On March 14, 2013, a Seattle couple returned home to find a burglary in progress.
The husband wrote on a City of Seattle-hosted community email list, “Wife & I returned from a nice evening out at 11:00PM last night (3/14). While approaching our home, we heard some commotion along the side of the property. Two young men proceeded to jump out the bedroom window and dash…. I gave chase…. SPD arrived with K9, and the dog…followed the scent to an apartment complex. SPD informed us their hands are tied and are unable to knock on doors in the complex due to the current political climate.”
I attended Crosscut’s interviews with mayoral candidates. When Sen. Ed Murray came to the Pioneer Square office, there was a full house of the news site’s editors and writers. Most of the questions pitched were softballs: What’s happening in Olympia, why are you running and such.
I ask street-level questions of pols and skip niceties. I described the burglary and the response and asked Murray, “What would you say to my neighbor?”
This was the only time during the interview with Murray that he got heated up. He said Seattle Police officers want to do their job. As he segued into finding the right chief of police, he became flushed. He didn’t have an answer.
Public-safety reporting in Seattle currently covers three topics: crime of the day, accountability and a new chief, nominee Kathleen O’Toole.
She’s coming into the job with 123 officers who’ve filed a class-action suit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)-mandated reforms.
News of the class-action suit came after a report to the Community Police Commission indicated a 49-percent drop in officers filing misdemeanor crimes in court from 2005 to 2013.
That conclusion is unsettling, especially for the 123 involved in that class-action suit. If the 123 are saying they and the people of Seattle are at risk because of the DOJ’s reforms — which involve a lot of paperwork — I would offer this tale and modest proposals.
First, let’s put whatever baggage we carry about Seattle’s police officers aside for a moment.
Picture yourself in this setting: You are at home. You hear an explosion outside. You go out, look down the hillside and see a propane tank has blown up in the woods, at the camp of a homeless person.
Four months later, there is another explosion, in the same place, on public property.
In the interim, there is a murder nearby.
A break-in is stopped at a house when a neighbor fires a 16-gauge shotgun through a wall, and the suspects disappear.
Then, some guys build a fire that shuts down Sound Transit, as smoke fills light rail’s tunnels.
You might be able to tolerate those conditions — reported by the local news media — but not another explosion.
The Seattle Fire Department arrives and won’t enter the woods — we’re talking less than a downtown city block, with access from a concrete path — to put out the fire without police escort. The fire burns near your home while you wait for the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
It’s scenarios like this — captured in email to the City of Seattle — that show where we are.
The second fire in this Beacon Hill neighborhood happened on Jan. 17, 2014 — 115 days after the first fire. Afterward, I went down into the woods with two neighbors who’d been referred to me by contacts in Seattle Parks and Recreation. I saw burned trees and a campsite torched by propane. Busted coolers, a ruined tent and scattered debris littered the hillside.
It would take another month before the City of Seattle began to reclaim the hillside, with Parks and the SPD collaborating with the Washington State Department of Transportation. It had been four years since the area had been safe.
For those 123 officers who claim in their class-action suit that they’re too afraid to do their jobs because of the U.S. Department of Justice — well, most city residents trust the police they know, and your lawsuit undermines that trust.
Think outside the box
So, a trio of modest proposals.
First, if you’re not doing your job — such as investigating an explosion so there won’t be another — find something else to do.
Second, stop the quick rotation of captains out of the precincts. This is a citywide problem, as it undercuts programmatic continuity and hinders organizational understanding of the communities the precincts serve.
Third, the DOJ agreement requires a lot of paperwork. One SPD employee put it plainly to me, “Do you want officers filling out paperwork or on the streets?” There’s a way to do both, using existing technology that’s already proven that will get reports and data from the field into systems for review and analysis in near real-time.
Yet, in all the talk inside government and all the chat in the media, technology is overlooked that would mitigate the burden of paperwork that has come with the DOJ reforms.
Police reform means more than new procedures and a new police chief: It means thinking outside of bureaucratic and political boxes. That’s where most of us live, and it’s time city government joined us.
CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com