Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Nov. 30, 2022

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Westneat: New model for police is elusive

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Seattle has been struggling for more than two years now to re-imagine the police: To come up with something softer, a team that can show up to some calls without the badges and the guns.

So some city leaders are excited about an old idea to use civilian responders in parts of the city — the parks — that drew more than 10,000 visits last year by the cops.

“Seattle is on the verge of a police alternative,” was how one Seattle City Council member enthusiastically described the proposal to me a couple of weeks ago.

But then there were a couple of public hearings. And the council has been getting blasted, not because this new response would be too weak or soft. Because it would be too authoritarian.

“Stop escalating policing in our parks,” one resident testified to the City Council this past week. “This is just cops by another name,” testified another.

What is the proposal? To hire more park rangers.

Park rangers are not cops by another name, or cops at all. They’re civilians who don’t carry weapons and can’t make arrests. As the name implies, they tend to range around the parks telling people about the park rules or answering questions. They do have the power to write you a ticket, and, in more extreme cases of felony-level crimes, to join with cops to bar you from a park.

Last year, police went to Seattle parks 10,505 times, according to police records — nearly 30 times per day. Almost all the visits were for petty things such as disturbances, vandalism, “person down” calls, drinking, noise, illegal fires.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, along with City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the parks district board, say they saw an opportunity to cut some of these duties from the understaffed police, while at the same time reducing the number of times the more militarized cops are the ones summoned.

“It struck me that these are overwhelmingly nonviolent and public health related calls,” Lewis says. “These are things that a civilian responder could at least be the first person on the scene for.”

Seattle has only two park rangers. The proposal is to hire 26 more, as part of a parks tax hike plan, to cover downtown area parks at the start.

It’s turned into a case study of how difficult it is to thread the needle on these issues, as some activists have denounced even park rangers as too harsh.

A group of progressive organizations, called Solidarity Budget, held a news conference to denounce the rangers, saying they would funnel more defenseless people into jail.

It’s debatable whether park rangers would ease safety problems in the parks. But the 911 calls already are coming in. The immediate issue is whether the real police show up, with guns, or whether the city sends out someone like Ranger Sandra (the name of one of the current rangers), who tries to resolve the situation without law enforcement.

It may not bode well for these efforts, in Seattle, that park rangers are being cast as a Gestapo unit. The Parks Department said rangers kicked only two people out of parks all of last year — and that was for a shooting in Discovery Park. They also wrote only one citation. In Seattle’s ongoing debate about going hard, soft or somewhere in between on crime, the rangers don’t exactly fall on the punitive side.

“It’s discouraging to see the left wing of Seattle politics publicly speaking against expanding an unarmed civilian response,” Lewis said. To try to assuage the critics, he is attaching language to the parks proposal to mandate that rangers can’t address homeless camping.

Re-imagining the police is a necessity, but it was always going to be elusive, and far more expensive than the status quo. Other cities that have tried it, such as Camden, N.J., have found they ended up with more public safety employees, not fewer.

Sending unarmed civilians to some calls was supposed to be an area where everyone might be able to align.

Now it’s seeming like in the too hard versus too soft debate, Seattle may be a city for which there is no “just right.”

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