Crime Is Not Actually Spiking Downtown
The city's power brokers say crime is spiking. They say it's a crisis. But data shows crime is mostly flat or down. Why are they trying to scare us?
Mayoral challenger Ed Murray invited reporters to a press conference last week to roll out his new public-safety agenda, partly in response to what he called a "public safety crisis."
"It is a crisis of crime in the streets," said the state senator, before pivoting, as politicians do during election years, to take a swing at his opponent. "The mayor says crime is down," Murray said, when, in fact, "violent crime is up."
But overall, crime dropped citywide 6.9 percent in the first seven months of this year compared to those same months last year, according to a city council analysis of violent crime and theft. Crime is down 12.4 percent since 2009. Murray is wrong about violent crime, too, which is down less than 1 percent since last year and down 6.5 percent since 2009. Those declines are even more pronounced when accounting only for serious violence, which is down 4 percent since last year and 9.5 percent since 2009, according to data from the Seattle Police Department.
And if you look at the seven policing beats covering what is considered downtown—including the retail core, the central business district, Belltown, the International District, Pioneer Square, and Lower Queen Anne—serious violent crime has dropped 5 percent since last year. If you include South Lake Union, it's down 8 percent.
In fact, major crimes, as classified by the FBI's uniform crime-reporting standards—including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, larceny, and vehicle theft—are at their lowest levels in Seattle for 30 years.
So what is the "public safety crisis"?
Murray is echoing a meme that's grown popular with the city's power brokers this election season. A front-page headline of the Seattle Times last month warned of crime "spikes" downtown. The accompanying article attempted to debunk Mayor Mike McGinn's recent comment that there is "a significant reduction in violent crimes downtown and throughout the city." The same morning that paper hit the streets, Seattle City Council members Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, and Bruce Harrell published a lengthy blog post chiding the mayor and issued a detailed letter—including tables of crime data and bar graphs—that tried to show crime was, in fact, up a tick downtown. Both the Seattle Times and the council members began their pieces, sensationally, by linking the recent shooting of a Metro bus driver to street "disorder" (a term used to describe low-level offenses like inebriation, urination, and panhandling). Jordan Royer at Crosscut recited the same talking point in a piece on the "dirty little secret of downtown safety" that linked the bus-driver shooting to "chronic street disorder" in the opening sentences. The Seattle Times kept it up with an anecdotal article headlined "Downtown crime shocks New Yorker" (about a guy from New York who told Danny Westneat he was shocked by "the homelessness, mental illness, public urination, panhandling, drug use, and drug dealing" around First and Pike), and last weekend, the Seattle Times banged the drums again with an editorial titled "Downtown Seattle feels unsafe."
The Seattle Times made this proclamation after examining four policing beats downtown—mostly the shopping district and waterfront—and a portion of First Hill. Their analysis found "violent crime in the retail core has basically held steady" for five years, while violent crime in the first seven months of this year "is up about 7 percent" over the same period last year.
But even that claim is misleading.
The Seattle Times didn't include data from the beats in Belltown, Pioneer Square, or the International District—all parts of downtown with a history of crime problems. If they had, it would show that in Belltown, violent crimes including assaults actually dropped about 30 percent in the past four years, according to the city's crime records. But that was left out of the reporting. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times factored in areas that are outside downtown, including Harborview Medical Center on First Hill, where crimes from around the region are reported even though they didn't occur at that location. Finally, the analysis also included simple assaults—historically, uniform crime tracking considers major crime to include aggravated assault but not simple assault.
In doing so, the Seattle Times omitted data that would belie their point and included data that didn't really represent downtown. It was an apples-to-oranges comparison. It was cherry-picking data. It was bananas. It was a whole fruit bowl.
There are other reasons why this trope is overblown right now:
• More People Are Downtown: In its State of Downtown Economic Report for 2013, the Downtown Seattle Association reported the residential population of downtown has grown by 24 percent since 2000, outpacing the 10 percent growth for the city overall. Downtown also now has a record 202,222 employees (up 10 percent from just three years ago). More people are downtown than ever—so the fact that serious crime is fairly steady (up in a few places but mostly down) suggests the per capita crime rate may actually be dropping amid the downtown population surge. This isn't a crisis; it's a victory. West Precinct police captain James Dermody points out that crime rates are always "fluid," and "we will always find crime downtown," but council members say this thinking is wrong. "The notion that we must tolerate some level of crime is misguided," wrote Burgess, Clark, and Harrell. They insisted, "We must start from the premise that crime on our streets can always be prevented or reduced." But if tolerating any crime is misguided, claiming that it can "always be prevented or reduced" is ludicrous. Not all crime can be prevented—it just can't—and this argument is nearly comical in its political framing intended to cast any reasonable discussion about the issue as pro-crime.
• More Police Are Walking Around Downtown: A few years ago, the SPD redeployed dozens of officers to foot patrols, including downtown. Captain Dermody reports that in the West Precinct (which includes all of downtown), officers made 74 percent more community contacts in the first half of this year than last year. Not coincidentally, they are documenting more crime. That's not a sign that things are getting worse, as critics suggest. It seems to show cops are busting more of the right people. What could be our best evidence that they are being effective—making arrests—is being twisted to say that crime is up.
• Linking "Street Disorder" to Violent Crimes Is Wrong: There has been a popular idea in American policing for the last 20 years that cracking down on street disorder will prevent serious crimes—the broken windows theory. But New York University sociologist David Greenberg upturned that notion this year. His study released in January was the most comprehensive of its type, using more granular precinct data and controlling for variables, and it found no causal link between increasing low-level misdemeanor arrests in New York City during the 1990s and the drop in felonies, such as murder, robbery, and assault. In reexamining that city's crime data from 1988 to 2001—when felonies also decreased in cities that didn't use this strategy—Greenberg found "most of the decline in these three felonies had other causes." Katherine Beckett is a leading social scientist who studies street crime here at the University of Washington. She says, "This study by Greenberg shows... that cracking down on disorder does not necessarily lead to reductions in serious crimes. Forcing a law-enforcement tactic on those populations is very harmful in that it does not adequately address the crime problem." Moreover, Beckett says, linking nonviolent addicts and drunks, the sorts typically associated with street disorder, to truly violent criminals creates needless fear in the public mind.
Before I say anything else: Sometimes downtown is unsafe and feels unsafe. That bus driver really was shot last month. A 16-year-old boy was stabbed on Second Avenue last Friday night. Meanwhile, there's been a 60 percent spike in domestic violence cases in Seattle over the last four years, which the SPD says it cannot explain. Many tourists are also appalled by vagrants quaffing beer in Victor Steinbrueck Park, and locals feel uneasy about street kids getting high in Westlake Park. These are problems that can be—and absolutely should be—mitigated. In particular, I have advocated heavily the last three years that we appoint more foot patrols to the city's 5 percent of hot-spot blocks (like around Third and Pine), which account for one quarter of all crime in Seattle, and expand programs that target high-rate offenders for treatment. More park rangers and public restrooms would also be helpful. The problem is that the city has limited money.
"If someone feels fearful, it doesn't matter that crime is down 10 percent," says Captain Dermody, citing the double-digit drop in major crimes in his jurisdiction over the last year.
Nonetheless, the "public safety crisis" is a manufactured crisis. Crime is not spiking. To the extent that the public is feeling panicked about it, it's because supposedly credible voices are manipulating data and outright lying to make people panicked. After all, they're linking so-called street disorder with shootings and making blanket claims that "violent crime is up." And their alarming message is being propagated just as the election approaches.
It absolutely must be mentioned that the people behind the "public safety crisis" meme are the same people trying to oust McGinn. The Seattle Times has opposed McGinn for five years and has endorsed Murray; the three council members who signed that letter either ran against McGinn this year or considered running against him (they also coordinated that letter with the Seattle Times story); Jordan Royer's father, former mayor Charles Royer, is the public face of a PAC trying to elect Murray; and Murray, obviously, is running for mayor. The message that the city is dangerous and we need to get tough on crime is the world's oldest political trope—and it's being used by people who want to regain access to the mayor's office.
"Change in leadership is the only way to make change, and that is by electing a new mayor," Murray told reporters. Of course it is.
Murray, the council, and the Seattle Times don't advocate solely arresting our way out of the problem. They also advocate that we continue with the Center City Initiative Roundtable, a coalition of lefty political groups, downtown business, and law enforcement that figures out methods to target major offenders and provide social services. They support a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project that directs offenders into treatment and breaking up drug markets.
The thing is, so does McGinn. These are all programs that have grown under Mayor McGinn's watch. Even Murray's public-safety platform is, by and large, indistinguishable from what the mayor is already doing.
Lisa Daugaard, who is deputy director of the Defender Association and sits on the roundtable, says the mayor does not deserve full credit for bringing together unlikely bedfellows to collaborate on downtown crime. But she is adamant that the unity between warring factions during his term is an unparalleled accomplishment for Seattle politics (bringing together homeless advocacy groups and business lobbies, for example).
"Campaigns are dangerous times, because people who don't actually disagree with a policy agenda of a particular candidate may posture as if they do to create a wedge to advance their chosen candidate's chances," she says. "But that is unhealthy for us as a community right now. Street-level drug use is an issue, but confounding that with violent crime is a sure way of coming up with the wrong solution. We have unprecedented consensus about how to tackle difficult problems, and the last thing we need is for that to be missed in the discussion."
We've heard reasonable discussions about downtown crime drowned out by chatter about street disorder before. Council Member Burgess proposed an aggressive solicitation bill in 2010 that would penalize panhandlers with a citation, in addition to the criminal penalty for aggressive begging already on the books. The problem was, a survey of downtown residents showed they believed street disorder was already the number-one area where downtown was showing improvement, and the city's human rights commission said Burgess's proposal would violate human rights standards. McGinn vetoed that bill. But now, if Burgess and other backers of that legislation (which includes the Seattle Times) can stoke fear of growing street disorder—they say it's linked to shootings—people will believe the problem is more serious and support another bill. And this strategy seems to be working. When I asked Murray at his press conference if he would approve a similar bill as mayor, adding a fine for aggressive panhandling, he said he would consider it. "That is something that has to be looked at," Murray said.
In July, Murray said unequivocally that he would oppose legislation that adds new penalties for panhandling. But Murray has been talking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. At his press conference, he lamented that the city didn't have more funding for mental health (which the legislature slashed by $24 million in 2011, when Murray was the budget chair in the senate). Police are also grappling with more convicts who are being released early from probation and who have a high tendency to re-offend. That results from another $9.4 million in cuts for supervising convicts under Murray's tenure.
Those budget cuts aren't really Murray's fault, and I point that out because, likewise, an anomalous blip in crime in a few segments of downtown isn't McGinn's fault, either. However, McGinn may be faulted for folding the Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention division into other human services units.
But encouraging people to be afraid will just make this problem worse: It drives people out of downtown (the fewer people downtown, the fewer eyes on the street and the more actual crime will rise). This fearmongering also encourages people to worry that vagrants who piss in the alley are violent criminals (the best research shows they aren't), and that we need to find more ways to ticket and arrest them. But the key to making downtown safer is not by bringing the hammer of the law down on people who don't have anywhere to go to the bathroom. There are things we can do that are more collaborative: allocate more money for police foot patrols and continue the Center City Initiative.
But we do all those things by having an honest dialogue, by bringing more people to downtown, and we do it by bringing people together and focusing on data-driven discussion. This "crime crisis" is the opposite. This is a divisive political ploy based on misrepresentation of the context and facts. We're not going to find a solution if we're being dishonest about the problem.