“Subduing the pandemic, increasing confidence in the police and justice system, and implementing proven anti-violence strategies will be necessary to achieve a durable peace.” — The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice
On Feb. 1, the commission reported increased violent and property offense rates for 39 cities, including Seattle. The report notes “rising rates of homicide are cause for alarm but not panic” and that “we currently have violent crime rates that are a little above half what they were at their peak.” The commission reports the pandemic may have placed “individuals under physical, mental, emotional and financial stress” and strained “institutions that respond to violent offenses,” including “community-based groups that productively engage and depend heavily on proactive outreach to at-risk people and places.”
In Seattle, there’s a pattern to some media coverage of crime when, tragically, it happens: Some reporting suggests an untrue narrative that the City Council “tied SPD’s hands” or is “unconcerned about crime.”
This is inaccurate and misleading. Under Seattle’s Charter, council does not and cannot direct police. We are not in the chain of command nor in the executive branch of government. The council makes a budget and sets the policy. Though officer staffing decreased by 135 during 2020, no officers were laid off as a result of council’s budget reductions.
The claim that council “is not showing concern” is also untrue. Our collective concern for our community is expressed through action. The National Commission on Criminal Justice (membership including Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz) recommends urgent action — which council is taking — to address three causes of threats to safety:
∙ The COVID pandemic;
∙ Concerns about policing; and
∙ Funding anti-violence strategies.
As relates to the commission’s first recommendation, council has urgently addressed the pandemic: the JumpStart large employers’ payroll tax for COVID relief; hazard pay for grocery and food delivery workers and relief for restaurant, bar and hotel workers; eviction protections; financial assistance and lease protections for small businesses and nonprofits; and funding food and utility payment programs.
The council embraced the commission’s second recommendation, too: “Reductions in violence depend heavily on improving the fairness and legitimacy of the justice system in general, and policing in particular. Protesters around the nation have called for significant changes in how disadvantaged communities are policed, including the adoption of accountability measures for officers who engage in serious misconduct and redirecting the mentally ill, homeless and other troubled populations to nonenforcement agencies. Translating these calls into workable policy will not be easy, but it is essential for sustained improvements in both safety and justice.”
Council increased 2021 funding for the Human Services Department mobile crisis teams and Seattle Fire Department’s Health One, though much work remains.
The commission’s third recommendation is funding anti-violence strategies. In the Public Safety and Human Services committee I chair, we have heard how council’s new investments will scale up gun-violence intervention and prevention. The Seattle Community Safety Initiative (SCSI) became more prominent after last year’s downtown shooting, and now they operate three community safety hubs — including in West Seattle — and are led by Black and brown communities in Seattle.
As chair, I am working to expedite spending $12 million in new funding proposed and approved by council last summer, then reauthorized after being vetoed by the mayor, for community safety organizations and alternatives to policing. The Human Services Department will be in my committee this month with a proposed spending plan. These investments are urgently needed; the executive must act with urgency to implement community safety initiatives demanded by the public, with policy and funding authorized by council to promote public safety.
The commission study reveals strong indicators for why cities have crime spikes during the pandemic. People are desperate. Some desperate to stay housed and feed their families. Some are desperate for answers. Some for long-denied dignity and justice. And some are desperate to assign blame for the problems we see in our streets. But like everything we’ve learned through this pandemic, rather than spread blame or misinformation we must work together if we are to survive together.