Seattle's public-safety services stretched dangerously thin
Special to The Times
A block north, burglars stole valuables while my neighbors were asleep in bed. Needless to say, it's a little unsettling to realize that criminal strangers are prowling around the house while you're blissfully asleep upstairs.
The neighborhood has rallied together, strengthened our block-watch phone and e-mail alert system, and cooperated with police. But, there is a consistent and troubling message being heard from the police department that goes something like this: "Sorry, we're doing our best, but we are overwhelmed."
Other neighborhoods have it far worse than mine. Across the city, there is a growing realization that our public-safety services are stretched dangerously thin.
Last November, Seattle voters slapped city government upside the head by ousting three sitting members of the City Council and electing in their place individuals who presented themselves as focused, mature, back-to-basics alternatives.
The message in that election was simple and unequivocal: Seattle citizens want their government officials to pay attention to the core essentials of city services.
A key test of the council's — and Mayor Greg Nickels' — resolve to tend to the basics will be how quickly and how well they respond to the urgent need to significantly increase public-safety staffing levels.
The number of police officers available for service has declined in recent years — from 1,206 at the beginning of 2002 to a forecasted 1,161 by the end of this year. Even with planned hiring — it takes a year to recruit, train and deploy a new patrol officer — the net number of officers will increase over this year's low by only 16 over the next two-and-a-half years.
The officer-to-violent-crime ratio is one measure of what size a police force should be. Seattle's ratio is already low compared to other Western cities of similar size; the declining number of officers only makes it worse.
There were 232 on-duty firefighters spread across the city in 1965 before the surge in emergency medical responses brought on by the Medic One program; today, there are just 201. Yet, firefighter incident responses keep going up; the past eight years have seen a 12 percent increase.
National standards call for four firefighters for each fire engine. In Seattle, nine of 36 engine companies have only three. The result is increased risk to our firefighters and delayed rescue attempts because first-responding firefighters must wait for additional help before entering a burning home or business.
These statistics, and the anecdotal testimony of police officers and firefighters, reveal a public-safety system that has reached its capacity; in fact, has become stretched too thin. It's time to reverse the decline in police and fire personnel.
The number of on-duty firefighters should be increased by at least nine so all the city's fire engines meet the national standard. Police officer staffing, at a minimum, should be returned to the level of two years ago.
Seattle's police officers and firefighters are among the best in the nation. But, because of the budget crisis the city faces, and the tendency of some to take these good public servants for granted, the pressures to continue chipping away at these services are strong. Our elected officials should flee from this temptation.
Seattleites want the satisfaction of knowing that our police, fire and emergency medical services are professional, capable and well-staffed. Our confidence in their professionalism and capabilities is not in question. Whether we have a sufficient number of officers and firefighters is.
The people living in every neighborhood — from West Seattle to Ballard, from Northgate to Rainier Valley, from Capitol Hill to Magnolia — want to know that when they dial 911 they are going to receive prompt, effective and courteous service. Allowing police and fire staffing to remain at current levels is a clear threat to meeting this expectation.
This isn't just a public-safety issue, either. Our city's economic vitality will be threatened if employers and employees come to believe that we will allow our police and fire departments to remain stretched too thin and overburdened.
All of us need to pay attention to this important issue. We should expect our elected leaders to fully fund and maintain high-quality police and fire services, with increased staffing levels.
Timothy Burgess is co-founder of a Seattle-based international advertising agency serving nonprofit organizations. He has served on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, is a former Seattle police detective, and a past chairman of the Queen Anne Community Council. He can be reached at email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published July 13, was corrected July 14. A chart accompanying this guest commentary by Timothy Burgess had an incorrect column heading. It should have read "Violent Crimes per Police Officer," not "Police Officers per 1000 Violent Crimes." The numbers below the heading were correct.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company