Last week two University of Washington students were walking along Greek Row near campus when they were visited by Seattle’s latest outbreak.
Not COVID-19. A car pulled up behind the women, who were returning to their sorority in the late afternoon. Two people jumped out and put one of the women in a headlock, punched her in the face and then tased her, according to a police report.
Another group of people passed by at that moment, causing the assailants to flee in the car. This was lucky because police believe the same attackers had earlier that day beaten a man in the University District unconscious.
The next day, they are said to have also carjacked a food delivery car, tasing the driver — part of a string of assaults with a Taser, police said (one attacker has since been arrested and charged).
I’m highlighting this not because these crimes were especially egregious or sensational. Rather they are part of a disturbing background level of street violence that, while always a risk in urban life, has soared in Seattle lately.
The crime story of 2020 was that homicide took off, in cities and suburbs alike. Criminologists still can’t pinpoint why. But there was a hope that it might be a temporary blip, because in 2020 the overall violent crime level had remained flat in many of these same places, including Seattle.
Not anymore. In 2021, Seattle saw its highest levels of violent crime since the early 2000s.
This was driven not by killings, which dropped, but by aggravated, felony-level assaults like the ones last week in the U District.
Aggravated assaults in Seattle rose 24% compared with 2020, to 3,284, and were up 21% from 2019. Compared to 10 years ago they are up 84%. These are not normal numbers, as major crime categories like this usually tend to swing up or down by single digits.
In January of this year, Seattle had 271 aggravated assaults, which already puts us well ahead of last year’s troubling pace (last January there were 204). All these numbers are from the Seattle police’s open data portal, so they are preliminary (sometimes cases get recategorized later and aren’t considered final until reported to the FBI’s uniform crime data program. However, the FBI said in December that through the first nine months of 2021, Seattle’s aggravated assaults were up 21%).
Enough numbers: We’ve got a serious problem. I don’t want to overstate it, as we haven’t reached 1990s-level crime yet. Nor is this necessarily unique to Seattle. But we are spiraling very fast in the wrong direction.
Seattle just had an election that was in large part about this issue. In a shift in city politics, the tougher-on-crime candidates mostly won. Or as the national press put it: “Defund the police candidates stumble in liberal Seattle.”
Yet we haven’t heard much out of our new direction City Hall.
It’s been only a month, I know. But the new mayor of New York has also been in office just a month. He’s spent it racing to crime scenes, visiting victims and releasing a sweeping “Blueprint to End Gun Violence.” On Thursday, Mayor Eric Adams is due to meet with President Joe Biden to talk about those efforts.
Maybe that’s all optics from an ex-cop. But some fellow Democrats there say the most welcome change is just to have somebody in office who isn’t either numb or in retreat.
“Showing up is a critical part of the job,” one Democratic borough president told Politico last week. “It signals to folks that this is a mayor who’s not going to tolerate the wild, wild West in our city.”
Here in the actual wild, wild West, Seattle has been in retreat no matter where you stand on the ongoing policing controversy.
We’ve lost 350 cops since 2020, not by plan exactly, but by attrition and political dysfunction. The city now has the smallest force since the 1980s.
But we haven’t replaced those lost positions with anywhere near that number of mental health counselors or anti-violence coordinators, as originally envisioned by the defund the police movement.
The New York mayor meanwhile said he is ramping up both the cops and the counselors.
It’s too soon to expect results, in either city. But for Seattle, how about a plan or an emphasis?
This past weekend Seattle had six shootings in a 36-hour period, all unrelated. There’s been nothing from City Hall about it. Which suggests there’s nothing unusual about it. It’s become background noise.
I like the coachlike energy of new Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. When he started he made a fair request, which was “give us a chance.” So far though, other than hiring a gun violence liaison in his office, it’s been mostly Ted Lasso-like bromides, with scant specifics. He hasn’t yet converted anything on his plate into foreground noise.
He also said this:
“Under our administration, Seattle will be thriving. Let me repeat that, media. Seattle will be thriving. No more talk of this dying narrative.”
Message received. Message back: One month on, we are waiting.