After Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote about how the police largely disregarded his family's repeated calls about car thieves in his neighborhood, a resident of the city’s tony Laurelhurst section dropped him a note.
"I bet if you had been in Laurelhurst, somebody would have come," the reader wrote. "Your mistake was being in a regular part of town."
Turns out that Laurelhurst, the neighborhood where Bill Gates was born and lived until about 1994, isn't completely satisfied with its police protection, either. In fact, it has hired its own security force.
Exasperated with a spate of car break-ins, the neighborhood adopted its strategy from Windermere, an even more exclusive neighborhood directly north, where homeowners pay an annual $575 fee that mostly goes toward having off-duty police and private security guards patrol year-round.
Seattle has the top property crime rate in the country, the Seattle Times reported recently. It’s more than double the Boston area's rate and almost one-third higher than the rate for the Denver area.
Laurelhurst's security force consists of off-duty policemen who keep the neighborhood under surveillance six nights per week in five-hour shifts, and also conduct foot patrols when residents are on vacation. One of the city's off-duty bicycle cops also rides around the neighborhood during the day—something that helps with the now ubiquitous package theft that appears to be a result of faux dog walkers following UPS trucks to their delivery destinations.
Although the off-duty cops wear their official uniforms and carry police radios and firearms, they drive their personal—that is, unmarked—cars. They monitor incoming 911 calls and work with on-duty police officers if there’s an incident.
"We don't expect them to catch people," says Brian McMullen, who sits on the neighborhood council and helps oversee the crime program. "We view it as a deterrent."
Buying extra police protection has worked—up to a point.
The program started six years ago during the high-crime holiday period. The culprits at the time were young adults who, after partying at a local fire pit, engaged in an excessive number of car break-ins. Ninety families pooled funds to hire off-duty cops for a couple of months, and the word got out. The number of parties at the fire pit plummeted—as did the number of incidents.
Last year, 350 families (nearly 30 percent of the neighborhood's residents) paid an annual $200 fee to maintain the extra security year-round. But it is not a cure-all, and McMullen says it does not always deter professional criminals. On Halloween at 8:30 PM, for example—just one hour before Westneat posted his first piece—somebody kicked in the back doors of five houses in a row. A resident who had set up a camera to detect raccoons that were getting into his garbage recorded one of the break-ins.
"The camera was angled down too low, and he only caught the neck down," McMullen says. "But (the crook) was carrying what the police said was an assault rifle."