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Pinball with Police: What Seattle cops are doing in the ID

Seattle police officers mingle with neighbors in the International District during Pinball with Police at the Seattle Pinball Museum. (Dyer Oxley)

Seattle police officers descended upon the International District Tuesday. Lights were flashing as they darted down alleys, raced up ramps, sped through lanes, and slammed their … flippers?

“The nice thing about Pinball with Police is that you can play the game or watch others play, while carrying a conversation or waiting to get into a conversation,” said Vicky Li, Chinatown/International District Community Engagement and Outreach Specialist for SPD. “It provides a fun background activity, but not too much of a distraction.”

The city’s focus was on Seattle City Hall Tuesday as the city council debated, at length, a contract for police officers through the afternoon and into the early evening. After years of working without an agreement or pay raises, and with tensions between police and city leadership, the contract was eventually approved 8-1.

But in another corner of the city, a collection of cops spent their time away from city politics, playing pinball and talking with neighbors in the International District.

Dyer Oxley

If you’ve heard of coffee with a cop, this is essentially that — though with less coffee and with a lot more lights (neighboring Starbucks did provide free beverages, however). The conversations that evening were cordial, but to the point. For example, as one officer chatted with Pinball Museum owner Charlie Martin, he noted that on this particular evening the room was filled with minority cops, gay cops, older and younger cops — making a “we’re like you, you’re like us” point, with a hint of “we’re trying.” In return, Martin conveyed some of the concerns locals have when dealing with police.

The outreach effort comes in the wake of tense relations between Seattle police, community members, and city leaders. The police department has spent years in a state of evolution while under a consent decree with the Department of Justice. The order cited biased policing practices in Seattle. It prompted a series of changes from de-escalation training to use-of-force policies.

Pinball with Police is a partnership between the Pinball Museum and SPD, participating with the Chinatown International District community. It’s the latest in an ongoing effort to have police mingle with neighbors. Cops have also participated in tai chi with senior residents, and have organized walks through the neighborhood. There is even a police-run chess club for kids.

“Chinatown International District is a neighborhood with a large percentage of people with minority background, lots of recent immigrants, lots of people having language and cultural barriers, and lots of senior residents,” Li said. “It is a vulnerable neighborhood in many ways and SPD doesn’t necessarily have the best relationship with this neighborhood for many reasons. That’s why we have been doing a lot of the engagement and outreach work here to improve that.”

Pinball Museum’s co-owner Charlie Martin says that the International District has faced similar issues as the rest of Seattle — property crimes and a mix of homelessness and drug addiction.

“I think there are some people in the community that need services that are underfunded, whether those be mental health, addiction, or subsidized housing services,” Martin said. “…I think public safety has a lot of issues under that umbrella … having been here since 2010, we’ve seen a lot of changes. I have to give mad props to the police department for where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’d like to head.”

Pinball with Police

Tuesday was the second time Seattle cops held Pinball with Police at the Seattle Pinball Museum. The inaugural event was in June.

Dyer Oxley

Li says the idea for Pinball with Police came from Martin.

“It’s kind of the offspring of an idea I suggested a couple years ago at an informal meeting with community members and liaisons with the Seattle Police Department,” Martin said. “We were talking about how we can promote a sense of community, and get residents and business owners more involved in bettering their community.”

“Everybody wants the same thing — a clean, friendly, safe community,” Martin said. “The best way to do that is to build relationships with the people who put their safety on the line to deliver that.”

First came coffee with a cop. Martin liked it, but felt the idea needed something else.

“So you’ve done coffee with a cop, how about pinball with police?” Martin recalled. “It had a good ring to it …. People playing pinball tend to relax and loosen up.”

The first try at Pinball with Police in June went well.

“We had about 50 or slightly more community members, and about a dozen SPD officers and commanders attending the last event,” Li said. “Mostly adults, mostly with varying levels of safety concerns. But everyone was civil and friendly, no shouting matches. I saw a similar demographic composition at the public safety meetings we attend in the neighborhood.”

Seattle and pinball

Pinball may seem an odd choice to some, but in Seattle, it’s actually quite apt.

Dyer Oxley

The Emerald City comes in third for having the most pinball machines of any American city (Portland is the first). There are two online pinball maps to locate where machines are and which games are available. One map is offered via Seattle’s own pinball magazine. Three of the worlds’ top pinball players hail from Seattle, where there are leagues akin to the bowling variety.

Li says that the event has proven popular in the ID. It is possible SPD may try to organize similar pinball with police events elsewhere in town.

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