Photo by Ty Swenson
White Center Storefront Deputy BJ Myers at the epicenter of his beat on 16th Ave S.W.

Storefront Deputy BJ Myers speaks on the reinvigoration of White Center and North Highline

The January snow and ice storm was a telling moment for King County Deputy BJ Myers, the 30-year-old Maple Valley native who took over the recently reinstated storefront deputy position in White Center after a strong community push convinced the powers that be to find the funding.

His patrol vehicle got stuck in the snow twice during the heavy snow fall, “and both times people just came to my aid and pushed me out … except for one guy, who is a friend of mine out here now, who just stood across the street and laughed at me.”

It was a sign to Myers that his approach to relationship building in the community – be it with folks from the neighborhood, business owners along 16th Ave S.W. or the homeless population that frequent or live in the area – was starting to pay off after a handful of months on the job.

Myers joined the King County Sheriff’s Office in 2007, back when Deputy Jeff Hancock was on duty at the storefront position. (Corrected on 2/8 - original post incorrectly referenced Deputy Steve Cox)

“Seeing him being effective up here was something that stuck with me and I had always thought, ‘If that job ever becomes available again, I’d love to do it.’”

He was working the Burien beat up until getting the storefront job late in 2011, and said White Center always held an interest: “It was obvious that White Center was a unique place with exceptional diversity and lots of people that are involved in this neighborhood and are trying to turn things around here and make this a place where they can raise kids and have a successful business. I just hadn’t seen a place quite like this in such a small area.”

“I had to put aside the job description they gave me,” Myers said of his reassignment from Burien to White Center. On paper, the storefront deputy is something akin to a customer service representative … like the person you encounter when you walk into a cell phone store. Myers said he knew the job would require far more interaction – a model he witnessed in Deputy Hancock and heard about in Deputy Steve Cox, the two men who held the position prior.

“I wanted to come into White Center and not impose my own view of what should happen here, and so when I first got here I just tried to listen, and I’m still trying to listen,” he said.

We will get into what he has heard in a bit, but first, how did Deputy BJ Myers find himself here?

The chance reading of a life-changing article
After graduating from High School in Maple Valley, Myers joined the Air Force National Guard and moved to Seattle. Along with getting a degree in political science, he was deployed twice – once to the Middle East and another tour in the Indian Ocean.

After college, Myers started working as a bartender. “I was a political science major in college and didn’t really have a career field in mind.”

“One day when I was setting up the bar where I was working I grabbed the Seattle Times and opened it up and there was front page story about how all these police departments are short-handed and here’s who they are looking for, here is what the job is like, here is the process,” he said. “That was the first time I had ever given (law enforcement) any consideration.”

“The more I thought about it, it seemed like a pretty good fit,” Myers said. One of the reasons Myers decided to leave the military, he said, was that he wanted to do something locally, rather than federally, - focused.

He shrugged off a management offer from the restaurant he was working for and applied to 18 different police departments. He was interested in the King County Sheriff’s Office because of the flexibility – he could work rural or urban beats in a large department with the potential to try out different positions.

“Fortunately they were the ones who offered me a job and I took it.”

It turns out his political science background played well into his new role: “I have always been interested in politics and the constitution and I have always had an awareness of what our rights are, what our liberties are, and what we get by being part of constitutional society and what we give up. I think it’s appropriate for a police officer to have those kinds of understandings.”

Some five years later Myers finds himself in a wide-open law enforcement position where he says his superiors have given him the flexibility to define the job as he best sees fit. For White Center and the rest of Unincorporated North Highline, Myers represents a deputy fully focused on solving issues – from public nuisance to drug trafficking – and working with community leaders, business owners and everyday citizens in making the area a destination: be it a place to live or a place to visit for a good dinner and some stellar ice cream.

A typical day as the storefront deputy
When asked what a typical day in White Center consists of, Myers has a long list.

He’ll generally start out with a review of what has happened since his last shift – perusing case files, arrests made and new problems identified by deputies working the North Highline beat. Then it is on to emails and voicemails from community members (his contact information is listed at the bottom of this story, and Myers encourages any and everyone to contact him).

After that it is time to work on an ever-changing list of ongoing projects, be it investigating narcotics activity or looking into an unauthorized homeless encampment. He will occasionally head into the neighborhoods for drug house surveillance (“As much as I can in a fully marked police car”), and any information he has gathered from personal observation or citizens is often times passed on to detectives.

Additionally, Myers said he acts as a conduit for information between the graveyard and daytime shift deputies, “enabling them to do more, to have more knowledge coming into a situation.” In return, Myers said, the patrol officers help him out by taking care of most of the arrests and paperwork, freeing him up to work on broader issues.

He spends a lot of time attending meetings with a wide variety of people and organizations, from housing authority at Greenbridge to local business owners to local politicians to neighborhood and council groups.

“And then every day I spend some time walking around out here,” Myers said, gesturing to White Center’s business corridor. Generally with a fellow deputy, Myers will head out for the foot beat, going into bars, checking the alleys, and on and on.

“The more that we show our face around here, the more people will be comfortable being around us and those who are not comfortable being around us will get out of here,” he said.

Working with the homeless population
In an early meeting after taking over the storefront deputy position, Myers met with business owners and church groups to talk about the homeless population in North Highline.

“I became aware that the way that they were talking about the homeless population we have here in White Center was that they are a part of this community,” he said. “There was this realization that they may not be part of the community that we have always recognized, or always honor, but those folks see themselves as part of this neighborhood (as well).”

“And so I’ve tried to also approach what I’m doing with that same understanding.”

Myers said it is a balance of attempting to squelch public nuisance (often times public intoxication) that “has led to a tough business environment around here,” while not simply focusing on trying “to evict all the homeless from this neighborhood,” or sending them all to jail (although he said if they cross the line, jail is not out of the question).

”So part of what I’m trying to do is get to know some of these homeless folks so I can be in a position to give them help when they need it, that when I tell them they need to move along or that I’m taking them to jail that they have a relationship with me and that they are going to go along with it,” Myers said. “I want those folks to see me as part of this community also.”

Myers sees his integration into the community as critical in success at his position.

“Part of my authority in this job has to come from being someone who is willing to be part of this neighborhood,” he said. “And so if I tell some guy, ‘Hey you have to pour out your beer’ it is not just because I have a star on my chest, but it is because I’m part of this neighborhood and there are rules to this neighborhood and I am trying to make this a better place.”

Myers said the homeless population is complex (a recent Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness survey found 55 homeless living in the area, but the number could be larger.) He said there are people living on the streets, but others have cars or shacks they sleep in. Some have homes, he said, but choose to come to White Center during the day. Some drink heavily, he said, but some do not. There is a wide range of ages, substance abuse or mental health issues, and employment histories, according to Myers – from laborers to veterans to ex-professionals.

“Many have stories of real family trauma that preceded them coming out here,” Myers said. “I’ve spent many evenings just hearing stories from these guys.”

Since taking over the position, Myers said the homeless population has started to trust him, coming to him directly with problems like a friend that drank too much alcohol and needs to get to detox.

He has also been surprised by issues White Center’s homeless population discuss.

“I broke up a fight between two homeless guys the other day and once I broke through the drunken yelling to figure out what they were arguing about, I determined it was a disagreement over who they should support in the Republican primary … and they knew what they were talking about, too.”

Medical cannabis operations in North Highline
“It’s a tough one for us,” Myers said of law enforcements’ take on medical cannabis facilities in White Center and North Highline. “The Sheriff’s Office approach is to enforce what we can, but we are not going to try to get ahead of the legislature.”

“My approach has been to try to deal with them like they are any other business,” he continued. “I am not going to make any judgment … but to treat them as any other business on the block. The types of issues I deal with are when they, as a business, are affecting another business for one reason or another.”

Myers said there is a range of business practices within the medical marijuana industry, and there are those who follow best practices and those who do not.

He referenced the recently shuttered GAME Collective lounge on 16th Ave., which shut down shortly after being raided by federal law enforcement for allegedly operating outside the guidelines of Washington State law, as an example of a business not following best practices, which he defines as attempting to operate as a professional medical facility.

When asked if medical cannabis operations are a magnet for crime, Myers said, “I haven’t seen it. The folks I see coming to these establishments, for the most part, I see them coming, getting their medicine and leaving. I don’t see crowds in front of these places.”

After the Cannabis Oasis (on 1st Ave S.) was robbed last year, Myers said they bolstered security.

“I’ve been really impressed with some of the measures they have taken to ensure they are not adding to that stereotype or problem.”

Looking back on Operation Center of Attention
“There were really a lot of people clamoring for some work to be done here, asking for help,” Myers said of the ATF’s decision to zero in on gun and drug trafficking in the White Center business corridor, culminating in an Oct. 20 multi-agency raid where 53 were arrested along with the seizure of 68 firearms and over 60 pounds of drugs.

“For the same reason that I’m interested in this job, there are a lot of people who have taken ownership of this neighborhood and want their voice to be heard and that is what brought Center of Attention here,” he added.

Myers said part of the reason White Center likely became a distribution point for large scale trafficking is that, “we have a really unusual business district here with some dense urban blocks that is not like the rest of the southwest Seattle (or) Burien area. It’s probably a magnet for a lot of things … and you hope it is a magnet for good things.”

Annexation and crime in North Highline versus Burien
King County has promised the funding of Deputy Myers storefront position through 2012, with an uncertain future beyond. If Burien was to annex North Highline (if it happens, the process would likely occur in 2013), Burien Police Chief Scott Kimerer said the storefront position would persist.

As for Myers take, he said, ““I hope that the state law gets worked out (the state is threatening to axe a sales tax credit for annexing unincorporated areas which Burien says is crucial in making the move financially doable)so that Burien can make a good proposal … a good offer for White Center. I would like White Center to have some good choices and not have those taken off the table before they have a chance to vote on it.”

Regarding crime between the two areas, Myers said, “White Center is different than Burien. The way that crime looks here, it doesn’t look the same in Burien. There is something about this neighborhood … being a dense commercial district here on the Highline Ridge, a lot of things are drawn here.”

He added, however, that the types of crime are found in both areas.

“I don’t think there is anything about White Center that makes crime natural here,” Myers said. “It is not that the neighborhood has a characteristic that means there is going to be crime here, so that makes me believe that there are things that will affect crime rates here. Police presence may affect that to a certain extent; businesses turning around is going to affect that; people getting to know their neighbor is going to affect that. So just like neighborhoods in Burien, if positive things are happening in the neighborhood than crime is going to go down.”

Into the future
“Invigorating the business district is what is going to turn this neighborhood around,” Myers said. “There is such a unique opportunity here… because of the diversity, the density of businesses here and because this has been a business district for a long time … that this has all the components to be a successful place to have a business.”

Myers said as new housing projects are built in the area the population density will continue to increase, and “The business district is going to be the natural place for people to come and shop.”

“Part of that is going to be the businesses and the Sheriff’s Office working together to try to reduce some of the nuisances … that make people feel uncomfortable in coming down here to spend some money.”

Myers identified the main public nuisance issues as public intoxication, loitering in front of businesses, panhandling and the large commuter population that hangs out at the 15th Ave bus stop … sometimes causing problems.

“You’ll start seeing things on that issue that we are working on,” Myers said, although he did not provide any specifics.

“One of my goals in this is to start thinking outside of business as usual for the Sheriff’s Office and how we can encourage economic development around here,” he said. “Obviously I’m not an expert on that, but I think the Sheriff’s Office here is in a unique position where we can engage some people in that conversation and if it means using public safety as the hook to get people interested in how to turn the neighborhood around and encourage businesses in the neighborhood, then that is what we will do.”

Moving into the neighborhoods of White Center and unincorporated North Highline, Myers said he has been making trips into residential areas and meeting with citizens.

“I’ve met a lot of people in this neighborhood that love it,” he said. “They know their neighbors; they call us when they see something out of the ordinary. I have really enjoyed going out and making connections with those people and they are thrilled to hear that there are police officers that work here all the time that are interested in getting to know the neighborhood …”

Next on the agenda, Myers said, is helping citizens organize and create block watches.

Deputy Myers can be contacted directly at Benjamin.myers@kingcounty.gov or (206) 296-3333 (office).

“I think that movement in the neighborhood, combined with the attention that is on this neighborhood due to Center of Attention and some other news stories going on here, I think we find ourselves in a window of opportunity here to try to get something done as a neighborhood,” Myers said.

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