A few dozen Edmonds residents interested in learning more about crime prevention in neighborhoods near Edmonds’ Highway 99 corridor had a chance to explore that topic Wednesday night during a virtual meeting with Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson and City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas.
The meeting was organized by resident Jillayne Schlicke, with assistance from Fraley-Monillas, who lives in the area. The police chief spent about an hour answering written questions that were submitted ahead of time by residents, and also addressed concerns posed by attendees in real time.
A main focus of the conversation was criminal activity around 238th Street Southwest and Highway 99, which includes the location of the 7-11 store where 7-11 clerk Nagendiram Kandasamy was shot to death Feb. 21. Lawless said that police are still investigating Kandasamy’s murder, and have two persons of interest who haven’t yet been charged. “There are a lot of factors that go into our ability to ultimately charge them,” Lawless said. “We’ve been in constant communication with the prosecutor’s office but we do continue to actively work that case.”
One of the submitted questions asked whether commercial business owners are required by law to keep their property, including the parking lot, free from crime.
“The short answer is no,” Lawless said. At the city level, there are laws addressing safety and appearance issues like junk vehicles and invasive plants, some of which are coordinated through police with the city’s code enforcement staff or South County fire officials. At the state level, the majority of laws focus on drug activity and “morals codes” involving adult entertainment. “The threshold for the majority of those is extremely high,” and requires property owners to take an active role in asking police to address issues, Lawless said.
Many of the local property owners do call police when there’s a problem, the police chief added, and police proactively spend time in those locations. But there is no specific ordinance or state statute “that requires someone to keep their property free from crime,” Lawless said.
Another question asked the best way to report issues like transients sleeping on nearby properties, and also asked if there were ways to make these reports through social services agencies rather than police.
Lawless said the best phone number to use is the department’s non-emergency number: 425-407-3999. (There are also resources for online reporting via the department’s web page.) Edmonds does share a social worker with the City of Lynnwood, and she works with those who are homeless. “There are success stories but there are many times when it takes weeks and sometimes months to break down the barriers to get someone to allow us to help place them with the services that they need,” Lawless added. He noted that there “has been an uptick in the region in folks that are homeless, and part of the reason is that shelters have shut down because of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing.
There was a question about hotels located along Highway 99 being used to sell drugs, and whether it was possible to get more city or county resources to address the problem.
“The hotels are interesting and challenging on many different fronts for all of us,” Lawless said, pointing to “the transient nature of those establishments and the people that frequent them.” While hotels on the highway can be a source of criminal activity such as drugs, stolen property or prostitution, it’s not enough for police “to have an idea that something is going on,” he said.
“We have legal thresholds for having to get in there, but we are very actively aware of what’s going on and dealing with those situations as much as we possibly can,” Lawless said — especially since those activities can impact the lives of residents who live near the hotel properties.
He stressed that police “need the help of the neighborhood” to fight crime along Highway 99 and encouraged residents to call 911 to report anything of interest they notice. “We can’t be everywhere all the time and that’s why we ask, ‘if you see something, say something. You’ve got to call us and let us know,” he said.
Another question focused on “the roving gangs of young adults on bicycles with backpacks have been spotted by many Edmonds residents, including going in and out of the Highway 99 hotels and all over Edmonds. Is there anything else we can do besides calling 911 or the non-emergency line when we see suspicious behavior?”
Lawless stressed that police “have to have a lawful reason to stop someone” and be able to explain why that person are being stopped. “If you see someone engaged in behavior that causes you particular concern, the more detail you can provide us at the time you call, the better that can assist us in having the ability to stop someone,” the chief said. A call stating that “there’s a suspicious guy riding his bicycle down the street and I’m not sure what he’s doing,” isn’t enough. “What is it about him that’s making him suspicious?” Lawless asked. “Is he stopping? Is he looking down the side of a residence? Is it a dark residence? What more can we add to that to give us the legal, lawful authority to stop and detain someone and question them?”
People who are on a public street or sidewalk “have a right to be there,” Lawless said. “The officer is having to balance the concerns that you have, and we have, with the rights and abilities of that person to move about freely.”
A caller who has lived in a townhouse near 238th and Highway 99 since 2006 asked whether those same rights apply to people congregating on private property, such as a commercial parking lot next to his home. “Someone simply hanging out on property, if they’re not doing something that raises the eyebrow a little bit, we have no authority or ability to really approach them,” Lawless replied. The property owner needs to actually request that a person be removed — or trespassed — from the property to give police authority to remove them.
That same caller added he was concerned about the group of 20 or so people who regularly loiter at the 7-11 or the Community Transit bus stop, noting that one of them recently attempted to sell him a brand-new pair of sweat pants with Burlington Coat Factory tags still attached. “When I bought this townhouse in 2006, these problems were not even an issue,” the caller said. “We have people camping inside of our dumpster container that we didn’t have two years ago. I think it’s just a general concern in our neighborhood that there’s a massive uptick in the quantity and quality of crimes that happen around here,” he added.
“The biggest thing, and I’m going to sound like a broken record here, is call us, call us, call us,” Lawless said. “That’s why we’re here. That’s our job.” Pointing to the example of the man trying to sell sweat pants, Lawless explained that police are frustrated by the amount of shoplifting that occurs at Burlington Coat Factory. A person trying to sell new merchandise from a store is enough of a reason for police to talk to him, he said.
As for the increasing volume of loiterers, Lawless said police have noticed that trend as well. “That’s a bigger, societal discussion to have as far as social service availability, mental health system, all of the things that are also becoming part of the conversation now,” Lawless said. “There are systems in place that are either A, not effective or B, just don’t exist and they are not in place.”
It’s also not helpful, the chief added, “when jurisdictions outside of the state encourage (homeless) people to come to this region,” Lawless said.
“It’s something that we struggle with and are faced with every day, and we’ve got more than a few instances of people being generally down on their luck, having a need and the officers taking it into their own hands and going and buying $20 worth of clothes or food just to get the person through the day or the night.”
Another caller asked if police kept track of trending crime information such as the number of house break-ins and car prowls. She also asked for some strategies to prevent these types of crimes, adding that they are “rampant” in her neighborhood, located between Highway 99 and Lake Ballinger.
Lawless said that police regularly evaluate neighborhood statistics but added that such crimes are often cyclical, “quite frankly depending on whether or not the prolific car prowlers or car thieves are in jail or not in jail.” Police do track crime trends, and when they start to notice them, they dedicate more resources and officers to those areas, he added.
As for crime prevention tips, he advised residents to “be aware of your surroundings, and that includes your neighbors and getting to know your neighbors.” Most of these crimes are “crimes of opportunity,” he said, so “it’s just taking away as much of that opportunity as you can.” He also suggested trimming bushes that could otherwise provide cover for criminals, installing motion sensor lighting or doorbell or other wireless cameras, and “locking your car even when it’s in your driveway.”
Fielding a questions about the safety of the neighborhood’s Mathay Ballinger Park, which can attract criminal activity, Lawless said that officers do patrol that area regularly. “We know the corners of the park where the folks go to do the things they shouldn’t do,” he said. “Call us whenever you see anything and we’ll get there as quickly as we can.”
Another question was related to the status of the former McFinster’s building — in the same complex as Burlington Coat Factory –which has been vacant and boarded up for many years.
“I have no idea what the plans are for that property,” Lawless said. “We’re as much in the dark about that as you are, and we just as much as you would like to see something productive come out of that, other than what it is.”
Addressing a question regarding how Edmonds can “get across the message that everyone is welcome in our community, except for those with criminal intentions,” both Lawless and Mayor Nelson stressed that the city is committed to ensuring that people feel safe and comfortable when they visit — and that includes people of color.
“It’s earning, building and maintaining trust,” Lawless said, adding “it’s an ongoing, ever-evolving process. We can never get too comfortable with that.”
— By Teresa Wippel