When houses are in disrepair, it's damaging to the whole neighborhood, Lynnwood Police Chief Steve Jensen said.
Think stacks of tires on the sidewalks. Broken-down cars leaking fluids. Piles of trash.
In April, the Lynnwood Police Department created a new unit focused on community health and safety. The unit, led by Sgt. T.J. Brooks, combines aspects of crime prevention and code enforcement. He and others work closely with public works, parks, the community development office, the city attorney and the fire marshal.
They've been on “blight tours” of the city and gone after problem spots, together.
“It's unconventional, but it's legal and it's far more effective,” Brooks said.
The idea for the new unit got started shortly after the police chief was out on a emergency call in the south end of town.
The chief saw sofas ditched outside, mattresses and box springs. It got him thinking about blight.
“It just destroys a neighborhood,” he said.
Those nuisance issues can be a gray area for law enforcement, Brooks said.
With the exception of drugs, most of the problems at nuisance properties aren't the kind that will lead to felony convictions, Jensen said.
Police can make arrests, but community development staff are who deal with issues such as illegal canopies, overgrown weeds and garbage piles, Mayor Nicola Smith said.
So, now they're working together, in neighborhoods that have been a little “unloved,” she said.
“Being able to put all of the resources expediently and effectively into one area, it really shows that neighborhood that we care, we want you to care about your neighborhood, we're going to give you a kick-start, and here are all the resources you have available to keep your neighborhood up,” she said.
Drug houses have been among the targets.
In many cases, police can't evict trespassers from a private property. Narcotics investigations can take months.
Since the recession, banks have been reluctant to get involved in legal action regarding squatters and foreclosed homes.
Brooks has been contacting landlords.
They've been responsive so far, he said.
“We're very blunt with them,” he said.
Businesses with multiple license violations often have other problems lurking, Brooks said.
Police have found people illegally living inside nail salons and massage parlors where they are employed. They've cracked down on street vendors selling counterfeit goods, such as Seahawks gear, Brooks said.
The unit has investigated motels and makeshift campgrounds, including one behind Beverly Elementary.
The camps were littered with heroin needles, the mayor said.
People were stealing power generators for their camps, and taking bicycles from the school.
“You can't have people stealing kids' bikes,” Jensen said.
Brooks relies on help from volunteers, police explorers and cadets. The unit could grow with time.
The City Council also is considering at least one change in the rules.
At the moment, Lynnwood does not require residents to have a garbage collection service. About a third of Snohomish County cities have such a rule. The council is expected to make a decision soon.
“Typically folks dealing drugs at a house don't live a pristine lifestyle,” Jensen said. “They don't want to pay for garbage (pickup).”
The city employs one code enforcement officer in the police department and one in community development. Two former code enforcement officer positions were lost in the recession.
City officials still can seek court orders to get abandoned buildings demolished or repaired, but that takes money and time, with limited resources.
Brooks keep pictures of the problem houses they've visited on his computer at the police station, from before and after.
In the “before” shots, nine garbage cans were overflowing in one driveway. Lumber. A car, covered in a foot of dead pine needles. Grass three-feet high. Ice chests. Broken furniture. Crooked fences. Old buses.
One neighborhood threw a block party after the cleanup effort, Brooks said.
The neighbors hung a hand-painted banner for police, reading “Thank you.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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