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Originally published Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 4:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle business districts need a stronger commitment to policing

Seattle business districts continue be plagued by aggressive soliciting and other problems unchecked because of a shortage of police patrols, write guest columnists Kate Joncas, C. Michael Cross and Scott Soules. They urge the Seattle City Council to reject Mayor Mike McGinn's hiring freeze of police officers to beef up the city's Neighborhood Policing Plan.

Special to The times

LAST month, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn put the brakes on police hiring and full implementation of the city's Neighborhood Policing Plan — a 2007 City Council-approved plan to hire 105 new police officers over five years in order to implement additional foot patrols and proactive policing in neighborhoods across the city.

As neighborhood business districts struggle to make it through the worst economic recession to hit Seattle in 80 years, now is exactly the wrong time to suspend police hiring.

Aggressive solicitation, drug trafficking and late-night violence are all-too-common occurrences. From Belltown to the University District and neighborhoods in between, residents and business owners are calling for an improved police presence. Recently, City Council members, judges, prosecutors and Seattle Police Department leaders heard the frustration firsthand at a meeting of 250 Belltown residents regarding crime that has persisted for years, despite the city's best efforts with current policing levels.

On a recent walking tour of the University District, City Council members also heard from business owners who face challenges in attracting customers and maintaining sales amid drug dealing and aggressive solicitation outside their front doors. University Book Store Personnel Director Louise Little was recently quoted as saying customers come to her office to complain about being hassled on the street outside: "They're fearful about what they'll encounter in the area."

Foot traffic means everything to small retailers who don't have huge marketing budgets to draw in customers and rely on bustling sidewalks to generate sales. So when pedestrians avoid streets because of crime, aggressive behavior or a high-profile shooting, retailers suffer and have few options and resources to sustain their businesses.

While credit goes to the mayor for redirecting existing resources to increase police presence on Friday and Saturday nights in Belltown, more is needed in neighborhood business districts to have a meaningful and sustainable impact on public safety. We've already witnessed the finger-in-the-dike approach to public safety — where resources are shifted to a neighborhood following a night of violence. What neighborhoods need are regular foot patrols to deter violence and street disorder before it erupts, not after.

Continued implementation of the Neighborhood Policing Plan is critical to improving safety in our neighborhoods and ensuring the size of our police force keeps pace with Seattle's increasing population. On a per-capita basis, Seattle actually has fewer officers today than in 2000. Then, there were 2.24 police officers for every 1,000 Seattle residents. Today there are just 2.16 officers per 1,000, fewer than our peer cities of Boston (3.66), Milwaukee (3.35), Baltimore (4.72) and Atlanta (3.04).

We can't sustain safe and vibrant neighborhoods with a shrinking police force relative to the overall size of the city.

A proposed law to restrict aggressive solicitation and improve safety was vetoed earlier this year by Mayor McGinn, despite 77 percent voter backing and widespread support from human-service providers, residents, small-business owners and civic leaders. Opponents of the measure — including the mayor — argued that increasing foot patrols was a more effective alternative to the proposed law.

Yet just a few months later, police hiring has been put on hold and no alternative plan to crack down on aggressive solicitors has been put forward.

Seattle citizens and small-business owners deserve better. The City Council should reject the mayor's hiring freeze and move forward with the Neighborhood Policing Plan to ensure Seattle's neighborhood business districts are safe and thriving places for everyone.

Kate Joncas is president of the Downtown Seattle Association; C. Micheal Cross is president of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce; Scott Soules is president of the University District Business Improvement Area.

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