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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Spokane City Council ponders policy on downtown security team’s bulletproof vests

UPDATED: Thu., June 10, 2021

Downtown Security Ambassadors Richard Volgmann, left, and Chris Seim make their rounds near the corner of Sprague Avenue and Washington Street in May 2019.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Downtown Security Ambassadors Richard Volgmann, left, and Chris Seim make their rounds near the corner of Sprague Avenue and Washington Street in May 2019. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Aiming to balance approachability and personal safety, city leaders are scrutinizing the bulletproof vests worn by the Downtown Spokane Partnership’s security teams.

They’ve asked the Downtown Spokane Partnership to consider alternatives to its practice of having “security ambassadors” wear gray vests on the outside of their uniforms while patrolling city streets.

“The question was whether they wear it underneath (their uniforms) or something else … you wonder if people are wearing vests like that, is it scary to be downtown?” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs asked.

During a meeting on Thursday, several City Council members and Downtown Spokane Partnership CEO Mark Richard defended the use of vests by security ambassadors.

“I don’t want to make any decisions that are going to put them at risk. They’ve got a pretty tough job, (and) they’ve got to have some authority in their job as well, which I think those vests lend them,” Councilman Michael Cathcart said.

The security team has worn vests since 2019, and the decision quickly drew mixed opinions from businesses and advocacy organizations. Some approved of the look because it made security ambassadors easily identifiable, while others worried it would feed into the perception that downtown Spokane is unsafe.

Security ambassadors are not police officers, but their mission is to “observe, report and engage,” the last tenet of which Richard said distinguishes them from the types of private security forces that might roam a shopping mall – and potentially place them in harm’s way.

The Downtown Spokane Partnership is a private nonprofit that is contracted by the city to operate and promote the Business Improvement District, which encompasses much of downtown and raises funds through taxes on businesses within its borders.

The City Council discussed the city’s contract with the Downtown Spokane Partnership, and several proposed changes to it, at a study session on Thursday.

Richard explained that downtown security ambassadors began to wear the vests in part because former Mayor David Condon relocated the Spokane Police Department’s downtown police precinct from the downtown core east to the intermodal center. (Under Mayor Nadine Woodward, the city opened a new downtown precinct at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Wall Street last year.)

“He articulated that we weren’t going to (have) any more officers downtown, and that if we wanted to have a safer downtown it was up to us to pay for it, and to really strengthen our physical presence because it’s way less expensive to hire ambassadors than it was to hire officers,” Richard said.

Richard also highlighted his worry for the safety of security ambassadors, three of whom have had a knife pulled on them this year, he told the council.

If security ambassadors are not allowed to don the vests, which are optional, Richard expressed concern that his organization could be held liable if they are harmed.

“I think there’s some things we could do to soften this without losing the external vests,” Richard said.

To that end, Richard said the Downtown Spokane Partnership would add badges to the vests that display the ambassador’s names.

A requirement that vests be worn inside the uniform could be implemented, but security ambassadors like to wear the vest on the outside of their uniform because they can easily remove it on a hot day and use it to hold other gear, Richard said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee, also urged her colleagues to be cautious.

“Let’s not rush into changing what they’re wearing before we have a discussion as council, because I don’t think everyone is in agreement on that,” Kinnear said.

The Downtown Spokane Partnership has consulted Frontier Behavioral Health about hiring a trained specialist, Richard said, but the issue is finding a sustainable funding source.

“We love the idea. We’ve seen our peers do it in other communities, (but) the challenge is money,” Richard said.

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