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The [Very] Thin Blue Line

There are complaints that Seattle cops are unreliable and incompetent. The solution? More cops—lots more cops—and better pay.

The [Very] Thin Blue Line

Paul Hoppe

When Robert Eickmann noticed that his laptop, which had been stolen along with his car, had been broadcasting a signal from the same location for several days, he passed the information on to the Seattle Police Department. Eickmann hoped this information—this clue—would help the SPD track down his missing 1993 Saturn as well as his MacBook. Instead, the cops told Eickmann that he should invest in software to remotely wipe his hard drive.

On Christmas Eve, a young family was taking a late-night carriage ride through downtown Seattle. As they turned off of First Avenue onto Pike Street, a BMW plowed into the side of the carriage. The driver of the BMW backed up and sped off. But the people in the carriage wrote down the driver's license-plate number and called the police.

"They're not going to charge the guy with hit-and-run," Joanna Graf, owner of Angel Horse Carriages, angrily grumbles three months later. "They didn't even contact the guy." The police didn't even write the driver a ticket, and Graf had to pay for the $5,000 worth of damage done to her carriage. "A hit-and-run—that's pretty serious for the police to just say, 'Oh well.'"

The most frightening example of our police department's inability to police comes from Les Sandusky. In February, Sandusky was celebrating a friend's birthday at a house on Capitol Hill, when a group of uninvited guests crashed the party. "Some guys showed up and we asked them to leave," Sandusky says. Instead, the men went outside and began writing homophobic slurs on the house. Sandusky went to confront the six men and was attacked.

"They surrounded me. One of them smashed a 40 ounce bottle over my head," he says. Then one of the men pulled out a knife and stabbed Sandusky in the chest and throat. Sandusky spent a week in the hospital.

"There were eyewitnesses who knew their names and where they worked," Sandusky says. "One of the suspects even dropped his cell phone [outside the house]." But no arrests have been made and Sandusky says the detective on the case told him he would be "putting [the] case on the back burner."

Andrew Taylor, president of the Miller Park Community Council, has fought prostitution and drugs in his neighborhood. He believes officers in the East Precinct just can't keep up with crime in the area.

"I get the impression that when it's life-threatening, [the police] are there," says Taylor. "But they're basically running from fire to fire."

The SPD has been getting hammered lately in the dailies as well as in The Stranger ["Tase First, Ask Questions Later," Dec 13, 2007; "Head Banger," Nov 29, 2007; "Gil's Boys," July 5, 2007; "Raw Deal," June 7, 2007]. However, the department has hit a number of high-profile cases hard.

Solid detective work led police to 48-year-old James Anthony Williams, who was arrested and charged for the brutal stabbing death on New Year's Eve of Shannon Harps. A month later, SPD swarmed 23rd Avenue and Union Street and launched a citywide manhunt after a man shot and killed Degene Barecha and wounded another man inside of the Philadelphia's Best Cheesesteak restaurant. Within 24 hours, the Seattle Police Department apprehended the alleged shooter, Rey Davis-Bell, at a house in Beacon Hill.

High-profile manhunts and investigations put a heavy strain on the department's resources, which forces the SPD to prioritize. This might explain why folks like Eickmann and Graf—victims of crimes that aren't dominating the front pages of newspapers—are having trouble getting the cops to return their calls. But it's not indifference and it's not incompetence—it's staffing. Seattle simply doesn't have enough police officers to do the job.

"The staffing [situation] is getting very, very dangerous," says Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) president Rich O'Neill.

Seattle has 1,307 sworn officer positions, and SPOG estimates that more than 100 of those positions are currently unfilled. Things have gotten so bad that cops are starting to seriously worry about their own safety.

Some officers flying solo on patrol have been forced to resort to shining their lights down dark alleyways and shouting orders to disperse over their megaphones—instead of making arrests for street crimes—because of the lack of backup. Clearly, SPD is in desperate need of officers. But does anyone want to work in Seattle?

As the department tries to hold off a mass exodus, applicants just aren't coming fast enough.

In 2007, after complaints about long response times and heightened workloads, Mayor Greg Nickels pushed for the city to hire 105 new officers. The Seattle City Council also made hiring new officers a priority, and just about every candidate up for election last year pounded their fists about the need for more cops.

Easier said than done.

The city proudly announced that it had hired 60 officers in 2007—well below its annual goal of 80 new hires. On average, the city loses around 50 cops every year to transfers and retirement. In the first quarter of 2008, the city hoped to hire 33 officers—through recruiting and transfers—while holding losses to 15. But in the first two months of 2008, SPD only had 21 recruits in training and lost 14 officers.

We're in a recession. Jobs are harder to come by. Police work is dangerous and opens a person up to public scrutiny. But the police have a strong union, good job security, and good benefits. So why is Seattle having a hard time recruiting and retaining officers? Don't cops get paid well?

Travis Gnehm, 19, wanted to be a journalist until his senior year of high school in Bellevue, when he found an old police scanner in his house. Before long, Gnehm was chasing officers out on calls, recording amateur video of crime scenes, and offering the tapes to local TV stations.

"After seeing what police do and talking to them, I figured this was the job for me," Gnehm says. Now, Gnehm is looking to find a local police department that, he says, "fits me best."

SPD, the Washington State Patrol, the Bellevue Police Department, and other suburban agencies are courting Gnehm. He has been to SPD's recruiting fair—where the department shows off all its high-tech gadgets, SWAT vehicles, K-9 units, and CSI squads—and been on a ride-along with the department. Gnehm says the excitement of working in an urban environment like Seattle is appealing, but he has reservations.

His biggest reservation? He wants to find a department that will help pay for his college education. Many suburban departments offer higher pay for college graduates or even reimburse officers for school. The SPD does not.

Smaller departments outside of Seattle are becoming a big draw—for reasons besides tuition, as well. First off, suburban departments are safer. Violent crimes are lower or nearly nonexistent, and some officers say they simply feel welcome and more appreciated in suburban communities. Working outside of Seattle also gives officers the opportunity to have a shorter commute—less than 15 percent of SPD officers live in the city—which may be why the Lakewood Police Department was able to hire away seven Seattle cops recently. Then there are the hefty hiring bonuses, the take-home cars, the education incentives, and, most importantly, the higher pay.

A new officer in Seattle starts out at around $47,000 a year. But those same rookies can make $5,000 to $19,000 more by signing on to departments in Renton or Kent, plus bonuses for working patrol, physical fitness, and college degrees. Across the lake in Bellevue, Gnehm's hometown, a new recruit with a college degree can make as much in his or her first year as an SPD officer with more than four years of experience.

With poor benefits, few perks, and low pay, SPD is not only having trouble attracting new recruits like Gnehm, they're having trouble keeping the officers they've got.

As the city continues to pump money into the department's budget to hire more officers, experienced cops are walking out the door. Last year, SPD lost 46 officers to other departments.

Some of those cops are leaving for better pay, or shorter commutes, or what they perceive as more grateful residents. But many Seattle cops are fed up with a drawn-out contract-negotiation process. Police officers in Seattle have been working without a contract since December 2006, and a number of officers are already packing up and preparing to jump ship if the guild's contract isn't nailed down soon.

"You [have officers] with three, four, and five years leaving, that's just devastating," says SPOG president O'Neill. "It takes a year to get someone hired, trained, and out there, and another before you know which end is up."

Even if the SPD filled all its open positions and found a better way to retain officers, the question remains: Is a department consisting of 1,307 officers big enough to police a city the size of Seattle?

"I don't think there's an optimum number that you can say you get to that point and say you're fine," says Dr. Otwin Marenin, a professor in Washington State University's criminal justice program. But statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice point to the root cause of Seattle's police problem: There aren't enough of them.

According to the Department of Justice, the national average is about one officer for every 271 residents. Some cities have more than that—New York City has one officer for every 218 residents—while others have fewer. Atlanta, Georgia, with a population similar to Seattle's, has one officer for every 279 residents. Denver, Colorado, has one officer for every 354 residents. Seattle has just one officer for every 500 residents.

To bring Seattle's officer-resident ratio down to a manageable ratio of 1 to 250, the city would need to double what it currently spends annually on patrol officers, to over $220 million.

While it may be financially infeasible for Seattle to double the size of its police force, Council Member Nick Licata says there's more to policing than just numbers. "We're not going to double our police force," he says. "This game of 'how do you properly staff and pay for police in the city' is a quagmire of statistical dead ends."

Licata agrees that Seattle needs more cops, but he says the ones we have also need more training, and the department should pull from other pools it already has, such as the 20 or more officers working desk jobs at each of Seattle's five precincts throughout the day.

"The question is, ultimately, does the population feel safe or not?" Licata says. "The polls that they've done say people basically feel safe."

After a string of violent incidents shook Seattle's downtown core in the summer of 2007, the SPD responded with an unprecedented show of force centered around Third Avenue and Pine Street, a hot spot of criminal activity for years. But as officers made their presence felt downtown, bad guys simply pulled up stakes, according to neighborhood groups, and moved north to Belltown or east to Capitol Hill. Now, the problems have spread and the department just doesn't have the manpower to extend patrols. SPD just can't win.

Over in the Pike Place Market, Kristen Sekera—assistant manager at Kasala Furniture—says a police crackdown in the neighborhood hasn't done much. "[Victor Steinbrueck Park] is out of control," she says. "I call it Crackhead Park." Sekera says she constantly sees people doing drugs in the alley behind Kasala—on Western Avenue and Virginia Street—and has called police "two or three times in the last month." Still, she says, when the police do come, it's usually too late. "Two weeks ago, I called [the police], for these underage kids smoking pot and drinking [behind the store]. It took the cops 45 minutes to show up." Sekera says as soon as the cops showed up, the kids ran. "It wasn't a prompt response," she says.

One SPD officer—who asked not to be named—believes because of hiring problems and unreasonable expectations, the SPD will continue to be the "bad guy" in the mind of public. "I think officers truly feel the community doesn't support the police department," the officer says.

In the last year, SPD has taken a beating in the media. A number of officers—including Chief Gil Kerlikowske—have been accused of misconduct. Tensions have grown recently between some communities and the department. With all of the ink spilled over police accountability in the last year, it seems counterintuitive to argue for more cops.

Is hiring more cops the answer? Well, that all depends on how quickly Seattle wants its stolen cars returned, its hit-and-run drivers ticketed, and its violent criminals apprehended and arrested. Clearly, Eickmann, Graf, and Sandusky's cases show the department isn't living up to expectations. Seattle is outgrowing its police force, and as the department's numbers plummet, things are only going to get worse.

If this were just a numbers game, $100 million would go a long way toward super-sizing the department. While blindly throwing money at the problem isn't going to fix anything, it's clear the city is going to have to shell out some cash to attract more recruits, and keep the good cops we've got. If things keep going the way they're going, we're not going to get either. recommended

jonah@thestranger.com

 

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