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So much crime, so little time

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Federal Way Police work in six squads of between seven and 10 officers each, depending on staffing. Three squads work every 24 hours –– day, swing and graveyard shifts.

Officers have four 10-hour shifts a week. Three squads work Monday through Thursday and three are on duty Thursday through Sunday. Squads and shifts overlap to provide the most coverage when it’s needed. Overtime is discouraged.

While it looks on paper like plenty of officers at any given time, the number available for calls thins pretty quickly as they start responding.

Whenever an officer takes someone into custody, that officer is off the street for hours –– potentially the remainder of the shift –– booking and filling out paperwork.

If there’s a domestic violence call, Police Department policy requires two officers respond together. That, too, leaves fewer patrol officers for the entire city.

Since Federal Way is a high call-volume city –– about 210 calls for service in a 24-hour period –– that’s not a lot of police on shift at any one time responding to a lot of crime. If something serious occurs, like a shooting, several officers will have to respond together.

“Some calls might take the entire squad,” said police chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Meanwhile, 9-1-1 calls keep coming and dispatchers continue to log them on the computer in order of priority. Before long, lower-priority calls fall to the bottom of a long list waiting for officer response. The result is the victims of minor crime feel neglected.

In addition, once an officer does finally show up to take a report, neighbors might not hear back about any resolution of their complaint -- which leaves some people feeling like nothing will ever be done about the growing crime concerns in their neighborhoods.

Jeanne Burbidge, who’s running to retain her seat on the City Council this year, said all crime is important to city officials and is taken seriously.

“When we’re affected by crime at any level, it’s important to us, no matter what the level,” Burbidge said. “Just because there’s not an immediate response doesn’t mean there isn’t a concern, or that they shouldn’t report.”

Though patrol officers aren’t the ones who make followup calls, Kirkpatrick said, the detectives do.

But detectives, too, are short-staffed. There are 16 detective detective positions funded in the Police Department’s budget, but only 10 on staff.

On the wall of a cubicle space in the detectives’ quarters at the police station, a map like a family tree identifies the members and associates of a local identity theft ring. The map represents hours of work –– and it’s only one of many ongoing criminal investigations.

Detectives monitor hundreds of cases each: Sex offenders, child molesters, identity theft and fraud crimes, drug dealers and auto theft rings, often with shared and overlapping members.

‘They have to prioritize’

Detectives spend hours conducting interviews with victims and witnesses, putting together statements, researching and correlating crime trends, making connections between new crimes and old ones and adding people to their dossier of criminals.

When a serious crime occurs, like a kidnapping or homicide, detectives are pulled off what they were working on to investigate. Like patrol officers, a serious incident will usually require all the detectives’ resources: One detective can’t interview all the witnesses, interview suspects in jail in Seattle and visit the crime scene in the hours following an incident. That means it could be several days before a detective can call a citizen with followup information about his or her case, particularly if it was a minor crime with no leads.

“They have to prioritize,” said City Councilman Jim Ferrell, who, in his full-time job as a King County deputy prosecutor, knows about police work. “When you call the police and there’s something going down, you need not just one officer but several right away.

“It ultimately comes down to staffing. Our police-support officers do a lot of background work, but in regard to taking a theft report, or vandalism or graffiti, it does take more officers. The question then is if we want to increase the number of officers and increase staffing, how will that impact our budget?”

Mark Walsh, Burbidge’s opponent in next month’s council election, said staffing –– and, by extension, budgeting –– is a major issue affecting the police ability to respond to calls. He suggested the council enact a policy change directing some of the utility tax, the majority of which currently is directed by policy to capital projects, toward public safety.

“It’s limited to capital projects, and it’s not that we don’t need capital projects, too, but we need to take care of the fundamentals,” Walsh said. “Everyone talks about public safety, but then (police) are kicked in the shins with overtime, cars and equipment.”

Councilman Eric Faison, who is running for re-election next month, said the city’s efforts to boost economic development downtown are tied to the need to increase revenue for the operating budget, the majority of which is consumed by public safety.

“With limitations on property tax through voter initiatives and with a relatively slow-growing sales tax base, that really leaves us with economic development to (address) financial challenges. Beyond that, it’s a matter of prioritization,” Faison said. “It would be wonderful to have more officers. Plain and simple, it comes down to money.”

Quality of life

Lack of staffing doesn’t mean the Police Department won’t address quality-of-life cases, a name that refers to loud parties, vandalism, malicious mischief, fights or people being disruptive or intimidating in neighborhoods or parks. Kirkpatrick said she believes in the broken-window theory: Criminal elements thrive in neglected areas, which are frequently identified by broken windows and unmaintained properties.

“The problem (with quality-of-life crimes) is not just in the crime itself, but also in the perception it gives to the community,” Faison said. “It’s perceived as being not patrolled, not watched, not cared for. It leads to people feeling comfortable committing other crimes. It’s not the same degree or immediacy of attention as rape or murder, but it definitely has a long-term impact.”

“You can’t dismiss it,” Kirkpatrick said. “I use as much of my downtime as possible addressing quality-of-life issues proactively. But with staffing issues, what I must do is deal with 9-1-1 (emergencies). 9-1-1 drives us. I will not turn a blind eye to our quality of life, but I must also protect public safety.”

But until the department can hire more staff, certain parts of the city could suffer. Graffiti is spreading through the downtown, across the South 316th Street area near Sound Transit’s new transit center and layered over the abandoned AMC Theater building.

“It’s starting to look like a slum,” Walsh said. “It affects property values. At the end of the day, it’s about patrol. I think our police force is understaffed and they don’t have the equipment they need.”

The department is budgeted for 120 commissioned officers but has only 109 because of officers leaving for various reasons. Until the department is fully staffed again –– and even afterward –– neighbors can proactively work together to combat crime around the city, Kirkpatrick said.

“These are cliche terms, but they’re real terms. When people get together, several neighbors, they feel emboldened,” she said.

Burbidge agreed. “Increasing the use of neighborhood block watch programs can be very useful in residential and commercial areas,” she said.

Though Ferrell is skeptical of the idea, council candidate Dini Duclos suggested citizen patrols, an idea that’s worked well in other cities. Volunteers patrol neighborhoods in cars marked with identifying decals and serve as the police eyes and ears for criminal behavior.

“They’re strictly volunteers. There’s no official police work, it’s just made known they’re patrolling,” Duclos said. “Where this has been done, it’s reduced crime astronomically. The communities employing it are raving about it.”

In many cases, the knowledge someone would be watching and calling police was enough to deter some of the quality-of-life crimes in several communities that tried the program, according to Duclos.

“I think we can use volunteers. I know right now (the regular police are) stretched very thin,” said Duclos, who’s running against Faison in next month’s election. “There are real problems in some of our neighborhoods. If we get known to be a crime area, businesses won’t want to come here, especially higher-paying companies. They’re going to want safe places for their employees to work and maybe live.”

Ferrell said when vandalism, graffiti or low-level criminal activity isn’t addressed quickly, “the community response is a lessening of expectations. It does have an impact.”

“Crime is crime,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than having your possessions taken, or having your car windows bashed in, or having your car stolen.”

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

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