EDITOR’S NOTE: Recently, The B-Town Blog also published an in-depth look at what the candidates had to say during Tuesday night’s (Oct. 12) debates about the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s permanent supportive housing project planned for downtown Burien.

By Nicholas Johnson

How candidates for Burien City Council think about and would approach issues of public safety, crime and policing – whether in city parks, on downtown streets or in residential neighborhoods – was a major theme during Tuesday night’s debates.

In the city’s 2018 Community Assessment Survey, residents were asked what they believe “are the three most important issues facing the city of Burien in the next five years.” The results show that 50 percent of respondents identified public safety as one of their top three issues, while 22 percent identified crime as a top issue.

And with 0.9 officers for every 1,000 residents according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ 2020 Crime in Washington report, Burien has the lowest per-capita police staffing ratio in south King County. At times, this has resulted in having three patrol officers on duty citywide.

Businesses and residents have also reported concerns about visible homelessness and open drug use in parks, home burglaries and thefts of mail and catalytic converters, as well as delayed responses or no response from police when calling 911.

All eight candidates running for four city council seats weighed in on these issues over two hours during Tuesday night’s virtual debates (watch debates here).

Burien City Council candidate debates spotlight divergent public-safety perspectives 1

Position No. 1

Burien has “a public safety crisis that is threatening the very well-being of every resident and business” in the city, Position No. 1 candidate Martin Barrett said, adding that “we have lost many of our public spaces.

“People feel welcome when it is safe and clean,” Barrett said, arguing that the city should reinstate “public trespassing and panhandling laws,” and boost police staffing and resources “so we can reclaim our library, our sidewalks and alleys for the taxpayer-intended use.”

Fellow Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia said he would work to expand the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program into evenings as well as into residential areas while also “supporting our police force by investing in resources to deal with behavioral and mental health issues” so that officers can focus on “residential and commercial property crime, burglaries, mail theft and catalytic converters.”

Garcia also said he would focus on crime prevention by “activating our downtown core and neighborhoods with art, music and food” and by bringing community cultural events to city parks.

Barrett said he supports “the concept of LEAD” but “does not believe it’s effective under the current structure.

“LEAD people are only called when a police officer is present,” Barrett said. “Therefore it will never be more effective than our policing.”

Burien’s LEAD program, which was launched in May 2019, aims to improve public safety and reduce criminal behavior, or recidivism, by diverting people who have committed certain misdemeanors away from the criminal justice system and into treatment and support services. Burien’s program, which has a capacity to serve 100 people annually, accepts community referrals on top of those from law enforcement.

Barrett said that the city’s police staffing – reported to have been 48 officers in 2020 – is about 20 officers shy of “what is needed.

“This has happened because over the years council after council has neglected to increase funding and support our law enforcement,” Barrett said, adding that funding for “mental health and social work professionals” is also lacking. “To be effective, these professionals require a secure environment established by law enforcement so they can help with those that are struggling.”

Garcia said that the city spends nearly half of its General Fund budget on contracted police services through the King County Sheriff’s Office, and he commended Chief Ted Boe for “doing so much with the resources that they have.

“Being understaffed is not because we don’t have the money to invest,” Garcia said. “The understaffing is because the police culture and profession is changing. Folks are burnt out, they’re burnt out because they’re having to deal with mental health, behavioral health on top of crime, on top of everything.”

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Position No. 3

Saying that the city’s police staffing is “not adequate,” Position No. 3 incumbent Mayor Jimmy Matta said he believes the city needs “to hire and train more police officers and professional staff.

“I’ve heard that residents have called 911 and it’s gone to voice message,” Matta said. “This is unacceptable for our community.”

Matta said that “great work” has been done “to bring down violent crime in Burien since 2017 when I was elected” but that more work remains “to make public safety a top priority.

“Starting in January, there’s already been a program implemented where we’re going to have a mental health specialist along with the fire department to go out and talk with people that are challenged with mental health illness,” Matta said. “On top of that, we’re going to have a police officer downtown.”

Matta’s Position No. 3 challenger, Mark Dorsey, said the city should prioritize “the quality of our police department versus the cost of our police department” and that “we should never price shop our safety.

Dorsey agreed with Matta that the city’s police staffing is “not adequate whatsoever” and said he’s had the experience of calling 911 and “they didn’t show up.

“I think that we need to first of all not draw resources from the King County Sheriff’s department, which I’m sure is great but they seem to be having a little bit of trouble there themselves,” Dorsey said, “so I don’t think we should be drawing resources from them.”

Instead, Dorsey said the city should explore establishing its own police department.

“I think short-term we need to definitely put a lot more resources towards officers here in Burien if we get those from King County,” Dorsey said, “but long-term I think Burien’s going to be better off if we focus on the quality of our policing and not the cost, and I think the quality of our policing can be a lot better if we have a police department here in Burien.”

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Position No. 5

Position No. 5 candidate Alex Simkus, who owns Andy’s Handy Mart gas station on Southwest 160th Street, said he sees “drug crime multiple times every day” on his business property and questioned why anyone would want to start a business in Burien “if we don’t address the crime problem.

“Our city needs to address the resources for police so they can effectively do their jobs,” Simkus said. “While the state has made it difficult over the last year to curb things like drug crime, more officers are always an effective deterrent.”

Likening the city to a business, Simkus said that if the city’s customer is its residents and business owners, whose number one concern is crime and public safety, the city “should start with the attitude that the customer is always right.”

Fellow Position No. 5 candidate Sarah Moore said city parks and streets will feel safer when “we activate our public spaces with events, arts, lighting and planted spaces” inspired by “how all of our community would like to see our public spaces used.

“As Alex said, the customer is right, and finding out how people want to use public spaces is going to be an attracter and bring them to it,” Moore said, applauding the city’s existing efforts “to support the LGBTQI+ community and the Latinx communities through our pride and fiesta events.

“I’d like to see more events lifting up the communities in our area who have historically been made to feel unsafe,” Moore said. “I think this is a form of safety that is often overlooked.”

Over the years, Simkus said, he has “reported less and less crime because I know that reporting will likely not result in anything” because “our police force is stretched thin.

“My employees deal with violent confrontations often and, unfortunately, because we have so few officers, the response time is still not quick enough to make it worth their while to call,” Simkus said. “They don’t feel like it’s even worth it. That’s absurd, and it creates emboldened criminals and dangerous situations that nobody should be put in.”

As a result, he said, the city needs “to consider every possible option to address this issue and, right now, that means more funding for officers,” adding that “in the future, we will likely need to consider our own police force.”

Moore agreed that the city’s police force is short-staffed, saying that “Burien is in the process of hiring officers” but that “not every 911 call involves a crime committed or a situation that a police officer is trained in and ideally suited to address.

“This is why I will advocate for a broad scope of responses to the very different types of emergencies that arise in our city,” Moore said. “Theft, violent and property crimes are unacceptable, and so are criminalizing poverty and failing to de-escalate and provide services for people in crisis.”

Some crimes, such as thefts of mail or catalytic converters, “are rarely spotted and rarely in time to be prevented by police intervention,” Moore said, but “reporting such crimes does help, it does matter” because it allows police to collect information that can lead to arrests. To that end, Moore also said the city should promote the use of non-emergency calls that keep police informed and able to investigate crime.

Over the summer, Moore said, she witnessed police respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis who posed a danger to themselves but not others.

“The police responded quickly and, while they were empathetic and eager to assist, there were limits to what they could do for the person, who had a negative response to them because of trauma that they had experienced in the past,” Moore said. “So I do believe that we need more mental health responses to people in crisis, we need to expand our LEAD program not only to expand what it can do but to expand its reach into the community.”

Simkus said he’s “for every alternative program we can get to take the pressure off the officers,” but for him “the issue is crime.

“If we can reduce crime by giving officers more time to respond to calls that they’re more needed at by having other services deal with calls where an officer is not necessarily needed, that’s great,” Simkus said. “But I still see a lot of crime that requires a police officer. Police officers are a better deterrent to crime than anything else on my business property.”

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Position No. 7

Many residents “no longer feel safe” going to parks, grocery stores or the library, Position No. 7 candidate Stephanie Mora said, arguing that prioritizing public safety means “enforcing laws and ordinances that we already have.

“We cannot accept this as a new normal, and we cannot have a functioning city if our laws don’t apply to everyone,” Mora said. “A certain segment of our community thinks that there are no consequences for their actions.”

Position No. 7 incumbent Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx said the “incredible increase in events, festivals and celebrations in our public spaces” belies the idea that “our public spaces are all dangerous, unwelcoming and to be avoided.

“I think that is a crucial aspect to increasing public safety in our downtown core and any of our parks,” Marx said. “Moving forward, I think that we need to look at public safety as an interconnected part of our city.”

Police alone should not be expected to solve all crime, nor should they be tasked with solving the homelessness crisis, Marx said.

“If re-elected, I will work to support a day shelter for those experiencing homelessness where resources can be provided that allow these individuals to move from homelessness into a life of self-determination and safety,” Marx said, “while also listening to our officers on what tools are or are not working for them as we engage with crime in our city.”

In meeting with business owners, Mora said, she has heard that they, too, have been feeling unsafe, coming to their businesses early to “clean up human feces and needles around their storefronts.

“I do believe that business owners and their employees and customers should have a safe environment for them to even operate and shop in,” Mora said. “Downtown Burien should be a vibrant business area that people from outside our community can come and spend their money safely.”

Marx said she has “heard similar things from our business community, which is why I have acted,” supporting the funding and implementation of a “downtown police and emergency response center” that includes more police and community service responders.

“That does address issues that people are presenting with regards to individuals sleeping in business doorways, defecating in the alleyways, things that are not acceptable downtown behavior,” Marx said.

While Burien needs “a better staffing model” for police, Marx said, that is “only one piece of the public safety puzzle,” and with “over 52 percent of our entire city budget being spent on public safety,” she said the “fiscally responsible thing for us to do is to listen to our officers and also fully fund human services and housing efforts.

“We have to focus on housing, family supports, services for gang-involved youth, mental health supports and so much more if we’re actually going to gain some traction,” Marx said. “This will decrease our police response time and address the root causes of these crimes that we’re experiencing by providing supports, resources and tools to impacted communities.”

Mora said she supports mental health programs “when it makes sense” and that Marx’s support for the LEAD program is “almost insinuating that we don’t need as many police as a result.

“If you don’t have enough police officers, then it doesn’t matter how many health professionals you have,” Mora said, referring to the LEAD program as reactive instead of proactive. “It is unreasonable to expect a health professional to respond to a very violent situation on their own.”

Mora said the city needs more police officers, arguing that “you can’t continue to ask the police to do more with less.

“We can’t continue to defund the police under the guise of dynamic policing policies,” Mora said, noting that she and her children have seen “lots of gunfire outside my apartment,” which she said is the result of “having insufficient police officers.”

“I do believe that the basic responsibility of government is to ensure the safety of its citizens,” Mora said, “and to know that they have three police officers on shift at any time in the city of Burien, it is a sign to me of a failing government city.”

Marx said that the LEAD program “is not only for police response,” but is “also for community referrals, starting with the business community.

“We have also never defunded the police in Burien,” Marx said, “so perhaps my opponent thinks she’s running in a Seattle City Council race where they have defunded officers.”

Marx said the city currently has funding “for four or five more officers,” but that the sheriff’s office “has had a hard time recruiting those officers, and Burien has helped in the recruitment efforts.”

Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to [email protected].