Originally posted Friday night
Early one morning last August, Gary Boulden’s phone rang. A young man had shot his father at a Beacon Hill home, and Seattle homicide detectives were calling to ask Boulden, an SPD Victim Advocate, to come meet with the family at the South Precinct. “They wanted me to be present when [detectives told the family] the father had not made it,” Boulden says.
Two months later, Boulden met with the family of slain Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton, to provide support as the department hunted for his killer.
Since 1989, Boulden has worked as a victim advocate in the Seattle Police Department, working with the grieving family members of murder victims, providing them with counseling referrals, helping them set up funeral arrangements, providing them with information about convictions and arrests, accompanying them to court, and helping them apply for crime victim compensation.
SPD also employs five other advocates—all civilian employees—in the robbery, sexual assault, and domestic violence units. Domestic violence advocates say they handled more than 1100 cases in 2008, setting them up with safe housing and accompanying them to court and defense interviews.
But in a shocking move this week, Boulden and other employees in the victim’s advocate and Crime Prevention Coordinator programs say Assistant SPD Chief Dick Reed and SPD’s human resources department called them into a meeting and informed them they could be out of a job next year.
“[O]n Wednesday they gave us the warm handshake goodbye,” says Terrie Johnston, the Crime Prevention Coordinator for the West Precinct. “They gave us information on a retirement package, sick leave, vacation balances, information on COBRA, and classes on interviewing and resume writing.”
A federal grant used to fund the Crime Prevention and Victims Advocate programs for the last few years runs out in March 2011. With the city facing a more than $50 million budget shortfall in 2011, Mayor Mike McGinn has directed city agencies—with the exception of the fire department—to trim their budgets between 1.5 and 3%. Although the two programs have each been around for more than two decades, it appears the department can’t or won’t find the money to fund them now.
While it’s understandable that the city and the police department—which has already instituted a hiring freeze, in spite of a previous plan to hire around 20 officers every year through 2012—are struggling with tough cuts, advocates and crime prevention coordinators fill roles that most officers can’t.
For instance, earlier this month Johnston helped coordinate an effort amongst block watch captains and neighbors to catch the “Queen Anne Creeper”—who approached and propositioned a number of women on the street in Queen Anne and Magnolia. It turns out he was a felon on Department of Corrections supervision, now facing several months in jail for violating the conditions of his release.
“I consider that great community/police partnership. It was all the neighbors calling [me],” Johnston says. “If they’d called a desk clerk, the dots might not have been connected.”
In addition to coordinating neighborhood manhunts, Johnston and other crime prevention coordinators also consult with neighbors on how to make their homes more criminal-proof, and works with neighbors and businesses to deal with noisy bars, hoarders, speeders, and burglars. “We’re trying to prevent the next crime, and to let people know how the crimes are happening in the neighborhood and what might they do better to protect themselves,” she says.
That kind of pro-active work isn’t something SPD patrol officers typically have time to handle. “I do not want this valuable program to be cut,” Johnston says. “The officers will just not be able to do block watch. Besides," she says, laughing, “we’re a lot cheaper than cops.”
SPD did not respond to a request for comment. Mayor McGinn’s spokesman Aaron Pickus said that “public safety is a top priority” for the city, but would not say whether McGinn supports cutting the two programs.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former cop and chair of the public safety committee, says he’s “not ready to take an absolute firm position” on the cuts, but says victim advocates “serve an extremely valuable function” and that it would “be difficult if all of those positions go away."
Of the Crime Prevention Coordinator program, Burgess says he believes “we need to take a close look” at better coordinating the program. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean those positions should be eliminated,” he says.