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A policing approach that urbanists can embrace

A Seattle police car in the central business district (2011) Credit: Richard Eriksson/Flickr

There are many reasons why people might not want to live in a densely populated city, but crime has to be at the top of the list. And the sheer number of crimes committed in cities is likely to be greater because, after all, as Willie Sutton the criminologist might have pointed out, that’s where all the people are.  

Advocates for density and more transit-friendly communities don’t often spend time talking about crime. We talk about the benefits of density for reducing climate change, improving water and air quality, and making neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly. We point out how cities are better than other options for organizing ourselves.  

But are they safe? That’s a question we need to answer just as confidently as we counter objections to the more typical urbanist reasons why density is better. One option is to propose all kinds of innovations. We ought to drug-test cops. We should end the war on drugs and legalize and tax them. We should increase spending on law enforcement. How about body cameras for police? And perhaps more relevant for urbanists, the oft-cited Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which calls for greater focus on how design of public and private space can reduce crime.  

What about a simpler idea?

Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess and Cynthia Lum, a professor of criminology at George Mason University, recently spoke with Crosscut writers about evidence-based policing strategies to prevent and reduce the incidence of crime. Burgess, a former Seattle police officer, suggests that Seattle police should “switch from the policing of people in favor of the policing of place.” That, he argues, increases the legitimacy of the police. And according to Lum, it’s more effective at reducing crime.

I also think it’s a good principle for urbanists to adopt. Creating a sense of place is what promoting density is all about. Having law enforcement focusing on place is consistent with our values

What this means is that rather than roaming the streets on assigned “beats,” the police department would explore allocating some officer time and resources to specific areas with the greatest evidence of crime. I live in such a hot spot. I was mugged at my front door on Capitol Hill, and if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many people in my neighborhood, my would-be robber would have gotten away. Instead he was apprehended and I got my laptop and other things back. 

Lum says that focusing on prevention in high-crime areas has greater benefit than quickly responding to crime after it happens. It means officers actually talking to people on the street. Lum suggests proactive policing, which could include talking with people standing on corners, stopping vehicles going in and out of areas where there is a lot of crime, and spending more time there getting to know business owners and residents. These things have worked in other cities.  

But this is Seattle, and we’d have a long way to go persuading some community leaders and homeless advocates that we weren’t opening the door for more abuses of upstanding citizens because of their race or economic status, in the name of trying to catch criminals. And imagine the heat the City Council and Mayor would take from the police union for fundamentally shifting tactics away from rules, procedures, and beats to intense geographic focus on prevention where we know crime is happening. I don’t believe we’re talking about rounding up panhandlers. Burgess would lose me and other density advocates if that were the case.

That brings me to Burgess and Lum’s second point. Lum, a former police officer herself, says she didn’t understand the importance of her manner and attitude until a member of the community pointed it out to her. “Officer Lum,” the person said, “you can just be so rude sometimes.”

It was an eye opener. Lum argues that treating everyone — even a suspect being placed under arrest — with respect and dignity makes an appreciable difference in crime prevention. When officers are polite and respectful the level of trust in them by everyone, even regular offenders, goes up. That means the police become partners with local residents rather than an occupying force or harassing juggernaut. It also means being able to support people who want to change.

Burgess points out, too, that this approach is working at a well-known hot spot for crime, on 23rd Avenue and East Union Street. He says that the owner of a local restaurant and police are working together to make that intersection safer for residents and customers by collaborating and sharing information. The police don’t always know where the problems are, but residents often do.

Burgess’ plan to boost business downtown by harassing panhandlers made no sense. But here, with evidence-based policing, he is demonstrating courageous leadership. He’ll face opposition from every side. Neighbors will worry about 911 response time for property crimes if officers concentrate on hot spots. Civil-liberty advocates will wring their hands over aggressive police tactics. And homeless advocates will have to be assured this is not yet another way of criminalizing poverty.

But this is an issue, like land use, around which the city can come together for a sustainable outcome. Someday the tunnel debate will be a memory, and however that turns out we will still need safe, walkable streets and police we can trust. Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Burgess should work together to start shifting gears on how we do public safety in Seattle. It’s the sustainable thing to do.

This story has been edited to clarify that Lum spoke about proactive policing that includes talking to people standing on street corners, but not necessarily checking their identification.

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