The threat posed by rising crime seems to be front and center in Seattle’s political conversation all of a sudden. On Friday, Mayor Bruce Harrell called a press conference to lay out his approach, where he forcefully stated that his administration “will not tolerate” (a phrase he repeated several times) violent crimes, organized retail theft, crimes that “signal the city is out of control” and other street disorder. Was this the right message from the new mayor? And do his words have any teeth? With KUOW politics reporter David Hyde moderating, public affairs consultant and Post Alley writer Sandeep Kaushik and PubliCola editor Erica Barnett debated the politics of crime in Seattle in their latest episode of the “Seattle Nice” podcast, which you can listen to here.
What follows is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for flow and space reasons:
David Hyde: Hello, and welcome to this special edition of Seattle Nice. I’m David Hyde, a politics reporter with Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW. My guest is Erica C. Barnett, editor and publisher of PubliCola. And on the other side of Seattle’s yawning political divide but still left of center on many issues, is political consultant Sandeep Kaushik.
Sandeep Kaushik: I feel unsafe.
David Hyde: Before really getting into it, we’re going to hear from Erica reporting on Mayor Bruce Harrell’s announcement about crime and public safety. The bottom line: crime increased in 2021 in Seattle and many other places. In our discussion today we’re getting into the debate that’s really raging right now within the Democratic Party and on the left, and in the country generally over crime and public safety. Erica, what did the mayor have to say?
Erica Barnett: Well, Mayor Bruce Harrell had a press conference, as you said (on Friday) to announce that they’re going to start doing more hotspot policing in places where there’s been an uptick in things like stolen goods, fencing, and some violent crime, felonies and misdemeanors. So you’re talking about 12th and Jackson, 3rd and Pine, probably 3rd Avenue near the courthouse. He declined to give any specifics about where he’s going to be focusing police. But basically, the announcement was we’re going to be hiring more police, putting more police in these hotspots, and arresting more people.
Bruce Harrell [speaking at press conference}: Our police department today is staffed at the same numbers that they were staffed back in the 1990s. And this is just not acceptable. Chief Diaz has told me that he cannot deploy enough officers to keep our city safe or meet the response time parameters that he has said we must rebuild our police service to the staffing levels necessary to respond to emergencies and protect all people.
Erica Barnett: And that’s the news from this morning. I mean, it felt like a very reactive press conference, in response to what you’re describing, all the media reports about crime anecdotally being up and gun violence, definitely, statistically being up. But not a lot of real specific proposals [from the mayor], or, you know, funding for that matter.
David Hyde: Councilmember Lisa Herbold (chair of the city council’s public safety committee) came out with a press release right after this event, saying 2021 represented a 10 year high for shootings and shots fired in the city of Seattle; 52 percent of shooting victims were Black. And research shows that where there are more guns, there is more gun violence. That’s from Lisa Herbold. But let’s get into the big picture here. Why are we talking about crime?
Sandeep Kaushik: We’re talking about crime because crime is up. We’re talking about crime because the public in Seattle is really worried about crime, increasingly so, seemingly by the week. Now, some of that may be hype. Once an issue like crime starts to come to the fore, there’s a drumbeat of media attention that tends to deepen some of these perceptions.
But the reality is the public does have reason to be worried about crime. The number of shootings in Seattle is way up. Bruce Harrell at this press conference reeled off a bunch of stats about this. So did the police chief, Adrian Diaz, who said that crime overall in Seattle is up 10 percent, homelessness-related shootings up 122 percent, 52 percent of the victims are, as you mentioned, Black men between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. I mean, that’s a really shocking statistic. So yeah, there is a crime problem in the city of Seattle.
And what’s really surprising is not that we’re talking about it now. It’s that we haven’t been talking about it for the last year, because Seattle’s progressive left to a large extent has been in a near complete state of denial about this rising crime, including the shootings, rampant theft, fast-growing street disorder. Look at the mayoral election last year and Lorena Gonzalez’s campaign on the left. I think her candidacy was emblematic. Crime was a non-issue in her campaign.
Erica Barnett: Sandeep brings up accurately that yes, shootings are definitely up and that is a huge issue that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, what Harrell announced he was going to do is primarily not about shootings of people living unsheltered in homeless encampments, and not primarily about shootings of young Black men, but about, again, this hotspot policing idea. In preparation for this last night, I sort of knew that this was probably going to be the proposal: “Let’s do hotspots again, we’re going to crack down.” The “nine and a half block [downtown] strategy” was Ed Murray’s name for this proposal. Tim Burgess, who was a city council member, and now is Director of Strategic Initiatives for Mayor Harrell, proposed similar measures when he was on the council. So we’re doing this hotspot policing thing again.
We have to separate violent crime and property crime. Property crime is not up significantly in Seattle. And particularly, if you look over many years, it’s just been a steady downhill decline since the ‘90s. But looking in Seattle Times archives, almost every single year there is a panic within the media, and often prompted by the Downtown Seattle Association, about some specific hotspots. Again, 3rd and Pine, the courthouse downtown, 3rd and Union, Westlake Park, that, if you believe the Seattle Times, and you believe the DSA, are the harbingers of Seattle falling apart. And we’re never going to have businesses here again, it’s the end of the world.
This happens every single year. And so, having been a reporter in Seattle since 2001, it starts to feel, incredibly, not just repetitive, but demoralizing. Because at heart, a lot of these issues around property crime in particular, but also around gun violence, are fundamentally social issues. And we always address them by pulling one lever, and that’s policing. Do we want to have more policing? Very briefly, there were people two years ago that said, let’s have less policing and more of a social response. But generally, it’s just people calling for more cops, more cops, more cops. And that’s what we heard today.
Sandeep Kaushik: So this is what I mean about the left having its head in the sand. I don’t think this year and what’s going on right now in the city of Seattle is just like every other year, that it’s just one more media-generated moral panic about crime. I think there’s something real going on in the city of Seattle that the public is perceiving, but that elected officials are just now scrambling to play catch up on. There’s a palpable sense that the social fabric is being frayed, and that the quality of life in the city is being harmed by rising levels of sometimes petty crime, but also violent crime.
It’s all those stolen packages, right? The catalytic converter thefts, when people see the boarded up storefronts, or when they walk by one of these hotspots, like 12th and Jackson or Third Avenue, and they see people tweaking on meth or smoking fentanyl, the open drug dealing and consumption – that really starts to add up and starts to affect their perceptions. And that’s where we are right now. And I do think those perceptions – not entirely but to a large extent – are rooted in reality. The other point I will make about this is that in the last couple of years, we have made a hard turn away from police responses to what Erica describes as social justice responses.
Erica Barnett: Oh, I wish that was true. I wish we had actually done that, and spent that money. There is a fantasy that prevails on the sort of moderate end of the spectrum in Seattle that we tried all these social responses. We spent so much money, we just poured resources into the social problems that are actually at the root of property crime, of things like, as you put it, people tweaking on meth and scaring people on the street.
But we haven’t. I mean, today, Bruce Harrell, although he had very little concrete to say about policing except that we’re going to do hotspots again, he had almost nothing to say about the social problems that are at the root of all these problems that you’re seeing, The fact that we have just had a pandemic, that is what’s different than the ‘90s and the 2000s, and the 2010s. We are coming out of a pandemic that has in fact shut down businesses and storefronts.
That, again, is not the fault of homeless people. But homeless people are more visible, and people have always conflated homelessness and crime. And that is part of what’s happening now. But beyond that, have we provided more homes and housing? Not really, we have done very little over the last four years, and Harrell hasn’t proposed anything on that front yet. Mental health services, drug treatment, all those things, we haven’t done that. I mean, if there is some massive infusion of money that’s happened in Seattle into mental health, into homelessness, into substance abuse treatment, I’d like to know about it. But I certainly as a city hall reporter I haven’t seen that happening in our city.
David Hyde: I don’t know if any of you saw John Richards KEXP morning DJ, tweet on Wednesday, February 2: “Well, the reason I couldn’t get to work today, someone stole my catalytic converter out of my car this morning.” And then he says, “I just can’t anymore.” John Richards at KEXP can’t anymore. What is going on with Seattle?
Erica Barnett: Well, I think this is a perfect example of using anecdote instead of data to support an impression. John Richards is a powerful member of the media, and [his tweet] contributes to the overall pile of anecdotes that one should not conflate with data. I’ve lived here for 21 years, and I have been the victim of many property crimes. In fact, the day I moved on to Capitol Hill in 2003, I had my purse stolen out of my car in broad daylight, I’ve had a bike stolen, I’ve been mugged in front of my apartment.
I don’t, I don’t mean to laugh all that off, because it is serious, and it does affect people. But when the media, you know, make more out of individual anecdotal incidents than they should, then it does create this impression. I would say, again, every year since I’ve lived here [crime has] been worse than every year before it according to the media. It creates this impression that things are horrible, and they’ve never been worse, and they’re getting worse every day.
Sandeep Kaushik: Erica, you’re basically waving your hand and saying, “Oh, nothing to see here, move along, this is all just a tissue of hype from a few privileged members of the media who have decided to manufacture an issue out of this.” I fundamentally disagree with that. I think there is a significant problem right now. And a significant difference in terms of what people are experiencing and seeing on the streets of Seattle that is what’s actually feeding this.
It’s not a media creation, or just a tissue of sensationalism and hype. It’s a real problem. And I think we know from history that crime can be an incredibly potent political issue, particularly when people who are worried about crime feel like their elected officials aren’t paying attention, and that their protests and expressions of concerns are completely falling on deaf ears. We saw that with the left in the ‘70s and ‘80s in cities like New York, where they basically had a voter rebellion that elected people like Rudy Giuliani. It was “Giuliani time” in New York in the ‘90s. I’m starting to suspect that Seattle’s left is on the verge of ushering in a similar kind of backlash by being completely in denial about this stuff.
Erica Barnett: Are you saying that we are in New York in the 1970s? Are you really saying that our situation right now is similar?
Sandeep Kaushik: We’re headed there. The rise in violent crime is really significant. Now, look, I lived in New York in 1990. And they were 2,200-plus murders in New York City that year. In 2021 in New York City, they were just under 500 murders. So no, we’re not at 1990 levels of crime, where it was really epidemic. I mean, literally the guy who lived in the apartment above me was shot [on our stoop and killed]. But when the rate of crime is rising really rapidly, that perception starts to set in and if you don’t address it, if or if you address it in the wrong ways, we’ll start heading in that direction.
David Hyde: As we know, Seattle is a part of a larger archipelago of blue cities across the United States, including New York, and Danny Westneat in The Seattle Times had a column this week where he was calling out Bruce Harrell, saying, “Why aren’t you more like the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, who is released a blueprint to end gun violence, and according to Westneat racing to crime scenes, visiting victims, kind of making crime his signature issue. So to both of you, what did you think of this Danny Westneat column?
Erica Barnett: [It offered] some anecdotes, the accurate statistics about violent crime, and then a pivot to talking about misdemeanor nonviolent crime. This is exactly the kind of complaint that I think prompts mayors to say, “I’m going to fix everything in 100 days.” [Westneat] is complaining that Harrell hasn’t acted fast enough to basically get all the homeless encampments in the city to go away, and get all the crime in the city to go away. Unreasonable demands supported by random anecdotes is the stock and trade of the city newspaper columnist.
After the press conference was over today, a reporter asked the mayor’s spokesman, “Hey, tell me tell me how much this [press conference] was prompted by that Danny Westneat column?” And the spokesman looked at him and was like, “Well, you know, wasn’t prompted by it, but that column didn’t help.” Because, he went on to say, “Eric Adams running around to crime scenes is not really what you necessarily want to be doing. And do we really want Bruce Harrell jumping out in front of crime scenes for the TV cameras, what would that accomplish?” And I thought that was a really good point.
Sandeep Kaushik: First of all, I don’t think Danny Westneat is the only person in the media writing or talking about crime right now. Secondly, I think his column was timely and on point. And again, I think this is a case where certain members of the media, as well as the political ruling class, are playing catch up with the public on this issue. So I think Danny’s right to be highlighting it. And I do think he’s right that there’s a window for a new mayor, like Bruce Harrell, to demonstrate some understanding of the public concern and demonstrate some ability to take action.
[That said,] Erica, you’re right, these are long-term problems. They’re not going to be solved overnight. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And after a year, where most of City Hall seemed completely oblivious to the concerns that an increasing number of people in the general public were expressing, it’s welcome that there’s a renewed emphasis in City Hall on this issue. But the proof will be in the pudding. Will the mayor deliver some results on this? We’ll see. At least he’s talking about it. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists. And at least Bruce is finally admitting there’s a problem, in a way that much of the left in Seattle remains in denial. We’ll see how it goes.
Erica Barnett: I was a little surprised to see Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington in the room at the press conference, but she was there to talk about homelessness. I think there is a conflation of homelessness and crime in people’s minds, right? So [that conflation] is a perfect example of [why] it’s going to take a really long time. And it’s also going to take a lot more resources than we’ve ever been willing to spend to solve the problem.
So she brought up Woodland Park, which is the one giant encampment really remaining in the city of Seattle. And their plan is to do sort of a “slow sweep” there. And again, I am glad that they’re acknowledging that giant encampments are a problem that need to be solved. But there are one to two shelter beds available every single night in the city of Seattle, and [there are] hundreds of people that are living in Woodland Park – we don’t really know [how many]. And the city’s response to that [disparity], I’m just I’m not hearing action.
I actually disagree that rhetoric is all that meaningful. Every single new mayor that has ever come into the city of Seattle comes in with a lot of rhetoric about fixing whatever the specific problem happens to be on the public mind. Sometimes it’s transportation. Sometimes it’s homelessness. Right now it’s crime in the city of Seattle. But the problem with rhetoric is that you jump out in front of a problem and you give a bunch of promises about how you’re going to clean up the streets or you’re going to fix the potholes, you’re going to do whatever. And there’s never any acknowledgement of the fact that these problems are incredibly long term. And we actually need to have patience.
Again, even if Bruce Harrell says the only answer I’m going to give is, “I’m going to hire a shit ton more cops,” that is going to take time if it’s even possible. Because Mayor Jenny Durkan couldn’t do it, and the police department hemorrhaged police officers during her term. But if that [hiring] is even possible, it’s going to take the duration of his term to even get the police staffing up to what it was when Durkan came into office. And so I think setting realistic expectations would actually be a novel and welcome change from a mayor.
Sandeep Kaushik: I will just say [in response to] your contention that it’s Jenny Durkan’s fault that we had a mass exodus of cops – given the sort of intransigence and behavior and rhetoric that came out of the City Council during that period – is laughable. [It reminds me of when then City Council President] Lorena Gonzalez raked some SPD consultant over the coals: “Why are we seeing [this loss of cops]? Why are your retention rates so bad? You guys are totally falling down on the job! How come you can’t retain cops?” This, as she’s spending her entire campaign basically trashing [the police] up, down, six ways from Sunday. Right?
I will add there’s one opportunity that Harrell missed at his press conference. One thing I’m noticing, really for a year plus now, is a growing chorus and drumbeat of concerns and pleas for help from small business owners across the city. Who, particularly ones near some of these hotspots, are just saying, “Oh, my God, it’s incredibly dangerous for us and for our employees to be in these businesses, and we’re suffering break ins or harassment or being menaced or what have you on a weekly basis. And nobody’s listening, and nobody’s helping us.”
Look, if I had a small business, and I was standing behind a counter over there by 3rd and Union or 3rd and Pike, it probably would be a complete shit show. I’d probably be scared too. There’s a real concern there. And I didn’t really hear that at this press conference: what are you going to do to respond to those people? What are you going to do to respond to the London Plane owner in Pioneer Square, who wrote that heartfelt letter last fall about her employees and customers in the Occidental Park Plaza, being constantly accosted and threatened. And so anyway, memo to Team Harrell, that’s something that’s really out there and really is affecting public perceptions, when they’re hearing from all these small business owners. We didn’t hear a lot from you about what you’re going to do to alleviate that [situation] in this presser.
David Hyde: What I’m hearing from both of you is that [Mayor Harrell] kind of ran on crime. There’s the left way approach to crime, there’s the right wing approach to crime, but what we got from Bruce Harrell today was satisfying to neither. He gets up there, he gives a speech, he points to hotspots and some other stuff. But, concretely, what you’re both seem to be saying is, well, we’re not going to really see very much of anything, maybe we will, but this was just kind of a press conference, prompted by a column without a lot of substance to it. That’s what [we’re] now concluding?
Erica Barnett: Well, he didn’t really express an understanding of, or any theory about, why gun violence is up. Other than that there are too many guns in too many people’s hands, which is something that can be addressed at the state level. But the root causes of gun violence going up during a pandemic, in which many community supports have gone away, including school, much [fewer] after school programs, the sort of trauma and anxiety and distress and economic problems that the pandemic caused, that are arguably contributing to this incredible rise in gun violence? I heard, again, a little bit of lip service to that, but not really. It was more, “We’re going to figure out what’s going on and we’re going to address it somehow.”
Maybe roll out a 15 point plan that actually has some substance to it in a month or two, when you’ve got that ready to go, rather than coming out and saying we have zero tolerance for crime. Because I mean, that’s not really much. Okay, that’s what you ran on. That’s your campaign speech. But what are you going to do?
Sandeep Kaushik: Well, I’m not saying that this press conference was just empty rhetoric and cotton candy and promises. I’m saying Bruce did put a marker down, and speak forcefully to some of the issues that people in the city are concerned about. Of course, it’s just words at a press conference now. Can he deliver? Can he improve the situation at 12th and Jackson? Can he make 3rd between Union and Pine less of a hellscape? And wherever else some of these hotspots are. That’s what he’s saying he’s going to do. I think it’s a good step that he’s saying he’s going to try to tackle these things. And now, the public will give him a little time to try to demonstrate some progress. But we’ll see how it goes.
Erica Barnett: Sandeep, it sounds like your solution is arrest more people and put more people in jail. And I’m just wondering how you think that’s going to be different than the ‘90s? When we did that, and all the other times that the city of Seattle has done these emphasis patrols and locked up a bunch of people who then get out again, with their underlying problems untreated, how is that a solution?
Sandeep Kaushik: Crime went way down from the ‘90s until recently, right? I mean, there was a massive long term decline in crime. Incarceration is not the only solution. And maybe it’s not the first solution. But it is part of the mix here. And yeah, when you’ve got somebody who’s stealing on a daily basis, is walking into Target and walking out with a 70-inch color TV set once a day, who’s been arrested 20 plus times doing that, then yeah, maybe they need a timeout of six months in jail. And maybe that’s not going to solve their situation permanently. But at least you have six months where they won’t steal a color TV every day out of Target.
Erica Barnett: I’m pretty sure most TVs are color now! So we heard this in the ‘90s. I mean, that is definitely the argument, “give people a timeout in jail.”
Sandeep Kaushik: I think we’ve gone too far, the pendulum has swung too far into touchy feely, only empathetic and social reactions to criminal and anti-social behavior. We need to find where the equilibrium is between good and creative harm-reduction practices, and diversion and alternatives to incarceration. But that doesn’t mean we just need to look the other way as people tear [apart] the social fabric.
Erica Barnett: The description you’re [giving of] antisocial behavior, a lot of a lot of that really does stem from drugs right now, and particularly from meth. And to just describe it as anti-social behavior that needs to be punished is overlooking the fact that we have an enormous meth problem in the city right now, that is driving a lot of really maladaptive behavior, both for people that are using meth, and the people around them. I don’t think people should be allowed to just walk into a Target and walk out with a TV every day, or whatever scenario you’re describing, But I don’t think that giving a quote, unquote, “timeout” for people who are deeply and profoundly addicted to a drug that doesn’t really have any effective treatments or harm reduction, and then letting them back out on the street, is going to solve anything for anybody. Because there are more people addicted to meth in the city than you could lock up in 100 jails.
David Hyde: The new meth will have to be a topic for a future edition of Seattle Nice. She’s Erica Barnett. He’s Sandeep Kaushik. I’m David Hyde. Thanks so much for listening. If you want to contribute to Seattle nights, you can; we have a Patreon account. You can also check us out on Twitter, tweet at us, direct message us. Tell us what you like, what you want to hear more of, maybe what you want to hear less of. That’s @RealSeattleNice. Thank you all.