A History of Seattle Police: Part 2, East Precinct – Controversy from the Start

Content Warning: This post links to an historical newspaper article that uses the term “homosexuals,” which is an outdated term used to characterize gay people as having a psychological disorder.

In response to local interest on the history of policing in Seattle and community-driven police reform movements, Shelf Talk presents a three-part series that dives into historical resources on these topics. Part 1 examines police accountability starting with two events in 1965, Part 2 looks at controversy surrounding the creation and siting of the East Precinct, and Part 3 concludes with events in the 1980s and 1990s.

From proposal to opening, the creation of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct took nine years and cost approximately $3.6 million. From the outset, community organizations, leaders, and citizens from the Black community, and later the gay community, resisted various proposals for siting the precinct within the Central District neighborhood.

At a special meeting of the City Council on July 27, 1977, a brief discussion of a bond proposal for police precinct stations took place. The issue appeared on the ballot September 20, 1977, and passed 73,745 to 37,258. Council President Sam Smith, the first Black City of Seattle council member, shared his views:

I understand Mr. Hill’s language, but perhaps Mr. Hill has not lived in the Central community, made a call for police and waited 45 minutes to get a response. By the same token, perhaps Mr. Hill has not lived in the community where that community was inflamed at the Police Department, and you had to literally throw yourself in between them to try to get them on speaking terms.

The people in the Central community pay the tax that supports the north and the south precinct and I think that they are quite willing to pay the tax to support that third precinct because the whole structure of government is moving towards neighborhood operations. Just this morning, I participated in the opening of an unemployment security office in Ballard, so that the people in that general northwest neighborhood where Mr. Hill lives would not have to come downtown to Taylor Avenue North but that they could go out in that neighborhood to get services. So the people of the Central community have long been denied, often promised, and it’s time for delivery.

You can listen to the entire Special Meeting of City Council, July 27, 1977 as a part of the Seattle Municipal Archives’ online exhibition, Seattle Voices.

23rd and Yesler
“…A black renaissance area…”

Although initially proposed to be located at 14th and Yesler, the City focused on 23rd and Yesler, near the Seattle Public Library’s Douglas-Truth branch (then named Yesler Branch). Isaiah Edwards, spokesman for the Coalition Against the Proposed East-Central Police Precinct Station, captured the sentiments of many: “The black people are incensed at the thought of bringing the station into a black renaissance area–like Laurelhurst or Windermere would be to the whites,” noting the educational complex, library branch, children’s clinic, and two training centers all within a block of the proposed site. Responding to the implication that crime was an issue in the neighborhood, Edwards responded: “It isn’t; the rate of crime in the central region is less than the rest of the city.” (“Site of Police Station OpposedSeattle Daily Times, 27 May 1979, p. 144.)

Despite the persistent and growing community opposition, the city continued with planning for the precinct at 23rd and Yesler. On July 29, 1981, a group of activists occupied an abandoned fourplex where the precinct was to be developed. Representing several groups, including the Coalition Against The Police Precinct, the National Black United Front, Mujer Housing Project, the Local Action Focus of the Peoples Anti-War Mobilization, and the Central Area Housing Alliance, they called for affordable housing instead. After breaking down the barriers, they mowed the lawn, cut brambles, and painted the trim. They indicated they would seek tenants from the city’s long wait lists for low-income housing. (“Protesters Take Over Site for Police StationSeattle Daily Times, Sports Final ed., 30 July 1981, p. 16.)

Finally, the city relented, formally abandoning the 23rd and Yesler site in April, 1984. (“Panel Abandons Central Area Precinct SiteSeattle Daily Times, PM ed., 14 Apr. 1982, p. 9.)

12th and East Pine
“It ain’t gonna make ’em come no quicker. But why do they need to build it? Instead they should give the money to poor folks.”

The next site proposed, and ultimately built, was 12th and East Pine. It too was met with community resistance, albeit underlined by begrudging acceptance of the inevitable. Chibby Lagmay, then 19 and a resident on Capitol Hill shared, “It doesn’t seem necessary. It’s seems weird for Capitol Hill. There’s not much crime here.” (“A Police Station at 12th and E. Pine?Seattle Daily Times, Final ed., 18 Jan. 1983, p. 12. )

The Greater Seattle Business Association, which represented businesses that catered to the gay community expressed concern that the precinct at 12th and East Pine would have a chilling effect on the community. After meeting with police organizers, the Greater Seattle Business Association was “given assurances they were aware of our concerns.” Oscar Jordan perhaps summarized the neighborhood views best: “It’s more expenses and they don’t need it. The Public Safety Building is adequate. But it won’t bother me none, as long as they (the police) don’t come in here and wreck the atmosphere.” (Ibid.)

The East Precinct at 12th and East Pine opened January 25, 1986.

~posted by Joe B.

If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can read it here: A History of Seattle Police: Part 1, Accountability.

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