Disturbed not just by the reports of crime in Wallingford, but by the police department’s seeming indifference to it (Car Prowl, Block Watch?), Wallyhood took it on the road yesterday and paid a visit to Capt. Mike Washburn of the Seattle Police Department North Precinct and his second-in-command, Lt. Robin Clark .
As a bit of background, Seattle’s North Precinct stretches from the Ship Canal to the Seattle City Limit at 145th St N and water-to-water, Ballard to Sand Point, and it’s the single largest precinct in the state, as large as the entire Tacoma police department. There are, we learned, about 230 personnel charged with serving and protecting that area, and they’ve divvied it up into five sectors: Boy, John, Lincoln, Nora and Union, corresponding roughly to Ballard, Wallingford, Laurelhurst / Sand Point, Phinney / Greenwood and the University District respectively (the names originally had a first-letter correspondence, but that has become mixed up over various reorganizations).
In the map below, you’ll see that each sector is divided into three sub-sectors. The idea is that each sector has roughly the same workload, as does each subsector. Thus, the area encompassing the Ave in the U-District is a sub-sector unto itself (U3), on par with Laurelhurst, View Ridge, Sand Point and Windermere combined (L3). At any given time, there might be six police officers actively patrolling a given sector (and Capt. Washburn says he likes to maintain an empty precinct house, preferring to direct and deploy officers from the field).
We went in hoping to get some specific questions answered. We didn’t always like the answers we got, but we did have the feeling that they were being given by honest people making a good faith effort to do the right thing.
We went in armed with stories our readers had told about repeated thefts and of the police ignoring what we considered strong leads (e.g., stolen item found on Craigslist).
We were surprised to hear that even if they did find a stolen item on Craigslist, they confirmed that they probably would not bother to arrest the seller. Why? Because without proof that the seller was the actual thief, the arrest wouldn’t hold up in court. In the past, we were told, sellers have simply made up stories about how they came into possession of the stolen items and, given the legal requirements for proof, the seller goes free.
But surely they could use the single item to get a warrant to search the seller’s house, where they would certainly find hundreds of stolen GPS’s, iPods and three of our car stereos, right? Apparently, not. They asserted that a judge wouldn’t issue a search warrant unless there was probably cause to believe that there was additional stolen merchandise in the seller’s home.
What’s the point of reporting the item if the police aren’t going to make an effort to recover it and arrest the perpetrator?
Two reasons, we were told:
- They do catch people, sometimes with carloads of obviously stolen goods, but if the items haven’t been reported stolen, the perpetrators have to be released. “It pains us when we pull someone over with a crapload of things we know are stolen, and nobody reported them,” Capt Washburn said, using the only bit of colorful language elicited during the hour long conversation.
- They use the counts of crimes to determine how, when and where to deploy their units. If there’s a rash of car prowls reported in an area, presumably that area will see increased police surveillance.
This second point rang a bit hollow on further digging. The reporting and crime analysis system the department has is painfully antiquated. We were already made aware of this by the instructions we were given to pull police reports for our area: go to the precinct office in person where they will give you a DVD that you can use in their lobby to review a database of reports spanning the past 72 hours. Oh, and bring your own paper if you want to print anything out.
Still, we had assumed that this cumbersome process was intentionally difficult, to discourage citizens from actually examining the details of police activity. Not so, we were told. In fact, the police department itself doesn’t have much more efficient access to records. A request for a report on a particular incident requires submitting a request and waiting sometimes days or weeks for the appropriate records to be pulled. There is apparently only one “analyst” for the North Precinct.
In this age of Google and Web 2.0, we find this Gilliamesque system mind-boggling.
Capt. Washburn said, with some regret, that a more high-tech solution had been offered, free of charge (in exchange for guineau pig-hood), by Microsoft some years ago, but that the offer had been rejected. He regretted that decision was made. Having had more than our fair share of experience living with Microsoft beta products, we’re not so sure.
That said, there is some hope on the horizon: in the next several months a new system, Versadex, will go into effect, that will automate many parts of the dispatching and reporting system, including creating a single flow of data from initial contact through dispatch to incident report to follow-up. In a move that brings the police department squarely into the future realized by car rental companies 10 years ago, they will also be using GPS to identify the location of all squad cars at any given time, allowing for more efficient deployment.
More regular crime reports, though, so we can learn, for example, whether some particular type of crime is up or down over the last several months in some area, or whether there is in fact a pattern of crime emerging, is still years away. Sad.
Policing the Police
We have heard a number of complaints regarding police response when an incident was reported. In addition to the notorious “go confront the perp yourself” advice, another commenter reported being mocked by a detective caring that someone had camped out in her back yard (“so they had a picnic?”).
For this, we were told that they would appreciate it if when such incidents occurred, the citizen report it to the police supervisor so the issue can be addressed. If you are unhappy with the way a police officer has responded to you, call the precinct office, 206 684 0850 and ask to speak to the desk officer, the sergeant in charge or, if you prefer, give the officer’s name that you spoke with and ask to speak to his or her commanding officer.
We know, it sounds like a hassle, but if we don’t report it and give the police commanders the feedback about who’s doing a good job and who needs additional direction, we really can’t complain that they’re not improving.
Now, if you report an incident, and don’t get a satisfying response, please let Wallyhood know, and we’ll be happy to use this forum to get attention paid to your issue.
We hope this has been helpful. Sorry fo the longish post. While you were reading it, someone probably ripped off your bike. Go check.