Who’s Watching Seattle's Watchmen?

Homeowners are increasingly hiring Seattle Police officers to beef up security on their streets. But that protection comes at a price.

By Matthew Halverson March 28, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: James Boyle

Arthur Renton has watched Ballard’s Whittier Heights neighborhood descend into lawlessness for decades, but it was the Great Whiskas Temptations Robbery of 2014 that inspired the retiree to take back his streets. That November a man strode to a register in the Petco on Holman Road Northwest, cat treats in hand, and snatched $449 from the drawer as a clerk rang him up. After witnessing the heist firsthand—he was picking up something for his own cat, Ivy—Renton decided the solution to Ballard’s out-of-control crime was more police. And he was willing to pay for them personally.

The Whittier Heights Patrol Association, which launched January 1, 2015, is one of a handful of privately funded block watches that have sprung up in Seattle’s wealthier neighborhoods over the last few years. Laurelhurst has one. So does Magnolia. And a Queen Anne patrol is in the works. The idea is simple: As the Seattle Police Department’s roughly 1,300 officers struggle to keep up with a 16 percent increase in property crime since 2012, homeowners with expendable income are hiring those very same officers to patrol their streets while off duty. In practice, though, there’s nothing simple about it.

Private security guards can be unarmed or armed; in either case, they must register with the Washington Department of Licensing. That is, unless they’re police officers, in which case they only need permission from a commanding officer. Civilian security guards have no more authority than you or I. But police have all of the same power off duty that they enjoy while on the clock, up to and including the use of deadly force. (They can also work in other jurisdictions. In January, SPD detective Philip Wall received permission to provide private security at Bill Gates’s Medina compound for the next year.)

Here’s where things get especially tricky. Off-duty officers can’t use SPD vehicles. They can, however, wear their uniform and carry a department-issued firearm. And though they’re technically working for the neighborhood they’re patrolling, they become employees of the city as soon as they take police ac-tion. So the next time you’re walking down the street after dark and see a cop cruise by in a Camry, it’s best to assume he’s on duty. Even the head of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Ron Smith, sees the potential for confusion—for citizens and officers: “It’s awkward.”

Then there’s the issue of how cops find off-duty work, or in SPD parlance “secondary employment.” At least two local companies act as staffing agencies, connecting officers with employers and paying the former after billing the latter and setting aside funds for taxes, benefits, and the like. Sometimes, though, cops deal directly with their employer and get paid via personal check. Both arrangements are kosher in the eyes of the SPD, but the Employment Security Department of Washington State isn’t nearly as lenient. In 2010 the ESD audited one of those agencies, Seattle’s Finest, which had always considered officers as independent contractors, claiming that it owed four years’ worth of back taxes. The company settled and brought its policies in line with ESD requirements, but some cops still work outside the system for neighborhoods like Windermere. (SPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment on officers working for employers that don’t comply with ESD rules.)

In other words, the department’s off-duty system is byzantine, unruly, and rife with potential for exploitation. Or, as a source within city hall who has studied the issue closely says, “It’s a mess.” Since 2010 the Office of Professional Accountability, the civilian agency which investigates police misconduct, has made nine recommendations for overhauling secondary employment policies. Only one has been adopted: Retired officers may no longer wear their uniform while working as private security. Yep, until September 2015 retired cops were not prohibited from dressing up as cops while doing work that had no connection to the department.

One of the reasons for the lack of a unified approach to off-duty oversight, according to that city hall source, is money: “There is such a strong financial interest in officers having these opportunities that nobody really wants to tackle it.” Smith, of the police union, believes the system works fine as is; if the city would hire more officers, he claims, the demand for off-duty neighborhood patrols would dry up. SPD public affairs director Sean Whitcomb says that, at the request of chief Kathleen O’Toole, the department has discussed bringing the entire secondary employment operation in house, but no timeline for such a change exists. 

So for now Seattleites with the means can continue to buy an added sense of security. By any means necessary.

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