The number of police officers patrolling Seattle neighborhoods has been stagnant since long before 1997. But since Joe Osborne and fellow city cops that year formed Seattle Security Inc. (SSI), a private company made up of off-duty police officers, Osborne has watched his company's roster double.
Private and co-owned by the Seattle Police Guild, SSI was formed to supplement law enforcement by providing a visible deterrent to crime in Seattle neighborhoods. But as the ripple effect of recent cuts to Seattle's police budget spreads to residents and neighborhood businesses, Osborne is turning away requests for services that, even in lean years, would normally be the city's responsibility.
SSI pays off-duty police to offer a presence at Seattle neighborhood and private events and in restaurants and stores. Increasingly, though, the firm's 300 cops are being asked to provide surveillance and foot beats and to follow up on local crimes. "We're not here to take over the police department's job," says Osborne, an officer with the city's East Precinct since 1990. "We're here to supplement it."
Under Seattle's new public-safety budget, SSI should remain busy. Amended only slightly in the version passed by the City Council, Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal shrinks the Seattle Police Department (SPD) by as many as 26 sworn officers and 48 civilian officers, a category that includes crime prevention, community service, and misdemeanor-warrant units.
Meanwhile, Seattle's Business Improvement Areas (BIA)—neighborhood coalitions that bolster city services through assessments on property and sales taxes—are pumping as much money as possible into safety programs that rely increasingly on off-duty police.
The International District, whose Hing Hay Park remains a notorious Seattle drug spot, recently added off-duty police to support the revolving door of security guards who have patrolled the neighborhood since 1994. The neighborhood's formal police presence currently consists of two SPD beat cops who float between the International District and Pioneer Square during the day, while, at night, a single patrol car roams the "King Sector" from Chinatown to Spokane Street and the waterfront to Interstate 5.
"We should have more police at night. That's when the action takes place," says a daytime clerk at the Golden Star Deli Mart at the corner of Maynard Avenue South and South King Street, across from the park. The clerk, who declined to offer her name out of fear for her safety, finds humor in the "Drug-Free Zone" sign on the lamppost across the street. "It'll be pouring down rain, and people are standing there all night," she says, leaning over the counter and pointing at the spot. "They must be just soaked and freezing, and they stand there for hours and hours at a time. There's got to be something going on."
WHETHER IT'S MORE perception or reality, it was such an atmosphere of insecurity in Chinatown that initially compelled the Chinatown-International District BIA to hire private security guards. The BIA now holds a contract with Northwest Loss Prevention Inc., which charges $18 per hour per guard. "We're not designed to do the heavy lifting. That's the police department's job. We're the eyes and ears," says David Akers, chief operations officer of the Lynnwood firm.
Two problems with this arrangement prompted BIA director Pauline Zeestraten to add off-duty police to the mix: About half the firm's $18 hourly fee winds up in guards' pockets, a meager incentive to do a stellar job. And while they do carry stun guns, security guards have no power to arrest. Their presence helps, but merchants remain uneasy. "When (police) are here, the park is quiet," she says. "If no (police) are here, people take advantage of it."
SSI was formed in 1997 as a hiring hall for cops interested in making extra money in the security business. Under the firm's payroll system, off-duty police work up to 24 hours a week for pay, matching SPD guild rates. SSI charges $40 to $45 an hour and pays officers $29, the top of the guild scale.
The International District BIA recently spent $15,000 to have SSI place two off-duty police officers in the neighborhood on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.—busy nights for popular Chinese restaurants such as Top Gun and Honey Court and watering holes such as the Ritz Dance Club. "People are less likely to do something stupid if they see an officer standing there," Osborne says.
THE PIONEER SQUARE and University District BIAs have had similar arrangements with SSI, and Broadway's BIA is considering one. Broadway is trying to merge with the Capitol Hill BIA, a move that would create a combined annual budget of about $700,000. If the merger takes place, the combined BIAs plan to spend 34 percent of their budget—almost $240,000 a year—on off-duty police.
Broadway BIA director Monica Moe would welcome the investment. It disturbs her that a sense of security—the most basic benefit for taxpaying citizens and business owners—now seems to cost extra. "There aren't nearly enough patrol officers. Nobody has the money to do anything," she says. "But what's the option? If we do nothing, it just gets worse."