Seattle needs therapy to get past defund the police

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Seattle police officers bicycle across Third Avenue at Pike Street in March. While Seattle defunded its police department, Denver increased funding and added a new division made up of mental health specialists and paramedics who respond to 911 calls that do not involve a weapon or violence. The result: Less-serious crimes decreased. (Jennifer Buchanan / The Seattle Times)

Last week when I wrote about the ongoing fallout from the street mayhem in the police beat known as “Mary 3,” a 10-block cube in downtown Seattle, I heard from other denizens of that core neighborhood that the fallout may not be over.

“My headquarters is in ‘Mary 3,’ ” writes Mark Mason. “My employees are reluctant to come to our offices … they are afraid to take public transportation. If the problems are not addressed, we also will have to consider moving our headquarters out of the city where we have been for over 100 years.”

Mason is the CEO of HomeStreet Bank — a 950-employee firm that’s spread over eight floors of a 56-story skyscraper at Sixth and Union. It’s fair to say that losing them would be far more wounding for Seattle than the closure of a street-level Starbucks, or the Amazon Go that I wrote about.

His cautionary note is another way of saying: It’s real what’s happening down there.

I say that because a share of readers feel that my focus on crime this year has been akin to Fox News-style “poverty porn” — that I’m exaggerating fears in a blue city to make liberals, or liberal policy goals, look bad.

But both violent and property crimes really are up markedly — to the highest levels citywide in Seattle in more than two decades. Through July, property crime is up 25% compared with two years ago. Violent crime is rising still faster, up 35%. Shootings are up 100%.

That’s just not normal. It doesn’t make my city look good, it’s true. It’s also true the right-wing media sure seems to revel in it. The only thing worse though would be to pretend it isn’t happening.

So if we were to agree to confront it head on, what would we do about it?

One thing you notice if you spend time in Mary 3 is how many of the 911 calls are really about human misery. As an example, here are a fraction of police dispatch calls one day this past week:

10:32 a.m. Nuisance — Mischief at 200 block of University Street

10:40 a.m. Panhandling, Aggressive at 400 block of Pike

11:31 a.m. Narcotics — Other at 1400 block of 3rd Ave

11:40 a.m. Suspicious Person at 1500 block of 3rd Ave

11:55 a.m. Person Down 1400 block of 4th Ave

12:22 p.m. Warrant Services, Felony at 1500 block of 3rd Ave

12:29 p.m. Drug-related casualty at Union St/3 Ave

That’s two hours of life and death in Mary 3. You can see why HomeStreet employees would rather work from home. And also why traditional crime-fighters are having so much trouble taming it.

The big liberal idea is to send in teams of social workers instead, and there’s some big news on that out of Denver: Namely, it works. For the first time, researchers have found on-the-ground proof that an alternative response team, with no cops along, can tangibly reduce crime.

Stanford researchers looked at a handful of Denver’s police precincts both before and after the city began using vans of mental health specialists and paramedics to respond to some 911 calls in parts of downtown.

The rules were that the STAR teams (Support Team Assisted Response) could only answer calls such as public intoxication, person down, trespassing and public disorder. If there was any violence or weapons present, cops would go.

What happened is that less-serious crime in the targeted precincts went down 34%. It wasn’t just petty crime. A whole host of crimes that the team wasn’t even allowed to respond to — simple misdemeanor assault, for example — also went down.

In the study period, the teams answered 750 calls. But 1,400 fewer crimes were reported than in the six months prior (corrected for seasonality and other factors). This was the combination both of the teams not writing up anybody for crimes, but also a follow-on effect of preventing further crimes by diverting people to help, the researchers found.

“The evidence in this study indicates that the STAR program was … effective in reducing the designation of individuals in crisis as criminal offenders, and reducing the actual level of crime,” the study found (emphasis added).

So score one for the liberals. It works!

The study also found something else. Serious crimes — aggravated felony assaults, robberies, gun crimes and the like — continued apace in Denver, including in the downtown areas. The social worker teams didn’t reduce these major crimes, or increase them. It’s as if there are parallel crime universes out there on the same city blocks.

So score one for the conservatives, too. It looks like we still need the cops.

How Denver did all this, in contrast to Seattle’s paralysis, is like a case study in how corrosive the “defund the police” movement turned out to be for Seattle.

Denver crucially didn’t fund its alternatives to police by taking money out of the police budget; rather, it created the STAR program prior to 2020 as an add-on service, with full police support. As a result, they all work together — one-third of the referral calls to the no-cop STAR service now come from police officers themselves.

Meanwhile in Seattle, you can see in recent meetings how much the police are slow-rolling our City Council, which has become so exasperated that it has failed to launch a program like Denver’s. Here, a police analysis of 911 calls is taking forever; a proposal to use parking enforcers to direct traffic at sports events is met by the chief with a fog of regulatory-speak. Bottom line: After two years of talking about someone other than cops with guns responding to some calls, Seattle is only hoping to have produced a “white paper” on it by the end of this year.

Our police are hunkered down behind bureaucratic barricades. Not for nothing, either: The City Council came after them hard, cutting $54 million from their 2020 budget level (about 13%), and for a time vowing to slash far more. (Denver’s police budget is $15 million, or 6%, higher than it was in 2020.)

Crouched defensively on the other side, some members of our council still barely contain their contempt for the police (an agency that, it’s worth remembering, lied about what was going on in the East Precinct during the 2020 protests and completely fabricated a Proud Boys rally). It’s also an ongoing raw point for the council that their plunge into defunding the police has backfired so publicly.

(Example: At the recent show by the comedian John Mulaney at White River Amphitheatre, attendees say he started out by saying: “Hey Seattle, what the [expletive] happened to you? ‘Defund the police’ is just some [expletive] you say. You’re not supposed to do it.”)

This is why we’re stuck. It’s why Denver, Albuquerque, Austin and others have all stood up civilian responder teams while we wallow. Here, the two groups that have to figure this out together are still seething about 2020.

The great news is the tools are out there to help in Mary 3. Just copy what Denver did. Congress also is looking at funding a major grant program for alternatives to police. Nothing helps ease political bitterness like new money.

As HomeStreet’s Mason says: “We are today still a successful and rich city, and we have the resources to address the spiraling crime. We just don’t have the political willpower yet.”

I don’t think it’s lack of willpower. It’s rather the power of strong and stubborn wills. What our police and our City Council most need is to go off on a retreat with a mediator. Or better yet, a therapist.  

Danny Westneat: dwestneat@seattletimes.com; Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics.