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New Seattle police unit tasked with tackling tough issues downtown

Seattle Police Officers John Kallis (right) and Donald Little (left) speak to a homeless man named "Dre" outside a Starbucks near Westlake Park. The man said the officers, who are part of the newly-formed Neighborhood Response Team, have helped him take steps to move into permanent housing. (Photo: KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)

It was late in the morning when Seattle Police Officers Donald Little and John Kallis approached a homeless man sitting outside a downtown Starbucks.

The man, who goes by “Dre,” was wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by trash.

“What’s up buddy?” Officer Kallis asked him. “Are you alright?”

For someone living on the streets, Dre was in high spirits as he told the officers that, thanks to their help, he could be moving into an apartment of his own next month.

Officers Little and Kallis are part of the Seattle’s Police Department’s newest unit, called the “Neighborhood Response Team.” The group of six officers and a sergeant is dedicated to tackling low-level crime downtown and getting chronic offenders the help they need.

“We needed to assign a specific group of officers to help with street disorder, outreach to individuals living on the street, and those in behavioral crisis,” said Seattle Police Captain Chris Fowler, who is in charge of the department’s West Precinct.

The officers, who volunteered to come off patrol to work in the unit, focus on crimes that impact quality of life in problems areas like the Pike Place Market and Westlake Park. Those crimes include defecating or urinating in public, drinking in public, smoking marijuana in a public space, or violating a city ordinance that prohibits people from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

“The first thing we do in the morning is we go around Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Westlake Park looking for people sleeping in the doorways, because that’s where we get most of the complaints from the businesses,” said Officer Kallis. “They’re leaving their garbage, they’re urinating. You know, the businesses have to come out in the morning and pressure wash the sidewalks.”

Officer Little said they will issue multiple warnings and explain city ordinances to those who are violating them. If warnings don’t work, the officers will issue citations to repeat offenders and follow-up to make sure the citations were paid.

“We’ll kind of track it ourselves with the court systems,” he said. “We’ll follow up, see how many times they have not responded.”

If the tickets go unpaid?

“Then we’ll write a report and request that the prosecutors file charges for not responding to the ticket.”

Each time the unit contacts someone, the officers will determine if the individual is in need of services and, if so, whether they’re willing to accept help.

“There’s a continuum of decision-making in respect to individuals,” said Captain Fowler. “On one hand, you may have someone who needs a lot of outreach. On the other hand, you may have someone who needs to be arrested and put through the criminal justice system.”

The approach is welcomed by the Downtown Seattle Association, which looks out for the interests of those who live and work in the downtown corridor. But Jon Scholes, who is head of DSA, said the unit can’t fix everything on its own.

“This is just one unit and it’s just Monday through Friday, morning and afternoon,” he said. “So the evenings, the weekends, those are times we’re not seeing this level of emphasis and level of foot patrols downtown, so we need to fill in those gaps. This unit is really focused on the core of downtown. We’ve got other neighborhoods – Pioneer Square, parts of Belltown – that need similar approaches.”

While the unit represents the first time Seattle police have dedicated a team strictly to issues of downtown street disorder, Captain Fowler agrees that a comprehensive approach is the only true solution.

“It is a citywide problem,” he said. “Both the chief and the mayor have expressed that it’s not just the police department and I wanted the officers to understand that it wasn’t just their job to solve all these problems – that it really is a city effort.”

Officers Little and Kallis said they welcome the challenge and understand the pressure they’re under by some to help clean up downtown.

“We’re the first squad to go out there and kind of tackle this issue,” said Kallis. “I don’t like to fail, so I’m looking forward to the challenge, myself.”

“You want to make this a desirable area for people who want to come and visit and for the people that work down here,” said Little. “And, like Officer Kallis said, for the people on the street. If you can get a couple of them off the streets and get them the help they need I think it’s a good thing.”

Only time will tell if Dre, the homeless man outside that Starbucks, will end up in permanent housing as he had hoped. Regardless, he said he appreciates everything Officers Kallis and Little have done for him in the short time the unit has been on the streets.

“Those two actually respect me and talk to me like I’m a person,” he said. “Those two officers are cool, man. They’re nice guys.”

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