Here in Seattle, a city with an uninspiring police department, one of its most uninspiring aspects is currently playing itself out in the pages of The Seattle Times. It turns out that police dispatchers tell callers reporting property thefts the cops aren’t going to do anything and that the best option is to file a claim with their insurance company. This is true even if the crime just took place and the caller is following the perps and providing their location in real time!
Apparently, this dereliction of duty–I’d call it the don’t-call-Seattle-cops-unless-there’s-blood policy–has been going on for awhile. It burst into full view only when one of the paper’s columnists, Danny Westneat, found his car broken into after a youth soccer match, used an app to track a stolen cell phone and managed to eyeball the getaway car with the thieves still inside and his stolen goods in their hands. He called the cops, but they did little.
Westneat’s column of outrage detailing the events, which the police don’t really deny, continues to reverberate mightily. It’s been the talk of Seattle. Radio talk show hosts have been hammering away. The new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who just arrived from Boston and seems to get hit regularly with so many unpleasant surprises that those harsh New England winters suddenly might seem far more inviting, vowed an investigation.
The alleged thieves eventually were arrested–not by Seattle police but by cops in the suburb of Redmond (yes, the home of Microsoft) summoned by a resident suspicious of a parked vehicle full of people in a park. In Redmond–unlike Seattle–police quickly respond to calls and take common-sense steps, such as, in this situation, asking the passengers what they’re doing.
The cops initially suggested Westneat’s experiences were a one-off event. Online comments posted on Westneat’s columns by readers recounting similar incidents suggest that suggestion was a total fib.
I don’t suppose there’s a big-city police department anywhere that doesn’t have its share of controversy. That’s been true in places I’ve lived or worked in before becoming New To Seattle–Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. Policing ain’t an easy business, and resources are always limited.
But the Seattle PD seems to be a cat of a different breed. A manic-depressive cat. On one hand cops here long have had a go-easy policy toward those possessing pot, even before the state legalized recreational marijuana use. On the other hand, there are those videos of cops beating up jaywalkers. Small wonder the city and its constabulary are under a federal-court consent decree to clean up their act.
To me, the really strange thing in Seattle is the dichotomy between crimes against people (like, say, murder, rape and assault), and crimes against property (like what happened to Westneat). Statistically, according to FBI statistics, Seattle really is a pretty safe place to live and walk around in. But the city is rife with burglaries, car prowls and other assorted takings of property belonging to others.
I assume this in part is because thieves know that police so far have put a very low priority on property crimes. While this may be about to change, it’s small comfort to know that, as things now stand with the cops, violations of only some of the important criminal laws are pursued.