Around 2004, automobile theft was on the rise in Redmond and throughout the Puget Sound region.
Cmdr. Shari Francois with the Redmond Police Department (RPD) described the crimes as going through the roof.
“Traditional methods just weren’t working,” she said about police’s work to deter the activity.
To address this, Francois wrote a budget proposal for the creation of a Pro-Act unit that would focus specifically on automobile theft and property crime. The proposal was approved, and RPD’s Pro-Act unit started in 2005.
TARGETING SPECIFIC CRIMES
Francois, who has overseen Pro-Act off and on since its inception and currently oversees it, said the plainclothes unit works “relentlessly” to pursue large groups of criminal activity. This activity includes automobile theft and other property crimes such as vehicle prowls, burglaries and organized retail theft.
Investigations typically take months as detectives gather intelligence on repeat offenders. Francois said they will often bundle cases, connecting suspects to multiple crimes through DNA or fingerprint evidence and other information. She said the crimes Pro-Act investigates are not typically random and suspects tend to target certain areas.
“This is what they do for a living,” she said, describing the criminals as “prolific.”
Francois added that if the unit is focusing on one particular crime such as vehicle prowls, they often see the investigation blossom to include other related crimes such as identity theft and burglaries.
RPD also has a crime analyst dedicated to looking at automobile theft in the county. Francois said in addition to King, the analyst also gathers information from Pierce and Snohomish counties.
A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT
A large part of the work Pro-Act detectives do is with the King County prosecutor’s office. Francois said they collaborate to build solid cases against suspects to make sure their sentences stick. And they are very successful, she said, as there is so much evidence that most of the time, suspects will have multiple charges — anywhere between 10 and 30 — against them.
This collaboration is ongoing throughout an investigation, Francois said, and there are dedicated prosecutors who regularly work with police and are familiar with their process. She described RPD’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office as “invaluable.”
“It just makes (our detectives) better investigators,” Francois said about the collaboration.
While Pro-Act has a singular focus, she said the unit would not be successful without patrol officers in Redmond.
Francois also credited their surrounding law enforcement agencies as they recognize that criminals typically cross city and county lines and that calls for collaborating with other organizations.
She said Redmond’s unit has been successful in these collaborations whether the other departments have their own Pro-Act units or not. They work with the resources they have to make an impact in the region, she said.
One of those collaborations resulted in the arrest of Carlos Anderson, a known drug supplier who was recently charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in the first degree, possession of heroin and bail jumping. Police suspected Anderson to be a narcotics supplier in several Eastside cities, including Redmond, and they worked with the Bothell Police Department to surveil and arrest him.
A NEW UNIT ON ITS WAY
Francois said she will continue to advocate for Pro-Act units and similar types of teams, as “their work is invaluable for putting away criminals for long periods of time.”
That invaluable work will be picking up soon as the Kirkland Police Department (KPD) is preparing to re-establish its Pro-Act unit, which was disbanded a few years ago as part of a round of budget cuts.
The city has funded the new two-person unit as part of its 2017-18 biennial budget by repositioning one current officer and budgeting to hire one new officer. The city’s previous unit had four officers, one sergeant and a shared administrative position.
“It’s going to take a while to build up to that level,” Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris said.
Harris said the biggest barrier to getting the unit up and running is staffing. Nine potential Kirkland officers are currently going through various stages of training. On top of those nine positions, there are five patrol officer openings in the city, and with the opening of an additional Pro-Act position, there will be six openings as of Jan. 1, Harris said. She added the department’s priority is to fill the regular patrol vacancies first.
She is optimistic that Kirkland’s new Pro-Act unit will be on the road in the summer, but any unexpected staffing shortages such as additional retirements could delay the process.
“It’s a high priority for the department, not only for me, but the officers as well,” Harris said. “They don’t want to be reactive. They want to be able to catch burglars and car prowlers.”
She added they do try to incorporate proactive policing into their regular routine as much as possible to solve crimes such as burglaries, but it’s been hard to accomplish with the staffing shortages.
“It’s not anything we can do consistently,” Harris said.
Once the unit in Kirkland does get going, they will be closely working with the RPD to share resources and solve cross-jurisdictional crimes. “Chief (Kristi) Wilson is very interested in working with us,” Harris said. “We currently work with them on specific cases, because (crimes) cross jurisdictions, but we’re not working with them on an ongoing basis like we’d like to.”
The re-establishment of the Pro-Act unit in Kirkland is part of the police department’s strategic plan. Harris presented the plan to Kirkland City Council this fall, and she said the plan will be finalized in the first quarter of 2017. Eventually, the department hopes to hire an additional 11 officers to help the city further engage in proactive policing.
Regional partnerships are highly beneficial for King County law enforcement because many car prowlers, mail thieves, burglars, drug dealers and other criminals are operating throughout the region.
“When I go to these regional meetings for what’s basically an anti-car theft group where everybody shares intel throughout the region, they’ll show a picture of a suspect and all of the crimes that they’re doing, the guys from Federal Way will know him, and my guys say, ‘Oh yeah, we know him.’ It only makes sense that we get together and share this intel,” said Sergeant Jason McElyea, who heads the Bellevue Police Department’s Special Enforcement Team.
Over the last few months, Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland have worked together to track down mail thieves, bank robbers and other criminals.
As is the case with the KPD, police departments nationwide are also dealing with staffing shortages due to low numbers of applicants and a poor public image from high profile, controversial police actions. Teaming up with another agency can bring more officers in to investigate a case.
However, low staffing levels are part of the reason why departments like Bellevue aren’t partaking in formal partnerships and instead work with other cities on a case-by-case basis. Simply put, the department doesn’t have the staff to lend to a regional group, McElyea said.
Creating a formal task force means allocating full-time employees and supervisors to the group, as well as finding an agency to house them.
“If we were to put together a regional task force, that’s going to be assets where they have to allocate bodies to. The main reason we don’t do more regional activity is just bodies. I’m down two people right now, as it is,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how much [a task force] costs, but if you average that a police officer in this part of Washington makes $100,000 per year, times that by an optimum 12-person task force, it comes out to be a lot of money.”
The Eastside Narcotics Task Force, which was shuttered earlier this year, had operated for many years on government grant money and other funds from drug seizures that dried up over the last few years.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
However, Bellevue police are not giving up on creating a task force or Pro-Act unit with neighboring cities. Chief Steve Mylett included regional partnerships in his first tier goals for the department in a five-year plan released this month.
They also tried to work with the Bothell police on a Pro-Act unit earlier this year, but the latter pulled out because they need officers on the street, McElyea added.
Bothell Police Chief Carol Cummings isn’t giving up on the idea of a Pro-Act unit either. She currently has officers that do proactive policing for part of their working hours, and she would like to see that time increase over the next year or so. Her department is on the road to being fully staffed, with three officers currently in training and a fourth position about to be filled.
“Once staffing stabilizes, we will regularly staff the proactive shifts,” Cummings said.
She also hopes to establish a full-time Pro-Act unit in Bothell, which will require more funding. “That’s been one of my goals,” Cummings said of having a full-time Pro-Act Unit. “Eventually, I want to get to there.”
In the meantime, Bothell will continue to partner with other jurisdictions to do as much proactive policing as possible.
“The King County (police) chiefs and the Snohomish County chiefs … are very supportive; we do a lot of things that are regional in nature,” Cummings said. “The recession was tough on everybody … and that just strengthened everyone’s collaborations.”
Samantha Pak of the Redmond Reporter and Allison DeAngelis of the Bellevue Reporter contributed to this article.