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Shawn Vestal: Downtown police presence must not be forgotten in shift from STA Plaza

Remember the great downtown panic of 2013?

A sense of desperation about hooliganism and visible homelessness reigned. Business owners complained about unruly crowds. Tales of aggressive panhandlers were told in the chambers of the City Council. STA Plaza crowds and skate rats were freaking out the gentry. A bar patron was sucker-punched on a sidewalk, and it was captured on video and replayed repeatedly on the TV news, becoming a symbol of a downtown that was dirty and dangerous.

As someone who spends part of nearly every day downtown, I always found these concerns exaggerated. Worse, they felt primarily built around the notion that homeless or poor people are kind of icky. Many of the supposed solutions – such as a modified law that allows cops to hustle away people for sitting on sidewalks – seemed aimed largely at moving certain types of people back into the shadows.

Since then, several developments have helped improve the atmosphere, just as Walt Worthy’s new hotel has spurred a boom of downtown business activity. A smoking area was returned to the STA Plaza, helping to ease the aimless hanging-around on other streets that was driving some business owners crazy. The sit-lie ordinance gave police the ability to hustle loiterers along, so long as they’re not just waiting for the new iPhone. The weekly community court at the library ushered in a change in the relationship between the courts and street people. A few key spots downtown put up those offensive but effective “homeless spikes” on concrete walls and planters. Safety and nuisance concerns ebbed.

Out of everything, though, the biggest change in the weather came from the newly prominent presence of police officers downtown. When it first opened in 2013, I thought the little Spokane Police Department storefront at the STA Plaza was kind of an empty PR gesture. I changed my mind. The simple fact that the department had a regular, visible presence – signs, cars parked on the street, live officers in view – has had an enormous impact on the atmosphere downtown, and especially on the lesser types of nuisance crimes that might be discouraged by the mere presence of a cop.

Now, there’s a Kiemle & Hagood sign in the window.

The decision to move the downtown precinct to the train station at First Avenue and Bernard Street has been the source of various controversies. There was furniture-gate, the still murky tale of petty politics at City Hall that landed Capt. Brad Arleth, head of the downtown precinct, on temporary leave.

There was the fact that police officials very clearly assured business leaders that the precinct wouldn’t move, up until mere months before it did move. There was the shock on the City Council, whose members once again felt sandbagged by a hasty and ill-explained administrative decision and who have posed a series of questions about the fiscal soundness of the decision that the Condon administration has not answered. There was a revelation that instead of saving the city money – as was suggested – the move could cost more.

Furniture and finances aside, though, what about the value of simple police visibility? Aren’t we going to lose that? The new precinct, while technically downtown, is not that much closer to the center of things – Riverfront Park – than the main headquarters on Mallon Avenue. Will the SPD remain a noticeable presence in the heart of downtown?

The city insists it will.

The move has not been well understood, in part because it’s been poorly and inconsistently explained by everyone from former Chief Frank Straub to last month’s interim chief, Rick Dobrow – who clearly signaled that the decision came from above him. In terms of location, it’s hard to imagine a better spot than the STA Plaza.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said the move arose from several factors. A key one: an administrative strategy of “maximizing” the use of city-owned property instead of leasing space. The city owns the Intermodal Center, which offers “considerably more” space, and the Plaza put limitations on the ability of the department to bring in the COPS program – a move that would consolidate some tasks at the precinct.

He said the police presence downtown was not primarily dependent on the STA location.

“Regardless of the location, the officers don’t spend most of their time in that facility,” he said. “Police response and police activity is out in the community and interacting with people on a regular basis.”

I told Coddington that I was surprised that one of the biggest changes I noticed in the past couple of years was seemingly simple: police cars parked on downtown streets, signaling a presence.

“That doesn’t change,” he said. “You’ll still see police cars parked downtown. You’ll still see officers on foot patrol and bike patrol.”

Plenty of people downtown are worried this will not be the case. Coddington acknowledges that the city could have been “a little clearer in communication.”

That’s an understatement. The administration was telling everyone that the original precinct would remain in place for most of last year, and has done a poor job of clarifying their goals or reasons for changing.

On the larger question, though, we need to keep seeing the cops downtown, and the city says it’s committed to that.

Not that long ago, it was common to hear people complain that you never saw a cop downtown. We shouldn’t forget that too quickly.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.