Approximately 100 residents turned out Tuesday night for a civil discussion with police and city officials about how best to protect their homes and neighborhoods at a Town Hall meeting on public safety hosted by members of the North Renton Neighborhood Associations.
Since early this summer, residents of North Renton have taken to the public comment section of council meetings in order to express their frustration with what they see as an increase in crime. Tuesday’s event, which featured Mayor Denis Law, Police Chief Kevin Milosevich and several department heads, was also attended by several members of the City Council.
The town hall focused on three topics, based on emails from residents highlighting their concerns: Homelessness and transients, public intoxication and drug use/distribution and traffic, parking and pedestrian safety.
“Like any city in a highly populated area, we certainly have our issues that need to be addressed,” Law said during his opening remarks. “I’m totally committed to working with you on addressing these issues.”
Police heard concerns directly from residents while the residents heard from police about the limits of their power and authority as they struggle to meet the needs of the citizens without violating the rights of the homeless.
Milosevich, who offered some statistics on crime in the area, said a lot of the issue is perception versus reality as to what the police are doing and the level of crime, but admitted that they have to do a better job responding to both so residents feel safer, particularly regarding suspicious people and drug dealing in the area.
“I can give you the stats all day long,” Milosevich said, “but perception is what we really have to work with.”
Miloseivch cited several efforts on the part of the city to help clean up parks and trails that some residents said they no longer felt safe using, including ordinances to expel and trespass people from parks and nuisance ordinances. Milosevich also cited the city’s nuisance ordinance as a way to help clean up problem properties and said the city is working on developing an “alcohol impact area” downtown to prevent the sale of fortified alcohols in the city core, though that is a slow process.
Milosevich also spoke of staffing concerns and highlighted the different patrol precincts through North Renton, downtown and South Renton and talked of the downtown directed enforcement team, to which he hopes to add additional officers as more are hired.
Currently, the Renton Police Department is a little understaffed, which requires the department to pull members off special enforcement teams to cover minimum staffing. The department has six officers currently in the academy and has been authorized to hire six more.
He promised a “better presence” next summer than this year.
Residents were repeatedly encouraged to call 911 when they see something suspicious. However, several residents were upset about what they see as ineffective responses that do not necessarily deal with the issues. For example, several residents spoke about calling the police after witnessing drug deals, only to have to police arrive and seemingly do nothing.
Milosevich explained that under the law, the police actually have to see the drug use or sale and that simply being homeless or hanging around in a park is not against the law. In fact, Milosevich said it’s not even a crime to be drunk or high in public anymore.
“We don’t have the authority to search them,” Milosevich said.
Milosevich also said that even if a suspect is arrested, it is up to the prosecutor to decide if there is enough case to charge someone. If there is not, that person must be let go and often ends up right back on the street.
“It is a problem,” he said, adding that narcotics enforcement is “very difficult.”
Deputy Chief Ed VanValey also spoke of the difficulty for police in going after drug houses. He said it can take months of investigation and observation to build a case against a suspected dealer and warned against residents taking their own photos or videos to send to the police.
“If they know they’re being watched, we’re done,” he said of their investigations, adding that there are about 20 houses in the North Renton/South Renton area that police currently have their eye on.
One gentleman even spoke of returning home after four days to find people in his home and stealing his belongings. The suspects ran away and he said it is infuriating to him to see them around the neighborhood still today, though police said a single eyewitness is sometimes not enough to put someone away who was not caught in the act by police.
Residents repeatedly asked what they could do to help get convictions, with the response being to call 911 every time to help police build a case.
Following the meeting, Law said the meeting was good and he understood residents’ frustrations about police limitations, but was encouraged that so many people would turn out for a pro-active discussion.
“I love that they’re willing to come out,” he said, thanking the neighborhood association.
Councilman Armondo Pavone, who chairs the Public Safety Committee was one of several council members in attendance. Pavone also said it was a great forum and reiterated that he – and the police – are often just as frustrated as residents and he said he hoped the meeting would help get both groups on the same page regarding what can and can’t be done.
“There’s so much disinformation out there,” he said.
Organizers Neil Sheesley and Kathleen Booher also said they were pleased at the turnout from the community and the discussion and said they were happy that city officials had a chance to hear directly from residents.
“The town hall meeting provided space for engagement between our neighbors and the city. Our community needed the city to hear their concerns and answer questions,” Booher said in an email. “Many in our community are frustrated and were not satisfied with the answers, but the city heard us and we began communicating.
“People were connecting with the city leaders who can help them – that is success,” she said.
Booher said she hoped the meeting would bring change to the city and said they hoped to plan another one for the spring.
She also reminded everyone again to call 911 if they see anything suspicious.