On Wednesday, with little notice and in the middle of the day, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole took questions for what she called “the first ever NextDoor town hall.” Notice of the town hall went up on Twitter and NextDoor around 10:30 in the morning and the comments thread on O’Toole’s NextDoor post was closed at 3.
Not surprisingly for a private social network that tends to be dominated by north end homeowners, most of the questions and comments O’Toole got in response to her late-morning announcement came from the north end, especially Ballard and Wallingford. (Twenty-nine questions came in from all of Southeast Seattle and the Central District combined, compared to more than 125 from north of the Ship Canal.)
Ballard’s NextDoor page has been populated lately by complaints about homeless encampments and illegally parked RVs in the neighborhood, and the problems with drug dealing and theft many residents feel are associated with the homeless; north end residents in general frequently raise concerns on NextDoor about car prowls, mail theft, and burglaries they feel SPD doesn’t take seriously enough. are also high on the list.
In keeping with those patterns, the questions for O’Toole Wednesday centered on property crime, parking, density (to which north end NextDoor commenters seem generally opposed), the perceived need for armed private security, and nuisance crimes associated with homelessness (like public urination and loitering).
One commenter, from East Wallingford, said she could “no longer even drive on the freeway without seeing trash, feces, tents, rats, and beer cans” as well as “a man urinating” at illegal encampments. “I don’t even want my kids to play at the local parks anymore. Maybe it’s time to move.” Another, from Green Lake, wondered “what is being done to get rid of the homeless” and “why do they seem to have more rights than taxpayers do?”
In general, most north end commenters seemed to want to know how O’Toole would crack down on the homeless, including those living in RVs; whether SPD would increase its emphasis on property crimes; what was being done to hire more officers; and why the city would allow more density when the crime problem is already out of hand. Only in the south end did residents express concerns about gang violence, aggressive policing and racial profiling, and violent crime in general.
O’Toole’s response to the barrage of questions (more than 300 by the time SPD shut it down at 3:00) was brief, dividing NextDoor members’ concerns into three categories: Property crime, 911 response times and the need for more officers; and homeless encampments and RVs. O’Toole said the city will launch a new Property Crimes Task Force to “focus exclusively” on car prowls, mail thefts, and other property crimes; at an unrelated meeting in Ballard Wednesday night, she said that task force (formed by repurposing existing officers) would focus almost exclusively on the north end of the city. She also noted that the city plans to hire 200 more officers over attrition by 2019, “modernize” the 911 system, and hold homeless people who commit crimes accountable.
Later Wednesday evening, O’Toole expanded on those answers at a meeting of the Central Ballard Residents Association, at Swedish Hospital in Ballard.
In response to questions about long response times for lower-priority 911 calls, O’Toole acknowledged that “we’re having real struggles getting to Priority 2 and 3 calls quickly, and I know that’s been frustrating for many of you.” However, she noted that in the last five years, 911 calls from the North Precinct, which includes Ballard, have gone up 60 percent; meanwhile, the low-density nature of the mostly single-family district means it takes longer to respond to calls in person.
“The mayor says he really wants us to focus on property crime,” O’Toole said, adding that the new property crimes task force is “going to be working almost exclusively in the North Precinct until we get a handle on some of they property crime that we have here.”
As for homeless encampments and people living in RVs, O’Toole said, “homelessness in and of itself is certainly not a crime; it’s a tragedy. … Substance abuse is a tragedy, and we want to give people help who have issues. We want to give them services, but we need to hold people accountable for criminal activity. … If people are committing crimes, they should be arrested. We’re not asking officers to turn the other way.”
Finally, O’Toole said that simply forcing people to leave encampments wasn’t a solution to homeowners’ problems with the homeless, which ranged from the belief that they are responsible for property crimes to the possibility that they will spread “resistant strains of bacteria” and “tough biological compounds” through the general population. “As a police department, we don’t want to just keep pushing people around. We have to solve some of the problems” associated with homelessness, O’Toole said.
As in her NextDoor response, O’Toole did not address the issue of violent crime at all; on Wednesday, the issues of gangs and gun violence were only raised by people who live in Southeast Seattle.