Scott Ward sits with his dog, Dexter, at the Magnolia meeting. Photo by Eric Mandel
Scott Ward sits with his dog, Dexter, at the Magnolia meeting. Photo by Eric Mandel

Joe Villarino expected a crowd of 50 people at most to discuss the possibility of hiring off-duty officers to patrol the neighborhood. He ended up needing a lot more chairs.

“I want to take my neighborhood back,” said one of the more than 200 Magnolia residents who attended the informational question-and-answer meeting on Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Magnolia Church of Christ (3555 W. McGraw St.).

Villarino, a Magnolia native with a background in law enforcement and private security, will lead a group of neighborhood volunteers in creating the Magnolia Patrol Association, a nonprofit organization that would attempt to curb rising property crime rates in the neighborhood. Villarino hopes Magnolia will follow the path of Laurelhurst, which has used private patrollers to slow crime for years. Other Seattle neighborhoods, including Windermere and Whittier Heights, also pay for private patrols.

Magnolia may not be a haven for criminal activity, but Villarino mentioned a KOMO 4 News story that allegedly looked at a one-week snapshot in February 2013 and 2014 and found an 800-percent increase in crime. (The Queen Anne & Magnolia News couldn’t find the report online.)

In an interview prior to Saturday’s meeting, Seattle Police Department (SPD) spokesperson Det. Drew Fowler said that SPD does not keep crime stats for each specific neighborhood and that Magnolia would be a part of the district that includes Pioneer Square and Downtown Seattle.

The City of Seattle fared poorly in the FBI’s annual “Crime in the United States” report for American cities released in November. The report showed more than 14-percent increase combined in the city’s robberies, burglaries, larceny-thefts and motor vehicle thefts from 2012 to 2013.

Police use statistics from calls to help guide deployment numbers, and violent crimes, which are not an issue in Magnolia, are police priorities. Only one officer is specifically assigned to the Magnolia area, Villarino said.

Fowler said staffing is always a concern, but that SPD hopes to hire 100 additional officers by 2017. He added that Magnolia is certainly not alone in wanting quick response and strong coverage, but it’s not always easy.

“It’s kind of like turning an aircraft carrier,” he said. “Sometimes it takes time.”

No matter the specific community stats, anecdotal evidence from the standing-room-only crowd showed more than half of the attendees raised their hands when Villarino asked who had been victims of property crime in Magnolia.

 

The proposal

Villarino described a subscription-based service to attendees Saturday that would cost $250 per year. The money would primarily pay the $60-per-hour fee for an off-duty officer to patrol the neighborhood in an unmarked car.

Among other things, Villarino and attendees discussed the possibility of multiple officers and splitting the city into two separate patrols. Specifics on length of the officer’s shift and how many officers could patrol are dependent on the number of subscribers. Villarino estimated the community would need about 350 subscribers for full coverage all year. All Magnolia residents would be included in the patrol area, regardless of whether they donated.

“I want the whole community to benefit,” Villarino said.

Officer Mark Henry, who spoke to the audience alongside Villarino, said the additional patrol would not take away from the regular SPD coverage. The next steps, Villarino said, would be to build an advisory board and set up bylaws to register as a nonprofit.

Villarino conducted interviews with all other attending members of the media but declined to speak with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, saying he had an exclusive agreement with the Magnolia Voice blog. Villarino told one reporter he aimed to have everything in place by May 1.

Fowler didn’t exactly endorse the practice of hiring off-duty police for patrol but didn’t denounce it, either.

“It is the right of the residents of Magnolia to do that, but we stand behind our work and are excited to offer police officers to everyone in the city,” he said. “As we hire more, we’ll be ever more present and ever more visible.”

Much like officers who work sporting events or in other non-city capacities, the officer will be in uniform and carry a gun. When an off-duty officer witnesses a crime and intervenes, he or she shifts back onto SPD’s clock, potentially earning overtime in the process.

Officers working in a contractual capacity for Magnolia are, in essence, being paid for being visible, as any police action goes on the city’s dime. Officers would not be paid by the city and neighborhood at the same time, Fowler said.

“If emergency police action is necessary, we will always pay the bills, if you will, but the most important thing is police work is being done correctly,” he said. “We want to make sure we are promoting and supporting public safety in all neighborhoods.”

 

Neighborhood response

An overwhelming majority of the residents appeared in favor of paying for extra patrol during an informal gauging of interest at the meeting. Some residents came ready with checkbooks; others were not convinced.

Magnolia residents Erika Hargadine and Keith Bower left the meeting with concerns over liability and the types of officers who would patrol the neighborhood. The pair have a surveillance camera outside their home that they believe works well.

Hargadine said she envisions her teenage son being approached for wearing a hoodie and said she isn’t sold on SPD’s current patrol program, which isn’t fulfilling the neighborhoods needs.

“I don’t want to buy into it if it’s the same thing the Seattle Police Department provides,” she said.

Scott Ward, a resident for 3.5 years and member of the Magnolia Chamber of Commerce, said he backs the extra patrol idea and is ready to pay for a subscription. He said he lives in what is supposed to be a safe community, and he doesn’t want to see escalation of crime.

“If we don’t nip it in the bud, we are opening it up for a slow progression,” he said.

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