In Pursuit of More Cops

Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council have heard the public's 911 calls loud and clear.

It's a truism in politics that you will never look bad or be criticized for trying to hire more police officers. In fact, it can make you look good in a way that advocating for human services never will. Right now, both the mayor and the Seattle City Council—and at least one council candidate—are lining up before the mirror to see who can look the prettiest of them all.

In February, Mayor Greg Nickels proposed adding 25 cops to the Seattle Police Department, only a few months after he had floated a 2005 budget that included no replacements for 27 sworn police positions the city eliminated in 2003. Nickels did not support City Council member Nick Licata's effort last year to put a levy proposition to voters for $3 million a year for more cops.

Now, Licata is back with another levy proposal that would go Nickels one better: $9 million a year (half to SPD, half for human services) that could result in as many as 50 more police positions above Nickels' proposed 25.

No one is more amused by this turn of events than Sgt. Kevin Haistings, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. After all, riding to the rescue of overworked beat cops are a mayor who came into office and cut cop jobs and the City Council's most liberal member. "I'm not going to criticize the mayor for recognizing that we need more cops," says Haistings. "But adding back 25 positions brings us back to the number we lost in the mayor's first budget cuts."

What's spurred all of this is that politicians are hearing from the public that crime is going up and there are not enough cops around. According to SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb, serious crimes—as defined and measured by the Department of Justice—are actually down. Whitcomb says, however, that the department is hearing about persistent problems with so-called quality-of-life crimes, such as misdemeanor assault, car prowl, and the like. "It's kind of hard to quantify," but it's there, he says.

In fact, last year even community activists like K.L. Shannon, who regularly inveigh against cops, argued that SPD needed more officers.

Support from unexpected quarters makes it easy for the council and the mayor to shake hands on funding 25 cops. City revenue forecasts look better than expected, says Marianne Bichsel, a spokesperson for the mayor. It would be a shock to everyone—and political hara-kiri during an election year—if the council didn't fund the new positions when it approves a supplemental city budget this summer.

The harder question is whether Licata, who is running for a third term, has enough support on the council to get his proposed levy on the ballot this year. Last year, fellow council members didn't get behind his idea. This year, he says, he has enough support to bring the matter before a full council meeting later this month and, likely, to get it onto the September ballot.

Already, Casey Corr, a former journalist and Nickels staffer who is seeking Richard Conlin's council seat, says that the levy is absolutely the wrong way to fund more cops. "We can get more police, and we can do it without a property tax increase," he says, adding that the council ought to be making other cuts to the city's general fund budget to find the money, instead of going to homeowners to fund a three-year levy. Pressed on what could be cut, Corr didn't offer examples beyond slashing a $200,000 council expenditure for photographers.

If approved by voters, the levy would add about $10 a year to the average property tax bill, according to Licata. He wants the police slice of this pie to be allocated for about 35 patrol officers—with many of them slotted for neighborhood bike patrols—and about 15 other positions for community policing, including civilian social workers who would be based in the city's five precincts. The idea is to reach out to petty offenders soon after they are arrested and plug them into various social services such as chemical dependency treatment.

It's not clear whether Nickels will support the Licata levy. Bichsel says Nickels hasn't made a decision but knows that SPD needs more than 25 extra bodies on the force.

Licata, who heads the council's public safety committee, says that getting fellow council members to consider the need might be good deed enough, whether they go for the levy or not. "If we don't do something on the ballot, then we want to frame the issue of how we look at the police budget" when the council approves the 2006 city budget later this year.

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