Last week when this newspaper asked the Seattle police to sum up how it’s going with crime around the city, an assistant chief was blunt:
“We’re not seeing it slow down at all,” she said.
Crime is easy to hype and sensationalize. But the problem with this response is that it wasn’t dramatic enough. Violent crime is doing a lot more than not slowing down – it’s escalating, in rapid and unusual ways that Seattle seems unprepared for, despite a renewed focus on fighting it.
The story the assistant chief was quoted in, by reporter Sara Jean Green, was about how there were 13 murders in Seattle through the first three months of the year.
But by the time the story was posted, on April 2, there had already been two more murders – one a late-night shooting in Pioneer Square, the other an early morning shooting in the Chinatown International District. On Monday there was a third new shooting death, near North 145th and Aurora.
“We’ve had over a 95% increase in more shots fired, with a 171% increase in people being shot compared to last year,” Police Chief Adrian Diaz told our numb City Council recently. “And last year was one of the highest years we’ve had on record.”
The data shows violent crime rising so fast that 30 years of progress may be undone in a blink.
For most of the past two decades, Seattle had a steady violent crime rate of about 500 to 600 incidents each year per 100,000 in population – about half what it was in the 1980s. The big picture, sometimes hard to see, was that we’re a relatively safe place for a major city.
The first three months of this year have been even more of a throwback.
Aggravated assaults — which last year were already up 24% — are up another 33% in the first quarter of 2022, as compared to the first three months of 2021. That’s according to preliminary reports posted at the city’s open records portal.
Robberies are up 30% in 2022. Overall, violent crime is up 32% — from 1,051 incidents in the first three months of 2021 to 1,387 this year.
Crime ebbs and flows. But if it keeps flowing at this pace, the city would approach a violent crime rate of 900 per 100,000 people — a level of violence last seen in 1995.
It’s touchy raising this topic in Seattle. As City Council President Debora Juarez said recently, people are “afraid they’ll be called a racist, or demonized.” I hesitate sometimes for different reasons — the above-mentioned worry about sensationalizing crime, and also because if you say something bad is happening here it gets used as proof by the Fox News types that Seattle is a dying liberal hellhole.
Except something bad really is happening here. The violence trend is not unique to Seattle, but our city finds itself especially poorly situated to deal with it.
Due to the backlash to the “defund the police” debacle, Seattle is now down 375 officers — putting the force at 1990s staffing levels, right along with the crime rate. This happened even though the city cut the police budget far less than the promised 50%. Chief Diaz said morale is so low that it’s hard to get cops to want to come work here anymore.
Last year, councilmembers reversed course and funded the hiring of 125 new officers. But Diaz told them late last month that the department has only been able to recruit and hire seven this year, while 34 more quit or retired. So the department is still shrinking as crime soars.
Meanwhile the effort to stand up an unarmed public safety force, as an alternative to militarized cops, is proceeding at about the same turgid pace as fixing the West Seattle Bridge.
Former Mayor Jenny Durkan rolled out the plan for “Triage One” last July. But the city is only now doing a risk analysis of which 911 calls might be safe enough for this proposed new group to respond to. Police say it will likely be calls that officers are “simply not going to at this point” — so it may not ease their work load after all.
“We’re still working on this,” said Brian Maxey, the police’s chief operating officer.
OK, the council shrugged. There’s no urgency in that bunch. In meetings they seem mostly defensive about how their protest-fueled experiment isn’t working out.
At an earlier meeting, Juarez summed up that over the course of a year or more, the council had finally settled on a two-pronged strategy. One is to hire more officers. Two is to stand up an unarmed alternative.
The catch is that neither of these prongs is working at the moment.
“I don’t have an answer for you about what’s going to happen to stop people from getting a gun and coming into your store,” she told a Seattle shop owner who had been robbed repeatedly.
He got the message.
“For now, we need to harden,” he said, “and unfortunately become not as soft a target for people that would do our employees or our customers harm.”
In other words: He’s on his own. Words to live by, in a city frustratingly going back in time on crime.