by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
While summer is usually the busiest time of year for police, this winter has been a time of big projects, career maneuvering and the first hints of reform for the Seattle Police Department. Facing a year with a significant dip in violent crime but an uptick in property crime, the SPD’s tack in 2013 seems to have been forward thinking, though not always to the approval of the people they’re sworn to protect and serve.
Seattle’s winter crime statistics report will be available at the end of the year, but overall trends through August paint a lopsided picture of public safety today. According to the SPD’s current year citywide major crime statistics, there have been far fewer homicides this year than in 2012, a year marked by a spread in gang-related violence and one mass shooting that claimed more lives in one day than there were murders in any given month of 2013. This year, most incidents have been isolated, such as when police fatally shot a man at an apartment building at 23rd Avenue East and East John Street on Nov. 29. The suspect had threatened a woman at the building with a rifle, then fired on police who responded to the woman’s 911 call. Police returned fire and killed the man with no other reported injuries on the scene.
Aggravated assault in 2013 is also down significantly, though the number of reported rapes is on par with 2012. Robbery, burglary and vehicle theft have all jumped this year, with burglary up 23 percent as of August. Of reported property crimes, only larceny has seen a dip.
The SPD has been cracking down on drug crime over the past month. Nov. 20 saw one of the largest sting operations in Seattle history when a coordinated strike ended in the arrest of more than 30 suspected drug dealers and gang members, mostly along Third Avenue downtown in the busy Westlake Center area. The SPD continues to target drug dealers in smaller operations, including one successful arrest on Dec. 2 by East Precinct police of a methamphetamine dealer who attempted to flee the scene by ramming two police cruisers near Northgate Mall.
November wasn’t all victories for the SPD, though. Public outcry over a new digital surveillance system the department had installed at various points throughout the city found police uninstalling the system before it had even been activated. The equipment included antennas attached to utility poles and had the ability to capture signals from common devices like cell phones, laptop computers and tablets. Use of this surveillance technology is now under review in the Seattle City Council.
Internally, the SPD continues to experience instability related to the reforms mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice. A generally unfavorable report by Federal Monitor Merrick Bobb in November led to two staffing shake-ups within the department leadership. Interim Chief Jim Pugel demoted two assistant chiefs between late November and early December. Assistant Chief Dick Reed took a demotion to the rank of captain shortly after Bobb’s report came out, then Assistant Chief Nick Metz followed suit under threat of termination days later.
Metz detailed his experience in a department-wide letter that made it clear that his reassignment was not his decision, writing, “It has been decided that there will be a change in the face and structure of leadership. I have been recently informed that, effective December 2nd, I will not be part of that team.”
Interim Chief Jim Pugel has been the acting commander of the Seattle Police Department since May of 2013 when his predecessor, John Diaz, resigned the previous month. Pugel now wishes to remain at his post, vying for an official appointment by Mayor-Elect Ed Murray when he takes office in January.
“I’ve been here 30 years. I know what needs to be done. I have a good relationship with the monitoring team, I believe I have a good relationship with the community as well as with the officers who work for me,” Pugel told reporters on Nov. 26. Appointing a permanent police chief is one of Murray’s top priorities, a decision he and many other elected officials in Seattle wished to see finalized after the busy Seattle mayoral election.
Pugel and many among the SPD’s leadership don’t seem to have the support of lawmakers and federal oversight officials. City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has been vocal in his disapproval of the department’s performance as of late, telling KOMO news reporters that he is “extremely frustrated” with the findings in Bobb’s report.
In our own neighborhood, East Precinct Captain Ron Wilson announced his retirement at the end of October after 17 months at the post, and his replacement, likely one of the East Precinct’s current lieutenants, will take over as at the start of April.
Another report of interest to the future of the Seattle Police Department is the most recent analysis conducted by the new Seattle Community Police Commission. The city formed the CPC as a part of the federally mandated reforms, tasking the panel of experts and community members with surveying Seattle residents and making recommendations to the SPD for operational changes. The new report, released Nov. 15, focuses on what it calls “bias-free policing.” In practice, this means increasing diversity and personality examinations of new hires to the SPD, as well as implementing more rigorous cultural sensitivity training for the entire department. Many respondents to the CPC survey also wanted to see police required to wear personal cameras and to enact protections for people who document police activity.
Federal Monitor Bobb will present his recommendations on SPD policy reforms to the federal court on Dec. 31. The court will have the power to accept or reject his recommendations.