Best of 2012: How Seattle decides to let its young die in the streets

A portion of the Seattle Police Map display of just the crimes against people Jan. 1 to June 7, 2012 in south Seattle using the address of a Union Gospel Mission facility serving as a reference point. To use the mapping function, go here.

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on neighborhoods. This article was originally published June 8, 2012.

The recent mass murders at Cafe Racer and Town Hall, a homicide in north Seattle, the death of a father on Capitol Hill, and the shooting of a bystander to a gang dispute at Folklife have finally galvanized the attention of “The Rest of the City” to street violence.   The Rest of the City is the part of Seattle north of I-90 and west of SoDo.

Unfortunately, if history is any guide, The Rest of the City will draw the wrong lessons and insist on the wrong policy prescriptions for the social ills that South Seattle faces every day.

Seven people have been shot in a four-block section of Rainier Beach since Jan. 1, presumably making it one of the deadliest pieces of real-estate in the United States. Last September, another man was shot in the same area after police emphasis patrols ended.

Referring to last summer’s extra bike patrols centered in Rainier Beach, local resident, Lucy Jarosz asked, “Why can’t we get the City to provide additional police patrols? Preferably high-visibility, pro-active, foot, bike, or horse patrols, that stopped this in the past.”  

The answer is electoral politics and the culture of Seattle’s progressives. The emphasis here is on “Seattle” and not “progressives.”  With the possible exception of voters in South Seattle, and a few other electorally insignificant pockets of the City, voters until last week did not see more policing as an issue, and judging by comment threads and letters to the editor, still may not. City Council members, in candidate forums outside of South Seattle, hear a preference from voters for funding other things.  Council members listen to those voters from The Rest of the City. Problems of street violence for almost 80 percent of Seattle’s electorate have been, until last week, “over there”, and I fear, absent some new horror, the perception will quickly return.

These voters tend to see police as a necessary evil that detracts from their social justice funding priorities. Unlike liberal, progressive voters in San Francisco and New York City, they pit public safety against human services funding as a zero sum game, rather than seeing public safety funding as a synergistic complement that improves the outcomes, for people of color and the poor, from human services funding.

Meanwhile ethnic minorities, geographically compartmentalized away from voters in Seattle as a whole, continue to be slaughtered by people demographically similar to themselves. Even when the bullets aren’t connecting to their targets, The Rainier Valley is often a shooting gallery that un-nerves and keeps people off the streets. The very people that voters all over the city want to help with the human services funding, with the hope that it will promote social equity and upward socio-economic mobility, don’t achieve the hoped-for social outcomes. It’s a well-intended, politically correct, but feckless gesture toward improving the lot of Lesser Seattle: the city’s poor and people of color.

It is not safe enough to walk the streets of South Seattle to access human services programs. More significantly, the culture of violence and incivility in South Seattle overwhelms the messages and means that social service programs like the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, Boys and Girls Clubs, after-school tutoring, etc. are supposed to provide to insure upward mobility for Seattle’s poor and communities of color. 

The well-intentioned voters forget that Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs is built on safety. Without security and protection from crime, South Seattle’s citizens can’t work on noble virtues such as love/belonging, esteem, or self-actualization.

In a city that elects its City Council at-large, rather than by district, voters outside of South Seattle determine what elected officials' budget priorities are.  

What Roger Valdez wrote in a recent column on an unrelated topic, could apply just as well to this issue,

“Politicians have a Sally Field complex (“you like me!”) an affliction that makes being liked and re-elected the primary litmus test for any issue. Angering a large, affluent, and motivated group of neighborhood activists is not a recipe for sustained popularity.”

Put differently, and with the emphasis on the electorate, where it belongs, Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” When fourth-fifths of a council member’s constituents live elsewhere, walk safe streets in largely lily-white neighborhoods, and don’t see the need for increased police staffing, it is no surprise that places like Rainier Beach and Georgetown can’t get the pro-active police patrols needed to secure their streets. Seattle shares the progressive, blue-state, liberal, electoral politics of places like San Francisco and New York City, but not their commitment to secure streets for people of color.

Knute Berger points out part of the reason for this. The Rest of Seattle is too utopian and non-pragmatic. Berger writes, “The candidate with the biggest ideals, the most inflated sense of mission and purpose: they usually win. We will change the world one city council resolution at a time. We prefer to hide our pragmatism behind the vanity of noble ambitions.” 

If that weren’t enough, The Rest of City thinks it knows better than their progressive counterparts in other cities, how to cure societies ills. In the same column, Berger writes, only, in my view, partially tongue-in-cheek,

“We're a smart city. We're home to the biggest charity in the world. We read more books. We're sustainable, serious, and hip. Portland? Stuck in the '90s. Vancouver? Hah, they're stuck in Canada. Tacoma? We don't even make jokes about them anymore. Bellevue? Where's that? Seattle is too busy, too full of big ideas to care about anyone else. Having your nose in the air is a good way to forget that the basics are so screwed up. Seattle's public schools? Ick. Our police department? Scary. The streets? They're better in Kabul. But all of these are mere details too petty for superior minds which are set on bigger things.”   (Emphasis added.)

The Rest of the City couldn’t possibly replicate what works elsewhere to elevate the socio-economic status of Lesser Seattle, which is largely walled-off, out of sight and out of mind, south of I-90. Seattle knows how to do it better. 

The answer to street disorder is not, in the general thinking here, police officers on the ground to give pragmatic effect to the civilized norms enshrined in state law and council resolutions.  It is not more cops to provide harm reduction by intervening before young people escalate mob arguments to gunfire. In the view of Seattle’s superior version of progressivism, we just need more teen programs, late night basketball, and the like. The worse-than-Kabul street mayhem on four blocks of Rainier Avenue South (and now the Central District & Seattle Center) will magically cure itself. Could it be, as other liberal, progressive, cities have discovered, the solution is not either more policing or human services, but the correct combination of both?

The mass murder committed by Ian Stawicki against regulars at Café Racer and a woman in the parking lot of the Town Hall venue, should not primarily teach us any lessons about gun laws and the mental health system, although we need to look at those things too. The lesson that should be taken from that tragedy should be learned from one of the heroes of that horrific day, a three-time felon named Jason Yori.  

According to the Seattlepi.com, Yori, a homeless veteran, ran up to Gloria Leonidas. Realizing she was dying, sat beside her, held her hand, and offered her comfort. Later, at the direction of the police, he helped keep the crowd back, and then gave them a statement. What did Yori credit with his turn from criminal to Good Samaritan? Sobriety. What got him sober? According to the story, “Officers with the Department of Corrections' Northwest Community Response Unit, which handled Yori's case in rougher times, said his actions were commendable. Yori gives them credit, too, for helping him stay sober and conviction-free for years.”

Seattle’s progressives need to learn from those of San Francisco and New York City that the criminal code, which enshrines our most basic values like, don’t kill, don’t steal, and more broadly, value others as important as yourself, still matter. Adequately staffed criminal justice, to hold people accountable to those laws, is as much a part of the mix as drug treatment and social services.

Both the City By The Bay and The Big Apple have significantly higher staffing ratios of police to citizens. If Seattle were staffed at the same ratio of cops to citizens as San Francisco, it would have 1,633 officers. If staffed like New York City, it would have 2,680. Seattle has 1,100 sworn officers in service.  

According to University of California Berkeley Professor Franklin Zimring, the city of New York  "has reduced its most serious crime rate by 80 percent without any net increase in secure confinement.”  (Emphasis in original.) New York, which has double the number of police officers per citizen as Seattle, has reduced crime and its incarceration rate. In other words, New York has increased policing without raising the incarceration rate, which falls disproportionately on people of color.

Mayor Mike McGinn, with only a muted outcry from voters, has quietly let the Seattle Police Department shrink, while paying lip service to the welfare of ethnic minorities and the poor. He, with the acquiescence of the Seattle City Council, has declined to dedicate the savings from the 300 or so officers now starting to retire, to hiring more rookie officers, which cost 30 percent to 40 percent less.  (Check out a Rainier Valley Post video, minutes 53:55 to 58.00 where an example Berger’s “vanity of noble ambitions” is trotted out by the mayor.) Not content to keep the size of the police force the same while diverting those savings to other purposes, he has slowed recruiting of replacements to the point that officers in service continues to decline. 

As The Seattle Times' Danny Westneat observed in his May 27, 2012 column on the Seattle’s Central District homicide, great schools are not the answer to street violence. Westneat wrote, “I looked back at a year's worth of crime reports involving violence for the area surrounding Garfield, arguably Seattle's premier high school. … According to police records, there is a shooting in the blocks around Garfield nearly once a month.” Great public schools are an answer and must be a prominent part of the mix, but they are not the answer by themselves.

This elevation of utopian, big ideals over pragmatism has real world consequences for the poor of Lesser Seattle that The Rest of the City claims to want to help. Coutney Taylor, killed May 16 in the parking lot of Jack In The Box in Rainier Beach, might have lived after being shot, had he not bled and died in the seven or more minutes it took to get 15 officers on the scene to secure the hostile crowd of 50, so paramedics could safely go to work.

One of the hotspots for armed robbery in South Seattle is the Union Gospel Mission’s new transitional housing program for women and children recovering from homelessness and abuse. The perpetrators are not the women in the program, many with histories of substance abuse and crime, regressing and then preying on local residents. It is the other way around. These women come back from buying groceries, taking the light rail to job interviews, etc. only to get beaten or have a pistol put in their face. How does The Rest of the City think that trauma impacts their success rates?

South Seattle residents are crying out for the police needed to stop the slaughter of its teens and young adults, largely by its teens and young adults. That cry is not in conflict with demands for a culturally sensitive, constitutional, and, when possible, a police department practicing the less-than-lethal use of force. The goal of safety for young people is getting lost in the mainstream media’s narrative on police practices. Achieving safety also, as Berkley Professor Zimmering shows, does not mean adding to our appalling record of disproportionately incarcerating more people of color. It need not, as New York City shows, add to our incarceration rate at all.

South Seattle citizens need to stop preaching to each other and direct more of their message to the relatively affluent, progressive, ostensibly social-justice-oriented voters in The Rest of the City. The City Council answers to them.

What should South Seattle say to The Rest of the City? Get over what Berger describes as trying to “change the world one resolution at a time” and the conceit against “mere details too petty for superior minds.” Adopt the pragmatism of such liberal, progressive, socially conscious places as San Francisco and New York City.

That means more cops so city human services and education funding can actually make a difference for Seattle’s poor and minority communities. Without this change, the slaughter continues and socio-economic progress of South Seattle stagnates on.

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