In a parting essay as chair of the Seattle City Council's public-safety committee, Tim Burgess calls for fundamental changes to city policing.
In a parting essay as chair of the Seattle City Council’s public-safety committee, Tim Burgess calls for fundamental changes to city policing, aimed at crime “hot spots” and high-level offenders rather than traditional “cops and robbers.”
Burgess, who is moving to chair of the Government Performance and Finance Committee as his second term gets under way, offers his prescription for a better Police Department in a 14-page report, posted on his blog Monday, that lays out, point by point, his vision for altering the face of crime fighting in Seattle.
Laden with statistics and expert studies, Burgess’ proposed reforms are separate from the recent recommendations of the U.S. Justice Department, which called for stronger oversight of the Police Department’s use of force after finding that officers too often resort to physical confrontations with citizens.
But Burgess’ report, the product of four years on the public-safety committee, supplements the Justice Department findings, noting that improved policing “will go a long way in strengthening police-community relationships and restoring the public’s trust and confidence.”
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Burgess, who served as a Seattle police officer and detective in the 1970s and is widely viewed as a possible mayoral candidate in 2013, begins by challenging the notion that significant drops in major crimes — ranging from homicide to burglary — show that Seattle is a safe city.
A clearer picture emerges by looking at less serious crimes, such as drug offenses, property damage and liquor violations, which in 2010 outranked major crimes, Burgess wrote.
While the city has not ignored lesser crimes, according to Burgess, there has been a “hesitancy” about how to respond to the “extremely damaging impact street crime and disorder” have, particularly in certain neighborhoods such as Belltown and parts of Rainier Valley.
It also is misleading to look at the city as whole, Burgess argues, when there have been significant increases in all crime in some areas even as overall rates fall.
A high percentage of crime occurs in “hot spots” where the problem doesn’t change materially over time, Burgess wrote, adding: “Police problem-solving efforts need to be concentrated at the micro-places where most crime occurs and on the offenders committing those crimes.”
Under recommendations, Burgess proposes:
• Shifting from a “contest of ‘cops and robbers,’ ” with its inefficient targeting of thousands of offenders, most of whom avoid detection, to “policing of place” in individual blocks with high crime.
Police and the community then can come together in a “common cause” to prevent crime, moving away from practices that produce tensions and resistance, he said.
Such an approach has worked to shut down infamous Aurora Avenue North motels and drug houses around the city, Burgess noted.
• Increasing police attention on persistent, high-frequency offenders who commit a “hugely disproportionate” number of crimes.
“These crimes include robbery, street drug trafficking, coercive prostitution, residential burglary, auto theft, elder abuse and domestic violence,” Burgess wrote.
To change behavior, swift and certain punishment, but not necessarily severe sanctions, should be imposed.
Evidence shows that “setting clear expectations of behavior” leads to modified behavior and less crime, according to Burgess.
• Adopting strategies employed by New York City, where major crime has dropped nearly 80 percent since 1991, a decline twice the national rate.
New York used sophisticated analysis of crime data to pinpoint “hot spots” and develop plans and tactics to prevent crime in those places. It also changed police-management practices to boost accountability for crime reduction down to the precinct and street-officer level, and focused on open-air drug markets and high-frequency offenders.
Crime is not an “incurable urban disease,” Burgess maintains, quoting a criminologist who studied New York’s approach.
“A first step is insisting on a culture of inquiry and innovation inside our Police Department, then providing the resources to make it happen,” Burgess wrote.
• Improving the Police Department’s science-driven capabilities to determine how officers should be deployed and to establish crime-prevention strategies, based on advanced crime analysis, mapping, targeting and predictive modeling, using highly skilled statistical analysts.
• Embracing “problem-oriented policing,” in which officers work with citizens to identify issues that cause crime — even those outside the typical scope of police work.
“It requires partnering with the ‘natural guardians’ who live, work, play, study or visit at those places,” Burgess wrote, referring to the people who frequent those areas.
Officers must see their role as more than just “catching the bad guys.”
• Changing how officers are selected, trained and rewarded to find those with the values and capabilities to carry out a “change in worldview,” with performance evaluations and promotions tied to crime prevention or crime solving.
• Inviting police unions to participate in the reforms.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org