Crime is Up 24 Percent in Seattle. So What’s the Plan?

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For many Seattleites, crime now ranks as the city’s number one problem. That has prompted both Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and newly elected Councilmember Sara Nelson to respond to the growing chorus which is urging the city to do much more to make this city a safer place.

Mayor Harrell reacted first with a Feb. 4 press conference, where he vowed, “We will not tolerate crime in Seattle.” He cited statistics showing violent crime up 24 percent in 2021. Harrell promised to address shootings, organized theft, and open-air drug sales, but fell short at outlining specific steps. He talked about policing “hot spots,” a technique used in past years with only mixed success. 

The mayor declined to answer questions about the hot topic of lax misdemeanor enforcement, saying he was going to “stay in my lane.” That was a puzzling comment since it’s the mayor who oversees the police. Standing along with Harrell at the press conference was Tiffany Washington, deputy mayor director for homelessness.  Although crime and homelessness are both top city concerns, there isn’t an obvious connection unless you think one impacts the other. 

What’s perhaps more intriguing was that both the mayor and director Washington leaned heavily on unnamed solutions using the word “holistic.” Harrell talked about a “holistic” approach to crime,” and Washington said city government needs to “think holistically.”  Never mind that “holistic” has become a trendy buzzword, like “basically,” that doesn’t have much substance. 

During this week’s “state of the city” speech, Mayor Harrell revisited the public safety issue. He talked about hiring 125 officers this year as well as setting up a third public-safety department. The new department apparently is modeled after the Seattle Fire Department’s “nurse navigator” program that assists during medical emergencies. 

Harrell’s speech also built on last week’s roundtable forum on crime, convened by new Councilmember Sara Nelson, who chairs the Economic Development, Technology, and City Light Committee. Some dozen speakers zoomed in to report repeated incidents of vandalism, break-ins, burglaries, arson, and shoplifting. Especially distressing were the small business owners’ stories of unprovoked assaults and open-air drug markets. Several shop owners pleaded for more visible police presence.

The request for more policing comes at a time when staffing of the Seattle Police Department is at a 50-year low. The department has lost 350 sworn officers since 2020, leaving the force at levels not seen since the 1970s. Police Chief Adrian Diaz has only 1,015 deployable officers under his command, while he believes that 1,400 are needed to keep Seattle safe. 

Response times have been steadily climbing despite the chief’s shifting 100 officers from specialty units into responding to 9-11 calls. Also increasing are the number of times when SPD is only able to respond to priority one calls. Despite such worrisome statistics, the Seattle City Council aggressively trimmed the 2022 SPD budget. For example, they cut back on funding for additional community service officers, as well reducing budgets for the harbor patrol by 40 percent and traffic enforcement by 50 percent. 

Their budget-slashing was no surprise. Not when a majority of councilmembers pledged a 50 percent cut in the force during 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations. All but one of those police budget cutters remain in office. 

The prospect that the police department can hire its way back to better response times and to anti-crime services rests on being able to attract recruits and lateral transfers. This picture isn’t positive. The City Council voted to sunset the former mayor’s proposal for hiring bonuses on Dec. 31. These bonuses — mistakenly extended into January — enabled the hiring of a few more officers, but there’s now concern whether the bonuses can be paid.

At the same time, other local jurisdictions — among them Everett, Mukilteo, Bellevue, and Marysville — are offering generous police hiring bonuses, some as high as $30,000. Why would a trained officer opt to come to Seattle with its often-hostile council majority when there are financial incentives elsewhere?

There are arguments to spare for why Seattle needs more police. The Seattle Times ran a Sunday editorial forthrightly declaring that “Seattle needs more cops.” Its suggestions: issue a Civil Emergency Order and add more police in a supplemental budget this year.

There are obstacles, however. Critics say that, yes, violent crime is up, but it is not Seattle’s problem alone; crime stats are up across the nation, partly blamed on the pandemic. These voices maintain that what we’re hearing about crime is mostly media hype. Sadly, such views are one part denial and two parts failure to face reality.

Some also wonder if there is a clear plan to address the city’s safety problems. Given the scourge of the pandemic, proliferating of homelessness, and rightful concerns over too-aggressive policing, it will take time to restructure the police department, to hire and train more carefully, to rebuild a vital downtown, and to restore faith in this city’s (and this City Hall’s) ability to rebound.

Included with last Sunday’s New York Times was a four-page valentine to the Big Apple, celebrating that town’s go-getter attitude, its passion, unique neighborhoods, music and creative spirit, and its sense of community. It was only a slick ad celebrating Cartier’s 100 years in New York, but it made me sad. Those are things we might have said about Seattle, loving the city we used to know, not the boarded-up storefronts and illegal encampments we’re seeing today. 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for writing this! I have a long time friend who’s about to retire from driving bus for Pierce Transit. He’s actually been convinced to not retire yet and drive for another 6 months because the agency can’t hire enough drivers for current service levels. Forget about expanding service, there just aren’t enough drivers, nor does driving a bus really appeal to the general public. The heart of the trouble is a mix of low pay, high housing prices and lawlessness on the the buses.

    30 years ago, when my friend started, bus drivers made enough money to buy a little house in South Tacoma and riders were generally civil. The police were quick to respond when there was trouble. None of that is true anymore. And nobody wants to work for Pierce Transit.

    Many cities in the Puget Sound region are at the point where they can’t hire enough civil servants to run basic services, starting with a professional police force. Demographics and the economy point to this just getting worse.

  2. Exact analysis……..We don’t need more policemen, we need to use them more effectively. Let’s start with beat cops on downtown streets. If we want safe streets in Seattle all crime must be curtailed. This is done by enforcing laws which is accomplished by the police and the courts. This will never be done until we eliminate illegal drug usage on our streets. Notice when an issue arrises 5 to 10 police cars show up, yet when a misdemeanor crime is reported no one is available.

  3. “Drive-by policing” won’t work. Downtown Seattle needs dedicated beat cops who get to know and be known in their assigned neighborhoods. Winning the respect and confidence of residents takes familiar names and faces, not just blue uniforms in cars.

  4. Until the 2023 election when hopefully there will be qualified candidates to challenge delusional current council members who ignore public safety, perpetuate homelessness and fund pet projects to satisfy their base. Is Seattle being held hostage by the SCC? Crime and homelessness are certainly related, yet the current council continues to advance ‘affordable housing’ as the answer! Keep up the good reporting jean, since the ST and local TV snooze is not up to the task of holding elected officials responsible

  5. Okay article, but it only hints at what needs to happen to rescue our city. As long as Seattleites keep voting for “progressives,” the city will continue its decline. Corporations have been decamping for the suburbs, taking the tax base with them, (who can blame them?) and there is a growing feeling among those living here that maybe it would be good to get out while you still can.

    “Progressiveism” is an ideology – a religion – that brooks no dissent. Outside-the-envelope thinking is not just discouraged, it is prohibited, and anyone daring to think such will be swiftly cancelled and called every name in the book – and it is a big book. All that the “Progs” can do is double down, triple and quadruple down.

    Seattle will continue its spiral downward unless all of the “progressives” get voted out. That does not look too likely at the moment, but one can hope. And hope that it is not already too late. See: Detroit. Chicago. St. Louis, and many others. It really can happen here.

  6. Great article by Jean Godden. Her closing paragraph made me sad. A lifelong Seattleite, I have had enough. We keep electing city council members and now, a mayor, who speak of holistic solutions, when they should have actual plans and solutions.

  7. I’ve been hoping this vagueness means Harrell understands that what we really need isn’t more plans and solutions, as much as real managerial competence. Our city hall is lost in the weeds because of too many plans and solutions and too little competence at execution.

    The city by and large has great employees at the ground level, but policy and management that has suffered from over a decade of terrible management at the top, reaching its colossal peak with Murray. Want SPD to become a desirable place to work, and an effective force for the city? Want a prosecutor’s office that can actually handle its load of cases? Want diversion programs that deliver? The council, luckily, are not in charge of making these things happen – it’s the mayor’s job.

  8. Grateful that my mistake in the third paragraph — identifying Tiffany Washington — has been corrected. Washington’s full title is “deputy mayor of housing and homelessness.” Previously Washington had served as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s deputy mayor. My apologies.

  9. Great piece, Jean. One benchmark (offered by governing.com) is that in the United States, for cities of Seattle’s size, the average number of police officers per 10,000 citizens is 24.3. Seattle’s metric is currently 14. We are way, way below the national average. We need to think from a recruit’s perspective, and ask what it’ll take to get new recruits, when they ask themselves “Where should I serve? Where I will be most proud and respected, and grow the most?” to answer: “Seattle.”

    • I think the political angle of Seattle not having enough cops has been well covered, but the economic angle is maybe bigger and has more important.

      Seattle is a city where the average house costs a million dollars. How many new police officers are going to want to move to a place with, 1. high crime, 2. a public that’s lukewarm about the police at best, 3. one of the most competitive housing markets in the world?

      One thing to watch is as local governments and Kind County gear up to work on homeless issues, can they even find the staff for new shelters and programs? I’m guessing this will be big news this Summer.

      Cops, teachers, bus drivers, social workers, santitation workers…. as the older generation of public servants in Greater Seattle retire, who’s going to take their place? 30 years ago, teachers actually bought homes! I’m pretty sure that’s out of reach for most of them now.

  10. Great article, Jean. Not sure our new City Administration has gotten beyond the “holistic” jargon yet. Downtown Seattle us depressing to say the least. Alas the Mayor of NYC is lamenting the rise in crime in his fair city including attacks on police, stabbings and people “overnighting” on subways. I’m afraid NYC is not the model.

  11. Norm Rice did a great job revitalizing downtown Seattle in the ’90’s.
    I wish I could be more optimistic about the current situation downtown. When the light rail expands to Bellevue and Redmond soon, do you think businesses will want to stay in crime-ridden Seattle?

    • Businesses are already leaving, and we can expect that trend to accelerate.

      For way too long, everyone assumed that Seattle was somehow exempt from the forces that have ruined other American cities. But we are not. The inexorable growth of bureaucracy, the breakdown of law and order all point to continued decay. We now have a “homeless-industrial” complex that soaks up millions of dollars per year, ostensibly to fix homelessness. But it really exists to provide paychecks to ever more people.

      I don’t see any way out unless the people in charge are swept out. Doesn’t look too likely to happen anytime soon.

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