Seattle's dirty little secret of downtown safety

Throwing more and more money into public services won't solve our crime problems. Here's what will.
Crosscut archive image.
Throwing more and more money into public services won't solve our crime problems. Here's what will.

The shooting of a Metro bus driver during the morning commute Monday shocked us all. Luckily, the driver is OK. The shooter is not. 

While this crime is an isolated event, it caps several months — indeed decades — of chronic street disorder in downtown Seattle. The Downtown Seattle Association, the Mayor’s Office, SPD and concerned citizens and service providers have been working for months to address public safety issues downtown, particularly on 3rd Avenue(where this latest shooting occurred). I have written about these efforts in Crosscut before. 

In frustration, the DSA sent a letter to the mayor recently, citing eight incidents of public violence since June — including several perpetrated toward downtown office workers. Things are getting worse, they wrote, and everyone needs to step up.

On Monday, just hours after the bus driver shooting, I walked through Westlake Park during the lunch hour. Trash was strewn about the park, and people were yelling and drinking openly. A banner over the park declared this Family Fun Week. To be fair, kids and families were there too, enjoying the newly installed playground — an effort to make the park more enjoyable.

The same kinds of strategies have been tried at other downtown parks like Occidental. No number of investments in parks, though — playground equipment, games, entertainment, bocce ball courts — will stop those who intimidate other visitors and vandalize those parks. 

The city has said violent crime is going down in the downtown neighborhoods, but a recent Seattle Times crime analysis contradicts this, claiming steady crime over the last five years that spikes each summer. And that's not including nuisance crimes like drinking in public, public urination, vandalism or other behaviors that people complain about routinely.

Our reputation as “Free-attle” makes us a draw for people genuinely in search of assistance, but also for those who want to take advantage and party through the summer. On August 5th, West Precinct SPD Captain Jim Dermody illustrated the point in an email detailing a recent incident downtown:

“On Friday morning, while assisting Parks Department Rangers moving sleepers along from Waterfront Park, one particular individual, an adult male 25 years old would not leave.  Rangers called SPD.  At 7:30 AM, my officers arrived and found the person to be belligerent with them, as well.  After using the “F” word numerous times at, about and to my officers and attempting to bite one of them, he was arrested for trespass and attempted assault.  The male, in Seattle for only a week from Fayetteville, Arkansas, said after he was arrested, 'I have asked everyone where the shelters and the free eats are around here and no one will talk to you, they just ignore you…I thought this was a homeless friendly city.'”

Councilman Richard Conlin expressed similar concerns in his opposition to an ordinance introduced by Council members Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien on July 29th that would have authorized long-term encampments on private and public property in commercial zones. The measure failed on a 5-4 vote. (Licata, O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell voted yes.) Conlin enumerated the problems with expanding encampments in Seattle and reminded us that the City of Seattle already does far more to help the homeless than other jurisdictions in King County and the region.

“The city of Seattle invests more than $30 million annually in services for the homeless, and we increase every year," he stated. "We are so well known for our compassionate approach that more than half of those who are in shelters do not list a Seattle address as their last previous home.”

The cops we have are reluctant to practice proactive policing around public nuisance crimes for fear they will be the next cop on the front page of the newspaper. The Justice Department is looking over one shoulder, and a suspension is lurking behind the nearest smart phone. And why would they? The city has largely failed to prosecute these smaller cases, leaving police to wonder why they'd bother.

When is it that we will arrive at our tipping point, when people decide they'd rather not live in, shop in, or even visit downtown or Belltown or Pioneer Square?

The other tipping point may occur as a result of neighborhood densities increasing in neighborhoods outside of downtown. In the past, it has been easy for Seattleites in outlying neighborhoods to avoid the kind of disorder we see downtown. But now neighborhoods like Ballard, Capitol Hill and the U District are seeing the same kinds of problems we face in Westlake and Occidental Parks. Problems that are creating a greater regional awareness of what an unattractive density can look like.

Homelessness is not a crime, nor should it be, and I am by no means suggesting we reduce our funding of human services. But those of us who have worked on these issues through the years know they are extremely complicated: Mental illness, drug abuse, underfunded foster care and mental health systems make solutions slow and hard to come by. Our focus should be on enforcing existing public nuisance laws and providing better services to those who need it most — families who have fallen on hard times, those with mental health issues and chronic drug and alcohol addictions.

While the candidates in this election cycle talk about the need for density, very little is said about public safety. And, whether running for mayor, city council or city attorney, questions about public safety are most often met with a detailed list of all the reasons we can’t solve these problems. Politicians are smart: They've learned that the downtown law and order candidate who talks about civility on the streets and in the parks most often ends up losing.     

As voters, let's give them a way to talk productively and openly about our public safety problems. They won't solve themselves. 

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

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.