More than 200 people crowded into Seattle City Council chambers last night and many urged city officials to do something they haven't done much in recent decades: hire more police officers.
During what was billed as a "Neighborhood Crime Summit," a proposal by Mayor Greg Nickels to hire 25 more police officers got a largely favorable response from all corners of the city. There was plenty of disagreement on what police ought to focus on, but neighbors from South Park to Lake City said they felt like police are stretched too thin.
"More police officers is the key here," said Ron Momoda, who lives near Othello Playground in South Seattle, where neighbors have pushed for more police after a fatal shooting March 12.
The Seattle Police Department has about 1,200 sworn officers, with 688 assigned to patrol units. But the number available to patrol the streets at any given time drops significantly after taking into account officers on vacation or sick leave, plus those in training or temporarily assigned to other duties.
On average, during each nine-hour watch, there are 88 police officers on duty citywide in car, bicycle or foot beats, according to a city analysis commissioned by Councilman Nick Licata, who organized last night's meeting. (Police divide the day into three overlapping nine-hour "watches.")
The sometimes sparse police presence in neighborhoods was a serious matter as Councilman Peter Steinbrueck discovered when he tried to joke: "I guess that's why they call it the thin blue line, huh?" referring to the police as a barrier between order and lawlessness.
No one laughed.
Police staffing in Seattle has remained largely flat for the past three decades, and the city has eliminated come civilian police positions, such as community-service officers, during the past few years of budget cuts.
The council is expected in coming weeks to take up Nickels' plan for 25 new officers, who would be split among patrol units in each of the city's five precincts. Meanwhile, Licata also has tried to build support for a proposed $10.5 million property-tax levy to pay for even more police officers, as well as social services aimed at dealing with the root causes of crime.
Some last night suggested efforts to hire more police should be balanced with other programs.
"I would like the whole city to take a different slant," said Mariana Quarnstrom, who chairs the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council. For example, she said the city should lengthen some late-night programs for youth, which currently end at 11 p.m.
Nationally, property- and violent-crime rates have been falling since the mid-1990s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In Seattle, major crimes were down 7.2 percent last year and violent crimes down 3.7 percent, according to figures reported by the Seattle Police Department to the FBI.
Nevertheless, some neighborhoods have grown increasingly concerned about pockets of violence. And many last night also complained about police response to property crimes, such as auto theft. The department's clearance rate for auto theft last year was 6.4 percent, well below the national average of 13.1 percent.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org