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Bellevue steps up public safety measures following 2020 destruction, looting

Bellevue steps up public safety measures following 2020 destruction, looting

It has been nearly a year since a protest turned into a riot in downtown Bellevue resulting in smashed storefronts, burglaries, and robberies of numerous businesses. Follow-up investigations by the Bellevue Police soon after resulted in dozens of arrests and cases forwarded to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

And while the incidents raised questions about public safety and the impact to economic development in the downtown area moving forward – particularly as Sound Transit’s new light rail line plans to open in 2023 along with new office space – long-time local elected officials and business advocates say they’re confident the area will maintain a low crime rate and healthy business environment due to crime prevention steps taken by the police department as well as efforts by the city council to maintain public spaces.

Although the riots of May 31 occurred in conjunction with protests related to police reform, later investigations revealed that a number of the suspects involved were well organized and prepared in advance to use the protests as a distraction while they broke into businesses.

According to the Bellevue Police Department, there have been 71 cases and a total of 116 charges stemming from the riots that have been referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, it has so far filed nine cases, 18 filed in queue, and 22 under review by the deputy prosecuting attorney. Seven cases were not filed because they were deemed legally insufficient, three cases were declined due to lack of additional information, and five cases were declined because they did not meet the county’s felony filing criteria. Another 11 arrests were not sent to the prosecutor’s office as felony cases.

While those cases progress through the courts, former Bellevue City Councilmember and Wallace Properties President Kevin Wallace has voiced some concern about the long-term implications of the riots. “As a downtown property owner, I feel like the police did a good job in the sense that it was the first time this has ever happened. They got surprised and overwhelmed, and they did a pretty good job of handling the situation despite that.”

That said, he believes property owners would also benefit from status updates. “Part of it is the communication issue…. It would be nice for the business community…to understand that they’ve got it figured out and they’re ready for it if it happens again.”

Bellevue Councilmember Conrad Lee has served on the city council, including two years as mayor, since 1994. He is also the former Vice-Chair for the National League of Cities Public Safety and Crime Prevention Steering Committee.

He told Lens that when it comes to public safety: “I’ve lived in Bellevue for 53 years. I’m certainly very jealous about my wellbeing and quality of life. I’ve always respected how well our police (and) our public safety has been.”

He added one of the ways the council has sought to maintain public safety is by increasing spending on the police in the latest budget approved in December, at a time when other King County city councils have slashed law enforcement spending and adopted anti-law enforcement rhetoric.

“That could affect the morale of the officers,” Lee said. “For me, police public safety should be number one in everything. That’s the job, the responsibility of government. You have to have people who feel they are supported. If police think there’s a question they may not be supported by their superiors, how can they behave and act (effectively)?”

At the same time, Bellevue Police Public Information Officer Meghan Black wrote in an email that following the May 31 riots the department has sought to improve its intelligence regarding planned criminal activity along with greater monitoring of social media. By the time a second downtown protest was planned in October, police successfully confiscated items along the planned route before they could be used to vandalize or destroy property. That rally also remained peaceful.

Bellevue Chamber of Commerce President Joe Fain told Lens that outcome was a result of “good policing, good political leadership. The police had assets all out in the community listening to what was being planned…and working directly with the community members that just wanted to come out and peacefully march and express themselves. The strategy was to build that separation and be able to identify those with constitutionally protected speech and those who sought to take advantage of it.”

Like Lee, Fain believes public safety in downtown remains strong, both in terms of perception and reality, adding that “there’s no anti-police rhetoric.”

Some note that maintaining a low-crime environment will be crucial as Sound Transit’s light rail line from Seattle opens in downtown Bellevue by 2023. Also, new commercial office space is expected to bring in an additional 30,000 workers.

One of the key issues for the city to figure out by then is an interlocal agreement between the county and Sound Transit regarding law enforcement jurisdiction at transit centers and on the light rail itself. However, Fain added that the city has already sought to prevent the deterioration of public spaces by banning homeless encampments on the street while enacting an affordable housing sales tax.

“There’s no tolerance for that (homeless encampments) in Bellevue,” he said. “But there’s not just no tolerance for pitching a tent on the sidewalk; there’s no tolerance for a society that thinks that pitching a tent on a sidewalk is a healthy and compassionate way to treat an individual who is in crisis. It’s a multiprong approach, but we’re all hands on deck to make it happen and to solve it. Companies in the community have been very engaged and really leaned in to do their part.”

Lee said these policies will help them avoid the same crisis affecting Seattle. “Seattle is where a lot of things are happening, and they kind of lost control. We can’t allow things to go uncontrolled. If we allow illegal camping, it’s going to spread, and once it spread it’s hard to bring back. We are vigilant, but that doesn’t mean we do it in a way that’s not right. If we provide clear expectations, clear direction, and clear mechanism and support, people will know it won’t get out of hand.”

In the meantime, Wallace said the city should also keep tabs on how the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the May 31 cases. “If they (Bellevue) are making good cases and sending over good cases, and the prosecutor’s not prosecuting, that’s something to flag, too.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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