The case of the bungled car prowl just gets curiouser and curiouser. As hard as this may be to believe, it gets more embarrassing for the Seattle police.
Last week I wrote about how the police mostly ignored my family’s repeated calls to come and bust a vanload of car prowlers that my 14-year-old daughter had tracked using an iPhone app. The thieves were so brazen they held up our stolen stuff in plain view. But we were told by police dispatchers to go home and file an insurance claim.
As it turns out, these weren’t just any car prowlers. They were Washington’s Most Wanted!
You can’t make this stuff up. Six days after we trailed a silver minivan and its occupants for three hours but couldn’t get any help from police, a soccer mom became suspicious of the same van at Marymoor Park in Redmond.
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“She called and said it was odd that people were sitting in this van,” says Detective Bill Albright of the Sammamish police. “When we went out I recognized the van from all the wanted bulletins we had posted. We’ve been after these people for months.”
It turns out all three had warrants out for their arrests. Police believe they may have smashed into hundreds of cars stretching back to May.
Last week, as the thieves coincidentally were being arrested, the “Washington’s Most Wanted” TV program planned to air a feature on them.
“They have had a huge ripple effect throughout the community,” King County Sgt. DB Gates says in the program, posted online at catchwmw.com. “They have gone on to do their identity theft not just in our jurisdiction, but Bellevue police, Redmond police, Mercer Island police have all been hit by this same group.”
The host of the show, Q13’s David Rose, says he usually focuses on more serious crimes. But he decided to do a segment on car prowling because this one ring was so prolific and he hears “total frustration from people all the time” about the crime.
“Pretty cool that your daughter tracked them,” Rose said.
Pretty lame that we couldn’t get anyone to help.
Albright says Sammamish police intend to bring two dozen cases for charges of identity theft and possession of stolen property against the two men and one woman from the van. My wife and I didn’t get any of our stuff back, but we are now witnesses in the case. On Thursday we gave statements and tried to pick the suspects out of a photo lineup (just like on the TV crime dramas).
What got them was police drudge work — taking reports, talking to victims, matching the uses of stolen credit cards with store-surveillance videos. Most of this was done over four months by a dogged Sammamish detective named Tracey Dodd. It was also the Sammamish PD’s willingness to show up when someone reports a suspicious vehicle.
So why didn’t Seattle police come when we called three times with the description and license-plate number of what turned out to be wanted criminal suspects?
The police say it was an aberration. It was a stormy night with power outages, so they got backed up with calls. Also, we filed our report online, which is for the lowest priority cases. Later, when we called in the suspects, because of some glitch it didn’t get elevated to a higher priority.
“I’m not going to sit here and defend the indefensible,” said Lt. Jim Arata, the operations commander in the north precinct who reviewed our 911 calls. “We blew it. We can’t tell you to go file an insurance claim when you’ve got criminal suspects sitting right in front of you. That’s us waving the white flag.”
The new police chief, Kathleen O’ Toole, ordered a review of how police are responding to surging car prowls. One of her press aides even called me at home last weekend to apologize.
All that self-scrutiny is good, but this hardly seems like an isolated incident. Seattle Times readers sent in hundreds of accounts of their own uninvestigated crimes. In one, office workers physically corralled a car prowler but couldn’t get police to come arrest him. In others, victims had video proof of who broke into their cars but couldn’t get police to look at it. Even parks department employees who were eyewitnesses to multiple car break-ins say they can’t get police to respond.
I’m guessing nobody has called these victims at home to apologize.
Instead, last week Seattle police sent out one of the all-time disingenuous news releases, attempting to share credit for the bust of the car-prowl ring — though they had less than zero to do with it. “SPD, Sammamish Police on the Prowl for Car Prowlers,” the release is headlined, without noting that one of these agencies actually let Washington’s Most Wanted get away.
Still there’s the question of why. Some police officers wrote to say it’s due to new Department of Justice (DOJ) rules — specifically one that limits their abilities to make stops for criminal misdemeanors even when they have reasonable suspicion.
“It’s not a crime any officer would find worth confronting anyone over,” one Seattle officer wrote.
If cops really are “de-policing ” in a widespread way, then that is a crisis. Getting to the bottom of that should be part of the review. Other readers wrote to say the root problem is we don’t have enough cops, while some said it’s that the whole system is too tolerant.
“This is Seattle, man, and the good news is we’re all concentrating on not mixing table scraps with our regular garbage,” one reader wrote.
Whatever it is, when Sammamish detectives Dodd and Albright questioned the alleged car prowlers, they asked why they had hit so many cars, for so long, in so many places.
One shrugged: “Because we knew the police wouldn’t do anything.”
They did something in Sammamish. Maybe instead of sending out news releases or convening reviews or fuming about the DOJ, what Seattle really needs to do is just hire detectives Dodd and Albright.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org