Police departments across the country came under intense scrutiny in 2020. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis sparked widespread protests and gave rise to the “defund the police” movement, which gained more political traction in Seattle than it did in many other cities.
So it’s a little surprising that, according to a new public-safety survey of people who live or work in Seattle, confidence in the police barely changed in 2020.
This finding comes from the 2020 Seattle Public Safety Survey, an annual report on the safety concerns of Seattleites conducted by researchers at Seattle University. More than 11,000 people completed the survey, responding to a wide variety of questions around policing, crime and safety in the neighborhood where they live or work.
Respondents were asked to rate their perceptions of various public-safety issues on a scale from 0 to 100. Among them were a series of questions related to trust and confidence in the police, which were combined into a category labeled “police legitimacy.”
Citywide, the police legitimacy score was 58.4 in 2020, which is down only slightly from the 2019 score of 59.3.
“It did surprise me that it didn’t go down more, given all the media attention to police violence and defunding the police,” said Jackie Helfgott, who is the director of Seattle University’s Crime & Justice Research Center and led the survey. “We did expect it to go down more than it did.”
While the score only dropped slightly last year, it should be noted the survey has been conducted annually since 2015, and it does show an overall downward trend in perceptions of police legitimacy. The highest score was 64.4 in 2016.
Last year’s protests on police violence were largely focused on police mistreatment of people of color. Because of that, you might expect that the lowest score for police legitimacy would be in the South Precinct, which is the most racially diverse section of Seattle. But the police legitimacy score for this precinct was only a fraction below the citywide average, at 57.9.
In fact, Helfgott’s analysis shows that white respondents rated police legitimacy lower on average than any other racial/ethnic group, at 57.5 (Black respondents rated police legitimacy at 61.3). Younger people also ranked police legitimacy lower than older people, and women gave the police lower scores than men, on average.
By far, the lowest score was in the East Precinct, at just 50.4. The East Precinct contains the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which was the site of many of the Black Lives Matter protests, and where the “autonomous zone” was established. On Capitol Hill itself, the police legitimacy score was just 48 in 2020, down from 53 in 2019. The score was even a little lower in the Central District and Judkins Park areas (though it was significantly higher in other East Precinct neighborhoods, and in particular in Madison Park).
Among Seattle’s five police precincts, the highest level of police legitimacy in 2020 was in the West Precinct, which covers most of the downtown neighborhoods, as well as Queen Anne and Magnolia.
The survey also asks respondents to score their fear of crime in their neighborhood on a scale from 0 to 100. And interestingly, the lowest overall level of fear was in the East Precinct (42.6), while the highest was in the West Precinct (49.7). That suggests a possible correlation between the fear of crime and the score for police legitimacy.
Citywide, the fear of crime was 45.9 in 2020, down from 47.4 in 2019.
The survey also allows respondents to add comments, in their own words, about public safety issues in Seattle. More than 60% did so. Comments regarding city politics — almost all of them negative, according to Helfgott — were the No. 1 theme in 2020.
“We have not, in prior years, seen city politics even in the top 5 themes,” Helfgott said, “so that’s one thing that was striking.” A lot of these comments included complaints about the Seattle City Council and the push to defund the police, she added.
I asked Helfgott if the people who chose to respond to the survey skewed more pro-police. She acknowledged that what the report shows is quite different from most of the public comments made at City Council meetings in favor of defunding.
“I attended a lot of those meetings and nobody was saying any of what we’re seeing in the survey,” she said. “My answer to that is this is an anonymous survey, it gives people the opportunity to say what they think.”
Helfgott says there was a mix of pro-police and pro-defund voices in the narrative comments, and she was aware of a number of people who were pro-defund who used social media to encourage their followers to take the survey.
“This was an opportunity for anyone to offer their views,” Helfgott said.
She did note, though, that 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, age and others.
“I really do believe that collecting the data in a nonprobability survey and then weighting it is our best attempt to capture the majority of people in Seattle,” Helfgott said.
While the score for police legitimacy fell just slightly, two other public-safety categories in the survey showed more significant change. Neither of them is good.
There was a drop of more than five points in the score for “informal social control,” which measures how confident people feel that their neighbors would help or intervene if they saw criminal or disorderly behavior. And the score for “social disorganization,” which measures the perceived level of disorder (vandalism, graffiti, drug activity, etc.) in a neighborhood, increased by more than three points.
The score for “social cohesion,” which measures respondents’ feelings about their neighborhood (such as if it’s generally friendly, or a good place to raise kids), dropped by less than two points.
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 2020 Seattle Public Safety Survey findings as well as current concerns about public safety and security at the precinct-level.
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