Seattle City Hall’s lack of urgency about downtown’s public-safety crisis is shocking.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council are failing to aggressively confront the crime and addiction problems making downtown less safe and appealing. That’s likely to require increased policing and criminal penalties, along with ongoing efforts to increase treatment and counseling services.
This scourge compounds the struggles of retailers and restaurateurs suffering from industry upheavals, traffic congestion and rising business costs in Seattle. A diversity of such businesses is critical to create jobs, draw visitors, fund government and preserve livability.
Seattle must mobilize to save downtown’s vitality before the current spate of empty storefronts becomes permanent.
Everyone has a stake. The region and state are investing $1.8 billion in a larger convention center. A $113 million aquarium addition is planned next to Pike Place Market’s $74 million expansion.
The region is also spending nearly $100 billion through 2041 on a transit system centered on downtown, ensuring it will remain the crossroads for hundreds of thousands of commuters. Will they feel safe and excited to emerge from the tunnels?
Even if every opening is filled, the city is lagging. From 2016 through 2019, Seattle’s population grew 8.8% while funded police positions grew only 3%.
Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best are stepping up recruiting. That’s good. But they must also publicly acknowledge the city’s public-safety problems and need for a concerted response, even if that generates political blowback from the City Hall establishment.
They must do more to right-size the department given Seattle’s growth, safety issues and concentration of drug crime and supportive services. They should also address why so many officers resign — 39 last year, mostly heading to nearby departments.
City data show some crimes are increasing, especially in some areas. Robbery, crimes against people and calls for police service increased citywide since 2017 when Durkan was elected and City Attorney Pete Holmes was reelected.
Beyond statistics are incidents like the rush-hour mass shooting on Third Avenue last month. Before that, the King County Courthouse entrance on Third closed due to assaults and threats.
In response to Third Avenue danger, the downtown police presence increased. That was accomplished by rotating officers out of neighborhood and detective duties, meaning they have less time to handle crime elsewhere and prevent future problems, with community policing.
A year ago, business groups identified failures of the justice system to address persistent crime by offenders repeatedly harming others with little consequence. The groups provided an update this week: In a sample of 100 prolific offenders, 93 have since committed further crimes and been arrested 320 times. Three were arrested more than 10 times.
The City Council is preparing its 2020 work plan. A draft discussed at Tuesday’s public-safety committee meeting included efforts to prevent lawbreakers from being unduly penalized, plus extra scrutiny of police, prosecutors and probation.
Committee Chair Lisa Herbold said public-safety is a top priority, but she supports Holmes’ approach and questions whether jail helps. On Tuesday, she noted the city should find a community group to receive some of the $1 million the council budgeted to support alternatives to the legal system for offenders.
Restorative justice, treatment and diversion should be part of the public-safety tool kit. But Seattle must also prioritize accountability and justice for all, including crime victims.
The council should demand a reduction not just in criminal punishment, but criminal behavior that victimizes workers, homeless residents and thousands of others.
Here’s a suggestion for the 2020 work plan: “Substantially reduce crime and reverse downtown decay, to save Seattle’s core and make the city safer for everyone.”