BREMERTON — The rape and assault of a woman in an elevator of a city parking garage earlier this month has resulted in a chilling effect throughout downtown, neighbors and merchants say.
“Most of us as females have our antennas up anyway, but we’re ultra-aware right now,” said Laura Kneib, owner of FROG soap on Pacific Avenue, who now parks her car on the street at dusk, rather than a poorly lit nearby lot.
Mayor Greg Wheeler is promising action to increase lighting and surveillance in the garage and the surrounding area, as well as bolstered patrols by police, private security and even volunteers. Yet some local residents say the city should’ve spotted troubling signs that left city residents vulnerable.
Holly Moss, who works downtown, was walking past the Fifth Street library on Nov. 3 at 10 a.m. when a man, who asked her for a lighter, grabbed her arm and threatened her sexually. She was able to pull away and call 911 but an officer never showed up to take a report.
Moss said she frequently takes the bus and is often on foot across downtown. Not now.
“I don’t like walking downtown by myself anymore,” she said. “It’s pretty scary.”
Bremerton Police Chief Tom Wolfe said the department is investigating why Moss’ call for help went unanswered.
“We’re looking into where the system broke down on that,” he said.
Wheeler, with approval from the City Council, secured a budget this fall to grow the police department by five officers, increasing its budget by $1.5 million in 2022. But Wolfe said it will take time to get the department up to a full staff of 64, in part because of officers’ retirements and the amount of time it takes to bring on new officers. Factoring in those on leave for military, illness or other reasons, the department is actually closer to 50 officers right now.
“It’s just a constant chase to hire people,” said Wolfe, who noted he’s assigned officers to conduct background checks to expedite the process.
The Dec. 8 rape and assault in the Washington Avenue parking garage’s elevator has led some of those still parking there to move their cars to street spaces prior to sundown. The woman was choked, beaten, raped and thought she would be killed, court documents say, and only because of a witness was the attack interrupted. Police found and arrested Anthony J. Brown, 30, who was charged with crimes, including rape and kidnapping. It’s the fourth felony he’s been charged with since August 2020, which has also prompted residents to question how he fell through the cracks of the county’s justice system.
Brown remains in the Kitsap County Jail on $1 million bail.
Wolfe said while the department is down positions, officers are prioritizing time downtown to be a visible presence, including trips to the city’s parking garages. The department is restarting its citizen patrol program, which, coupled with private security, lends more eyes and ears to the area, he said.
Amy Camp, another employee downtown, said she’s disappointed at what she sees from the city as excuses for unsafe conditions in the garage and surrounding area and a plan to help that is too late. Camp and others described multiple break-ins of vehicles there, to go with frequent feces and other garbage to dodge. As she got in her car one day recently, she said a strange man was underneath it.
“We’ve just been told it’s kind of wild west out here,” Camp said. “I am not feeling safe.”
Wolfe encouraged residents to be alert, to walk in pairs and steer clear of those who make them feel uncomfortable. He encouraged residents to use 911 to report suspicious activity. He said officers will not target those experiencing homelessness, but rather “criminal vagrants that prey on our homeless people and other residents.”
“Being homeless is not a crime,” he said.
Wheeler said the city’s authorization of five new police officers will create the potential for “directed” patrols, such as using bicycles in areas suffering from crime. Two behavioral health specialist positions are also fully funded in the budget, to focus on cases involving those suffering from mental health crises.
More lighting is also coming to the garages on Washington, as well as at the Park Avenue Plaza, and is expected to be completed early in the year, Wheeler said.
The city’s surveillance of the garage will also increase, Wheeler said. A doubling of cameras, with better quality footage, have been ordered, and the footage in the future can be viewed remotely. A new city worker focused on maintenance and cleaning of the city’s garages is also being hired. And kiosks that dial 911 are also being considered, Wheeler said.
“We’ll go as long as it takes to get a sense of safety, and a safe environment,” Wheeler vowed. “I think by the time we’re done, we’ll have even more of a thriving and growing downtown, and even more of a prominent place where people can shop, dine and commute.”
“It’s really disheartening to know our city hasn’t been going to bat for us,” she said.
Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military and Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshfarley.