City Council's Burgess brings police experts to talk new approaches in Seattle

Criminologists say changes in police practices can make real differences in neighborhoods. Changes? In a police department's culture? 

Crosscut archive image.

Professor Cynthia Lum of George Mason University, a former police officer, talks about what science is telling us about crime prevention and effective use of police.

Criminologists say changes in police practices can make real differences in neighborhoods. Changes? In a police department's culture? 

When Seattle residents talk about crime, the discussion often is focused on a few areas or neighborhoods of the city. Some Belltown residents even have mental maps identifying some blocks as extremely safe, others as sketchy. With relatively good overall crime rates for a major city, Seattle still experiences the frustration that, for some residents, there is good reason to worry about safety.

It turns out that there are very clear realities behind such perceptions. Criminology experts visiting Seattle this week said that 14 years of research have shown that 50 percent of the crime here occurs in just 4.5 percent of the city, a percentage that fits city patterns in studies across the nation. There are implications that could improve public safety while enhancing the effectiveness of taxpayer expenditures, the experts and City Councilmember Tim Burgess suggested.

Burgess, the chair of the council's public safety committee, coordinated visits by Cynthia Lum and Charlotte Gill, criminology experts at George Mason University, for a series of meetings. They took part in discussions with the City Council, Seattle Police Department administrators, academics, and others, and met business owners around 23rd and Union. During their visit, Burgess, Lum and Gill met with Crosscut writers and editors.

Like Burgess, Lum is a former police officer, having been a patrol officer and a detective in Baltimore. The deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason, Lum said that it is "rare" for data and analysis of crimes to actually influence what police do in their daily activities. 

"Only recently has [research] evidence been looked at as something on which police policy should be be based," she said.

But her clear aim is to have data on crime and its prevention actually drive police strategies, activities, and practices. It's an idea that attracts not just a new generation of academics but many police officers and policy makers, including Burgess, who see hope of making more of a difference. 

Much of police time is spent on reacting quickly to reports of crime, but that's not something that necessarily reduces crime rates, Lum said. For one thing, even fast reaction isn't speedy enough to bring about arrests in many cases.

So, she said, more "tailored" approaches are useful, such as dealing with the trash that seems to attract crime or cutting back hedges or trees that may provide a comfortable place for troublemakers to hang out. Data on crime can help pinpoint where to look for such problems.

Lum said traffic accidents and crime go together statistically, suggesting an opportunity to adapt existing police practices comfortably to a more active, community-engaged model that is more effective. For instance, heavy traffic enforcement in spots where accidents are frequent — a longtime police tactic — can be combined with a real effort to respectfully engage the people who are stopped, get to know what they are up to, and discourage bigger trouble.

And preventive approaches don't mean abandoning quick responses to serious crimes. Lum said that not only is it effective to engage with the community more deeply through conversations with shop owners and others, there is time for officers to make such efforts even in the busiest periods of the year. She said that when she was an officer in Baltimore, the city had a high rate of violent crime (with a peak of more than 350 homicides in 1993), but she still had parts of the day during the intensely busy summer months when she could contact shop owners or stop to talk with people on the streets.

Burgess said police engagement with shop owners has made a difference around 23rd Avenue East and Union Street, where The Seattle Times headlined a report late last year, "New life for Central District corner." Business owners there, Burgess said, talked eloquently with Lum and Gill about the gains from a good relationship with police, who are viewed as helping the community.

For Burgess, budget realities make getting the most out of existing resources more important than ever. As the council looks ahead to budget deliberations in the fall for 2012, he said, "We probably won't be able to protect public safety [spending] as much as we have over the last few years." 

Questioned about how the police union contracts fit with changes that might improve effectiveness, Burgess and Gill didn't have easy answers. But Gill said, "You have to work with what you have got."

Leadership in city administrations and police departments is important, she suggested, saying there is "a whole science of leadership" behind making changes. She was taken aback by Seattle's talk of cameras being carried on officers as a response to concerns about the use of excessive force by police, particularly in cases involving minority communities' members. She called that a "very expensive" tool for providing greater accountability, adding, "Why not have supervisors be more engaged?" Burgess predicted the council is likely approve only a pilot project involving cameras.

Lum bluntly acknowledges that a police department's culture can be deeply resistant to change. "By the time I die, police culture will not have changed too much," she said. But she pointed to Alexandria, Va., and Redlands, Calif., as examples of cities that are making big changes for more effective police practices. 

Information on the research at George Mason can be found at the Center's web site,


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors