A rash of violent crime last weekend in Seattle prompted the police chief to lament her officers being “stretched thin” and the lack of support for front-line officers from the City Council.
Chief Carmen Best asserted that the frequently derisive comments of some council members about her officers has prompted a significant number to take jobs elsewhere.
There is a theory in policing that says neighborhood safety and public order is maintained through “willful compliance,” meaning the vast majority of people voluntarily comply with the law and go about their day in a lawful manner. This theory also holds that willful compliance starts to collapse when people come to believe they can violate the law with impunity, or the norms of a community don’t respect the rule of law or those who enforce the law.
Could this be happening in Seattle?
There is deep public angst about crime and disorder in our neighborhoods. It’s visceral and widespread. This public wrath is fueled not only by violent crime but also by the grinding, accumulative impact of low-level offenses — crimes like misdemeanor assault, garbage and graffiti littering, illegal camping, and, importantly, the open sale and use of narcotics and other drugs. These are the crimes and related social disorder people see everywhere with their own eyes in our public spaces — the trash piling up, people camping in parks and along sidewalks, dirty needles lying next to the swings or baseball diamond, people selling drugs or shooting up, car break-ins, bicycles being stolen, waking up in the morning to find someone has defecated on your lawn or in your store doorway.
People are angry about this degrading environment, and they want the police to engage to cure these conditions, to restore the safety and civility of their neighborhoods. They are frustrated that some seem to get a pass on this behavior and that city government appears paralyzed by it all. I understand this anger. And it’s in this environment where words matter.
Some elected officials don’t understand the fragility of public health and safety. They are aggressively and repeatedly critical of the police; it’s as if they hold the police in contempt. Sadly, in contrast, it’s rare for a Seattle council member to publicly acknowledge the widespread concerns over crime and disorder, or to express appreciation for the work of our officers.
But the public gets it. In fact, they really appreciate the work our officers do on their behalf. Two to four times per year since 2006, the police department has surveyed people who have called 911 requesting police services. These surveys routinely give officers high ratings for professionalism, listening and caring.
The most recent overall quality score was 4.28 on a five-point scale. The special monitor who is overseeing police compliance with the federal court consent decree also surveys the public about their opinions of the police. These surveys also show high levels of appreciation for our officers, including among people of color and historically marginalized populations. The people get it even if the City Council doesn’t seem to.
Last year, Seattle officers received 796,706 requests for police services through the city’s 911 call center — about 2,000 per day. These calls ranged from violent crimes in progress like robbery, assault, and rape to parking complaints and everything in between. Over and above the 911 calls, officers proactively initiated 141,262 other events themselves, so-called “on-views,” ranging from checking an open door in the middle of the night at a local shop to stopping a person carrying a television set away from an electronics shop with a broken window. This type of proactive policing makes a huge difference in neighborhood safety and is crucial for the well-being of the city.
Seattle police officers work hard on our behalf day in and day out, every day of the year. They serve with distinction. They are professionals who are committed to keeping our neighborhoods safe for everyone. They have earned our respect and support. Next time you see an officer, say hello. Tell them you appreciate their work. City Council members should do the same.