Four years after the city of Spokane moved its downtown police precinct away from the Spokane Transit Authority’s headquarters, the City Council may explore the feasibility of bringing a precinct back to the heart of downtown and boosting police patrols on foot and bicycle.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear and Councilman Breean Beggs introduced a draft resolution this week that would have implored the city to open a new police precinct in the center of the city’s downtown.
But the resolution’s sponsors have signaled they will scale back the proposal after the Finance and Administration Committee deferred action on it Monday. Instead, they will first ask police Chief Craig Meidl for an overview of the department’s current approach to downtown policing.
“What I will be asking him is to tell us what you’re doing now, how it’s working and let’s talk about next steps,” Kinnear said.
The city moved the downtown police precinct from a storefront near the STA headquarters to the Intermodal Center on West First Avenue in December 2015.
Part of the appeal of moving to the Intermodal Center was that it is owned by the city.
At the time, police opposed the move, Beggs said.
“Police really wanted to stay downtown,” he said. “I just want to hear that conversation. If they tell me it’s not good policing to be (downtown), of course I’m going to listen to them.”
Though they acknowledge police do patrol downtown, Kinnear and Beggs said it’s often in a car and not visible. Both believe having officers on foot or bike patrol could make people feel safer to be downtown.
“I’m not saying it’s not safe now, what I’m saying is there is a perception that it’s not, and for some people perception is reality,” Kinnear said. “This is a way to get the conversation started.”
According to the most recently available data, violent and property crime in the city’s downtown district has decreased from this point last year.
There have been 102 violent crimes reported downtown through Saturday, compared to 141 through the same time last year. Property crime has seen a similar dip, from 712 last year to 596 thus far in 2019.
But crimes downtown have continued to grab headlines. Two Eastern Washington University football players were seriously injured in a shooting near the intersection of Division Street and Main Avenue early Saturday.
To boost security, the Downtown Spokane Partnership has employed Downtown Security Ambassadors, who patrol the streets in uniform Monday through Saturday.
Meidl told The Spokesman-Review that he “loves the concept” of more visible downtown policing, but “it comes down to staffing.”
“Our No. 1 priority has to be to respond to crimes in progress,” Meidl said.
There are 10 officers assigned to downtown. They cover a day shift, night shift and swing shift, and they have days off. Five more officers are headed to the academy thanks to funding from the voter-approved public safety levy, but they won’t be fully trained and added to the beat until next year.
Upon Kinnear’s request, police increased their visible presence on foot and bike patrols downtown for a trial period in May. She received positive feedback from businesses, she said.
Meidl said he temporarily reassigned two chronic-offender officers to downtown foot patrols and “it resonated so well with the businesses,” but he added that “because of our staffing issues, it means for that week they’re not going to be focused on chronic offenders.”
“Any time we make some kind of temporary shift, it does have consequences,” Meidl said.
Locating a police precinct in the heart of downtown raises a number of questions, Kinnear acknowledged. Costs would include not only the price of a new facility, but also of moving personnel and information technology infrastructure. After investigating it, “the answer might be no,” Kinnear said.
“It’s expensive to move, so I want to make sure that it’s not something we do in haste,” she said.
The draft resolution stated that “to make neighborhood community policing work,” the department “must move its downtown precinct office back to the heart of downtown Spokane.”
At the committee meeting on Monday, Council President Ben Stuckart balked at the pointed language of the resolution.
“I think that’s really a call for the mayor and police chief to be making and not council,” Stuckart said, indicating that he could favor a resolution in support of community and visible policing.
So far this year, there has been more crime on the side of downtown in which the police precinct is currently located, Stuckart added.
The proposed resolution comes at a time when downtown policing has entered the political debate in the race for mayor.
Mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward had advocated returning a police precinct to the heart of downtown, which she said a majority of the community favors.
“A visible police presence downtown, with officers on foot patrol, boots on the ground, is an effective diversion to crime,” Woodward said. “We need to make downtown safer. We need people to feel safe going downtown again.”
Kinnear said it was not her intention to get “heavy-handed” and dictate policy to the police department.
“The next step is we need to make some small changes to the actual resolution so it’s not prescriptive,” Kinnear said.
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