Saturday, April 30, 2016

Nuisance properties: What neighbors can do

A common problem that neighborhoods face is houses from which drugs are dealt and stolen items are stored and sold. Below is information shared on the Wedgwood Block Watch listserv about what community members did to rid their neighborhood of one of these houses.

April 26, 2016

Hello, Block Watch,

You probably heard -- or heard of -- the SWAT raid on 8248 38th Avenue NE on April 18/19, 2016. (Normally, we wouldn't share house numbers here, but if you were around that night, you would have heard the address several times on the police bullhorn.) The incident was on my street, in my block, and I'd like to share some of the story with you. We neighbors have learned a lot, and I’m sharing it here, in the hope that if the same thing happens on your street, you have some helpful tools and resources. [And a note that this reflects my opinion. It’s absolutely possible that some of my neighbors have somewhat different points of view.]

Resources below –
Whenever you see an asterisk in the text, search for the corresponding resource below the article.

A problem house –
One of our oldest and most long-time neighbors has been away from his home for a few years. In September 2015, his grandson moved in. Near the end of the year and early in 2016, we saw more and more traffic going in and out of the house. All races and all ages, from young adults to old men with grizzled beards, even an elderly gent with a cane.

Typical behavior would be that a car would park down the block or around the corner, the driver or a passenger would make a phone call, and a few minutes later, the car would move up to the house in question. Driver or passenger would go in, or someone would come out from the house. Big bags were carried to and from the house. Baggies were passed through car windows. People came and went at all hours of the day and night, in cars or on bicycles.

By now, several additional people appeared to be living there. We contacted the young man’s family, but they seemed helpless to do anything about the issue. Whenever a family member came to visit, the people from the house would be gone.

Neighbors – and police – respond
The police were really good about responding to our calls. In mid-February, a policeman familiar with the reports told a neighbor that, when we see this sort of activity, we should call the SPD narcotics unit at 206-684-5797. We had an officer assigned to us, and we were given an “event number,” to which we referred every time we called 9-1-1.

Gathering information
A neighbor requested (and paid $60 for) an in-depth background check* from the Washington State Patrol for the young man in the house. Turns out he had an extensive record a few years back, although he’d been clean until December, 2015, not long after he moved into the house on our block. Too bad for us.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Police
He shared the information about the young resident’s criminal record with our neighborhood Block Watch, and we began to exchange information about all the traffic, all the activity at the house, in email. With a lot of traffic and a lot of neighbors, email soon became cumbersome and confusing, so we began a log in a shared Google spreadsheet*. Here’s the info we asked for:

Neighbors entered information anonymously. We would occasionally download the spreadsheet, save it as an Excel doc, and email it to our police contacts.

Activity at the house escalated, and so did our calls. And police patrols did, too, I’m happy to say.

Considering options –
We discussed hiring a private investigator, and some of us did a bit of research. We talked with a couple of members of the Washington Association of Legal Investigators* who gave us good advice. But ultimately, we decided that our own surveillance was pretty good.

We attempted to engage the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency*, but our situation – while a big deal to us – is a bit below the level they’re dealing with, i.e., with gangs, smuggling, and enforcement at a higher level.

We considered surveillance cameras* but they are expensive and there are legal issues regarding videotaping activities around a private home, etc. Be careful, should you choose this route.

Sharing information with police
Working with our own notes, comments on Nextdoor*, and emails from neighbors, we put together some interesting connections for the police. Someone reported a blue mountain bike, stolen a block from the house, on Nextdoor. A neighbor saw that post and sent it around to our group, urging people to watch for such a bike at the house. And when a blue bike turned up there a few hours later, we called 9-1-1, again. (The lucky owner will soon be able to recover his bike!)

SPD goes in –
So on Monday night, April 18, the neighborhood was thrilled – and chilled – to hear the first concussion grenade, or “flash-bang,” right before midnight. It took more than an hour and a half for the SPD Major Crimes Task Force to get everybody out of the house. You can read the (mostly true) story here: Several people were arrested. Some of the “residents” -- people of differing ages who were renting from the young owner, we presume – were allowed to go, after being identified. A lot of stolen property was found.

This part is good: No guns were found, as far as we heard.

And apparently no drugs were found, either – plenty of time to flush them, we were told. As we understand, it is considered a small-time operation. During the experience in our neighborhood, several people have mentioned the FrontLine* story that aired – what a coincidence! – in mid-February.

Where was the stolen property going?
One of the people arrested was selling things on Facebook in February 2015 and earlier. Craigslist and OfferUp* are also outlets, although we’re told that OfferUp eagerly cooperates with the police, in order to keep things on the up-and-up.

What’s happening in the house now?
With the help and advice of the police, the owners of the house have taken it back over, changed the locks, and put up No Trespassing signs. There’s still some activity – the word is not yet out everywhere that this house is no longer in business. But it’s a good start. (And that’s fortunate for the family, because if the situation had been allowed to go on too long without their intervention, they could have lost the house; it could have been “abated” as a “nuisance property.”*)

What are the next steps in the legal process?
As a neighborhood, our next steps are to make contact with the prosecuting attorney(s). We’ll follow the suspects who were arrested through the criminal justice system. Along the way, we’ll encourage the judges to deal with their crimes and punishment as seriously as possible. Prosecuting attorneys are generally eager for help from citizens who know a case intimately. (You can follow the process somewhat on*.)

Our same neighborhood was involved in a similar situation in 2000/2001. That involved 3 or 4 houses and nearly a dozen juveniles. Neighbors attended the court appearances of the major trouble-makers, putting pressure on attorneys and judges to put conditions on the kids, which made re-offenses less likely. We did it before – we can do it again.

For the record – for those of you who might fear retribution in such a situation – our police contacts assure us that these guys (and a few gals) aren’t likely to do that. They might be familiar with the individual police people and hold a grudge against them, but generally don’t have time or energy to remember and seek revenge on the neighbors.

What you can do:
1.    Pay attention to changes in your neighborhood, and act sooner rather than later.
2.    Keep an up-to-date list of all the residents in your neighborhood. (We have a shared Excel spreadsheet and update it at the “Night Out” event in August. It includes names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. We also include pets’ names, as well as special skills that would be helpful in case of emergency: medical training, ham radio operators, survival skills, handymen, etc.)
3.     If you see something, say something: Call 9-1-1.

I'm happy to answer any questions. Take care, Everyone!

Ellen Blackstone


To request a background check, begin here:

To set up a Google spreadsheet, start here:

Seattle Police Department phone numbers:
Non-emergency: 206-625-5011, then press 2, then press #, then 8
Narcotics unit: 206-684-5797

Washington Association of Legal Investigators:

DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency

Info on video cameras:

Nextdoor -

Jail Inmate Lookup Service - “Victims have the right to know” - Allows you to sign up to be notified of next steps in a suspect’s legal process

Has photos of stuff for sale, which might impede sales of stolen goods:

KCTS FrontLine, Chasing Heroin:

And more information here:

Article in the  Seattle Times:

Abatement of nuisance properties: Wikipedia has a good explanation and some examples of abatement of nuisance properties: (It’s happened before in Seattle, in dire situations, as you’ll see.)

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