Guest Opinion: Can Seattle police help South Park?

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(Editor’s note: South Park resident Jeff Hayes sent an email to neighbors and several groups, including Crosscut, after a woman’s body was found there Feb. 15. The original email about depolicing brought responses from the Seattle Police Department. A slightly revised version of that email is followed by edited versions of two updates he sent after meetings with police. Hayes says that, in light of the response, he’s hopeful of improved public safety for the neighborhood but that South Park’s real need is follow-through from police and city leaders.)

Depolicing, de-policing. A way of keeping control over an area in which the police deliberately ignore small crimes by members of ethnic minorities so that they are not accused of racism, or to avoid being disciplined or singled out for scrutiny. (Author's definition)

A violent homicide in South Park. No suspect yet in custody. Does anyone who lives in South Park think that this is the first contact that the Seattle Police Department has had with the deceased or the killer? The very likely scenario is that both of these folks have had repeated contact with the Seattle Police Department and no action was taken because of the obvious depolicing that has occurred in South Park since the Department of Justice decree on police reform. It basically said that Seattle Police have a history of escalating, rather than de-escalating situations upon their arrival at a possible crime scene. As a result of the response to the report, crime in South Park is on the rise and there is now one fewer soul walking this earth.

My strong opinion, and the firm opinion of many of my South Park neighbors, is that South Park suffers from depolicing more than any other neighborhood in the city. The crime rate here is high and patrolling this neighborhood often results in police officers being put in situations where duty and professionalism would dictate that an action is taken to defuse a situation or otherwise perform functions that are inconsistent with depolicing. There are several houses in South Park, well-known to the neighborhood residents and Seattle Police, that are the base of operations for crime rings that house prostitutes, chronic drug and alcohol abusers, drug sellers, fencing operations for stolen goods and other illicit activities (all activities that are routinely left unaddressed under a depolicing scenario). Because of depolicing, the officers hide behind the cloak of "constitutional protections" for the alleged criminals. And the honest, hard-working, taxpaying, voting, law-abiding citizens of South Park pay the price. We pay the price with our quality of living, with our property values, with our peace of mind, and sometimes with our lives.

Yesterday my wife and I were driving down the alley that is the only access that we have to our driveway. Between our driveway and our alley access was a mini-van with the motor running and parked in the alley in front of a house where there seems to have been dealing in drugs and stolen property. Vehicles parked in the alley are not unusual occurrences. My wife stopped our car and I got out to ask the responsible party to move their vehicle. There were several people that I didn't recognize milling about outside an RV parked in the backyard.

When I asked them who owned the car, they turned away and ignored me. When I knocked on the door of the RV someone inside opened it to reveal at least six people, blacked out windows, and a woman with a wad of cash in her hand. As soon as I was seen, the apparent owner of the RV pushed the woman with the cash out the door, closing and locking it behind her. When I asked her what she was doing she said, "Nothing." She proceeded to get in her car and leave. I took a picture of the car occupant, her vehicle, and her license plate. This is something that I routinely do, as I have been encouraged by the SPD to do, although they have shown only a cursory interest in the pictures.

At this point the occupants of the RV started filing out and, together with the two men that had been loitering outside of the RV when I arrived, started verbally threatening and taunting me: "You gotta lotta balls comin' here without a posse," "What if we just took you out?" and "Something bad could happen to your house and family." I live next door to this house. I called 911 and was treated with disrespect and apathy. While I was on the line with the dispatchers, the verbal threats toward me could be clearly heard. This was occurring as the Seattle Police Department was one block away investigating a homicide. I was told that officers had been notified. I asked for an estimated time of arrival and was not given one.

My neighbors and I waited approximately 30 minutes for officers to arrive. By this time, all of the residents of the RV and the owner of the house had left the scene and it was quiet. Although the responding officers were somewhat sympathetic, I was left feeling powerless and hopeless. I was told that all of our conversation was being recorded. There were no assurances offered by the officers that they could do anything to assist in this situation. In fact, they indicated that due to the city prosecutor and the Department of Justice decree guidelines, there was literally nothing that they could do to protect me, my family and my neighbors. This is just one ongoing situation in South Park that could eventually escalate and have tragic repercussions as a result of the Seattle Police Department's passivity and the ever-increasing culture of depolicing.

My views on the subject are not entirely that of a layperson. I have just retired from the Seattle Fire Department as an operations captain after a 27 years with the department, where I worked at every fire station in the city. I have experienced the best and worst of every neighborhood and I made a choice to live in South Park 15 years ago because it was, at that time, a safe and pleasant neighborhood occupied by blue-collar, family folks. My wife and I hoped to spend the rest of our years in our South Park house, but because of recent events, which I attribute to the larger stratification of the classes and depolicing by the Seattle Police Department, my wife and I are considering a move to a different part of the city, or out of Seattle entirely.

(For anyone interested in the bigger Seattle police picture, I recommend The Seattle Times’ “Report cites plunge in SPD enforcement of low-level crime” and Crosscut’s “The D Word: Seattle confronts the ‘depolicing’ dilemma.”)

Update 1, Feb. 18, after a meeting with Seattle police commanders:

At the invitation of Seattle Chief of Police Kathleen O'Toole, Deputy Chief  Carmen Best and Southwest Precinct Commander Captain Steve Wilske, fellow South Park residents Dagmar Cronn, DeVona Lahrman and I attended the biweekly Seastat meeting at the Seattle Justice Center in downtown Seattle this morning. We were made to feel welcome and were specially noted as being in attendance. The Seastat is a review of crime statistics, per precinct, over the prior two-week period.

At the conclusion of Capt. Wilske's regular Southwest Precinct report, Chief O'Toole asked the captain to specifically address South Park issues and plans for improvement. I, along with other residents and business owners of the South Park community, will meet one-on-one with Capt. Wilske later on this week to discuss South Park's issues and specific plans for improvement.

Although I am gratified to have the attention of the command staff of the Seattle Police Department, rest assured that the only thing that truly matters to me is improvement in the level of crime in our community. I will send out another report after our meeting with the captain.

Update 2, Friday, Feb. 20, after the meeting in South Park:

A meeting was held at Via Vadi Caffe to discuss the current rise in crime in South Park. Seattle Police Department leaders and community members were in attendance. SPD was represented by the SW Precinct Commander Capt. Wilske, a Seattle University research assistant named Jennifer, and three Community Police Team officers, John Kiehn, Erin Nicholson and Jon Flores. In attendance from the neighborhood were residents Anna Marti, Dagmar Cronn, Tobin Perry, DeVona Lahrman and myself, along with business owner Maria Porco.

It was a very productive exercise in communication. The primary concerns of the neighborhood members were identified and discussed. Capt. Wilske and his team acknowledged our concerns and offered several methods of community policing that, in his opinion, would be effective in reducing the level of illicit activity occurring in our neighborhood. He was also able to offer a variety of things that we could do as a community to assist in this effort. In the next two weeks, Capt. Wilske will be forwarding to me a list of things that were discussed and recognized as being beneficial to our cause. This list will include not only tactics that SPD will be performing, but also methods of community involvement.

When I receive Capt. Wilske's email I will immediately push it out to the rest of the South Park community in electronic form, email and Facebook, so that everyone knows what is happening. My plan is to also print 100 copies of this important document and go door to door in the community distributing copies to those who are fortunate enough to not have access to electronic communications. Maria Porco has also offered her counter at Via Vadi as a distribution point.

I can offer one hopeful thought so that community members will believe that this is a real effort and not a bureaucratic, face-saving, public-relations move designed to quiet us. Bicycle patrols will become a regular occurrence in our community (as one resident has already reported noticing). Many thanks to the Seattle Police Department staff that spent an afternoon in South Park discussing our concerns and to my fellow residents for showing up and participating. We look forward to seeing what comes of the improved communications.


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Jeff Hayes

Jeff Hayes recently retired from the Seattle Fire Department as a captain after 32 years as a professional firefighter. He is now a professional drummer and has a website about his musical activities at