At a time when Police Chief John Diaz is making the case for community policing, the Seattle Police Department's is quietly gearing up to cut its main community outreach personnel—Crime Prevention Coordinators and victim advocates—and the neighborhood programs they facilitate, such as Night Out and neighborhood blockwatches. Though SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says these positions were officially cut from SPD's budget last year, they were extended through March 2011 via a federal grant. That grant has not been renewed, and unless SPD finds funding within its own budget—a long shot given the city's current budget woes—the positions will be gone by spring.
In his first confirmation hearing with the Seattle City Council last week, Chief Diaz identified SPD's mission as "fighting crime, reducing fear (through reassurance policing) and building community." Crime Prevention Coordinator Diane Horswill says it's been her job the last 15 years to accomplish all three.
"We have more actual contact with citizens than anyone else in the police department," says Horswill, the North Precinct's Crime Prevention Coordinator. "We organize blockwatches, we attend meetings, we secure homes, basically, we adapt to neighborhood needs. When we go, a lot of programs go with us. Neighborhoods need to be prepared for that."
Specifically, Crime Prevention Coordinators organize Night Out—a popular block party that shuts down thousands of Seattle streets each year as neighbors come together to meet, enjoy music, and talk about how to make their neighborhoods safer. Night Out is slated for next Tuesday, August 3. Roughly 1,200 blocks participated in Night Out last year and SPD expects better numbers this year. From this program, many neighborhood blockwatches are started—which is another program the crime prevention coordinators help facilitate.
Meanwhile, SPD's victim advocates work with the department's domestic violence, sexual assault, and robbery units to provide the kind of immediate services every trauma victim deserves—everything from counseling referrals and safe housing to funeral arrangements.
Victim advocates and crime prevention coordinators are civilian positions within SPD. Which is why, Horswill says, that she and her colleagues fill a roll that officers simply can't—such as hosting neighborhood meetings on residential burglaries, or attending court hearings with domestic violence victims. "Officers on patrol can't just take two hours out of their schedules to provide the kind of services that we can," she says.
"Diane is personal and thorough and always available when we need her," confirms Pinehurst resident Renee Staton. When Pinehurst faced a rash of residential burglaries, Horswill organized over 20 meetings with residents. "She came in with data and showed us that a lot of the burglaries were due to unsecured doors and windows," Staton says. "Then she offered to give individual security walk-throughs of our homes to see what security issues we have and how we could fix them." Staton's family took Horswill up on the offer and made major improvements to her home because of it—including replacing door frames, trimming trees, and updating deadbolts. "The bottom line is, our house is more secure and we feel much safer thanks to her work."
Which hits on another one of Chief Diaz's talking points. When asked by city council to share his thoughts on "reducing street crime and disorder" in neighborhoods, Diaz responded that the department needed to focus on "Continuing education on crime prevention and resistance for the community, including how to protect their homes and businesses, how to stay organized and connected within their communities, and the importance of ensuring that police are notified to investigate nuisance, suspicious and criminal activity."
"We focus on education, prevention, and support—not enforcement," Horswill says. "Everyone understands the importance of sworn officers and the functions they perform but they can’t do our jobs."
SPD has until March to find funding for these positions. If they're not renewed, "the work won't be done," says Whitcomb. "It's as simple as that."