Interim Chief Adrian Diaz decried the “unrelenting pace of violence” this summer. We asked the candidates for Seattle mayor and the two city council races on the Nov. 2 ballot about their approaches to public safety. Below are the answers from City Council Position 9 candidates Nikkita Oliver, an activist and attorney, and Sara Nelson, co-founder of Fremont Brewing. Read the answers from the mayoral candidates here. The answers from Position 8 candidates will be published Thursday.
Q: How would you respond to concerns about slow police response times to violence and property crimes?
Nikkita Oliver: In 2021, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform — specializing in reducing incarceration and gun violence — released an analysis of three years of 911 dispatch data for the Seattle Police Department. According to the Institute, up to half the calls Seattle police receive can be responded to without an armed, sworn officer. The Institute also found that about 80% of calls are noncriminal responses and in the future it would be appropriate for up to 49% of calls to receive an “alternative, non-sworn response.” 911 Dispatch has been relocated to the Community Safety and Communications Center to be fully civilianized. The majority of 911 calls in Seattle are noncriminal. Growing city-based “alternative” responses will decrease response times and provide additional first responder options that are appropriate for the real-time needs of community members when in crisis. Rather than defaulting to armed officers who are not equipped to respond to most crises, we need the people dispatching to be under a civilian-run agency, as they are now, and to have new options and protocols that do not default to sending armed officers to address crises that other city workers and members of the community can and should handle.
Sara Nelson: It is absolutely unacceptable — yet predictable — that police response times for Priority 1 911 calls (most serious, life-threatening incidents) now average just over 10 minutes and Priority 2 average about 49 minutes. Think about that. No one wants to wait that long when someone is breaking into your house or stealing your car.
The city council has failed to address the surge in violent crime, and it is dismissive of the valid concerns residents and businesses voice about crime’s impact on their safety and business viability. Our police officers do not feel valued or supported by the council, more than 300 have left in the last two years, an unprecedented number, many expressing frustration with the council’s leadership. The council’s actions even caused Seattle’s first Black, woman Chief of Police to leave in protest.
My opponent’s call to abolish the police certainly won’t advance equity nor keep us safe but my balanced approach to police reform will. We must quickly build back adequate staffing and continue to diversify our police service with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) officers. We must also negotiate a police union contract that does not allow bargaining over basic transparency and accountability. Standards of behavior should not be negotiable.
Q: In 2012, a city report determined that 55% of Seattle’s crime prevention programs could not provide conclusive evidence of their effectiveness. What metrics should be used to monitor community alternatives to policing?
Oliver: Since 2012, Seattle has worked with George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. In 2018, it found promising results for Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth with a 30% decrease in serious violent crime in hot spots, significant improvement in community perceptions of crime and 72% of people believing there was less crime in Rainier Beach. In 2017, Seattle jailed individuals for 63,000 nights. More than 90% of cases in Seattle Municipal Court qualify for public defenders, meaning Seattle spends millions prosecuting poor people. Black people made up 27% of the cases prosecuted in Seattle Municipal, despite being less than 7% of Seattle’s population (2017-18). Misdemeanors are generally considered low-level violations. Evidence suggests reducing the number of misdemeanor prosecutions and investing in communities and community-based supports decreases crime. We need to measure the city’s progress addressing poverty and decreasing racial disproportionality. Is racial disproportionality in prosecution decreasing? How much is Seattle investing in community-based alternatives and basic needs versus court systems and police? By race, class, gender, ability/disability: Seattle unemployment and housing rate?
Communities experiencing the highest rates of poverty? Communities experiencing the highest rates of court involvement? Number of cases qualifying for a public defender?
Nelson: We should only fund what works. After all, council members are stewards of the public’s money. Let’s invest in proven crime prevention solutions. Setting goals to be achieved and being transparent about this is crucial. It’s necessary to restore the public trust in city government.
The best crime prevention efforts don’t come from the police, they come from residents, workers, neighborhood business owners. I’ve heard these people referred to as the “natural guardians” of neighborhoods. But there must be high levels of trust between communities and the police.
Effective measures of crime prevention efforts are reductions in reported crime for specific neighborhoods, and the people’s confidence in police services and their perceptions of safety. Of course, effective crime prevention starts early, as I mentioned above. The first five years of a child’s life are crucial. Research shows us that if we get these years right with high-quality child care, preschool and family supports, we will have less crime when these kids reach their teen and young adult years. The benefits of investing early are massive, and we should all want to do that right now for the sake of our children.
Q: How would you reduce the number of shootings and gun crimes?
Oliver: Gun violence is not a single thing. It is at least four: suicide, “urban” gun violence, domestic violence and mass shootings (violence mostly enacted by white males). Suicides were the majority of the nearly 40,000 gun related deaths in 2017. The second biggest category is “urban” gun violence at nearly 14,000 gun homicides in 2017. It is also gun violence inflicted by police and (white) vigilantes upon queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color communities. Gun violence is a public health crisis. Reducing and eliminating gun violence demands a public health response. As a city we can reduce the number of shootings and gun crimes by: a) Investments in preschool and summer-job programs for economically marginalized youth; b) Fully-fund hospital-based intervention programs, case management and supportive services for those impacted by gun violence; c) Expand “violence interruption” programs such as the “Regional Peacekeepers Initiative” and the “Seattle Community Safety Initiative”; d) Raise wages and increase access to unionized, benefited, prevailing wage jobs (pro-labor policies are anti-violence policies); e) Increase access to health care and behavioral health to reduce violent incidents and property destruction; f) Tighten requirements for handgun purchases; and g) provide gun owners with safe storage equipment.
Nelson: I’ve had many conversations with people living in communities impacted by gun violence and crime, including families who have lost loved ones. We must center their voices and experience in our gun violence-reduction strategies.
First, we need to address violence at its root, way upstream. Crime is fundamentally an expression of anger, frustration and a lack of hope caused by inequity, lack of opportunity and grinding poverty. Research shows investments in quality child care and family supports can reduce later criminal behavior. Kids also need more after school activities mentoring by respected community members who’ve turned away from crime.
Second, I would work to increase the effectiveness of the police in solving violent crimes. We know from research that police matter; they are a deterrent and should be present in areas with high rates of violent crime, focused on those few causing the most harm. The police and community must unite to end the cycle of retaliation that often follows gun crime. Let’s be honest and acknowledge that many of the shootings and gun crimes are related to gang activity and disputes. We need solid alternatives to gang involvement and that means education, jobs, and economic opportunity.