Are Seattle police officers holding back?

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by LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @LByronK5

KING5.com

Posted on August 2, 2012 at 7:11 PM

Updated Friday, Aug 3 at 9:33 AM

We think of police work as rushing to 911 calls like shootings and other violent crimes. And Seattle police do respond to handle about 200-thousand 911 calls every year. 

But a lot of the time officers are simply patrolling and watching for suspicious activity. They decide to investigate and call into dispatch on their own.

Officer Tracy Beemster has been a patrol officer for 15 years.  She works an area that covers South Lake Union and parts of Capitol Hill and Belltown.  Beemster said when she isn’t on a 911 call, she’s always on the lookout for crime, everything from jaywalking to drug dealing to a car prowl in progress.   If she stops to investigate and calls in the incident, it’s labeled an “on-view call.”
  
On-views are seen as a measure of proactive policing, but statistics show on-views dropped when the Department of Justice announced it was investigating excessive use of force by Seattle police, essentially putting officers under the microscope.

At KING 5’s request, SPD tallied the numbers. On-view calls fell from 141,602 in 2010 to 126,083 in 2011—an 11 percent drop.  The trend appears to be continuing this year.  There were 29,070 on view calls from January through March.

The statistics show officers are going to more 911 calls than ever; what they aren’t doing as much is jumping on crimes that might be happening right in front of them.  911 calls were up 4% in 2011 over the previous year.
       
Privately some officers say they're standing down because they don’t want to become the target of the next internal investigation or the subject of a controversial media report.   It’s called “de-policing” and there’s been a lot of talk about it since several high profile cases led to the Department of Justice Investigation.

But police commanders say they don’t believe officers are de-policing.  They attribute the drop in on-views to a philosophical change in policing.

Sgt. Whitcomb said the department doesn’t want officers tied up on low level crimes.

“Are they going after low level offenses as aggressively as they have in the past?  Probably not,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said SPD wants officers focusing on crime hot spots and mingling with citizens when they’re not handling 911 calls.

 “Officers are being more efficient and spending more time in the neighborhoods,” Whitcomb said.

For Officer Beemster, that means frequently getting out of her car and strolling through places like Denny Park, once filled with drug dealers and drinkers. 
 
And Beemster said her personal philosophy hasn't changed over the past 15 years.   She said she investigates every case of suspicious activity. 

"I will go out every day and work as hard as I can and I know I'm doing the very best that I can and whatever happens,” she said.

De-policing has happened in other cities. KING 5 recently visited Cincinnati to find out how that city changed after the Department of Justice found a pattern and practice of excessive force and demanded reforms.   Police said there was some “de-policing” - officers felt attacked and defensive, so they stopped being as proactive.  But as the reforms took place, officers adjusted and the proactive policing resumed.

 

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