Seattle Police Chief O'Toole meets the neighborhood

Just showing up has already improved SPD's standing in once-neglected Southeast Seattle. Staying put would do even more.
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Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, left, talks with Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council president Pat Murakami at a recent meeting.

Just showing up has already improved SPD's standing in once-neglected Southeast Seattle. Staying put would do even more.

If showing up is 80 percent of success, Seattle’s new police chief has nearly won the war in crime-shocked Southeast Seattle. Last week Chief Kathleen O’Toole took center stage with Assistant Chief Nick Metz and City Councilmember Bruce Harrell at what was both a gripe session and a love fest: an overflow meeting of the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, supposedly the oldest such community crime council in the country and a frequent forum for sharp criticism of police actions and inaction.

“I invited our previous chief [John Diaz] three times and he never came,” Crime Council president Pat Murakami noted pointedly. O’Toole has been on the job less than four months, but she already seems to have forged deeper community ties — especially with Southeast’s large, often elusive East African communities — than her predecessors, the shy Diaz and ambitious Gil Kerlikowske, did in years.

There’s no razzle or dazzle involved. O’Toole’s affect is more low-key Diaz than commanding Kerlikowske: modest height, plain features, an unflappable, often deadpan expression, and a no-nonsense speaking style that conveys both empathy and resolve.

She didn’t mince words about the challenges the department faces in achieving what she calls its “paramount goal of restoring community trust.” And she didn’t have to cite the reasons that trust has gotten frayed — rising crime, a long trail of police violence and discipline scandals, sometimes racially tinged, and the torturous implementation, against Police Guild resistance, of reforms mandated under a legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. Everyone knew.

Captain David Proudfoot, whom O’Toole tapped to command the South Precinct immediately after starting her job, didn’t mince words either. “Pretty much everything is up,” he announced. “Car prowls are up. Burglaries are up. Robberies are up.” Worst of all are “the street robberies that have been growing and growing.” The muggers target teens and the elderly, added Proudfoot, “primarily Asians, but it really cuts across all the groups in the Rainier Valley.”

Often they stalk passengers leaving the light-rail stations. “It’s scary leaving the train,” one local resident declared. “I’m 43 years old, in relatively good shape and, obviously, African American, and I’m scared!” (Another neighbor told me she now rides only buses rather than trains because the buses, with their many stops, are “unpredictable,” whereas the thugs can wait outside the stations like lions at a watering hole to pick off the weak and luggage-burdened. It’s an ironic turn for a rail line intended to attract riders scared of buses.)

The 50 or so Crime Council members and other residents in attendance had plenty more grievances to air. Some were chronic situations not amenable to conventional incident response. Others went to the police themselves. One older gent spoke of being interrupted reading the Sunday paper by gunshots following all-night boozing sessions in a neighbor’s house. An elderly woman described another neighbor’s house without heat, water or “sanitation” where “the drug business picks up whenever he needs the money.” Murakami explained that those iniquitous dens sounded ripe for abatement under the city’s nuisance law.

Renée Goodall, proprietor of an “alternative smoke shop” (i.e. e-cigs and a vapor bar — pot shops are no longer "alternative") near Graham Street and MLK Way, recounted how her alarm company called at 2:33 a.m. to say someone had tripped an indoor motion sensor. It took her 25 minutes to get in from Renton, so she figured the police, who were also called, would already be there, perhaps with intruders in hand. She was shocked to find “no police officers around — except three patrol cars next door, serving a traffic citation on one gentleman in a pickup truck who was being cooperative.”

Goodall said she asked those officers if they knew about the burglary, “Oh yeah, I see it on my screen,” one replied. Four or five more patrol cars passed on MLK. No one came to help.

It’s bad enough not getting a cop when you need one. It's insult after injury to see a whole pack gathering and lingering at what appears to be a minor quotidian incident. I once saw five patrol cars gathered around one stopped car at Rainier and Othello. Perhaps they’d spotted a stolen vehicle, not just a traffic infraction. But the two women who were in the car had stepped out and were talking calmly to two officers. The rest sat in their squad cars.

Officers naturally want backup, want to feel safe, but you can’t help wondering what else they might be doing with their time. Especially when they’re spread as thin as they are in Seattle: O’Toole recounted how, when she was police commissioner in Boston, whose population matches Seattle’s, “we had 1,000 more police officers.” And especially when she wants Seattle’s finest to be “as visible as possible — not just blowing by in cars and on bikes, but walking on foot.”

“Did you say bike patrol?” interjected one disenchanted resident from MLK Way and Holly Street. “I’ve never seen a bike patrol in 20 years here!” A fellow in a bowtie piped up to say he lived there too and did see bike patrols. Such is the Rashomon nature of crime and policing; perceptions vary infinitely.

Those residents are supposed to see more cops now. That stretch of MLK, down Othello to Rainier Ave., and a section of Rainier from Henderson St. south that’s seen the worst spates of shootings in the city, are designated for special emphasis because of street robberies. “Micro-policing” is the strategy of the day: Special “policing plans” will be designed for 15 Southeast neighborhoods, as well as for the East African community and for the schools, where long walks under the school district’s post-busing scheme have made parents and educators alike fear for their kids’ safety.

Showing up — at community meetings and on the streets the kids must walk — is important. But sticking around is a big share of that 80 percent, and a sticky question in the South Precinct. For the past six years or so its command has been a musical-chair game. A parade of well-regarded captains — including some who, like Proudfoot, started out on patrol in Southeast Seattle — came and left after a year or two, sometimes just months, on the job. Not because they couldn’t do it but because HQ decided they were needed at other commands. The one who stayed longest was the one who got along least with the community.

“Proudfoot’s great,” declared Beacon Hill realtor Erik Stanford, a member of the crime council. “They were all great. I got the impression all our captains wanted to stay here. They were committed to the neighborhood, but they got moved out at the discretion of the command staff.” He looked at O’Toole. “Can you promise that won’t happen again?”

“I do,” O’Toole replied simply — reiterating a promise she gave Murakami nearly three months ago. Many eyes will be watching to see if she keeps it.

No one invoked the lately fashionable term “community policing,” but the idea is pervasive at SPD these days. “It isn’t just about making sure there are more cops on the street,” explained Assistant Chief Metz. “People need to get to know officers on a more personal basis, to meet with them in their living rooms.” Metz, who once sought the job that O’Toole won, now seems her biggest cheerleader. “Just wait,” he said. “You’re going to see a real change in the culture of this department!”

“We already have seen a lot of culture change,” replied resident Habtamu Abdi. In August he invited Seattle Police to join the Ethiopian community's weeklong soccer tournament. “We had 21 officers come play. The chief came on the last day of the tournament to give the trophy. Now I hear people say, ‘We want to play with the cops!’”

“That’s a great note to end on,” said Murakami, and she wasn’t the only one smiling.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.