The D word: Seattle confronts the 'depolicing' dilemma

Does the city have too few police officers, or too many who aren't doing enough to solve crimes?
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Headed in the right direction.

Does the city have too few police officers, or too many who aren't doing enough to solve crimes?

Nearly 30 years ago, the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct Anti-Crime Team recovered a camera containing exposed film from some suspected burglars. Sergeant Chuck Pillon, the Anti-Crime Team’s leader, and his partner got the film developed, then drove along the west slope of Beacon Hill till they found a vista exactly matching the deck view shown in some of the photos. They knocked on the likeliest door.

The resident who answered — an aide to then-mayor Charles Royer, as it happened — got his camera back, and the cops were able to connect the burglary he’d suffered to their suspects.

Pillon later went off the deep end, publicly accusing then-chief Patrick Fitzsimons of a “tolerance policy” toward crime and much worse and eventually losing his job. But some longtime southenders still recall his door-to-door crimebusting efforts with bittersweet nostalgia. These days, such dogged police work sounds as long ago and far away as doctor’s house calls.

The talk now is all about the crimes Seattle police not only don’t solve, but don’t even try to solve. The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat lit up the comment boards with a recent pair of Sunday columns detailing his efforts to bust the vanload of car prowlers who’d just snatched his phone and other goods at Woodland Park. His 14-year-old-daughter tracked them using an iPhone app; he vainly called 911 trying to get officers to come out and was told to stay away himself. He then watched helplessly as the thieves flaunted the stuff they’d stolen.

Six days later, Sammamish Police got a call about the same van parked suspiciously at Marymoor Park. They went out, recognized it from their own wanted bulletins (based on months of dogged investigation of past prowls), busted the suspects Seattle’s finest couldn’t be bothered with, and stopped a one-van crime wave across multiple jurisdictions. Washington’s Most Wanted was just about to feature the perps, who’d combined car prowling with identity theft.

Westneat’s tale is shocking, appalling, and, for all too many Seattle crime victims, numbingly familiar. Two of my neighbors came home to find their rear door kicked in and his tools (he’s a builder) and her heirloom jewelry gone. A trail of spilled screws led from his workshop to the house next door, occupied by a pair of felons with rap sheets as long as a halftime commercial break. The police did come out — but said, Sorry, that’s not enough probable cause to act on.

A few years ago I found, not for the first time, bags of garbage dumped on my planting strip. This time I found torn-open envelopes to various addresses from banks and the like inside. I visited some of the addressees, confirmed that they had had mail stolen, called 911, and never heard more. (In fairness, when a neighbor’s video camera caught the aforementioned felons schlepping heaps of trash down the alley to our planting strips in the middle of the night, an enterprising officer did come out. He found their own mail in the trash this time and told them to clean it up and stop dumping, which they did.)

Pat Murakami, the president of the South Precinct Crime Prevention Council and one of Seattle’s most dogged crime watchdogs, has even worse tales to tell. One evening she saw a motley collection of bicycles — clearly stolen, she says — being loaded into a semi truck in the big parking lot just north of Rainier Avenue and Genesee Street. The 911 dispatcher insisted that they were bikes being unloaded for the Walgreen’s store across the street, which doesn’t sell bicycles. No officer showed up.

In 2009 Murakami saw three kids wearing backpacks, who didn’t look like yard workers, pushing a lawnmower down from Mount Baker. One wheeled it into the pawnshop at McClellan Street and Rainier Avenue. The other two handed their backpacks’ contents to an older guy  Fagin in an SUV – in the parking lot. called 911, got the brush off, and watched helplessly as a patrol car cruised by. She put out a bulletin on the neighborhood email tree and the lawnmower’s owner went to the pawnshop, this time with police escort, and retrieved it. Murakami doesn’t know if the police investigated after that.

Small businesspeople often complain that when they call to report break-ins and thefts, they’re told to tell their insurance companies – which soon makes their insurance unaffordable – or, in the case of former bodyshop proprietor Edouard Suarez, to get a gun. In the neighborhoods and the business districts, Seattle seems to have tacitly decriminalized a wide range of property crimes.

The FBI recently offered some statistical confirmation for that impression, when it released state-by-state crime stats for 2013. Washington had climbed from third to first place in the number of major property crimes reported per capita – 37 burglaries, larcenies, and stolen cars per 1,000 residents each year; only the District of Columbia, which is in a league of its own, surpassed that rate. Seattle’s reported rate, extrapolated from SPD’s monthly graphic summary, is about 46 property crimes per 1,000 residents.

Pollyannas may say (in fact, some have said) that this is the flip side of vigorous investigation and prosecution of murders, rapes and other violent crimes. It’s a zero-sum or squeeze-the-balloon game; more resources for one class of crime means less for another. Indeed, Washington’s violent crime rate is fairly low — less than half those of New Mexico, which is number two in property crimes, and Tennessee. It’s virtually identical to the violent crime rate in Tony Soprano’s New Jersey — which has a much lower property-crime rate.

One explanation floating around, and cited by Westneat, is that Seattle’s police are “depolicing” in the wake of the city’s 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice mandating outside oversight and other reforms, following a series of notorious shooting and use-of-force incidents. One version has it that they’re in a snit, snubbing a citizenry they see as hostile and unappreciative. Westneat’s cellphone follies happened in the North Precinct, home to most of the 123 officers who’ve sued to block the DOJ settlement, saying they’re afraid to investigate crimes for fear they’ll fall into some disciplinary pitfall.

“I believe depolicing is an issue,” says City Council public safety chair Bruce Harrell, who has called police leaders to come testify about it to the council’s Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, next week. “Not for all the offices, but I’ve talked to dozens of officers about it. Many officers will contend that it is easier to let something go than to respond and fill out all the paperwork involved” under the DOJ settlement. “They’ve told stories where six to eight officers would have to go into the precinct to fill out a report on a  relatively minor incident.”

But the shirking didn’t start in 2012: “It goes back before the DOJ settlement,” says Murakami — as does the high rate of property crimes. Police representatives have argued that it’s a matter of numbers: The department doesn’t have enough officers to investigate all or even most crimes and so must perform triage. Homicides and domestic violence are absolute priorities; nonviolent crimes go to the back burner. (Burglaries and car prowls can of course quickly turn violent, should the victims wake up or come back and surprise the perpetrators.)

Proponents of this view like to note that Boston, where Seattle’s new chief, Kathleen O’Toole, was formerly police commissioner, has about as many people as Seattle, but more than half again as many police officers. Seattle’s police numbers have stayed relatively flat for four decades, even as its population has grown by nearly a third.

But the city staffing levels reported by the FBI cut both ways. Among similarly sized cities, Memphis, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, have much larger police departments (and much higher poverty and homicide rates); Denver has a slightly larger one. But Nashville and Metro Louisville have slightly smaller departments. El Paso, which lies a riverbed away from violence-plagued Ciudad Juárez, has only four-fifths as many officers as Seattle.

“We can always use more officers,” says Harrell; no police chief and very few politicians anywhere would ever say otherwise. “But you have to consider how we can use them. Since I’ve been on the council, for nearly eight years, we’ve given them more and more resources.” What kind of results has that gotten?

Harrell and I and maybe you have all puzzled over the spectacle of packs of officers and squad cars massing for minor incidents. (And major traffic accidents. Ray Akers, a longtime past president of the South Precinct Crime Prevention Council, says that when he rode along with a patrolling officer and big crashes happened, he saw invitations go out to patrolling officers to come see the carnage with the tagline “WETSU" (military-speak for “We eat this shit up”).

 “I was at McDonald’s once when a person was being unruly,” recalls Harrell. “Six officers came out. It was way more than needed.” Such shows of force aren’t just inefficient; they may lead to the sort of escalation and over-reaction that prompted the DOJ’s intervention. Officers may feel they need overwhelming backup to be safe; having it makes it easier to exert blunt force.

In 2010 at least five squad cars, one unmarked car, and a fire engine converged upon a mentally disabled youth walking in the street atop Queen Anne Hill who refused to get into a squad car when ordered. Three officers methodically pounded him down to the pavement to make him comply.

Inefficiency shows in less dramatic ways as well. “We hear stories of certain officers responding to one or two calls a shift, taking inordinate amounts of time,” says Harrell. “That’s not something for city council policy work. That’s management.”

That said, Harrell, who’s never at a loss for policy ideas, has some for improving police operations. “Does it make sense to drive all the way back to the precinct to fill out paperwork? Can they do it in their cars? Can they park their cars safely on Rainier Avenue [where speeding and collisions have surged while traffic enforcement lags] to both fill out their paperwork and serve as a deterrent?” If officers want new technology or rule changes to do this, “I need them to help me advocate for it.”

At the least, Harrell suggests, the police should do what airlines and other backed-up call-in services do: “Establish response times for non-emergency calls. If a police officer can’t get back to someone in two hours, say so, and estimate how long it’s going to take.” Some victims might be more willing to report crimes if they know their calls won’t fall into a black hole.

Pat Murakami suggests another force multiplier. As she notes, you don’t need armed, expensive police officers to field many non-emergency calls, to take burglary, theft and accident reports and other non-emergency calls. Deploy civilian employees — the investigative equivalent of the community service officers SPD used to employ — or cadets newly minted from the Police Academy, the police equivalent of medical interns, eager for the experience. That would free up officers for sorely needed traffic enforcement and to whittle away at the backlog of drug houses and fencing operations operating in de facto impunity.

Harrell seconds the notion: “To find a different kind of officer to do follow-up work, to relentlessly and aggressively pursue property crimes — that’s a good idea.” But such so-called “secondary” officers are the first to go when budgets get squeezed; the Nickels administration nixed the popular community service officers in cutbacks 12 years ago. And another potential roadblock looms: Any shifts of duties away from commissioned officers must be bargained with their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which has resisted such shifts in the past. (Guild president Ron Smith didn’t respond to a request for comment, and SPD leaders were unavailable because of the post-Ferguson demonstrations and holiday.)

But such improvements will only get you so far. “The solution to depolicing will be found in leadership, in the quality of management,” says Harrell. So far Chief O’Toole has made the right noises and the right moves, in his and Murakami’s and many other observers’ views. “She’s willing to talk about topics like depolicing openly and honestly, without just defending the department as previous chiefs did,” says Harrell.

Following the cellphone-bandit follies, when little Sammamish left Seattle looking like Podunk, O’Toole announced a review of how SPD handles car prowls. And yes, it would now trace stolen cellphones instead of leaving the job to columnists’ teenage daughters.

But she has a long legacy of police disengagement and citizen disenchantment to overcome. “After going door to door talking to people, I’d be willing to bet my life that only 10 to 20 percent of crime in South Seattle is reported,” says Murakami. “Why bother when nothing happens?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     


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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.