Here’s something I didn’t see coming.

Seattle University released its annual Public Safety Survey this week, and it showed that in 2021, fear of crime among people who live and work in Seattle was at its lowest level since the survey was first published in 2015.

On a scale from 0 to 100, the overall fear of crime was 43.1 last year. That figure represents an average of two ratings: Fear of crime during the day (38.9) and fear of crime at night (47.3).

Fear of crime in Seattle has been on a steady decline since it hit a high of 49 in 2018. The previous low was 44 in 2016.

The reason the new low number is surprising is that reports of crime were up in 2021, something that has been widely reported on. According to the Seattle Police Department, there were 47,773 reported crimes last year, a 10% increase from 2020, and up nearly 13% from 2019. The number of both violent crime and property crime increased.

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Without question, many city residents are deeply concerned about the surge in crime. So it’s perplexing that the fear of crime has continued its downward trend.

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“It’s definitely interesting, because you would expect fear of crime to go up,” said Jacqueline Helfgott, who is the director of Seattle University’s Crime & Justice Research Center and led the survey.

But Helfgott notes some other trends revealed in the survey may have helped ease fear of crime. In a series of questions that relate to feelings of social and physical disorder in an individual’s neighborhood, there was a five-point improvement from 2020 to 2021. These questions concern things like disorderly conduct, public drug and alcohol consumption, graffiti, litter and so on.

That improvement may help explain the decrease in the fear of crime, Helfgott says.

“Much of the fear of crime is just a perception of how safe people feel about their environment,” she said, “and there’s definitely research to support that the more social cohesion there is for people in a community, the more they feel they have some control over what’s happening to them, and the more that decreases fear of crime.”

Helfgott also notes that while fear of crime has gone down, violent crime was one of the top five themes citywide. The survey also allows respondents to add comments, in their own words, about public safety issues in Seattle. The Seattle University research team identifies the top themes from these comments. 

“There’s been no other year where violent crime made it up to the top themes, and certainly no other year where violent crime was a top theme … in so many neighborhoods,” Helfgott said.

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The rate of violent crime has traditionally been fairly low in Seattle when compared with other large U.S. cities (the property crime rate here, on the other hand, is among the highest). But there were 5,375 reports of violent crime in 2021, an increase of about 20% from 2020, so it’s understandable that city residents are concerned about this issue.

The survey includes five questions related to fear of crime, and the results are combined to produce the overall ratings. Respondents are asked to rate, on a scale from 0 to 100, how often they worry about the following: break-ins to their home or work, vehicle theft, having things stolen from them in public, being sexually assaulted, and being physically attacked. Respondents are asked to rank these fears separately for daytime and nighttime.

The survey results are broken out by the four police precincts and the 58 micro-communities.

Among the precincts, fear of crime was highest in the West Precinct, which includes downtown Seattle, at 47.4, and lowest in the East Precinct, at 39.7.

Among the micro-communities, the highest fear of crime was 56 in the Sodo neighborhood, and the lowest was 30.7 in West Seattle’s Pigeon Point.

There were nine micro-communities where the fear of crime rating was higher than 50, including various neighborhoods downtown, other commercial areas and Georgetown, all of which report relatively high crime statistics.

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More surprising were two relatively low-crime areas of West Seattle where the fear was among the highest: Alki and Morgan Junction.

The fear of crime rating in Alki was 52.4. But that heightened fear may be due to a sharp increase in crime last year — Seattle Police Department data shows that reports of violent crimes more than doubled in Alki from 2020 to 2021 (from 12 to 26 reports). Property crime also increased significantly faster than the citywide average.

Morgan Junction, where the fear of crime rating was 51.6, did not have a similar spike in reported crime.

Another area with high fear of crime is Genesee, south of Mount Baker in South Seattle. The fear of crime rating was 52.7 in 2021, the fourth highest of any micro-community, and just a fraction lower than Seattle’s downtown commercial area. As in Alki, the number of violent crimes in Genesee more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, increasing from 12 to 29. Property crime also increased a lot faster than the citywide average.

A total of 9,132 people completed the survey, which was made available in 11 languages, and outreach efforts helped target underrepresented communities. Even so, women and white people were overrepresented in the pool of respondents to the survey, but the data was weighted to be more representative of Seattle’s population along a number of factors, including gender, race and age.

Helfgott adds that the Seattle University research team is looking for people willing to participate in virtual community-police dialogues via Zoom from May through August. These will offer community members the chance to discuss the 2021 Seattle Public Safety Survey findings as well as current concerns about public safety and security at the precinct level.