An ongoing presence: U-District neighbors encouraged to form block watches, neighborhood walks that are visible to criminals

Police promised to maintain increased patrols in the University District at a public safety meeting on Thursday, Sept. 15, at University Heights Center.

The meeting addressed an increase in drug and gang activity on and around University Way Northeast, and was the second between Seattle, King County and University of Washington police officers, city representatives, chamber of commerce members and residents. The first meeting on Aug. 10 prompted the initial surge in police efforts.

"The officers at the North Precinct have gone to bat for us over the last month," said Theresa Lord Hugel, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce. "Now it's our turn to go to bat for them."

Hugel encouraged merchants to sign trespass agreements with the city that would enable officers to confront potential criminals in doorways and storefronts, even if merchants aren't there at the time. Without the agreements, she said, police have no jurisdiction in those areas that are most conducive to crime.

"What criminals are looking for is a dark place that's hidden away, where they can sell drugs and do what they want to do," said Jordan Royer, the city's senior policy advisor for public safety.

In addition to the trespass agreements, police encouraged people to continue reporting criminal activity they encounter. "We can't take action unless you keep us informed," said Capt. Dan Oliver of the Seattle Police Department's North Precinct. "In order to do anything we need to know what's going on."

One problem, merchants said, is that criminals in the area have threatened to harm people who report them to police. "We will locate those individuals and see to it that they're arrested," Oliver said of the threat makers. "We're aware of the problem and are certainly looking in to it."

'A fine line'

King County Police have stepped up efforts as well. Officers made 25 arrests, 16 of which were drug-related, over a four-day span, according to a Metro Transit Police report.

Several community members applauded police efforts and made suggestions about what could be done to alleviate the problems, including moving some public benches and restroom facilities.

Royer and Oliver both said they understood why some wanted benches removed, but that making the decision to do so was a difficult one. "We receive complaints all over the city about public benches and restrooms," Oliver said. "There have been cases when benches were removed and later reinstalled at the request of residents, though, so it's important to take all points of view in to consideration before you do anything. You don't want to overreact."

Additionally, Oliver said, while police recognize that benches sometimes attract criminal activity, they are also there for the public's enjoyment. "There are certain laws that accompany loitering laws," Oliver said, "and people's activities must meet certain requirements in order for us to enforce them. Obviously it's not illegal to sit on a bench."

Royer agreed and added that the city must be careful to avoid stripping away all its public amenities.

"There's a fine line between preventing crime and having a neighborhood with no benches and no trees and no amenities," he said.

Bus shelters, most agreed, pose a similar problem because they give drug dealers a place to conduct their business out of plain sight. Officers at the meeting said glass was recently removed from the shelters to make activity inside them more visible, but the county is hesitant to remove them completely.

"It's one of those things where once they're gone, they're gone," Hugel said. "It's too expensive to take them in and out."

A visible presence

Royer said a helpful tool would be to organize neighborhood watches and community walks, mentioning that those programs had worked in the past in other areas like Columbia City.

"The key is to be a visible presence to those causing the problems," he said. "The city can help you organize, but it's really up to the people of the community to make sure that those types of programs are successful."

In addition to police activity in the area and potential citizen action, Hugel encouraged residents to continue to be proactive by notifying police of criminal activity and attending future meetings.

"I'm pleased to see so many people here today," she said. "But this is an ongoing effort, and we need people to continue to participate."

The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. at University Heights Center, 5031 University Way N.E.

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