Jim Ritter, a gay officer with more than 30 years in the SPD, has started a campaign that politicians and others think is helping restore the security of Seattle’s gay community.
When he was a 14-year-old police cadet in Seattle, Jim Ritter knew he wanted to work for the Seattle Police Department someday. He also knew he was gay.
In the mid-1970s, you couldn’t be both.
After high school, Ritter joined the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office knowing he wouldn’t face questions about his sexual orientation — a disqualifier in some departments in those days.
He waited for three years before he applied to the SPD, nervous that he might face a polygraph test with questions about his sexual orientation.
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They didn’t ask. He got in.
Even then, it was 10 years before he felt comfortable coming out. But that didn’t keep him from advocating for the LGBTQ community throughout his career as a beat and patrol cop, background investigator, recruiter and founder of the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum.
Last September, after more than three decades on the force, Ritter, 54, was appointed as SPD’s first full-time liaison to the city’s LGBTQ community.
Since then, Ritter has been making efforts to connect the SPD and the LGBTQ community through a program called “Safe Place,” a campaign against bias crimes that labels businesses as LGBTQ allies and trains employees to call 911 to report hate crimes while harboring victims until police arrive. The campaign also includes a webpage with resources and an anonymous reporting form.
Ritter’s appointment comes amid an uptick in reported anti-LGBTQ bias and hate crimes on Capitol Hill, the hub of Seattle’s gay community.
“Everybody comes up here because we’re fun and we’re safe — at least, we used to be,” said Shaun Knittel, the president and co-founder of LGBTQ rights organization Social Outreach Seattle. “On the Hill, should we have to change? Absolutely not. If you come here to party, to live, to work, you should have an understanding of our ideals.”
In March, Ed Murray, Seattle’s first gay mayor and a longtime resident of Capitol Hill, called the increase in crime against sexual minorities a “crisis.” SPD statistics show that bias crimes against the population climbed from 19 to 36 between 2013 and 2014. However, there’s widespread agreement that crimes are still sporadic and minor in comparison to the organized “gay bashing” of decades past.
The goal of the “Safe Place” is reducing violence and bias crimes within Seattle’s LGBTQ community and, most immediately, within the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
But to achieve that goal, the SPD will have to improve its image among some people who may be wary of the police.
When he joined the force in 1983, there was only one openly gay male officer, he said. Although comments about that officer were “not systematic,” Ritter said there were enough to convince him that revealing his own sexual orientation might do more harm than good.
“It’s basically leading at least two lives,” Ritter said. “It’s really difficult — it takes a lot of energy.”
But Ritter says that has changed. When he came out in 1993, it was “no big deal” to his colleagues. Today, there are about 50 openly gay officers on the force, Ritter says.
“The way we move forward is to show the public that this is 2015 — and we are not the department we were 30 years ago,” Ritter said. “In SPD, we’re about as progressive as it gets. I’ve been all over the U.S., and when it comes to police departments, I have yet to find one who can hold a candle to us.”
He hopes to help bust the stereotype around police by personally showing the LGBTQ community that police do care, and that SPD Safe Place is “a mechanism in place to prove that.”
Ideally, increased reports and arrests will follow.
“We can only act on the cases we know about so we need to be able to track it, understand what’s going on and hopefully adapt our procedures to address that segment of the community,” said Capt. Paul McDonagh, who heads the department’s East Precinct, which includes Capitol Hill. “We’re supposed to be able to serve everyone.”
Since June 19, SPD has responded to five bias incidents in Capitol Hill and one downtown, according to Ritter. Five of those six cases resulted in an arrest, Ritter said, and police are still searching for the suspects in the sixth.
John Wallace, a recent resident and employee of Capitol Hill, isn’t sure there is an overall consensus about rebuilding trust with police, particularly because suspicion of the police has been heightened on a national level.
“There’s a lot of history of bad blood, and whether or not it’s entirely justifiable on both sides is a matter of opinion,” said Wallace, who recently organized a march on Capitol Hill to protest LGBTQ crime. “I want their help, but we need it in an appropriate way going forward.”
Karyn Schwartz, whose apothecary Sugarpill is a part of the Safe Place campaign, says she was the victim of a mugging in a different part of the city a few years ago. She remembers the helpless feeling of not knowing where to go and doesn’t want anyone else to feel the same.
A longtime member of the Capitol Hill community, she also thinks the Safe Place logo — a rainbow flag inside a badge — is a reminder of the inclusive spirit that’s started to feel endangered in the neighborhood.
“It’s really visibly queer in a way that I’ve been craving,” Schwartz says. “Seeing some sort of representation of yourself that says ‘you belong here’ — it brings calm to your soul.”
Knittel, of Social Outreach Seattle, thinks that if the community continues to get behind the campaign and increase nonviolent bystander intervention, Capitol Hill could feel safe again.
“LGBTQ are the majority on the Hill. If there are two animals and 20 of us … they’re not very dangerous anymore,” Knittel said. “We have a police department; they need to do their job. We have a community, and we need to do our job. That’s to keep people safe.”
An early example of success, say Knittel and the SPD, is an incident that happened outside of R Place, a gay bar on Capitol Hill and a business branded as a “Safe Place.” On June 19, when two men started yelling homophobic slurs at a man outside R Place and threatened to attack him, witnesses stepped in to stop the attack and called the police. The men were arrested.
It’s an indicator of change, Knittel says.