Seattle needs more police officers
Special to The Times
The tragic deaths of four local police officers in the past 123 days — King County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Cox, Brier Officer Edwanton Thomas, and Seattle Officers Joselito Barber and Beth Nowak — bring the dangers of police work into razor-sharp focus.
Police officers work hard and expose themselves to great risks. In exchange, they deserve our appreciation and support. They particularly deserve the support of our elected officials in the form of appropriate compensation, proper equipment and adequate staffing that will lessen their risks and reduce crime.
In Seattle, at least, city officials have finally noticed that police staffing levels are too low — something patrol officers, prosecutors, local business owners and neighborhood crime councils have known for years.
But rather than implement a strong and focused strategy to correct decades of police-staffing neglect, the City Council tried to please everyone. The city's budget for the next two years includes the hiring of just 31 new officers. About half of the new funds available for public safety were earmarked not for additional police officers, but for social services, civilian police assistants and legal services.
While such services certainly have value, the council would have been wiser to invest all of the funds in new officers, a move that would jump-start the rebuilding of our city's police force. To reach parity with comparable cities, Seattle needs to hire just over 200 new officers.
Why are more officers needed? Consider these sobering facts:
• Our patrol officers' workloads are extremely heavy. This not only endangers them as they rush from one incident to the next but leaves little time for the grassroots investigations and community liaisons at which they excel.
• Large sections of our city can be left with little to no police coverage. Want proof? Just ask your neighbor or friend who's been the victim of an auto theft, vandalism, burglary or other "low-priority" crime. Or ask an officer who just might be working two or even three patrol districts because his shift is understaffed. Wait time for an officer can be excruciatingly long, and it's not the officer's fault; blame rests squarely with city elected officials.
• Overworked detectives are unable to keep up with evidence-gathering and paperwork to support the filing of criminal charges. Thus, cases receive priority only if they involve violent crimes or suspects in custody; most others wait. The death of Officer Nowak on Nov. 13 is a tragic example of how such delays can have devastating consequences. A career criminal, on the street because his latest brush with the law was flagged as low priority, smashed into the officer's car with a stolen vehicle, killing her. Had he been in jail where he belonged, Officer Nowak would still be with us.
• Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske believes our city's police staffing should be equivalent to those of other cities — such as Boston, Charlotte, Denver, Nashville and San Francisco — that have comparable public-safety challenges, including tourism, a robust entertainment industry, professional sports and a sizable commuter population.
Violent crime in Seattle is the lowest among the cities listed above, although it increased 8.2 percent in 2005 and will be up again this year. Our property-crime rate, on the other hand, is the highest. As a result, Seattle has the highest overall rate of serious crime, the highest rate of serious crime per police officer, and the lowest rate of police officer deployment.
To match the average per-capita officer deployment of the cities mentioned, Seattle would need a net gain of 219 police officers (based on 2005 numbers). And this increase can't come soon enough.
As one criminal-justice official remarked recently, Seattle police are "barely hanging on."
As a vibrant international gateway city with a large and growing population, Seattle will face public-safety issues for many years. It's true that we face other serious challenges, including transportation and education. But if we don't begin paying closer attention to public-safety services, our quality of life increasingly will be threatened.
Strong, focused and strategic leadership is needed from our mayor and City Council. Adequate funding and staffing of Seattle's Police Department is a priority we dare not continue to overlook. Continuing to squeeze services from understaffed police ranks is a disservice to the women and men who serve us so diligently throughout the city.
Timothy Burgess is the former chair of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, a former Seattle police detective, and past chair of the Queen Anne Community Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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