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SPD’s roving unit shifts focus from 'hotspots' to retail theft

caption: SPD Officer Aaron Johnson removes stolen merchandise from a vehicle in Lake City. SPD said it would be returned to the Lowe's in Rainier Valley.
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SPD Officer Aaron Johnson removes stolen merchandise from a vehicle in Lake City. SPD said it would be returned to the Lowe's in Rainier Valley.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

In recent weeks Seattle police officers have increased their presence in public “hotspots” for local crime. This week those officers turned their attention to organized retail theft as well.

SPD said on Thursday officers made 49 shoplifting arrests, and 13 individuals were booked for various felony charges and outstanding warrants.

In February, SPD launched what it called “Operation New Day.” Enforcement targeted people buying and selling drugs and stolen merchandise at locations like 12th and Jackson and Third Avenue downtown. Sgt. Jamison Maehler said this week police stepped up enforcement around large retail stores like Lowe's, Target and Home Depot that were frequent targets for that stolen merchandise.

“So now we’re attempting to provide resources and additional police enforcement at those locations to deter the crimes from ever being committed, that’s sort of our focus,” he said.

On Thursday, there were multiple police vehicles around the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Rainier Valley. Officers saw a young woman with a baby get in a vehicle without any license plates and pick up a man carrying stolen merchandise — two throw pillows and a memory foam mattress worth a few hundred dollars. Police flashed their lights at which point the woman sped out of the parking lot.

On the radio, Officer Aaron Johnson warned officers not to attempt a traffic stop, given the driver's attempt to elude them earlier. Instead police followed the car through traffic all the way to an apartment building in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood. There police reclaimed the stolen goods.

Johnson said the man and woman were arrested and sent to the precinct, where detectives would ask them what they planned to do with the merchandise.

“At that point detectives will assess whether anybody’s going to be booked into jail. Another factor that will affect that is whether they have any outstanding warrants,” Johnson said.

Police said the man was booked on an outstanding DOC warrant, the woman on eluding arrest and child endangerment. The baby went to the home of a family member.

Sgt. Maehler said SPD’s Community Response Group of 30 officers helped staff up this enforcement, along with other units.

“The Community Response Group is kind of moving from mission-to-mission or precinct-to-precinct, for lack of a better term, to ‘spread the love’ to make sure each precinct is provided some sort of proactive unit,” he said.

He said he’s aware that the Seattle City Attorney has a list of 118 "high utilizers" who they call a priority to arrest and book on theft and other misdemeanors.

“It’s hard to look at that list,” Maehler said, noting a chaotic atmosphere when police are making multiple arrests..

“I know 50% of those names already just through my daily interactions as a law enforcement officer," he added.

He said police are focused on these shoplifting cases because they contribute to broader disorder around the city.

"They're not necessarily poverty crimes, they're crimes of opportunity that are then used to be involved in violent crimes which would be the narcotics and things like that," Maehler said.

Maehler said while King County Jail is declining to book most misdemeanor cases, police will attempt to book people if they have a lengthy criminal history or if officers can make the case that they represent a public safety risk. But Maehler said continuing these efforts to patrol hotspots or address theft will be up to each precinct once his group moves on to a new mission. So it’s unclear how the police presence in those hotspots will be maintained.

A new police chief?

The anti-theft operation across all the city’s precincts coincided with Mayor Bruce Harrell’s announcement this week that he will launch a national search for SPD’s next permanent chief. He said in a statement that in April his office will hire a third-party firm to help identify candidates, and “announce the members of the search committee tasked with selecting the candidates who will proceed to the competitive examination phase.”

In his announcement, Harrell applauded interim chief Adrian Diaz’ efforts in SPD’s latest initiative and said Diaz’ candidacy to become the next permanent chief would be welcome.

“As we work to make immediate and long-term safety improvements at 12th and Jackson, 3rd Avenue, and neighborhoods citywide, I have been pleased with Interim Chief Diaz’s approach and commitment to progress on public safety,” Harrell wrote. “Although I expect to conduct a robust search process, I encourage Interim Chief Diaz to apply.”

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