Mellow Seattle: maybe too mellow on crime?

Why do we tolerate so much open crime on Seattle streets?
Why do we tolerate so much open crime on Seattle streets?

Danny Westneat's Wednesday morning Seattle Times column, documenting a new resident's first-hand victimizations locally by crime and violence — and Seattle Police's seeming indifference to same — no doubt will trigger a public debate about our local values. Where does tolerance end and public complacency begin?

Westneat's newcomer is returning to the city from whence he came — yes, crime-ridden Detroit — where he feels safer, believe it or not.

What about public safety locally? I live in Belltown near the Sculpture Park. As does the man in Westneat's column, I regularly see out-in-the-open drug dealing, especially in Steinbrueck Park near the Public Market, which police choose to overlook. Walking toward downtown, I always avoid Elliott and Western Avenues, where obvious bad actors regularly mingle among the day workers and harmless homeless in the neighborhood. Yesterday I saw a family of out-of-town tourists intimidated into providing a handout to three rough-looking panhandlers. Tuba Man was murdered a few blocks from where I live, while standing at a bus stop.

Public safety is government's first responsibility. Yet, here, we seem not always to take it seriously. Former police chief Norm Stamper, nationally known for his permissive law enforcement, viewed WTO demonstrators, before the fact, as harmless flower children, although the demonstrators' aims and tactics had been in prior evidence elsewhere. We affirmed laxer enforcement of local marijuana laws, although on-the-street officers will tell you the new upward limit of marijuana possession is ridiculously high. Hempfest is treated as a getting-high Seafair.

Are we too mellow or, putting it another way, unconcerned?

Earlier this week, a not-unrelated matter made its way into the national media: Namely, that 40 percent of all American births, two years ago, were out of wedlock. Depression-born and college-age in the 1950s, I would not want to return to those days when unmarried pregnancies were reason for disgrace and where young women "went on a trip" for a while before returning unpregnant. Nor should unmarried mothers be stigmatized. They have proved, time and again, that their care and love is equal to those of mothers in traditional marriage — sometimes superior.

Yet, at the same time, we know that in minority communities, in particular, absent fathers are a big problem. We also know that data indicate kids do better in all respects when raised in a traditional home. Marriage creates bonds and obligations that unmarried relationships do not. That is why, among other reasons, I support gay marriage, although it often has nothing to do with child-raising.

In New York, then-District Attorney Rudy Giuliani cleaned up a previously crime-ridden city by enforcing a "zero-tolerance" policy against all violations. When offenders were locked up for minor violations, the city found, major violations also fell off. Many of the same people were found to be committing both. The Giuliani policy changed the city's culture and sense of what was and was not acceptable.

Seattle would never opt for Giuliani-like law enforcement. But what kind of law enforcement, based on what values, do we want? What are our social norms? Questions for the day, and maybe salient ones in the current Mayor's race.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of