Police stinkeye South Seattle's sweeping burglary wave

With officers responding to 36 break-in calls in January, Mount Baker's rash of burglaries is the top priority for the Seattle Police Department's South Precinct.
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Seattle's Mt. Baker neighborhood.

With officers responding to 36 break-in calls in January, Mount Baker's rash of burglaries is the top priority for the Seattle Police Department's South Precinct.

On the night of Jan. 23rd, sometime between 5 p.m. and 10:50 p.m., someone walked onto the back porch of a home in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. 

Nobody was home and the doors were locked.

The intruder unscrewed a light bulb and then went to a window at the side of the house, where he or she used some type of glasscutter to make a clean, arm-sized hole. A small steel table from the home’s backyard was placed outside the window to stand on.

Reaching through the hole, the burglar unlocked the window, propped it open with a mesh file holder and climbed into the house. Once inside, he or she “ransacked” a bedroom, finding and taking a Motorola cell phone, a power cord and a pair of headphones worth about $300.

“It looked like they were quick about it,” said the homeowner, a 35-year neighborhood resident, who asked not to be identified. The thief didn’t take anything other than the “old Android smartphone,” she said, even leaving behind a $50 Amazon gift card. The crime’s details, described in a police report, were discussed at a Jan. 24 meeting between Mount Baker residents and police officers from Seattle’s South Precinct.

The burglary was just one in a spike of home break-ins in Mount Baker since the start of the New Year. According to 911 call data and police reports, officers responded to at least 36 home burglary-related calls during the month of January in the "R1 Beat,” where the neighborhood is located.

By comparison, the average number of monthly burglaries in R1 between January 2012 and November 2013 was only 13.

Residential burglaries during January 2014 in the South Precinct's R1 Beat. The map includes 36 incidents taken from 911 call data. Three cases that did not have corresponding police reports filed during January were removed from the list of 911 calls before making the map. Source: City of Seattle (data.seatte.gov) Map: Bill Lucia (Using Google Fusion Tables)

Since last May, burglary rates In the South Precinct as a whole have been higher than any of the city’s other four precincts — a trend that's been escalating since July of 2013. In November, the South Precinct saw 1.6 crimes for every 1,000 residents. That's nearly 50 percent more crime than in the East and West Precincts. It's more than double the rates in the Southwest and North Precincts.

Mount Baker residents are referring to the rash of burglaries as a “crime wave,” and lieutenant Steve Strand, speaking at the recent community meeting, said solving and stopping the crimes was currently the South Precinct’s “number one priority.”

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Burglary rates per 1,000 residents in Seattle's five police precincts. Rates in the South Precinct began to climb in July 2013. Asked for precinct population numbers, SPD provided figures taken from 2010 Census data. Rates were computed using these population numbers. Source: SPD, Chart: Bill Lucia

At the same meeting, South Precinct Commander Captain John Hayes Jr. emphasized the importance of community involvement. “We’re going to work this bad boy out together,” he told the roughly 130 residents who turned out at the Mount Baker Community Club. A 32-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, Hayes took command of the precinct in early December. 

“The answer is not to have the police surround your neighborhood,” he said. “The issue is so much deeper than that.”

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Total monthly burglaries in the South Precinct's R1 Beat. December 2012 through November 2013 figures are from the Seattle Police Department's monthly precinct data. December and January figures are from 911 call data. Sources: SPD, data.seattle.gov, Chart: Bill Lucia

Mount Baker is stitched into a diverse patchwork of communities that lie in and around south Seattle’s Rainier Valley. It is one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the area. According to the 2008 to 2012 American Community Survey, median income in the Census tract that contains Mount Baker is estimated at $91,373. To the south and west of Mount Baker, that figure ranges from $46,618 to $57,813.

Franklin High School sits on the neighborhood's western edge. During the 2012-2013 school year, 69.7 percent of its nearly 1,500 students were eligible for free or reduced school lunches, according to Seattle Public Schools data.

Occasionally there are signs of gang activity in and near the neighborhood. In December and January, 911 records show one report of gang-related graffiti and another of a gang-related disturbance in the R1 Beat. On Jan. 11, a man was shot in the thigh on South Court Street near Lake Washington around 6:30 p.m. People near the scene told police they heard four or five shots fired. Officers found three spent 9mm shell casings and one full round on the street. The victim — who was in his early twenties — later went to a hospital seeking medical care and was questioned by police. Shortly thereafter, the South Precinct’s gang unit took control of the investigation.

Jean Stolzman, Vice President of the Mount Baker Safe Neighborhood Committee, organized the recent meeting between the police and local residents. “We needed to get people together so SPD understood the concerns of the community and so residents could understand what they can do to deter crime,” she said last week. “It’s partly up to the residents to be more aware, but I think people ultimately left that meeting hoping that SPD could be doing more.”

That said, Stolzman praised Sergeant Ann Martin, who leads the South Precinct’s Community Police Team, which focuses on chronic neighborhood public safety problems and crime hotspots. And last Tuesday, she received an email from a Mount Baker resident that said the police were making a “huge showing” of support, with officers walking neighborhoods and introducing themselves to people.

The South Precinct currently has between 22 and 33 officers and four sergeants on each day’s three nine-hour watches, according to Captain Hayes. Four officers and a sergeant also staff an “anti-crime team” and three officers work with Martin on the community police team. Still, Hayes said that retirements, reassignments and hiring lags mean the precinct is currently understaffed by about 10 cops.

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Map of sectors and beats within the South Precinct. Letters refer to sectors and numbers to beats. The R1 Beat contains the Mount Baker neighborhood. Source: SPD 

Still, Hayes believes he has enough resources to successfully police southeast Seattle. But he added that in order to solve the Mount Baker burglaries, “We also need luck.”

Luck isn't the only card the South Precinct has up its sleeve. Police are also relying on predictive policing software and information from the community about what they're seeing and hearing in their neighborhood. One of Hayes' priorities is to make residents more aware of what's happening around them and more comfortable working with local police. Residents have been using a private social network called Nextdoor to share information amongst themselves.

Patrol officer Brad Krise encouraged residents at the meeting to interact with the cops who patrol their streets. “Please, wave, talk to them,” he said. “When they don’t see anybody wave, they’re going to go onto the next hot spot.”

Krise's comments mesh with his commander's vision for the precinct. Captain Hayes wants to see stronger ties between residents and cops. “My real goal,” he said last week, “is to get the community to know the officer.”

This will also mean more effort on the part of patrol officers. “For some reason in policing we got away from getting out of the car,” Hayes said. “When they [his officers] show up for work, no matter where they live, I want them to feel like their family lives in the precinct.”

To gather insight into the burglaries, Hayes has been personally walking parts of Mt. Baker. At the community meeting, he complimented residents on their beautiful hedgerows and shrubs, but said that greenery also provides easy cover for bad guys. He also recommended making house numbers more visible so cops could quickly find addresses. Martin, in an email to Stolzman, said that leaving porch lights on during the day could signal to a crook that a resident isn’t home.

Around the time the Mount Baker Community Club meeting wrapped-up, police patrolling the R1 Beat responded to calls about an attempted home burglary and a successful break-in, which happened on the same block of 34th Avenue South. The block is about 1 mile from the community club, on the southwestern boundary of Mount Baker. The successful burglar, or burglars, kicked in a back door sometime between 8 a.m. and 8:15 p.m. and made off with an Xbox 360, a Nintendo Wii, controllers and video games valued at $1,000.

The door at the home where the attempted burglary took place looked like someone had tried to bust it open. The lock, according to a police report, was cracked and damaged. And earlier in the day, around 2 p.m., police were dispatched to another home with a kicked-in front door, less than a quarter mile away. Nothing was taken. The police report says that a burglar alarm probably scared away the crook. 

There is a video image of the glasscutter suspect, captured by a neighbor’s surveillance camera. Based on an initial look at the grainy image, police at the meeting described the suspect as a clean-cut white male, about 5-feet 8-inches tall, 150 pounds, wearing a Columbia jacket.

A suspect that fit a slightly different description was spotted at a Jan. 13 crime scene. A man left his home around six p.m., returned an hour later with his daughter, and encountered a man walking downstairs from the second floor. The police report describes the suspect as an “attractive, clean cut, light skinned, black male in his twenties,” with “large freckles,” and "short curly hair." He wore dark clothing and was between 5-feet 11-inches and 6-feet tall.

The suspect, or suspects, Hayes theorized at the meeting, likely lives in the area because many of the crimes have happened in close proximity to one another, and some took place when residents left their homes for only short spans of time. “There’s a possibility it could be someone from your neighborhood,” he said. “He could be in this room right now.”

Since then, precinct detectives have pored over information about the recent home break-ins and other burglary reports from the last two years. “It does not seem like one suspect but several different suspects, juveniles and possible career burglars,” Sergeant Martin said in an email to Stolzman last week, adding that “the burglaries peak on Tuesday and Wednesday and in the daytime hours.” Based on police reports, smashing windows and kicking-in doors seem to be popular methods of entry.

Among the stolen items: iPhones, a wedding ring, a laptop computer, and a 27- or 32-inch LCD monitor. One woman left her house for thirty minutes around 5:45 p.m. and returned to find it robbed. The thief cut the flap off a pet door, reached through it to undo a deadbolt lock and then made off with a new iMac and a gold necklace. Another woman was cooking in her kitchen around 6 p.m., unaware that a burglar was taking items from a basement study. Her husband noticed the crime only after he went downstairs to go out for a walk and saw a shoe propping open the basement door.

Residents are concerned, but some remained unshaken by the upswing in home break-ins. Similar crime swells, they say, have happened before. “I’m not going to sit quaking in my house,” said the woman whose home was robbed by the “glasscutter thief.”

When the burglar, or burglars, finally gets busted, Hayes hopes that everybody who attended the Mt. Baker community meeting turns out for the court date. He said: “You got to show up in that court room and say, ‘Heck no, don’t ever step foot in my community again.'”

“We’ve got to create the norm that crime in the South Precinct is just not the thing you want to do,” Hayes said. “Not because of arrests, not because of intimidation. You just don't want to do it because you have a pride in your community.” He added: “I want people to feel like, 'This is my house, I got to keep it in shape.'”


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