IN the first five months of this year, Seattle residents confronted a drumbeat of news stories and news conferences noting a jump in homicides. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn called the spike a “public-safety emergency.” Through May, Seattle had 21 homicides — one more than in all of 2011.
Fatal shootings were scattered throughout the city: Capitol Hill, Ravenna Park, West Seattle, Pioneer Square, Rainier Beach. Stray gunfire killed a man in the Central District. Two men were gunned down outside Sodo nightclubs. Four people were shot and killed in a University District coffee shop.
But in the second five months of this year — from June through October — an even more remarkable number emerged, with little to no attention paid. Seattle had only four homicides — a stunningly low number for a major city, a number so low that Seattle had seen nothing close to it going back decades. Baltimore, a city the size of Seattle, averages four homicides a week.
For Seattle, that was four homicides in the five months that constitute and bookend summer, a stretch that normally generates more 911 calls and more violence than any other part of the year, according to Seattle Police Department statistics.
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Going back to the mid-1990s, the previous low for Seattle during that five-month stretch was eight. The high was 25.
So what do all these numbers mean? They mean we should beware of numbers — at least the kinds of numbers (that is, small ones) susceptible to dramatic dips and climbs, particularly if we’re looking at small numbers pulled from short stretches. Those kinds of numbers can suggest a lot while saying little.
In February, at his State of the City address, McGinn decried how there had been seven homicides since New Year’s Day. (In 2011, by the same point, there had been two.) In early April, when the homicide count had climbed to 12, McGinn told marchers at a rally: “We are at a time of reckoning in this city.” By the end of May, City Hall — with a push from the media — took the new count of 21 homicides to mean the city was in a state of crisis. “An epidemic of gun violence,” McGinn called it.
In the wake of those homicides, McGinn proposed hiring 10 more police officers and spending nearly $1 million on mobile gunshot locators around Seattle. He called for a crackdown on nightclubs. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan promised to prosecute more gun crimes under federal laws, which carry stiffer sentences. And one public official after another spoke of the need to change our youth’s culture.
Do those ideas have merit? They might. But if the early homicide numbers suggested “a time of reckoning in this city,” then the next set of numbers, the ones starting in June, suggested: Problem solved. Somehow we reckoned our way to a historic low in homicides, and we did it just like that. Someone must have found and flipped the culture switch.
Through October, we’ve had 25 people killed, most of them by gunfire. That’s 25 too many. But going back to 1996, the average total through 10 months has been 26.
We’ve had a string of crimes this year that can shatter a community’s equilibrium and place public officials in the impossible position of offering immediate reform and redress. When Ian Stawicki shot and killed five people on May 30 — four of them at Café Racer — a reporter asked McGinn: “Mayor, what is going on?” In a moment like that, a mayor isn’t going to engage in statistical analysis.
But the fact is: Seattle is safer than most metropolitan areas. Our crime rate has been down for years. So has the country’s. In February, Deputy Police Chief Nick Metz said of crime: “It ebbs and flows.”
Yes it does — and it’s a mistake to draw too much from either, the ebb or the flow.
Ken Armstrong, a Seattle Times reporter, has written about criminal-justice issues in Washington and around the country.