Where is Seattle's mental health candidate?

The issue of downtown safety moved center-stage in Seattle's mayor's race after Friday's fatal stabbing of two Sounders' fans in Pioneer Square.
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Pioneer Square, a dicey neighborhood after dark.

The issue of downtown safety moved center-stage in Seattle's mayor's race after Friday's fatal stabbing of two Sounders' fans in Pioneer Square.

On Friday's KUOW "Week in Review" news roundtable, we discussed downtown crime as an issue in the mayoral campaign. There's been a good deal of argument about whether, or how much, crime has increased in downtown Seattle. It turns out the answer depends, in part, on what you mean by downtown and crime. It also depends on intangibles, such as how people feel when they’re walking around.

On that last measure, I would guess there's little disagreement that parts of the downtown feel very unsafe at times. On Saturday, for example, I was in the downtown core with my wife and granddaughter and it seemed like a retail district any city would envy, packed with tourists and shoppers safely going about their business. We walked through Westlake Park without hesitation or hassle, and the geodesic jungle gym was covered with toddlers. After sundown, it's a very different scene. Walking through Westlake seems like asking for trouble. Waiting for the bus at 4th and Pike I often find myself thinking, "whatever happened to psych wards?"

The issue of downtown safety will likely move center-stage after the tragic stabbing of a couple who were on their way home from a Sounder's game Friday night. It happened at the corner of 3rd and Jackson. Early reports suggest the killing of Shoreline Community College professor Troy Wolff  and the injuries to his partner Kristin Ito were the random act of a deranged individual. Horrible, inexcusable, traumatizing.

This is not the first time such senseless attacks have happened downtown; in August a “troubled” man shot a Metro bus driver. The killer is lucky Seattle has (thankfully) moved past the days when citizens strung up murderers just down the road in Occidental Square.  We can’t blame such assaults on any single politician, regime or era. But the question mayor Mike McGinn and candidate Ed Murray should be answering, in detail is this: What are they going to do about it?

As I said on Friday’s radio show, there are too many creeps downtown. Too many mentally ill people. Eli Sanders of The Stranger and I have been arguing for years on the radio show that our city, county, state and country are falling down when it comes to caring for the mentally ill. Whether you walk the streets or ride Metro downtown, it's clear that over the years there has been an increase in the number of people who show disturbing signs of mental health problems. Budgets for mental health programs have been slashed, and insurance companies are looking for ways to cut back on coverage for various therapies. The problems on our streets run beyond downtown. I have had two scary encounters with crazy street people in the University District in the past few months. The origins of the problems go beyond the city limits, but can Seattle, the so-called "most progressive city in America," go above and beyond to address them?

Seattle mayoral races, including primaries, have often featured a "law & order" candidate, but this year's packed field did not, at least once city council member and former cop Tim Burgess dropped out. The remaining candidates agreed that public safety was a major civic and political concern, but much of their discussion focused on police accountability and the search for a new police chief. Candidate Murray seems to be trying to pick up the law & order mantle, with help from Burgess and former mayoral opponent Bruce Harrell. But where is the mental health candidate?

Burgess has proposed that Seattle consider a major initiative to have citywide preschool for our kids. Such an endeavor would ask us to do better than is required, to offer more. Could we also do better for our streets by considering a similar all-out effort to beef up our mental health capacity (more clinics, programs, accessibility to care) so we can treat people who so badly need it? Such a push should be part and parcel to whatever beefed-up law enforcement measures are discussed, as central as hiring more police and smarter deployment and patrolling strategies.

Instead of sniping at each other records – at what Ed Murray hasn't accomplished in Olympia or what Mike McGinn hasn't done as mayor – I'd like to see the two candidates focus on their blueprints for improving the mental health climate to make the city safe for all its citizens.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.