A few weeks ago, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson invited small business owners and neighborhood leaders to participate in discussion about the economic impacts that violent crime, theft, vandalism and behavioral-health issues are having on Seattle’s neighborhood business districts. While participating in the conversation, it was incredible to hear from the dozens of small businesses who took the time to call in from every corner of the city and share their stories and concerns about these serious impacts.

It has been no secret that these issues affect all neighborhoods throughout the city, but now it’s coming into focus exactly how these issues are threatening the ability of our small businesses to recover economically and operate in an environment where their employees and customers are at risk of their personal safety.

Seattle’s business districts are the heart of our neighborhoods and the center of public life in our city. However, these districts are under attack.

We heard from stakeholders in Pioneer Square, where 64 business owners recently reported 850 incidents over a two-month period in 2021, with a collective cost of $190,000. In Ballard, employees have been threatened by a person with a long pole with a serrated knife attached — another with a large wrench. We also heard from the owner of Fuji Bakery, who has faced vandalism and break-ins in both Interbay and the Chinatown International District, enough so that her plans to open a third location are now on indefinite hold.

We heard how repeated issues — and the lack of coordination between victims and city resources — continue to have a compounding impact on some business districts. We also heard that there is a lack of prevention strategies — both social services and problem solving — that ultimately leaves this problem to community volunteers while a small number of individuals continue to have an outsized impact on our neighborhoods.

And behind each of these stories is a victim whose needs have been overlooked. The victim is often a shopkeeper, a family or a team of people who are scared, frustrated and forced to bear the burden of the economic damages on their own, in a city where commercial insurance policies are becoming unaffordable and challenging to access. 

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We must act with greater urgency to mitigate the economic impacts of crime and unaddressed behavioral-health issues in our neighborhood business districts. The reduction in SPD capacity has been felt dramatically in every neighborhood, and while solving this issue must remain a top priority for all city elected officials, we recognize that a resolution will not happen overnight — even though an appropriate law enforcement presence is needed in many situations.

This is why earlier this month we called on our city leaders to consider a series of new strategies to help keep our communities safe and advance economic recovery. These recommendations are not meant to be exhaustive, but are meant to be pragmatic. They are intended to offer coordination, follow-up and accountability by addressing the system gaps and chaos we are seeing in our communities.

● A dedicated employee within Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office to work across city agencies to address the economic impacts of street-level crime and unaddressed behavioral-health issues.

● A team of neighborhood-specific safety hub coordinators to act as liaisons between the community, police, outreach workers and prosecutors to help identify patterns in incidents, persons in need of social services and persons responsible for repeated crimes in a given geography.

● High-visibility civilian foot-beat patrols in major commercial districts, trained but unsworn, who can provide proactive problem solving through relationships at the street level, while also providing a visual deterrent in areas where SPD no longer has the staffing available for regular foot patrols. These individuals would be out on the streets of the community. They would foster relationships with businesses within a defined area and provide access to appropriate city and human services when needed, de-escalate mild crisis situations while spotting trends and issues in the neighborhood that require additional city attention.

● A dedicated fund offering grants to small businesses to help cover the payment of repairing smashed doors and windows. Amounts from $500 to $5,000 can have a significant impact for a business struggling with violence.

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● A small business insurance affordability and access study to provide real data on the anecdotal stories of businesses no longer being able to retain or receive insurance due to insurance companies’ unwillingness to provide policies in certain areas of the city due to public safety issues

● An easier system for reporting crime — currently long hold times for the nonemergency line and a complicated online reporting system mean that many crimes go unreported. 

● SPD emphasis patrols in areas that have compounded street-crime issues and improved 911 response times for emergencies. While the above recommendations can go a long way to reduce the economic impacts of crime and unaddressed behavioral-health issues, we need a timely and adequate police response for emergencies and dangerous situations.

We must act with great urgency and call on our city and county leaders to work together to advance these and other solutions in the weeks and months ahead.