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Growing number of Seattle neighborhoods paying for private police

Magnolia hires a combination of private security and off-duty police officers to patrol its neighborhood in addition to police. (Courtesy of Joe Villarino)

A Seattle neighborhood is joining a trend of communities buying additional security after growing frustrations with slow police response.

“It’s not a hot area, it is really a safe neighborhood,” said Magnolia resident Joe Villarino. “But we always get hit with property crimes, which is a low priority call for (the Seattle Police Department). Like burglaries, car prowls, break-ins &#8212 those things that are not as serious as a shooting or an assault.”

But those sorts of crimes are a priority for Magnolia residents, so they found their own solution. Magnolia joined other Seattle neighborhoods that hire their own security force to supplement police presence. The first patrols began Dec. 4 after nearly a year of planning.

A passing conversation about Magnolia crime at his local Starbucks inspired Villarino to organize a community gathering at a local church to discuss the issue and gauge interest.

“Word got out pretty quickly,” he said. “By that time I got over 300 people in the room, which I didn’t anticipate.”

Ultimately, the Magnolia Community Patrol was born. Residents voluntarily pay $250 per year, which goes into a pool to pay for a mix of off-duty police officers or private security. A local company, Central Protection, provides that private security.

The entire neighborhood is covered, regardless of which neighbors pay into it or not. But those that do pay the $250 get perks. Security &#8212 either off-duty police officers or private security personnel &#8212 will check on their homes if they are gone for vacation. They will also take care of packages delivered to homes so they aren’t left out to tempt thieves.

“We know that police officers are more reactive and private security is more proactive,” Villarino said. “Just getting people out there will decrease the property crimes. We see that in the other models of neighborhood patrols.”

Trend of security

Magnolia is the latest Seattle neighborhood to pay for its own force. It modeled its patrol from other Seattle neighborhoods, such as Laurelhurst, Windermere, and Whittier Heights, all of which have residents that pay for additional security.

“We like to call it, ‘the Seattle way.’ You are investing in your neighborhood. You’re investing in the whole neighborhood,” said Brad Renton, President of the Whittier Heights Patrol Association.

The security doesn’t replace Seattle police. The off-duty police officers, or private security, will monitor and respond to 911 calls, but they also engage the community. If they see something suspicious, they’ll investigate it. Patrols don’t cover neighborhoods 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are random &#8212 occurring anytime of day or night.

“If they see a group, like in one of our problem areas, they will stop and talk to them. They will let their presence be known. And they will keep coming back,” Renton said. “You’re not going to be able to smoke your dope in the park, and drink your booze and spray graffiti on all the tables and trees.”

Crime in Magnolia and Whittier Heights is sparsely reported by Seattle police, compared to other parts of the city. Reports from early December in Magnolia, so far, are primarily of auto thefts and car prowls. There are also some reports of assaults, threats, and property damage.

The Seattle crime map doesn’t distinguish between north Seattle neighborhoods, but recent crime in Whittier Heights include bike thefts, assault, robbery, and a dog bite.

A handful of car prowls have been reported in Windermere and Laurelhurst so far this month.

It’s not much compared to areas such as downtown, which can experience more 911 calls than paid-security neighborhoods do in a single day. Those calls include car prowls and graffiti, but also assaults with weapons, drug possession and use, robbery, and threats to kill.

Renton said that, like Magnolia, property crimes are of chief concern in his neighborhood, aside from a few trouble spots. It’s been worth the $250.

“Anybody here would say it’s like a double taxation. We are paying for security, we are paying for police. We just were not getting any coverage at all,” Renton said. “I don’t like paying it. My taxes are high like everybody else in this neighborhood. So $250, for most people that is not a small piece of change.”

It may hit Whittier Heights pockets a bit harder than their counterparts. The median household income in Whittier Heights is $84,771. In Magnolia, it’s $106,103. Windermere has a median household income of $128,124, and Laurelhurst has $134,232.

Downtown, the median household income is about $48,000. In neighboring Pioneer Square, also an area with heavy crime, the median income is just over $30,000. Across town in Rainier Valley, which has recently claimed headlines with shootings and other heavy crime, the median household income is about $53,000.

Related: ‘Warning – Entering Rainier Valley’ signs posted in south Seattle drawing attention to crime concerns

Those are areas Seattle police may staff more, according to the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild

“Two Friday nights ago, downtown in the west precinct — which covers the downtown core, Pioneer Square, Magnolia and Queen Anne — they had nine police officers working the midnight shift,” police guild president Ron Smith recently told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz. “They had one officer covering all of Magnolia and one officer covering Queen Anne.”

And that staffing level is low, Smith notes.

“What’s been done over and over again throughout the years is somebody will ask how many police officers are assigned to patrol. And they’ll shoot out a number that is well in excess of 650,” Smith said. “What they are not telling you is that 150 of those people that are assigned to patrol are not available to answer 911 calls because they are on loan to another assignment.”

Beyond that, Smith says, the Seattle Police Department is understaffed. Similar cities, such as Boston have about 1,800 officers. Seattle has 1,250, which is a similar level of police the city had in the 1970s.

Boots on the ground

Whittier Heights, a neighborhood in Ballard, began its patrols in January 2015. Renton, a 35-year Whittier Heights resident, said it grew out of frustration of listening to the same “sorry excuses” about why Seattle police are frequently understaffed.

“Last year we were getting hammered in our neighborhood,” he said. “I was getting approached on my street and asked for drug sales. I was in a store here and observed a strong arm robbery right in front of me.

“Unless it’s directly affecting a human being and that human being is in peril, (police) just aren’t going to come. There are times when a property crime escalates into confrontation. We have confrontations with the package thieves. I had an assault on the street here a couple months ago. This isn’t the Ballard we dreamed of and wanted to move here for.”

About 100 Whittier Heights residents pay the $250 and get perks for that contribution. Renton’s neighborhood strictly uses off-duty police officers, unlike Magnolia’s mix of police and private security. After a year it has worked, according to Renton.

“They do a fine job. I love ‘em. Great guys,” he said. “They have gotten (to a call) before SPD, sometimes hours before SPD.”

“It’s a rather stunning effect,” he said. “All around us people are getting hammered, but our neighborhood is pretty much free of crime. Now, we do have a couple of trouble spots.”

And it’s something that Villarino is willing to put money toward.

“Even though we pay taxes, but a lot of us just felt that we as a whole should look out for each other, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Median income figures from City-Data.com and the United States Census Bureau.

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