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.
Some members of the Seattle community have already begun researching solutions that address public safety and racial equity. Other members of the community will be working with the mayor’s office to recommend pathways forward for supporting communities of colors. Many community members and organizations associated with both these processes, as well as countless others, have been working within their respective communities across the city for years, if not decades, to achieve these goals.
One data point for this citywide discussion is the results of the annual Seattle Public Safety Survey. In 2015, as part of then Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s Micro-Community Policing Plans, we partnered with the Seattle Police Department to administer the first Seattle Public Safety Survey to understand differences across neighborhoods related to public safety concerns of the public who live and or work in Seattle.
The sixth annual administration of that survey is currently available at publicsafetysurvey.org through Nov. 30. The survey is confidential. A subset of results will be summarized and provided to the Seattle Police Department, which posts all the aggregated data it receives for the public to view, as well as the reports on the survey results. Findings from the last five years of the survey are also available on the SPD website. The survey is available in Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, English, Korean, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Tigrinya and Vietnamese. Although the survey is funded by, and results are provided to, the Seattle Police Department, the survey is administered by Seattle University.
The Seattle Public Safety Survey is an important measure of community perception of public safety. The survey was implemented with recognition that community perception matters and what constitutes feeling safe and secure in one neighborhood may not be the same for another. We know of no other city that has systematically collected community perception data at the citywide, precinct and micro-community (neighborhood) levels.
Respondents may choose from a list of potential public-safety issues to identify which, if any, they perceive as concerns in their neighborhood. There are also questions that measure quality of life related to public safety such as whether individuals trust law enforcement and view them as legitimate in their communities, fear of crime, the degree to which neighbors are willing to engage in informal public safety efforts and perceptions of neighborhood cohesion.
Public safety is associated with the feeling that we live in a neighborhood that is cohesive, where we are not afraid of crime, in environments that are socially and physically organized, have institutions and neighbors that informally support community norms, and have trust in law enforcement and city agents. All these measures have empirical relationships with crime, however, as has been highlighted by those for and against police funding, they cannot, nor should they, all be addressed solely by law enforcement.
To augment the work that they are already doing, city agencies can use the results of the survey to identify, relative to other communities in the city, which neighborhoods need support in increasing the perception and the reality of safety and security. Importantly, the results compare community concerns across neighborhoods. For example, Seattle Public Safety Survey findings measure criminological and sociological concepts such as whether individuals trust law enforcement and view them as legitimate in their communities. The higher a respondent scores on the scale, the more legitimate they view the Seattle Police Department.
In 2019, the average score on the police legitimacy scale for the Central Area-Squire Park communities was 52.5 and 62.7 for the Madrona-Leschi communities (the citywide average was 59.3). These areas are both located in the East Precinct and border each other, but respondents living in the Central District, when compared to those living in an adjoining neighborhood, have less trust in SPD, view them as less legitimate and less procedurally fair. This type of information empowers communities to demand better service from law enforcement and challenges the police department to figure out how to increase its standing with citizens in these neighborhoods.
Another example that is currently, and has been historically, part of the public-safety discussion in Seattle is that of homeless encampments, which was in the top-five citywide concerns in 2019. In the same year, in South Ballard, they were the fourth most frequently identified public-safety concern in that neighborhood, yet were not in the top-five concerns for North Ballard. Importantly, the identification of homelessness as a public-safety concern is informative, not prescriptive. By identifying differences in concerns across neighborhoods, Seattle and King County social-service and public-health providers can determine how to provide targeted outreach to assist those in need. Seattle’s elected officials also can use these results to inform public-safety and public-health responses for those experiencing homelessness, a group disproportionately at risk for victimization, and the neighborhoods where they have found temporary shelter.
The past year has been an extraordinary one with profound implications for how we, as a community, view and address issues related to public safety and security. A global pandemic has fundamentally altered our daily routines placing, once again, a disproportionate health and economic burden on communities of color and those without adequate resources. A social justice movement, building on the successes of Black Lives Matter and the failures of the criminal justice system, has forced a previously disengaged nation to engage with the reality of the inequitable and disparate outcomes that our institutions have on Black, Indigenous and brown Americans.
The Seattle Public Safety Survey provides one avenue for those who live or work in the community to be heard. Using survey data as one of many points of reference, the city can strategize the best public safety plans tailored to the needs and concerns of Seattle’s distinct neighborhoods and communities.
We encourage you to represent your community and to take the Seattle Public Safety Survey.