Lack of police capacity, property crime, and homelessness are Seattleites’ top safety concerns, according to a new report, below, by Seattle University researchers. Meanwhile, in the East Precinct covering Capitol Hill and the Central District, fear of crime remained low while concerns about “social cohesion” and the legitimacy of the Seattle Police Department spiked.
The annual survey, released this month by the university’s criminal justice department, includes input from over 11,000 Seattle residents and gives a snapshot of what continues to worry them after a tumultuous 2020 that saw policing and racial justice at the top of the agenda locally and nationally. It also gives an idea of how residents of various neighborhoods feel about issues of public safety in their communities.
“Understanding the public-safety concerns of Seattleites is an important part of the ongoing discussion about the best path forward to support communities of color and to produce equitable outcomes for those who encounter the criminal justice system,” Seattle University researchers wrote in a November op-ed in the Seattle Times promoting the survey.
For example, in Capitol Hill, homelessness trumps police capacity — which includes worries about delays in police response and a lack of law enforcement personnel — followed by property crime.
The city’s 2021 budget brought a cut of about a fifth of Seattle’s more than $400 million annual outlay in police spending along with important changes to reduce the size and power of the department by moving 911 and traffic enforcement operations outside of the Seattle Police Department and spending more money on social, community, and BIPOC services and programs.
Advocates, meanwhile, were hoping for a cut of at least 50% from the police budget.
The issue of violent crime was more likely to be selected in surveys from Central District and Squire Park residents, but still not as much as other issues. Just this weekend four people were shot, including a 2-year-old child, near 23rd and Jackson.
Across the East Precinct, which includes the area stretching from Montlake to I-90 on the east side of I-5, property crime rose in 2020. There were 15 cases of arson in the precinct’s jurisdiction in 2019; 38 in 2020. So far in 2021, there have been five cases of arson in the East Precinct, according to SPD data. In 2019, there were nearly 1,200 reports of burglary, but almost 1,900 last year. Motor vehicle theft cases increased from 466 to 705 in the precinct.
The only type of property crime that decreased last year was personal property theft, or larceny, down to 3,226 reports from about 3,400 last year, according to SPD.
Violent crime increased slightly in the area, as well, but were still down from 2018 levels. Homicides, for example, saw a big jump in 2020, with SPD reporting 12 murders in the East Precinct jurisdiction. There were five homicides here in all of 2019 and three the year before. While robbery and aggravated assault cases went up slightly, reports of rape dropped from 78 in 2019 to 50 in 2020.
Seattle University has been partnering with SPD since 2015 to administer the survey annually.
Run by Seattle U researcher Jackie Helfgott, the Seattle Public Safety Survey process purports to collect safety concerns across Seattle communities and the city as a whole. Started in 2015, Seattle Police and Seattle U typically only reach 300 to 500 respondents in even the city’s largest neighborhoods with the survey pushed through outlets like the Nextdoor social media system that has an information sharing agreement with the department. In 2019, only 122 people responded from the city’s Central Area, and 327 on Capitol HIll. This time, around 2,200 total across the East Precinct participated.
Seattle U, meanwhile, has also looked at policing from an entirely different point of view this spring as city council candidate, attorney, and activist Nikkita Oliver is teaching a course on “police and prison abolition” at the school.
SPD says it uses the survey results to inform its Micro-Community Policing Plans that the department in the past has said help focus precinct resources on the issues most important to the community. This year, SPD has begun posting annual results in a new dashboard.
In 2019, Capitol Hill residents surveyed were most concerned about a lack of police capacity and a lack of resources for individuals with mental illness. Other worries included car prowls, littering, and discarded needles. The last year seems to have changed the calculus as focus has increasingly turned to homelessness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked economic havoc and exacerbated existing issues.
This year’s report was divided into multiple sections, including one carried out via survey on public safety concerns and another via additional, open remarks respondents made. The latter section includes nearly 6,300 respondents, compared to over 11,000 for the survey. And compared to the city’s demographics, those surveyed were more likely to be “non-minority and female,” according to the report.
One prominent theme in Capitol Hill respondents’ remarks were protests, which were often focused in the neighborhood over the course of the summer as police and demonstrators clashed repeatedly in the streets. And in places like north Beacon Hill and Madison Park, behavioral crisis was more likely to be mentioned.
Across the city, the most mentioned theme, separate from concerns around police capacity, homelessness, and property crime, was city politics getting in the way of public safety and not doing enough to address homelessness. Next behind city politics was “public order crime,” which includes graffiti, fireworks, illegal sex work, and disorderly behavior.
The study also surveyed residents’ feelings of police legitimacy and their fear of crime. East Precinct residents, for instance, were less likely to fear crime than the city at large, according to the survey.
Similarly, the average score citywide on the police legitimacy scale was 58.4, down slightly from 59.3 the year before. But if you look at the East Precinct, that number drops to 50.4; in 2019, it was 55.5. Going even further, Capitol Hill’s score was 48 and the Central Area’s 47.1 in 2020, signaling less trust of police in these communities.
Meanwhile, a more prosperous neighborhood like Madison Park scored 72.1 on the police legitimacy scale, indicating that residents there feel police to be more fair and trustworthy.
“This type of information empowers communities to demand better service from law enforcement,” the researchers wrote in their November op-ed, “and challenges the police department to figure out how to increase its standing with citizens in these neighborhoods.”
Rising concerns about “social cohesion,” meanwhile, might be more difficult for SPD to respond to as currently structured. “Social cohesion was assessed by asking participants to indicate to what extent they agree with specific statements about their community/neighborhood (e.g. ‘this neighborhood is a good area to raise children’ or ‘people tha tlive in my neighborhood are generally friendly’),” the survey report reads.
Seattle U says next it will be conducting “virtual community-police dialogues via Zoom” from May through August that will “offer opportunity for community members to discuss the 2020 Seattle Public Safety Survey findings as well as current concerns about public safety and security at the precinct-level.” You can sign up for the sessions here.
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