Does Police `Teamwork' Work? -- 2-Year-Old Seattle Program Tries To Avoid Using Force

Glancing right and left at young men he said were selling drugs near the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, a Central Area landlord grumbled that it was about time Seattle police left their cars and got to know the neighborhood.

He was surprised to learn a team of officers has been doing just that for two years.

George Cook knew. As president of the South Park Community Club, he couldn't be happier with the way community police officers have helped residents clean up drugs and prostitution.

"Community policing" is the buzzword for police agencies across the nation eager to show a more responsive, service-oriented side to a public frustrated with crime and distrustful of police. When Willie Williams replaces Daryl Gates as Los Angeles police chief next month, he plans to introduce the concept to try to heal wounds resulting from the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent riots three weeks ago.

Community policing can mean anything from putting officers on foot patrol to creating "mini-precincts" in neighborhoods to making the public equal partners in enforcement strategies.

In Seattle, community-police teams of five officers and a sergeant staff each of the department's four precincts. The teams see themselves as the department's customer-service agents, trained to seek problems and to use alternative methods more often than force to thwart criminals. Police departments around the country have studied Seattle as a model.

Is it working here? Police and community leaders are still trying to find out.

An in-house evaluation of the program being prepared for the mayor's office will not include information on crime rates or other statistics that could show the impact of community police teams.

"You have some real difficulties isolating the effects and the benefits of positive changes," said Dan Fleissner, the Seattle police planning manager who has studied community policing across the country.

Two years after Seattle's program began, there are some indicators:

-- Individual success stories abound.

The police teams' relationship with residents was key, for example, in persuading some young people milling downtown after the King verdict to go home instead of looting stores.

Community police hotlines in each precinct receive between 50 and 100 calls a week for assistance, and the teams have completed dozens of projects. But some neighborhoods aren't as plugged into the program as others.

-- Despite the community police teams' outreach in minority neighborhoods, a recent citywide survey on police service in general indicated residents of the south and east parts of the city were less satisfied than those from the north and west sections.

-- Community police teams are wrestling with how to become more representative. They say a particular challenge is trying to involve more people of color in their work, particularly Asian Americans.

-- Some people still sense a gap between the community police teams, which some call "the good cops," and the rest of the department.

The schism is apparent in the controversy over the federal "Weed and Seed" program that has raised ire in the Central Area. Mayor Norm Rice has said he wants the law-enforcement part of the $1.1 million grant to expand the community-police team's hours in that predominantly black area.

Even Arnette Holloway, one of the most vocal opponents of Weed and Seed, praises community policing, though she calls the program a "Trojan horse" to bring in federal law-enforcement practices.


Because they don't have to respond to radio calls, the community police officers have time to get to know residents and problems. The officers say that pays off in situations such as the violence in the aftermath of the April 29 King verdict.

Young people often don't want to make trouble in front of community police officers because "they become very accustomed to you as a person," said Sgt. John Manning, who supervises the East Precinct team.

For example, team officers were called in to dissuade mobs from looting stores in downtown Seattle on May 2. When they pulled up to the Nordstrom department store, several dozen young men appeared ready to start breaking windows. Sgt. Bill Conn, recognizing one of the ringleaders from South Seattle, got out of the car and approached.

"He screamed, `They're going to beat us!' " Conn said. "I didn't have my riot gear, didn't have my baton. I took my cigarette out and I called him by name. Another officer grabbed a (gang member) by the ear and yelled, `I'm going to tell your mother on you! You should be home!' "

The tactics worked, Conn said; the crowd left that corner.

There are other success stories:

-- The meeting in the East Precinct between gang wannabes who had been claiming territory and Miller Park residents, a meeting that started angry and turned understanding. Some of the youths even got jobs as a result of the gathering.

-- The Nesbit neighborhood project in which North Precinct community police officers used everything from emphasis patrols to changing traffic patterns to reduce drug-dealing and prostitution east of North 85th Street and Aurora Avenue North.


How the teams serve the community is as varied as the neighborhoods they cover. South Precinct officers, in an attempt to reach residents who aren't activists, conduct yearly door-to-door interviews on the crime problems people would most like to see solved.

North Precinct officers regularly staff "little city halls" in the neighborhoods of North Seattle. East Precinct officers frequently make their rounds in street clothes to appear more accessible. Their hats and jackets are marked "POLICE" to identify them.

Still, some residents have no idea there's a community police program.

"You mean they got cops out there trying to help the community?" Eula Clark asked, incredulous as she cradled an espresso drink outside Roger's Thriftway on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. "That's nice to know they're trying to get involved."

Clark said she and her neighbors at East Spring Street and Martin Luther King Way didn't think the police would help them when they were trying to rid a corner of drug dealing. Eventually, she said, the dealers left because the neighbors constantly watched them.

"Frankly, it's tougher to work with low-income communities," said Fleissner, the planning manager. "For a number of reasons, including maybe fear . . . it's tougher to develop ongoing working relationships. It's tougher to get them out joining a crime council."

While community police teams also work with other groups, neighborhood crime-prevention councils have a large part in setting their agenda.

Of the 12 voting members on the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, nine are white and three are African American, according to Kay Godefroy, executive director of the Neighborhood Crime and Justice Center.

There are no voting minorities on the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council, she notes, and seven of 21 voting members of the East Precinct Crime Prevention Coalition are African American. No other minorities are represented. There are no people of color on crime-prevention councils in the North or West sections of town, Godefroy says.

Language poses the biggest hurdle in the Asian community.


Manning, the East Precinct supervisor who is African American and lives in South Seattle, understands it will take more time to make inroads into all sectors.

"We have to bridge the gap and heal a lot of wounds," Manning said. "We've got to show them we're not going to pass them on. If you come to me, I'm going to talk to you about your concerns. I'm going to talk with you on a regular basis."

South Precinct Community Police Officer Marsha Wilson remembers her attitude toward police while growing up black in Baltimore.

"Hated 'em. Hated 'em! I probably felt the way kids here do - I didn't know 'em," she said, trying to show another side as she drives around the South End, talking with residents.

"Usually `they' were some red-faced white guy getting out of his car when somebody called. And then he was gone.

"The police here are really different."

-------------------------------- PHONES --------------------------------- -- The community police teams assist neighborhoods in solving problems from crack houses to unsightly vacant lots. Here's where to call for help:

North Precinct: 684-0851 . South Precinct: 386-9180 . East Precinct: 684-4370 . West Precinct: 684-8996 .

If you need an officer immediately, call 911.