Some politicians and candidates for public office across the United States — including in Seattle — have taken up the radical call to eliminate the police and end the prosecution of almost all misdemeanor crimes. Some even viciously scorn police officers and encourage arson and property destruction as morally imperative when protesting injustice.
These calls to abolish the police and end criminal prosecutions are emboldened by real incidents of police misconduct, racial conflict and our failure as a nation to provide equitable opportunities for all. In their zeal to address these real problems, they have adopted the unrealistic and deeply naive belief that any form of punishment is counterproductive in deterring crime. They believe our system of accountability for criminal behavior should be dismantled and replaced. Guided by this rigid ideology, they reject dialogue and compromise on issues of policing and criminal justice reform, and indeed preach that the system is too corrupt to ever be reformed. Therefore, it must be entirely abolished.
We have all served as chief of police in Seattle and have great affection for the city and its community. We wholeheartedly agree that we must fundamentally reform our police services, address systemic bias, develop alternatives to police response, and insist on fair, respectful, and effective policing. We have been recognized nationally and internationally for our commitment to these principles, as well as our successful, multidisciplinary approaches to community safety. We believe there are important reforms that can and should be made to better serve the people of Seattle while also supporting the critical work of officers.
In Seattle, the future of its police service will be determined in the upcoming election. Our extensive experience shows us that the extreme push to abolish the police and dismantle the criminal justice system is a recipe for chaos, especially when violent crime is increasing in Seattle and across the country. If enacted, it will make people less safe, not safer. With consequences for criminal behavior eliminated, neighborhoods will see an increase in all types of crime. Our economic recovery from the pandemic will be weaker, as already reeling small businesses are victimized by rampant theft and rising street disorder. The quality of life will decline, people will second-guess decisions about moving into the city, and companies will see risk instead of opportunity and hold back on new investments. Some will even leave.
The people most harmed by this radical absolutist approach will be the very people who most need effective police services — residents of traditionally underserved communities, our most vulnerable neighbors such as the elderly and those who are homeless, and the shop owners who serve us every day of the week.
Recognizing the importance of fair and effective policing, what message does it send to your community’s police officers when they are repeatedly and publicly denounced as “Nazis,” “serial killers” and “pigs,” and attacks against officers and violent destruction of property are applauded as righteous acts? To us, it would mean a continuing exodus of officers and demoralization that could push the Seattle Police Department closer to the brink of functional collapse.
More than 300 Seattle officers have already left since January 2020, an unprecedented 22% of the department. The current police chief, Adrian Diaz, has warned that he no longer can deploy enough officers, resulting in an alarming increase in response times to the most severe, life-threatening incidents and no response at all to some less serious situations.
The demand that we eliminate the police and stop the prosecution of misdemeanor crimes is also reckless given that possible alternatives have not yet been developed, deployed, tested and proven effective. Public safety is fragile. It requires a community that willfully complies with the law and a police service that is correctly staffed, trained, and seen as a legitimate partner in keeping people and neighborhoods safe.
There is a better way forward, however, and we remain optimistic.
We continue to advocate for significant policing reforms: better recruiting standards, stronger policies, better training, more transparency and accountability, smarter crime prevention strategies, and a thoughtful, multidisciplinary response to nonviolent, noncriminal incidents that includes behavioral health and social services. We should not turn to the police to respond to every event just because they are the only option.
Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government recently announced a new initiative in five jurisdictions (Durham, N.C.; Harris County, Texas; Long Beach, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona) to develop and test alternatives to police response. The Harvard team will provide technical assistance, training curricula for response teams, new 911 call protocols, and support with community engagement. This is the right approach — deliberate, thoughtful, carefully planned and implemented. Rigorous evaluation standards should be established from the beginning to ensure these novel approaches are safe and effective, and help those in crisis while protecting public safety.
Rather than abolishing the police, we should carefully develop these more holistic approaches to community safety. Establishing when and how we can deploy social workers and other non-police responders to 911 calls will allow our police officers to focus on incidents causing the most harm — violent crime and offenses against our most vulnerable people. It will also allow our officers to focus on the few persistent offenders who commit the most crimes.
The people of Seattle are rightly frustrated by deteriorating public safety and are eager for change. But don’t be fooled by the radical anti-police, anti-criminal justice agenda. Eliminating accountability and embracing anarchy will make things far worse.