Seattle city officials meet with churchgoers concerned about downtown crime
On Sunday, First United Methodist Church hosted a panel discussion on violence in downtown Seattle, with Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel, City Attorney Pete Holmes and City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Every Sunday, First United Methodist Church near Seattle Center gives out breakfast to as many as 300 people in need. Mostly, says congregant Jim Schone, they’re orderly affairs, but every now and then a disturbance erupts.
Once, he recalls, a man pulled a knife but fled long before police arrived.
Although no one was hurt, the incident fueled concerns among church members that crime downtown is getting worse and that police and prosecutors aren’t doing enough to stop it.
“We want to make sure this is a safe place to come,” Schone said.
Sunday, the church hosted a panel discussion on downtown violence with Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, City Attorney Pete Holmes and the Seattle Police Department’s interim police chief, Jim Pugel.
Nearly 100 people turned out for what was a polite discussion about the various causes of crime and the need for police and prosecutors to work together in cooperation with mental-health providers and social-services agencies.
Pugel, in a conversation with moderator Schone afterward, pointed to a shortage of money, among other things, for crime prevention.
“If I had my way, I’d have a police officer on every block 24 hours a day, but that’s very expensive,” Pugel said. “While we’re staffed OK, we’re aggressively hiring more police officers.”
In addition to a perceived increase in rowdy or threatening behavior, a string of recent shootings and a fatal stabbing downtown underscored the urgency for more of a police presence, Schone said.
In August, a Metro bus driver was shot during morning rush-hour on Third Avenue near University Street downtown. The driver survived, but his suspected shooter was shot by police and died.
In September, Troy Wolff, chair of the English department at Shoreline Community College, died from an unprovoked and random stabbing that also injured his girlfriend after the pair left a Sounders game in Pioneer Square.
The alleged attacker later told detectives he is schizophrenic and that Wolff “was a member of a group trying to kill him,” according to a probable-cause statement outlining the police case against him.
Last week, an argument between two men waiting for lunch inside Pioneer Square’s Union Gospel Mission erupted in gunfire, resulting in one being wounded and the second arrested, according to Seattle police.
“We need there to be a fast police response,” Schone said. “The concern is that we won’t be able to stop that violence from happening.”
Pugel, who arrived to the discussion an hour late, saying he had been at the scene of a homicide in South Seattle, mentioned that in so-called true emergencies, police typically respond in seven minutes or less.
Pugel also said that while the Police Department must do a better job of identifying violent criminals and “getting them locked up,” the best prevention is a communitywide effort that begins with prenatal and postnatal care and adequate school funding.
“We cannot prevent all crime, period. But we’re doing our best with what we have,” Pugel said in reply to a homeless woman worried about violence. “We need police officers to take action, and we need prosecutors and judges to hold these people accountable if they do break the law.”
Tensions between the City Attorney’s Office and the Police Department boiled over in August when Pugel gave Holmes a binder with the names of 28 people who each had ignored three or more civil citations for drinking or urinating in public and blocking the sidewalk.
Pugel asked that criminal charges of failing to respond be filed against them. But Holmes returned the binder, saying police had not documented whether efforts to provide social services to the 28 people had failed under Mayor Mike McGinn’s Center City Initiative.
But neither Pugel nor Holmes escalated the tension Sunday. Holmes apologized for his role in the dispute and noted that even as it played out in public, he and Pugel worked quietly on an effort to reduce drunken driving.
“Yes, tension exists. Let’s be honest,” Holmes said. “We need to have officers who, when they see a crime being committed, make an arrest. We stand ready in my office to help facilitate this.”
Bagshaw, the City Council member, said she’s in favor of both a stepped-up police presence and programs to help low-level offenders get counseling and treatment.
Bagshaw, a downtown resident for the past 13 years, told the audience about an unsettling experience she had while walking home from a movie one night last summer.
She said she saw young women being solicited for prostitution in Westlake Park and drugs being sold in plain sight. What she didn’t see, she added, was a single police officer — “Not a one!”
Still, she said she believes that things are getting better.
“The last time I did this” — walk through downtown at night — “I saw plenty” of police, she said.
Downtown resident Patricia Beltran, who attends church at First United Methodist, said she supports more money for social services.
“I like living in the city, and I like living around a variety of people. But it’s sad,” she said. “You see a lot of people who are suffering.”
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org.