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Downtown Spokane’s ambassadors now wearing bulletproof vests

Downtown Security Ambassadors Richard Volgmann, left, and Chris Seim display their new vests while on their rounds near the corner of Sprague Avenue and Washington Street, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Downtown Security Ambassadors Richard Volgmann, left, and Chris Seim display their new vests while on their rounds near the corner of Sprague Avenue and Washington Street, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Emma Epperly The Spokesman-Review

The Downtown Security Ambassadors are now wearing bulletproof vests and they have received positive feedback from business owners. But there is some concern the change sends a bad message.

The seven ambassadors roaming downtown Spokane work for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, an organization that promotes an 80-block area called the Business Improvement District.

The ambassadors’ old uniforms consisted of royal blue polo shirts with gray accents. They carried backpacks with handcuffs, zip ties and pepper spray, along with a radio on their waist.

The ballistic vests hold all of those components and bring the radio up to shoulder level.

The vests are a type of body armor built to protect against blades and bullets.

Dainen Penta, executive director at the Center for Justice, has some worries about the perception the ballistic vests could create.

“Our concerns would be that the bulletproof vests really do create an environment where it seems then like downtown is unsafe,” Penta said.

It’s certainly a decision rooted in concerns for ambassador safety, Penta added.

“I was surprised but I think they look good and they make them distinctly look like security,” said John Waite, owner of Auntie’s Bookstore.

His customers and employees haven’t commented on the addition of the vests but Waite said that doesn’t come as a surprise.

Visible security is common in cities everywhere, said Waite, “so I don’t think people from outside of Spokane will be surprised.”

Dan Hall, director of the Clean and Safe Program, has been a part of the security ambassador program for 21 years.

Downtown was in far worse shape 20 years ago, said Hall.

Yet he felt the time was right for better protection.

“Often we are the first responders to whatever is happening downtown,” Hall said. “I just felt that it was time.”

Most other security workers in Spokane use some type of body protection, said Hall. He added that feedback on the vests has been positive overall.

Mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward has made public safety a priority of her campaign, but after spending time with the ambassadors to learn about their role, she came away impressed. If the ambassadors think that’s what they need to feel safe then they know best, said Woodward.

“I think they’re extremely effective at what they do,” said Woodward.

She is concerned, however, about the “feeling that downtown has become less safe.”

Woodward posted a video on Facebook of a man body-slamming a security guard at the Spokane Public Library, along with criticism of how unsafe she says the library has become.

“Relocating a police precinct back in the heart of downtown is something I would want to do,” said Woodward.

Attempts made to reach City Council President Ben Stuckart, also a candidate for mayor, were unsuccessful.

Ambassadors are limited-commission officers with the Spokane Police Department. With that status, ambassadors can detain, arrest and ticket individuals for certain infractions.

To obtain the limited-commission status, safety ambassadors must complete an 80-hour training through the police academy that covers defensive tactics, de-escalation, and how to pepper spray and handcuff people.

While the security ambassadors have the authority, no ambassador has made an arrest or issued a citation.

Ambassadors also have first aid, CPR and tourism training.

The ambassadors are part of many factors that create downtown’s different vibe, said City Council member Lori Kinnear.

A recent Spokane Police Department report shows that crime in Spokane overall is down approximately 14% this year, a fact Kinnear noted.

The homelessness issue is at the forefront and is conflated with criminal activity, and the city has to separate the two, Kinnear said.

“It’s for their safety, not for ours,” said Kinnear of the ambassadors’ vests.

People love interacting when they see them downtown, she said. The first thing they see is the person, not what they have on, she added.

Elisabeth Hooker, spokeswoman for the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said violent incidents involving ambassadors are “incredibly rare.”

No incident in particular prompted the purchase, discussed since last fall, of the $500 to $800 vests, Hooker said.

The DSP also has a clean team, which works to keep downtown clean and removes graffiti. The organization has cross-trained some team members to hold both clean team and security ambassador duties and may continue to do so.

Ambassadors are downtown Monday through Saturday.

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