News

Long arm of the law a little short

(First in a two-part series on police protection in Federal Way)

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Every candidate for public office understands the value of public safety. Crime casts long shadows over once-thriving neighborhoods and destroys quality of life for hard-working, law-abiding citizens.

While police typically are associated with responding to violent crime, they're also responsible for protecting communities from property crime –– graffiti, auto theft, vandalism and mail theft –– as well as nuisance crimes such as loud outdoor disturbances, speeding or racing on local streets, and public or under-age drinking.

Most Federal Way residents agree the police should respond to high-priority calls first. But many have approached the City Council over the years to complain about a perceived lack of response to "quality of life" crimes, like loud parties, vandalism, malicious mischief, fights or people being disruptive or intimidating in neighborhoods or parks.

In addition, some citizens have expressed frustration that when they've reported non-life-threatening crimes, police sometimes don't respond for hours, long after the perpetrators have left.

The council has allocated to the Police Department the budget to support a cadre of about 120 commissioned patrol officers, but a recent staffing crisis hit the department particularly hard. Now, police chief Anne Kirkpatrick is re-prioritizing. That means that while police are still responding to top-priority calls, there are fewer officers for the nuisance and property crimes that make people feel insecure about their community.

Crime rates

Federal Way's crime rate has fluctuated over the past few years, though Kirkpatrick noted the city has such a low number of violent crimes, even a small change looks like an enormous shift.

Federal Way's property crime rate grew from 2003 to 2004, but the auto theft rate dropped 7.1 percent, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The auto theft rate in Kent –– the most comparable city to Federal Way based on size, location and type –– grew 17.7 percent.

From 2003 to 2004, Federal Way's violent crime rate decreased 5.7 percent, according to the sheriffs and chiefs association. Rates of murder and rape remained the same from 2003 to 2004, but robbery dropped 3.2 percent and aggravated assault dropped 9.2 percent.

From 2003 to 2004, the city's property crime rate increased 2.5 percent.

By comparison, Kent saw a 4.7 percent drop in its violent crime rate and a 6.2 percent drop in the property crime rate during the same time period.

On the national level, violent crime increased .3 percent in cities of 50,000 to 99,999, according to the FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2005, released June 6. The national murder rate dropped 4.9 percent, and the rape rate dropped .2 percent, but robbery increased .5 percent and aggravated assault increased .3 percent.

For 2003, the year in which state and FBI statistics overlap, Federal Way's violent crime rate of 3.6 per 1,000 people was lower than the national average of 4.8 per 1,000. While the FBI's 2004 data isn't available yet, state data shows Federal Way's violent crime rate dropped last year to 3.3 per 1,000.

Federal Way's murder rate in 2003 of .02 per 1,000 people was lower than the national average of .06 per 1,000. But the city's rape rate in 2003 was at .6 per 1,000 people, double the national average of .3.

Robbery was slightly higher in Federal Way at 1.5 per 1,000 people than the national average of 1.4 per 1,000. Aggravated assault, the last of the so-called index crimes authorities use to determine the violent crime rate, was considerably lower in Federal Way, at 1.4 per 1,000, than the national average of 3.0 per 1,000.

Kirkpatrick said she regularly examines crime statistics to determine why the numbers change year to year and to gauge how Federal Way commpares to neighboring cities. If particular crimes climb significantly, even considering the small numbers, she talks strategy with her department's commanders.

In addition, every month Kirkpatrick joins King County's sheriff, 38 other police chiefs from cities around the county, and representatives from the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the King County prosecutor's office and the Secret Service to talk about ways to target certain crimes in the region.

"These are not crimes that happen frequently in our community," Kirkpatrick said. "For me, anything 10 percent or higher is something I'm going to be concerned about."

Recruitment, retention and morale

While Federal Way's police have a solid record of responding quickly to life-threatening crimes, no one disputes it sometimes takes hours for an officer to respond to a comparatively minor crime, like a noise disturbance or mail theft.

In addition, over the past several months, the city has seen a resurgence of graffiti and prostitution –– crimes that were virtually non-existent here for years.

Part of the problem is the loss of the Police Department's proactive patrol team, which dissolved when many older officers left the department at once. Members didn't respond to 9-1-1 calls; their job, Kirkpatrick said, was to be on general patrol around the city, creating a presence and proactively targeting crime.

Losing 10 seasoned officers in a month was a big hit. "It's a significant impact to an agency our size," Kirkpatrick said.

Federal Way is a fast-paced, high-crime city, and officers respond to a lot of calls. It can be exciting for a younger officer, "but people get tired," she said.

One of the officers was terminated, and others left for reasons based mainly on age and opportunities with which Federal Way couldn't compete, Kirkpatrick said.

One 51-year-old officer left for Seward, Alaska to work on a tour boat. Several other older officers were recruited to the Port of Seattle, and another went to the Seattle Police Department, where he'd worked before Federal Way. Another 45-year-old officer went to a department that could offer retiree medical benefits.

The loss of personnel means programs started several years ago to target particular types of crime shift to a back burner while the officers who used to be on the proactive team are out responding to other calls.

"How do we create time for proactive efforts when we respond to 9-1-1 calls?" Kirkpatrick said. "We're not Bellevue Police Department, with 180 commissioned officers. I have 119 commissioned officers."

She said she understands Federal Way's budget limitations, "so I'm not going to ask (for more). But if you want the service of having 180 commissioned officers, you have to pay for it."

That said, the department wasn't fully staffed before the 10 officers decided to leave. The goal now will be to attract new officers to bring the department up to full speed.

It's an issue for the council and for council candidates in the general election Nov. 8.

Councilman Eric Faison, who's running for re-election, said recruitment and retention can be difficult in any Police Department.

"Retaining people is tough," he said. "Some governments have more resources than others. We try to maintain competitive salaries. One of our biggest competitors right now isn't a city. It's the Port of Seattle."

Councilman Jim Ferrell, a King County deputy prosecutor, said the Federal Way department does possess some attractive qualities, like stability, morale and the amount of time Kirkpatrick has been at the helm.

"National accreditation says something about professionalism," Ferrell said. "The camaraderie, the relationship of officers and management –– it's positive."

Another important attribute, though, is whether a community supports its police department, and whether officers have adequate crimefighting resources.

Council candidate Mark Walsh said attracting prospective officers will require more than pay.

"Most other cities let officers take their (patrol) cars home," he said, noting Federal Way officers have to leave them at the station when they punch out. "That bothers a lot of officers, that they have to share cars. There are too few cars. If we're short people and we're short cars, we can't be actively patrolling. The easiest thing to identify is budgeting."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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