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SPD Chief O’Toole meets with Greenwood business owners, residents to talk about neighborhood crime

About three dozen Greenwood business owners and residents met with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole on June 20 to express their concerns about rising crime in the neighborhood.

Chief O’Toole began the meeting with a statistic that has dismayed Seattle residents since she took the helm two years ago: Boston, where she previously worked, has 800-1,000 more officers for a similarly-sized city.

“Policing in Seattle is a work in progress,” Chief O’Toole said while acknowledging neighbors’ frustrations. “We are working very hard on reform. We are trying to use the resources that we have more effectively and efficiently.”

She said when she first arrived, she was surprised that Seattle didn’t have more visible police officers patrolling on foot, instead of in their cars simply racing from one 911 call to another.

One of the biggest concerns expressed by residents and business owners is the proliferation of RV camping, where derelict campers park on side streets or by parks and stay for weeks or months. Neighbors have long complained that people in some of those RVs are causing crime.

“We all agree that homelessness is not a crime, but if there are people committing crimes and terrorizing the neighborhood we need to address that,” Chief O’Toole said.

She said the North Precinct compiled a list of 207 RV and car campers and had offered services to nearly all of them, but many did not take them up on those offers of help. In the week prior to the Greenwood meeting, the North Precinct spent about 130 hours on the issue. Officers posted 86 72-hour notices to move and had impounded 26 vehicles since April. Unfortunately, with a 72-hour notice, cars can simply move down the street and start the process again.

“We’re finding a lot of people facing issues of mental health crisis,” she said of not only car campers but others committing crimes. “The property crime we see in the North Precinct, probably 95 percent of it is directly related to addiction issues.”

North Precinct Capt. Sean O’Donnell said there’s an undercover buy-bust drug operation in Greenwood every two weeks, with most of those arrested being from out of the area.

Elizabeth Chayer, owner of American Dance Institute on the corner of 80th and Greenwood, said her studio had been burglarized five times in the last few months (one of those was an employee’s car parked behind the studio). “My employees are totally wigged out,” she said.

Capt. O’Donnell said he had already directed additional patrols in that area, including officers in cars, on bike and on foot. He’s told officers on bikes to ride down alleys and those on foot to look into every doorway. Chief O’Toole said they could also ask the Major Crimes Task Force to get involved.

“It feels like we’re not safe or secure,” Naked City Brewery Co-owner Bryan Miller said, adding that his business hasn’t been hit yet but he feels like it’s just a matter of time. “It seems most of the crimes happen in the early morning hours before dawn. We just need more protection right now.”

Chief O’Toole said one offender admitted to 300 property crimes in the North Precinct. SPD is now working more closely with the King County Prosecutors Office and the City Attorney’s Office to help people get the services they need and not just go through a revolving door of arrest and then back on the street.

She said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg recently assigned a prosecutor to work full time with the property crimes task force on prolific offenders. Two officers from the North Precinct are now assigned to work with that task force.

Marnee Chua, owner of Works Progress, a co-working space at 115 N. 85th St., Suite 202, that’s open to members 24-7, has its main entrance in the alley. She said her staff and members are increasingly worried for their safety, and a staff member recently was assaulted on their property. She said the suspects were not arrested and come by all the time and just stare at them through the window until they call the police again.

“I don’t know what else we can do. We have video surveillance, we’re doing the lighting, we warn our members,” Chua said in frustration.

Another issue that residents brought up is the number of vacant houses that appear to house squatters and possibly other criminal activity. Two vacant houses recently caught on fire, including one at 79th and Dayton Avenue on June 6, and another in the 7100 block of Aurora Avenue about a week later.

Officer Joe Bender said SPD has a Vacant Trespass Program, where they work with owners of vacant properties to get blanket authority for officers to go onto the property at any time. That way they don’t have to look up the property owner or registered agent when someone complains of squatters or other issues. So, if any neighbors know of a vacant house with issues, call Officer Bender at 206-233-3984 and he’ll contact the property owner. If an owner won’t work with the Vacant Trespass Program and the home isn’t being kept secure, the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections can be called in.

In the case of the vacant house at Aurora and 71st, Officer Bender said the owner had joined the Vacant Trespass Program a few months ago and officers had been on the property a few times before the fire.

SPD also has a graffiti detective who can link graffiti to a suspect. So it’s important to report any graffiti right away. Take a picture and send it to SPD online before the graffiti is painted over.

Click here for a list of contact information for the North Precinct Community Police Team.

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