at previous meetings, he has views on that: “I think we as a society overrely on 911 to do things …
a lot of things that don’t need a police response. We go to traffic collisions all the time where no one was hurt … we’re in essence taking information for the insurance companies, working for the insurance companies. Collisions take a lot of time.”
Another category Capt. Grossman said could be handled differently: “A lot of homelessness-related issues (are often related to) mental health, substance abuse, (and) could be handled best by other entities.” Safety and cost-efficiency means, he stressed, “making sure we use sworn officers with a gun and a badge for the right things.” He also observed that “criminalization of drug use doesn’t work … the war on drugs is a failure” – treatment is what abusers need.
He also said traffic enforcement is not necessarily efficient, either – “engineering solutons are often much cheaper in the long run and more effective.” He cited the Alki Point Stay Healthy/Keep Moving Street as one successful tactic that’s cut down on “issues” neighbors have experienced. One-way streets, speed humps, “those thngs are more likely to be effective in the long run.” Straightening out the matter of who’s accountable for closing the Don Armeni Boat Ramp gate also has helped.
That said – “a 50 percent cut [in the police budget] doesn’t seem to have much ground in rationality.” He fears the council is moving too quickly, and needs to talk with “a broader cross-section of residents. … It seems the City Council is not hearing the whole story.”
Another City Council-related question: “How many officers are assigned to protect City Councilmembers?”
And then someone asked why West Seattle/South Park Councilmember Lisa Herbold wasn’t at the meeting. Capt. Grossman replied by saying she had reached out to him and that they had a “good conversation” the previous night. “She seemed very willing to have a conversation, very willing to be open-minded about what I had to say,” and he in turn told her that he’s always available “if she had any questions about the precinct or about the department.”
Another question: What can community members do to support the police? And what if they’re worried about calling 911 when they know police are stretched thin?
Grossman implored, “Please keep calling. The 911 center is really good about triaging calls … if someone’s life safety is threatened, we will be there.” Even if it’s not necessarily a matter of life safety, he said, “I would rather you call … we rely so heavily on data, if people don’t call, that’s numbers we’re not measuring. I don’t want the crime rate to be low because people are not calling us.”
Back to the question of community support, Lt. Ebinger answered that neighborhood solidarity would go a long way. “Come together, do trash pickups, get to know your neighbors … I can’t tell you how important it is; it can help us as police on calls.” Grossman added that, “The more you know your neighbors, the less likely you are to need police to resolve issues.”
And of course, he said, expressing appreciation to an officer is helpful. He said many in the department are trying to “lateral” – move to other police agencies – right now. “If you have the opportunity to say h and thank you, that will go a long way.”
Time ran out with questions waiting, so Grossman answered them in writing, and Danner sent us the resulting document:
West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meetings are usually on third Tuesdays – watch for the announcement of next month’s meeting.