It Takes a Mayor

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Clark Harrell Burgess

This post is from City Council President Sally Clark, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, and Councilmember Tim Burgess.

Last Monday morning’s shooting of a Metro bus driver reinforced for many a belief that downtown street crime and disorder is out of control.

Contrary to what the Mayor and police commanders say, the Police Department’s own statistics show an increase in violent crime to the highest level since 2009 in some areas downtown. This reality has prompted many downtown residents, workers and shop owners—from Belltown to Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District—to believe city government has abandoned them, shirking its responsibility to maintain safe streets for everyone. (The Seattle Times this morning has an analysis of downtown crime here. The Times’ review includes a smaller geographic area than the Council’s analysis.)

The public safety environment downtown demands leadership and pragmatic, solution-focused actions.  And it should start with the Mayor, our city’s chief law enforcement officer. (Article V, Section 2 of the City Charter reads: “The Mayor shall see that the laws of the City are enforced, and shall direct and control all subordinate officers of the City . . . and shall maintain peace and order in the City.”)

Here are three practical and immediate steps the Mayor should take.

1.       Acknowledge the problem, don’t deny it.

When communities are concerned about safety, it is not helpful to opine that certain levels of crime and disorder should be expected in an urban environment. The notion that we must tolerate some level of crime is misguided. Whatever steps we take moving forward, we must start from the premise that crime on our streets can always be prevented or reduced.
Similarly, citing citywide or precinct-wide crime statistics to set a broader context can sometimes be appropriate, but delivering this message in response to voiced concerns unhelpfully suggests that those concerns are invalid or unjustified. Further, reported crime statistics don’t tell the whole story because they usually only include the seven most serious crimes and not other less serious but more visible offenses. Citywide or precinct-wide crime statistics can mask spikes in crime that occur in small geographic areas such as specific blocks or police patrol beats, which is precisely what is happening in our downtown retail core.


Instead, the Mayor and police officials should acknowledge the problem and recognize the harm caused by persistent crime and disorder, then work on effective solutions.

2.       Embrace a continuum of response, including the arrest and prosecution of those causing the most harm.

There is no one answer to street crime and disorder, a complicated set of interrelated problems requiring a very sophisticated set of responses.

These responses must cover the entire spectrum, from delivery of social services to targeted arrests and prosecutions. In Seattle, we like to talk about the former much more than the latter, but both are essential. While it is true that “zero tolerance” policies and mass arrests are not an effective solution, we should not be deterred from embracing effective law enforcement as an essential part of a continuum of intervention.

For example, the Mayor could direct the police department to identify the individuals who are causing the most harm in the downtown core and use “focused deterrence” strategies to stop their disruptive criminal activities. This means designing a specific intervention plan for each one and warning them that they are on a special watch list. It does not mean violating their constitutional rights, but it does mean arresting and prosecuting them if they continue any level of criminal behavior.

Crime is also amazingly sensitive to place. Approximately one half of all reported crime in Seattle occurs on just 5% of the city’s blocks. That’s about 1,200 blocks out of a total of just over 24,000. What’s even more remarkable is that nearly a quarter of all reported crime occurs on just 1% of our blocks. Responses can be designed to stop crime where it is concentrated.

Make no mistake, this is hard work. It requires an integrated approach between the police, prosecutors and courts. But it can be done, and it can lead to very positive results.

3.       Police matter, but give them clear and consistent direction.

The presence of uniformed police officers at those locations where crime and disorder is concentrated and anchored is essential. As the former Chief of Police in New York and Los Angeles, William Bratton, has said, “Cops count, police matter.”

But effective policing requires clear, consistent direction from city officials—the Mayor most importantly. Policymakers must state unequivocally that we expect police officers to do their jobs effectively and consistent with the principals of constitutional policing. We are not providing that direction today. Instead, we fear that the message being received by our police officers, especially given the current Department of Justice consent decree, is that a hands-off approach is the safest approach while the City tries more social service-oriented responses.

Seattle has a reputation as a city of innovation and creativity. We can use this spirit to tackle public safety challenges, but to do so requires that the Mayor acknowledge the problem, embrace a continuum of response (including arresting and prosecuting the high frequency, persistent offenders causing the most harm), and give our police officers clear and consistent direction to keep our community safe. Failure to act quickly and decisively will give credence to the complaints we hear about city government shirking its core responsibilities.