By Ryan Pangilinan
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Wednesday, Dec. 10, members of several International District businesses met with a handful of officers from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to discuss the recent rash of robberies in the neighborhood as well as how to bridge the communication gap between merchants and law enforcement.
Cramped in a tight corner of Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant, concerns from all parties were voiced as the representatives from SPD fielded their questions and concerns.
“We want to open up the line of communication,” said Lt. Jim Fitzgerald of the West Precinct. “Most citizens become frustrated with 911.”
The general consensus among both business owners and police officers was that while the police force is present throughout the day — by both bicycle cops and the plain-clothed Anti-Crime Team (ACT) — law enforcement also needed to be present during late hours to ensure that all suspicious activities are reported.
“When bars close, they come here to eat,” said Mary-Beth Ellis, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association. Ellis noted that while sections of Seattle with a high ratio of bars, such as Belltown and Capitol Hill, have their own issues, many patrons converge upon the International District where some businesses stay open later than typical diners.
Fitzgerald empathized with many of the concerns. “They (Belltown) do have a problem, but so do you,” he said.
Another issue that was addressed was that of the displaced people who often loiter in the neighborhood. The police pointed out that because of Seattle’s relaxed panhandling laws, vagrants were not necessarily committing any crimes. However, that explanation did not stop others from telling their stories.
“I have a tenant who locks her door at 4 p.m. because of [the homeless people],” said Barry Mar, whose family owns the Atlas Building.
“It’s just a matter of time before [a crime] is in the paper. Presence is helpful. Help us help you,” Mar said to the table full of officers.
Going back to the problem of dispersing the proper amount of officers, Sgt. Paul Gracy said, “Those guys make a lot of arrests, so [we need to] work that balance. We want to put people in jail, but we can’t arrest ourselves of this problem.”
While the merchants and business owners were outspoken, the SPD went down a list of statistics that compared the reported crimes from November 2007 to the reports from November 2008, which suggested that some crimes, such as civil issues and narcotic arrests had decreased, while others — such as assaults and disturbances — have stayed even. The police also noted that robberies had increased.
“The stats are saying that crime is not worse than it was last year,” said Fitzgerald. He also noted that statistics aren’t particularly accurate since some crimes may have gone unreported. “Calls to the West Precinct went down 20 percent,” he added.
At this, Bush Garden owner, Karen Sakata, expressed a previous encounter with an emergency service dispatcher.
“They say that they have a right to be on the street,” she said. “They discourage people from calling .”
Ellis went on to suggest that the International District merchants also vocalize their concerns regarding trespassing and aggressive panhandling because it often turns potential customers away from some of the neighborhood’s highly populated hot spots.
The officers were empathetic with many of the citizen’s concerns, but their answers seemed to go back to the idea that people will just have to communicate better with the police. In continuing the dialogue on this issue, they were offered a meeting with city attorney Tom Carr on Dec. 17.
This meeting may have ended, but the talks continue to happen with the promise of progress. ♦
Ryan Pangilinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.