Safe streets? First, Seattle must care

When it comes to dealing with crime complaints, hand wringing and political posturing are the classic Seattle responses. A visiting expert talks about pragmatic, humane approaches a new police chief might make work.
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Former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

When it comes to dealing with crime complaints, hand wringing and political posturing are the classic Seattle responses. A visiting expert talks about pragmatic, humane approaches a new police chief might make work.

In 1866 Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote his now-classic novel Crime and Punishment. It was a fictional tale where the principal character justified the killing of an unscrupulous pawnbroker. The novel struggled with the rationale that the protagonist was morally justified in the crime since he was broke and starving and the pawnbroker was ruthless and lived in luxury. The vivid mental debate of guilt and rationalization has held readers' interest for years.

Dostoevsky himself was broke and had been incarcerated in Siberia. He understood the surge of feelings of the downtrodden. The term "crime and punishment" still resonates, symbolically at least, in the debate of how law and order is handled by contemporary society.

In Seattle, we have a new mayor, Mike McGinn, and a McGinn-appointed committee is entering the final stages of a search for a new police chief, to replace Gil Kerlikowske, now the nation's drug czar.

All this is happening in an atmosphere of major disagreement over how aggressive panhandlers should be treated. The city council is divided, as is the community, on what measures will work. Small business and downtown merchants, armed with the fact that a predominant portion of the city's revenue is from the sales taxes, argue that harsher penalties for very aggressive panhandlers will provide the perception of safer downtown and neighborhood streets.

The businesses perceive the aggressive panhandlers outside their stores as deterrents to sales, and they want the city to provide a higher level of safety for shoppers and the general public. No doubt, the businesses also feel the pinch from big box stores, malls, and shopping centers, where aggressive private security keep panhandlers completely away from shoppers.

On the other side of the issue are the ACLU and numerous community organizations who believe the plan proposed by Councilmember Tim Burgess will criminalize the homeless and not deal with the more fundamental problem of why begging for money is common. They argue that the city should spend more money to support the homeless rather than to fight panhandling. The conundrum is that the money needed for programs like this come from retail sales, which the merchants say are being hampered by aggressive panhandling.

The conflict has evolved into a power play, partly because the mayor has promised to veto the legislation and side with the minority of the council members opposing it. Burgess insists only potentially dangerous, aggressive panhandlers who try to intimidate and block the path of citizens will be affected, with the homeless panhandlers having nothing to worry about. Burgess, having been a police officer, feels confident that Seattle's well-trained officers can tell the difference between someone with a sign collecting money and two or three men blocking the way of a person who has just withdrawn money from a cash machine.

The mayor's decision to oppose the new legislation may well have little to do with the legislation itself, but a lot to do with the likelihood that Burgess will oppose McGinn for mayor in 2013. If McGinn can claim victory here, he might believe it will bolster his wavering administration.

Because the council has been working on public safety, and possibly because a nationwide search for a new police chief was in progress, scholar and author Mark Kleiman was invited to town to talk about his research and his new book, "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment."

Speaking at Town Hall, in meetings with the local officials, and in an interview with Crosscut writers and editors, Kleiman outlined his research on how existing crime and punishment isn't working. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, has concluded through meticulous research that we can have significantly safer streets with less crime and less punishment by more targeted enforcement. Kleiman believes consistent, sure punishment for crime essential, but that we sometimes keep prisons full of people, many of whom didn't need to have been incarcerated for so long. Consider the dimwitted friend who is little more than a passenger in a car involved in a serious crime.

It would be easy for any fool to pick apart Kleiman's argument by separating the parts of his proposal instead of viewing his proposals in totality. Kleiman isn't a cop, he isn't a prosecuting attorney, nor a do-gooder or a bleeding heart.

Kleiman is the epitome of the pragmatist. He can tell you exactly the cost and effectiveness of most of our laws and their enforcement. He understands the cost both in human terms and dollars of how we currently handle law enforcement. His book points to ways to overcome our nation's crime failures. Kleiman doesn't promise magic, but he is convinced that by changing some of the ways we deal with crime will cost less and be more effective.

Kleiman's challenge is to get people to listen and to read his book. Originally, he was supposed to meet with the mayor but that fell through.

Kleiman must face centuries of folklore on how to change behavior. The old West theories of crime and punishment die slowly and attitudes of 'hang 'em high" are interspersed with liberal teachings that giving a second chance, almost regardless of the crime, is acceptable.

More immediately important to Seattle and the criminal justice system here may well be what kind of man or woman is chosen as our next chief of police. She or he who will define the climate influencing how law and order is dispensed in Seattle.

Thanks to many new young officers of exceptional quality, Seattle has the chance to change our city with the right chief.

Currently, the Police Guild, a union with occasional overtones of a cult, dictates much of what happens on the police force. Often, older, hardline officers from a different era set behavior policies that young, well-educated and well-trained officers must obey.

A few of the old guard demand unity and they have even been known to defend one of their own when circumstances might suggest they be more candid. Most Seattle police chiefs have served at the pleasure of the Guild. As his term went on, Kerlikowske was accused of failing to punish those his own internal investigation unit found guilty.

Hopefully, the mayor can find time to become familiar with Kleiman's work before he picks a new chief, and insist on someone who supports the ideas. A chief who has absorbed the message in Kleiman's book would adopt policies of being very tough and focused on serious crime when necessary, while allowing officers to play a much greater role in crime prevention. Great officers know their community, who to watch and who isn't a problem. They will need the support of a mayor, a wise city council, and a new chief willing to turn a new page in crime and punishment, plus the legal tools to do their job.

It's unfortunate that Seattle has prevented progress in law enforcement by our continual hand-wringing and political chest-thumping rather than basing our decisions on rational research.


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