Police Box Towers Over South End Safeway Parking Lot

by Carolyn Bick

Walking out of Safeway, Jared Houston took a picture of the tower-like Seattle Police Department watch box in the Rainier Avenue store’s parking lot.

The white box, large enough to hold a police officer to monitor the parking lot and grocery store, sits on top of long, white legs and a lift mechanism. An SPD crest can be seen on its sides. It has stood over the parking lot since at least April 9.

“My first thought, when I saw it, was that I didn’t like it,” the Columbia City PCC employee said. “I guess I want to know why, and there is nothing that says why they are here. If they are going to have a tower in the middle of a parking lot, they’ve got to tell us why. Anytime I go to a demonstration, they want to know why we are there, and why we are taking up space, and give us our rights, so I want to know the same thing.”

Houston is one of several Safeway customers who peered warily as they passed the box, with its shaded windows and loudspeakers after its appearance at the Safeway on Rainier Avenue South and South Andover Street in early April.

The box communicates a message of surveillance in a community already weary of the Seattle Police Department, which was under court-ordered monitoring due to a 2011 Department of Justice report that found officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force. The report, which also examined whether the department had bias in its practices, led to the Community Police Commission and other oversight systems. Community members across Seattle have been reluctant to accept technology that is used to monitor a large area, such as gunshot detectors that former Mayor Mike McGinn considered purchasing in in 2012.

Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Sean Whitcomb said the department put it there after police data showed the location is the number one location for service calls in the entire south precinct. But the department receives more service calls in a number of other places; the Safeway is ninth for calls for service throughout the entire city. Most of those calls are for shoplifting, he said, but that doesn’t just mean “someone walking out of the store, and failing to pay or refusing to pay.” It can include threats and assault. The department is also watching for car prowling and robbery.

“We want to make sure that people feel safe shopping for the family at this location,” Whitcomb said. “We want to make sure the employees working at this location feel safe coming to work.”

Longtime community resident and journalist and photographer Naomi Ishisaka said this kind of police presence in the South End isn’t helpful, and that the tower is reminiscent of “a prison guard tower.”

“To see that kind of police presence, literally watching over us in that way is really reminiscent of things in a dystopian future,” Ishisaka said. “And can we remember, as well, the history of Japanese-American incarceration, which affects my family. That’s a very ominous presence to have in the neighborhood and in the community.”

Moreover, she said, this kind of “over-policing” and surveillance often leads to deadly confrontations and mass incarceration, especially amongst the Black community. And while there has been shoplifting and property crime in that area, Ishisaka said the tower isn’t a good strategy to mitigate the issue. Anytime the police are involved, she said, there is also the potential for them to use deadly force.

“It’s important to recognize that that doesn’t necessarily mean that many people who are experiencing a threat of physical violence from another person. They are talking about 9-1-1 calls from the store that somebody stole a six-pack of beer, or whatever,” Ishisaka said. “It’s really important to me that we make that distinction around what type of activities warrant deadly force. And I think, in this case, in the Safeway parking lot, we are saying that shoplifting from Safeway is so important as a public safety issue that it warrants deadly force. And I don’t think that’s true.”

No New Youth Jail advocate Devon Knowles said the location of the watchbox outside the grocery store is yet another expression of the criminalization of poverty, and creates another penal channel from the South End.

“Why are people shoplifting food, and what kind of resources are available to them that they are put into the position of shoplifting food? And, again, why are we criminalizing that such that physical altercations are developing, as a result of that action?” Knowles said. “I think it gets back to this idea: a) why are people in poverty; and b) why is poverty being criminalized, and why are only certain people being surveilled, and funneled into this criminalization process?”

She said the tower doesn’t surprise her, though, and is “just part and parcel, in terms of SPD investing in this mechanism of surveillance, rather than the city investing in these communities.”

Whitcomb said the box doesn’t have cameras and isn’t staffed 24 hours per day. He said there was no extra cost to the box, because it’s something the department already had and has used in the past in other parts of Seattle, such as at Seahawks games. He said it had the intended deterrent effect on crime but said that if the crime rate didn’t drop in this location, the department would revisit the strategy.

Whitcomb acknowledged that the department has gotten complaints about the “optics” of the box, and said there have already been discussions within the department about it. He also said it was one of a range of policing strategies that include both uniformed and plainclothes officers.

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Featured photo: A Seattle Police Department tower looms over a Safeway parking lot at Rainier Avenue South and South Andover Street.

6 thoughts on “Police Box Towers Over South End Safeway Parking Lot”

  1. Tower or store? I’m no fan of guard towers in parking lots, but it seems like we are on the verge of store closings simply because they can’t turn a profit because of the shoplifting. Bartells has announced no more downtown stores because of assaults on employees. Value Village in Lake City is closing with property crime being the assumed reason. Where do neighbors go if/when the national corporate powers of Safeway decide a location is unprofitable due to crime?

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    1. I have to call bullshit. Stores are NOT AT ALL on the verge of closing down because of shoplifting. That’s a flat out lie. I happen to be a paralegal with access to some of Safeway’s financial reports and they are doing great. Stop looking for an excuse to defend white supremacy and police terrorism.

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  2. If you aren’t committing a crime you have nothing to worry about. So tired of giving criminals a green light in the name of poverty or being disadvantaged. Not enforcing the law is causing law abiding citizens to be disadvantaged so what’s the difference? Shoplifting is a crime against business owners already struggling to say afloat. Unless you are willing to step up and put your money where your mouth is by paying for the shoplifted items please stop with the whining about the so called injustice of enforcing the law. The laws are in place to protect us from your way of thinking. What’s mine is mine and what’s your is mine.

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  3. Instead of a police tower, maybe they should build a food bank so people don’t have to steal. Shoot, Safeway customers and Safeway itself could directly donate; like they already do in most areas.

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  4. Saying there’s “no cost” is a falsehood. It costs fuel to haul that monstrosity around, which has a further impact on air quality in the Rainier Valley because of already existing pollution levels. In keeping with the Mayor’s “Drive Clean” initiative, the Seattle Police ought to offer a detailed account for their fuel use (as should every city department).

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  5. Slave owners used to hire overseers to monitor slaves in the fields from horseback. Their position many feet above the stooped over slaves gave them a greater power to control the work of those slaves. This Safeway sits right in the middle of a mostly black neighborhood. We’ve come a long way, baby.

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