- Community leaders in the East Precinct are helping shape a parochial policing plan.
Twice last week, Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole promoted so-called Neighborhood Safety Plans at community events, including during her talk at Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District. As described to neighborhood leaders, the plan involves community organizations advising precinct captains on strategies to address crime, collaborating on a strategy to meet each area's crime-fighting needs. The SPD's five precinct captains will then incorporate that advice into five touchstone documents. The plans are supposed to finalized within a month, police say.
It sounds nice.
This sort of collaborative planning exactly the sort of thing Seattle's neighborhood activists always want: It gives them a chance to influence city hall and get a quick commitment—one that's put into writing and can be referred to later—that government affairs will be carried out within neighborhood activists' vision.
In the SPD's East Precinct (which includes the Central District and Capitol Hill), a group called EastPAC was eager to influence these plans at a meeting last week. One of the group's internal e-mails urged members to contribute to the project, saying, "Your input will help the East Precinct staff to create and implement focused policing strategies that are most effective and impactful for your neighborhood." The group will work with Captain Pierre Davis to formulate a plan of attack.
But that neighborhood buy-in has historically been a double-edged sword, creating a patchwork of incompatible parochial agendas that fail to address long-term citywide needs, then, in turn, infuriate the stakeholders when their carefully crafted plans are abandoned.
I don't want to dismiss a well-intentioned attempt to involve residents in crime fighting, especially in an often-ignored district (I live in the CD myself). But the way the SPD is doing this should give Seattle three reasons to scrutinize the project:
1. The SPD can't actually describe what this project is. In fact, the SPD has no documentation describing the Neighborhood Safety Plans. "Captains are responsible for developing their own neighborhood safety plans," says SPD spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb when I asked him for an explanation of the project in lieu of documentation about it. "I'll have more once I get my hands on one!" I pressed him to explain what the goals are, what's happening now, what exactly is the scope of the plans, how the plans are finalized, who will be involved in finalizing them—but Whitcomb had no answers. If nothing else, this seems like a sign that the SPD is asking for a lot of energy from neighborhood organizations without a way to apply that energy.
2. Random neighborhood activists are not necessarily qualified to address the root causes of crime: mental illness, addiction, gang activity. In fact, many activists in the East Precinct have a history of reflexively resisting sensible programs that deal with mental health; instead they have tried shunt their problems into the next neighborhood. A recent case in point in the East Precinct: A group filed a lawsuit to block a mental health center that was widely supported as part of a holistic citywide effort to provide social services. Meanwhile, activists in Pioneer Square have said for years they shoulder too many social services. Historically neighborhood groups that don't like drug dealing have been content driving it into the next neighborhood. One year, cops responded to neighborhood complaints by cracking down on drug activity in Belltown, and the next year, when the drug moved to an adjacent neighborhood, police cracked down in Pioneer Square. It's like ping-pong. After a round of voting, EastPAC decided that their number-one priority was: "Drug dealing/everything that goes with it (Loitering, suspicious activity, etc)." Asking a neighborhood group to diagnose a problem and prescribe a solution is a bit like the old blind-man elephant story (each man feels one different part of an elephant but none comprehends the whole animal). The track record is clear: Neighborhood groups tend to want social services, low-income housing, mental-health centers, and drug-treatment facilities pushed elsewhere—which may make for a nice neighborhood plan but can be shortsighted and untenable citywide.
3. We have an example of this going wrong. The city manifested a Neighborhood Planning Program in the 1990s that allowed communities a leading role deciding how to accommodate population growth in 38 areas—such as which blocks should be zoned for taller buildings. An article published a few years later about the neighborhood plans was titled "Citizen Empowerment or Collective Daydreaming?" It explained that giving residents a sense that they were setting city policy "fueled residents' expectations that growth will occur as hoped and wish lists will get funded." But in the end, residents have been upset when those plans weren't followed. And realistically, how could they be? Designing a city in silos—not holistically—is preposterous and shortsighted as needs change, and it fuels a boiling resentment among stakeholders that their work has been ignored. Another common criticism: This sort of "community organization" involvement favors participation from the type of neighborhood activists with the class luxury of having free time to participate (e.g., home-owning retirees, not working moms). To this day, the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition and the Seattle Community Council Federation are fuming that these neighborhood growth plans have been dismissed, nearly two decades after they were written. The city should never have promised neighborhood activists a stake in something they were unqualified to do. And if there's one thing that changes faster than population growth year-to-year, it's crime activity that can shift day-to-day.
So who makes the final calls on these plans?
Jeff Reading, spokesman for the mayor, distanced the mayor's office from the project. "This is a concept that originated with the Chief (I believe she talked about it during the appointment and nomination process) but that the Mayor strongly supports—even featured it in his public safety speech back in June," Reading said in an e-mail. "In terms of operationalizing it, however—that’s the Chief’s job."
Chief O'Toole is new to town. (I'm a fan of her work so far!) And, again, the instinct to reach out is a good one. But this project is flawed in part because it promises a "plan" when the SPD can't answer the most basic questions about what that plan will be or, really, how it will be developed.
The SPD must be clear about who will be involved—not just busybodies. They need the city's experts in contemporary, citywide approaches to mental health, addiction, and safety—and the SPD must be able to articulate how these plans will be applied. The city may be looking at this as a spit-balling exercise that neighborhoods see as a binding contract, and then stay mad about it for decades. It would be a shame for neighborhood leaders to feel burned if their work is proven impractical and gets ignored.