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caption: The Seattle Police Department's mobile SkyWatch surveillance tower stands outside the Mt. Baker Safeway in south Seattle on April 10, 2019. 
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The Seattle Police Department's mobile SkyWatch surveillance tower stands outside the Mt. Baker Safeway in south Seattle on April 10, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

What's this police watchtower doing at a Seattle Safeway?

Shoppers and workers at the Mount Baker Safeway shopping center were surprised this week to find a 30-foot-tall police watchtower with tinted windows apparently surveilling the stores and parking lot.

Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb said South Precinct Captain Kevin Grossman decided to station the mobile SkyWatch unit at the shopping plaza because it's the main source of 9-1-1 calls in the entire precinct.

Thefts and robberies at Safeway and Ross Dress for Less, as well as car break-ins, have become rampant in recent months, he said: Police have received 123 calls for service from the plaza so far this year, compared to 74 calls at this point last year.

The SkyWatch unit is intended primarily to deter such crimes, Whitcomb said.

"We want there to be some ambiguity as to whether or not there's an officer stationed there," he said. It can be staffed or unstaffed, but, per the city's surveillance ordinance, is not equipped with cameras, he said. Whitcomb said the SkyWatch tower is not deployed often, although it's been used outside stadiums on game days and recently stood at the South Lander Home Depot after a spate of thefts.

"It's not what we would consider a normal piece of police equipment, but specifically it exists to address a very specific type of crime," like car-prowling hot-spots, Whitcomb said, adding that police believe a small number of individuals are responsible for most of the thefts at the Safeway shopping center.

On his break outside the grocery store, Safeway butcher Peter Phythakthep looked out at the tower. He has mixed feelings about it, he said, but considers it potentially useful to prevent the shoplifting he witnesses at his store and others.

"Not even every day — every, like, five minutes," Phythakthep said. "I cut meat, so I know what I cut. As soon as I put it out, I walk back out, and [the display case is] empty."

Phythakthep said customers have their purses snatched from shopping carts at his store, and that parking lot hit-and-runs are common — it happened to him.

Shopper Sine Bodden and her daughter Olivia, however, were slack-jawed at the sight of the new watchtower in the parking lot. They live nearby, and had just stopped at Starbucks in the plaza.

"When we rolled up, we were curious what it was," said Sine Bodden. "My first reaction to it was just that it looks like a prison guard tower."

"It looks like something out of a film, almost," Olivia Bodden said. "It shouldn't be here. Why can't they just install cameras?"

The shopping center already has many cameras, Whitcomb said, and the SkyWatch unit is just "part of a broader crime prevention strategy that involves increased patrols, uniformed officers, and, in some cases, plainclothes officers, as well."

A similar effort, also involving the SkyWatch tower, was effective several years ago at Northgate Mall, he said.

Sine Bodden said she appreciates the desire to reduce crime, but points to how the watchtower might come across in a part of town that is home to many people of color.

"I worry about the message it's sending about this community, and putting in something that is reminiscent of a prison tower."

"It kind of makes the tension rise," Olivia Bodden said. "You're not supposed to scare us, you're supposed to keep us safe."

"Those are very valid concerns," said Whitcomb of Seattle Police. "I know that these are concerns that have been shared with the precinct captain. That's very important to us, and something that obviously we're going to discuss, and weigh at the same time."

Whitcomb said police want the SkyWatch tower to scare would-be criminals — and make everyone else feel safer.

On an official Seattle police post on Nextdoor, a department liaison said police will keep the tower in place for at least two weeks, then "re-evaluate its effectiveness and placement."