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Content Warning: This post links to an historical newspaper article that uses the term “homosexuals,” which is an outdated term used to characterize gay people as having a psychological disorder.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

A History of Seattle Police: Part 1, Accountability

Recent events have again highlighted long standing discussions on public safety, the appropriate use of force, the goals and mission of police forces, and accountability to the public, among related topics. In Seattle, how have these conversations changed over time, and what lessons might we find in the past to provide direction and shape public policy in the future?

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. In this series we will look more closely at Seattle’s history to see how it impacts us today. First, we will look at how two events in 1965 anticipate in many ways the current conversation on police review boards and greater accountability to the public. (In our next post, we will look at the controversy surrounding the creation and siting of the East Precinct, and our final post will review events in the 1980s and 1990s.)

Content Warning: This post and the linked historical articles contain mentions of racial trauma, violence against Black bodies, and racial slurs that can be disturbing.

​1965: Accountability by Whom, to Whom?

Attempts to call for an independent police review board in Seattle began as early as 1955​, particularly in response to that year’s Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Police Practices which found that the “…Seattle Police Department — like the white community — held essentially racist attitudes about Black citizens, frequently stereotyping them as ‘criminal types.'” Despite the report, requests for an independent police board were denied, and instead only sensitivity training for police was recommended.

Seattle Daily Times January 23, 1965

Formal attempts to create a police review board can be traced back to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in November, 1964 for a hearing on the creation of a police review board. Recently, the Seattle Municipal Archives has made audio, transcripts, minutes, and more from the meetings available digitally through their Seattle Voices online exhibition portal. Key figures, including the Reverend Samuel McKinney, testified. Continue reading “A History of Seattle Police: Part 1, Accountability”

Library Podcasts with a Seattle Focus

Last week I highlighted some of the diverse podcasts the library has to offer on it’s website with no library card required. I wanted to discuss some of the other things offered on the Library Podcast page, specifically the variety of discussions on Seattle and Seattle history.

In Fall of 2019, the Library hosted discussions on the hidden history of the Space Needle, including Space Needle Redux: Knute Berger and B.J. Bullert Eye the Needle. Continue reading “Library Podcasts with a Seattle Focus”

Donald Schmechel Oral History Collection

October is American Archives Month and we are celebrating with the completion of a new digital collection: the Donald Schmechel Oral History Collection.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Donald Schmechel was a Seattle Public Library board member who, in the 1980s, created a project to interview prominent figures in Pacific Northwest History. Schmechel raised funding for the project, volunteered his time to manage it, and conducted interviews along with a crew of volunteers. The resulting oral histories were divided between the Seattle Public Library and the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). Continue reading “Donald Schmechel Oral History Collection”

New Digital Collection Highlights Lives of Seattle Pioneers

This month we’ve launched a new digital collection which reveals a glimpse into the personal lives of some of Seattle’s early pioneers. The Lu Jacobson Collection of Latimer and Denny Family Material includes materials focusing on Alexander Latimer, his wife Sarah Chesney Latimer and their five daughters: Narcissa Latimer Denny, Eliza Alice Latimer Fowler, Harriet Ellen Latimer Stephens, Clara Latimer Bickford, and Emma Chesney Latimer Reynolds.

Narcissa, Alice, Hattie, Clara, and Emma Latimer, circa 1880.

The descendants of the Latimer family played a significant role in the founding of Seattle. Alexander Latimer’s sister, Sarah Latimer, married her first husband, Richard Boren in 1822. Their children, Mary Ann Boren Denny, Carson Dobbins Boren and Louisa Boren, were in the group of Seattle’s first settlers who landed at Alki on November 13, 1851. They were accompanied by Arthur Armstrong Denny (husband to Mary Ann Boren Denny) and David Thomas Denny (soon to be husband to Louisa Boren). Arthur and David were the sons Sarah Latimer’s second husband John Denny from a previous marriage. Continue reading “New Digital Collection Highlights Lives of Seattle Pioneers”