South End Homicides: Did Policing Plan Leave the Hardest Hit Part of the City Understaffed?

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Of nine recent homicides that have led the mayor to declare a "public safety emergency," six have occurred on the South End. According to one community leader, the city has only itself-- and a policing plan implemented a few years ago--to blame.

That leader is Pat Murakami, who as we reported yesterday, is the aggressive president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council. Her neighborhood "walkabouts" were singled out by Councilmember Bruce Harrell as an idea that he plans to put "on steroids." Murakami was unimpressed, saying that what the South Precinct really needs is more officers.

This is particularly true, she further tells SW, because the South Precinct was shortchanged in 2008, when the Seattle Police Department implemented what it called a "Neighborhood Policing Plan." At that time, the boundaries of precincts were withdrawn and a new staffing formula devised that was intended to be more equitable.

According to Murakami, it was not. As she put it in an e-mail to community members in December, after the beating death of Filipino hairdresser Danny Vega, "the South Precinct patrol area was increased by 30 percent, placing an even greater burden on the already most under-staff precinct in the city." Yet, the city added no new officers to the precinct.

The problem, as she sees it, is that the staffing formula is largely based on 911 calls in order to determine the workload of each precinct. Yet, she says, "our community does not call 911," in part because of language and cultural barriers among the many immigrants who populate the South End. She points to an informal survey conducted by a NewHolly resident showing that many residents of that housing development were victims of crime they had not reported.

Police documents partially confirm Murakami's critique. The South Precinct did expand in 2008, swallowing the area between I-5 and the Duwamish River, formerly the domain of the Southwest Precinct. (See the maps of new and old police beats contained in the plan on pages 15 and 16.) That gave the precinct 17 square miles, more than any other except the much larger North Precinct. Yet the South Precinct, one of five in the city, retains only 18 percent of SPD's overall number of patrol officers.

But Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, talking with SW, says the South Precinct can handle the extra terrain, which he pegs as a "20 or 21" (not 30) percent increase. That's because, he says, the added land is "industrial flatlands" resulting in little extra work. (Newly bustling Georgetown was thrown in too, however.)

As for the suggestion that the staffing formula doesn't account for under-reporting on the South End, he says "it is a theory of great concern to us all." Nevertheless, he says he has not seen "statistically reliable data" that backs that up. In fact, he says, the proportion of 911 calls relative to the population on the South End is the same as it is in the rest of the city.

In other words, if Murakami and her neighbors want to make a case for under-reporting, they'll need a fancier study than the NewHolly survey--undoubtedly tricky, since the crime prevention council has no funding.

Paradoxically, in the wake of the murder spree, SPD is recognizing that the South End does needs more officers. The department is deploying them from a variety of different specialized units to work at hotspots where the murders occurred. It's a temporary deal though, and the basic staffing formula remains unchanged.

 
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