Federal Way crime rates concern business owners, residents

In 2021, the city of Federal Way saw a 2% increase in crime overall, according to police records. But residents and business owners still have concerns over public safety.

Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang recently presented the 2021 crime data to the public and Federal Way City Council. Crime incidents are reported to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) federal database.

Last year, Federal Way experienced 8,228 total crimes. The year before, there were 8,031 crimes reported in 2020, according to police data.

“Our challenges are Highway 99,” Hwang said, adding that the highway is a core route bringing people to Federal Way’s main areas of The Commons mall and The Crossings. “This is where we have the highest concentration of crime and it’s strictly because of the environment.”

Most crime is concentrated along Pacific Highway South and South 320th Street, records show. But this is also the most dense area of the city in terms of businesses and transient activity, Hwang noted.

The Federal Way Police Department’s average response time in 2021 was approximately 18 minutes per call, Hwang said. The department averaged 75,000 calls for service, or about 250 calls per day.

Changes in crime rates

One area of increase include homicides; there were 6 murders in 2020. Last year, there were 11 murders and one manslaughter.

Crime increased in areas of animal cruelty, forcible sex offenses, intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping. Aggravated assaults increased 29%, which is the highest amount in seven years.

Retailers are being proactive in detaining shoplifters, but shoplifters are taking more aggressive approaches than in the past by carrying knives, pepper spray or guns, Hwang said.

Commercial burglaries were up 17% in 2021, which is also the highest recorded total in seven years, the department’s data shows.

Three officers are assigned to patrol The Commons mall area, with extra officers assigned during busy shopping seasons around the holidays.

In 2021, there were 437 reported shoplifting incidents, resulting in 162 arrests, NIBRS data shows.

However, the chances of someone going to randomly assault, shoot or kill you are very rare, Hwang said.

“The average person, you’re far more likely to be injured or killed in a traffic accident,” he said.

There is a downward trend in traffic accidents; there were five fatal collisions and 576 injury collisions in 2021.

Motor vehicle theft raised 24% in Federal Way last year and the “steep increase” is continuing, he said. Federal Way saw over 100 car thefts in February this year.

Hwang mentioned in Washington, auto theft doubled in the second half of 2021, with about 3,200 thefts from August through December.

Decreases in Federal Way crime categories occurred largely in drug narcotics offenses, dropping from 138 incidents in 2020 to just 36 reported in 2021.

But, gun violence is up throughout King County, according to King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“We saw definitely an uptick in drug-related shootings,” Hwang said.

To better serve the community, the Federal Way City Council approved adding 13 officers to the department’s force. The department is now authorized to hire 150 total police officers and the department is working to fill vacancies.

“If we didn’t get the additional 13 officers, we’d have all our positions filled,” Hwang said. “Now, we’re filling the 13 positions.”

With a larger force, the department has the ability to create more emphasis patrol teams to address certain spots in the city. There are also 271 Safe City cameras in Federal Way.

The department is also using the $1 million in overtime funds, approved by the council, to put six additional officers on the streets daily, Hwang said.

Retail Safety Summit

Business and city leaders met on Jan. 20 for the City of Federal Way’s first retail safety summit.

The virtual meeting was hosted to address organized retail crime and retail theft in the city. Business owners, managers and community members also heard from the Federal Way Police Department about their strategies to decrease retail crime.

“We hear locally from people in our community about the corrosive effect [of retail crime],” said Mayor Jim Ferrell. “The people that live here and shop here, when they see that activity occurring, it really makes people feel less safe.”

Several business owners and managers participating in the January summit said they feel unsafe operating in Federal Way.

“It’s almost to the point that we, as an independent small business, have to take things into our own hands … We are not safe anymore,” said John Swoboda of Northshore Ace Hardware, adding that some employees are armed for their own protection.

Don Hayward, division supervisor of loss prevention for Winco Foods, said escalating violence led to policy changes.

The grocery store’s loss prevention employees now wear body armor after an employee was shot in the chest escorting a disruptive person out of the store in September 2021; Hayward credits the Federal Way Police Department’s quick response for saving the man’s life.

“The employees are scared to come to work,” Hayward said.

The police department is creating a downtown bicycle and motorcycle unit to patrol the area from South 312th Street to South 324th Street and from 11th Place South to Interstate 5 in Federal Way. They will also patrol city parks and trails, and establish relationships with business owners and retailers in the area.

“An eight-officer unit will tremendously enhance the visibility of uniformed officers in the downtown area,” Hwang said. The officers will provide pressure to push crime out of the area, he said.

As the weather warms up, residents and business owners will see more of the Special Operations Unit (SOU) officers, he added.

High visibility of the officers will help residents to feel safer, while the modes of transportation also make it easier for people to interact or approach law enforcement, he explained.

As the department works to hire more officers, other strategies are also being used to address retail crime.

Auburn Police Officer Erik Wickman is the president of the Washington Organized Retail Crime Association (WAORCA) and attended the January summit. Founded in April 2021, the organization builds partnerships between law enforcement and loss prevention professionals to provide training and mitigate retail crimes.

WAORCA allows people to share information on organized retail crime, such as who is involved and their methods of operation, he said. More weapons have been involved in organized crime groups in recent months, from pepper spray to bear spray and handguns, Wickman said.

“What we’ve seen over the past year is that they’re not afraid to use these weapons if they’re challenged by either law enforcement or loss prevention [or] asset protection personnel,” Wickman said. “I would certainly be very cautious when you approach these people. They are not your typical shoplifters.”