SEATTLE – With the Seattle Police Department grappling with staffing shortages, businesses in the city’s downtown are asking City Hall to help them hire private security guards to respond to crimes that the police can't.
According to many small business owners, there aren't enough police officers to respond to the public safety issues that threaten their staff and customers every day.
The proposal by the Downtown Seattle Association calls for using COVID-19 pandemic relief money to cover the merchants' soaring private security costs, which can amount to several thousands of dollars.
Mandee Gartland, a manager at Seattle Shirt Company next to Pike Place Market, said the store has hired a guard to help with a growing list of issues.
“Drug use right in front of children and the public, which is heartbreaking,” she said. “Shoplifting is an issue. The ongoing violence outside (with) tourists getting assaulted."
As Seattle police struggle with staffing shortages and longer response times, small businesses are turning to private security firms to curb the crime on their doorsteps.
“We find ourselves in a crisis and small business and arts and culture are picking up the tab,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
The group and many of its members have sent a letter to city and King County leaders asking them to set up a grant program to use COVID-19 relief money to reimburse businesses for some of the costs incurred by hiring private security officers.
“They just need a little bit of help from all this money that's coming to the city of Seattle from the federal government,” Scholes said.
During their most recent debate, the candidates for Seattle mayor split on that idea.
Bruce Harrell, former City Council president, said the real solution is adequately funding the police department but he sees the measure as a possible stopgap measure.
“Now I will support anything that's working right now because I have a sense of urgency and if that's one option and we can make that happen, that's fine,” Harrell said.
Current City Council President Lorena Gonzalez said the request by the downtown association is different from earlier programs that used federal dollars to deliver economic relief to local businesses, and might run contrary to the state constitution.
“There's two issues with that proposal," she said, adding that she also though the police union might oppose the use of taxpayer dollars for contracted work related to public safety. "The first one being that's it probably an illegal gift of public funds."
Scholes said some downtown businesses spend upwards of $30,000 a month on private security just so their operations run smoothly.
Gartland said those costs really add up quickly.
“We have security here and that comes out of the owner's pocket and it's necessary,” Gartland said. “I think it's up to the city to start doing something about the problems we have in this district."
KOMO News sought reaction from every member of the Seattle City Council about the idea, but Councilman Alex Pedersen was the only one who responded in a written statement.
"While I represent much of northeast Seattle, I appreciate the letter from the Downtown Seattle Association with their suggested budgeting priorities for our city and county governments,” Pedersen wrote in a statement to KOMO News. “Many of my constituents work downtown and realize the revenues generated by downtown economic activity enable local government to provide vital programs to assist the most vulnerable in Seattle, including those suffering unsheltered. I have heard from many stores, restaurants, employers, and residents in neighborhood business districts and downtown about the need for better crime prevention and affordable housing. I join the Downtown Seattle Association in supporting, at a minimum, the Mayor’s budget proposals for public safety, public health, and the new regional response to homelessness. If a majority of City Council would agree to increase retention and hiring efforts that respond to the alarming departure of our officers and detectives, while accelerating emerging strategies to deploy behavioral health emergency responders 24/7, we should not need to use tax dollars to subsidize private security.”