Seattle beats redrawn to reflect changing neighborhoods

The plan aims to give officers more time to know their neighborhoods and better ability to back one another up.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

SEATTLE, Wash. — For the first time in a few years, Seattle Police Officer Debra Pelich had to adjust to a new beat.

On Friday, she drove around First Hill and lower Capitol Hill in the newly formed "David 3" sector, taking note of parks, side streets, the hot spots, and the usual transients. She planned to visit businesses and even stopped to watch a parking attendant collect money from deposit boxes.

"We have these pay-box looters, so I want to know if he really works there. Those are the things you get to know, like who are my regular guys who collect the money?" said Pelich, a 13-year veteran assigned to the West Precinct.

Pelich was one of many officers across the city last week readjusting after the first restructuring of patrol beats in more than 30 years. Precinct boundaries were redrawn and new sectors and beats were formed as part of the Neighborhood Policing Plan, a major initiative to improve 911 service and enable officers to do more "proactive" police work.

As part of the initiative, the city plans to hire 105 more police officers in the next four years. The plan aims to give officers more time to know their neighborhoods and better ability to back one another up.

The Seattle Police Department hadn't changed its patrol districts since the 1970s. Boundaries weren't geared to keep pace with the condominium boom downtown, the expanding South Lake Union neighborhood, or changes expected with light rail in Rainier Valley.

Pelich's last assignment was in South Lake Union, where she watched condos and new buildings sprout seemingly on every other block, bringing more residents downtown to call 911 for domestic violence or auto break-ins.

Her new beat used to be covered by the East Precinct. As she hit the streets around noon, she had new patterns to familiarize with, but so far it was going smoothly, she said.

"It's not that we're doing anything drastically different. We're just being more effective and more efficient," she said. "No matter where you are, no matter what district you're in, and no matter what time of day, police work is police work."

But stagnant police beats in an ever-changing city created an imbalance in workload for officers in some districts and longer waits in some neighborhoods for police service, Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said.

The average response time for high-priority calls was seven minutes, the accepted standard for larger cities, according to the Neighborhood Policing Plan report. But some responses took nine minutes or were as quick as five minutes, depending on what day and time and what neighborhood.

The goal now is to guarantee no one waits longer than seven minutes in a high-priority call.

"Geographically, the new map is constructed on the theory that no matter where you live, you're entitled to the same level of police coverage as anybody else. We've attempted to be as fair as humanly possible to bring equity into our relationships between the Police Department and neighborhoods," Kimerer said.

More substantial changes are ahead. The plan calls for officers' shifts to be rearranged, which will require negotiating with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

The guild already has questioned the wisdom of implementing the ambitious policing plan without first having a sufficient number of new officers to meet its objectives. Recruiting has barely kept pace with officers retiring or transferring in the last year, and guild leaders say the city hasn't offered a labor contract with favorable terms, which they say would help retain and recruit officers.

More proactive work won't be possible without more officers on the streets, said Sgt. Rich O'Neill, guild president.

"Our biggest concern is the way it's being hyped," O'Neill said. "I don't want to see citizens duped into believing that redrawing boundaries around neighborhoods is going to somehow make more officers show up on their doorstep for a 911 call."

The changes were based on an analysis of four years' worth of 911 and staffing data.

One beat in the South End handled four times as many calls as neighboring beats, Kimerer said.

Some beats, such as the University District, which has a high volume of drug and alcohol violations, were pared down so officers have less ground to cover and more time to respond to problems.

The department also plans to switch to a new records management system this year and a new computer-aided dispatch system after that, enabling the department to better monitor data.

As Pelich, the West Precinct officer, cruised down East Howell Street, she spotted a scofflaw from her former territory. She rolled down her window and greeted him.

"OK, there is somebody from my old district who is up here," she said.

Officers were trained on the new boundaries and had reference maps on hand for the first week. Officers have a good general sense of their neighboring beats, but it takes time on a new assignment to learn side streets, back alleys and the quickest routes if they need to back each other up.

About 3:30 p.m., Pelich stopped a driver pulling away from a curb outside an apartment building on Capitol Hill. He'd been fiddling with the ignition, his head bowed down. The license plate wasn't registered to him.

He explained he'd just purchased the beat-up Dodge Neon and his record turned up clear.

Just before Pelich set him free, her mobile dispatch terminal beeped with a message from an officer, also on a new beat, checking on her.

"Where the hell is E. Thomas/Belmont Ave?" the message asked, referring to her location.

Pelich smiled.

"This is what's probably going to happen for the next couple of days here," she said.

© 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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