Seattle has been engaged in a pitched, unresolved debate for two years now about policing — about how hard or soft we want the cops to go after crime. Or if we want cops anymore at all.
But at the same time, Seattle now finds itself going backward fast on the one issue where liberals usually can agree: guns.
Nobody talks tougher on guns than the left. We want to regulate them, seize them, control them, even ban them.
The uncomfortable part of this stance is: Who is going to carry all this out, though, if not the police? Police who are stopping, searching, interfering — all the things various city actors have understandably said they are most skeptical police can do safely and without racial bias.
Recently, I wrote about how Washington state’s aggressive gun control laws, which ban AR-15 gun sales to people under age 21 and also institute a 10-day waiting period, would likely have prevented the recent Buffalo and Texas mass shootings (because both were committed by 18-year-olds who legally bought their guns).
What they don’t prevent are the types of gun crime that Seattle is awash in right now — where drug dealers, gang members or others steal guns or pick them up on an ample black market.
This past week, Seattle released data showing the city is in the midst of a historic shooting spree in its neighborhoods. There were 65 shots-fired incidents in May, making it the worst month of May for gun crime in recent years by far, exceeding May 2017 by 41%.
The crisis is that this isn’t a one-off. It’s routine. April was also the worst April on record, March the worst March, and so on. So far this year, through five months, there have been 75% more shots-fired incidents in Seattle than through five months last year — and 66% more than in any year going back a decade.
Already, 63 people have been wounded on Seattle’s streets this year — and another 15 killed — by gunfire.
Pretty typical was the three-day Memorial Day weekend, when Seattle had 10 shootings. People were wounded in two of them. Police made an arrest in only one.
“Police have not identified any evidence indicating any of these incidents are related,” the cops said about the 10 shootings. This was said to be reassuring, but it’s more unsettling — it means it’s part of the city fabric.
Every time I’ve written recently about rising crime in Seattle, I get progressive pushback — people saying it’s hyped, or that I’m “pushing copaganda.”
“Crime is not up, this is catnip for Fox News right wingers,” one wrote after I’d noted that Seattle had its most violent start to a year in 30 years.
“You’re a bootlicker for Seattle cops,” another remarked. “Why don’t you title your next column: ‘The real crime is me having to look at all this poverty around me.’”
It reminds me of the conservative denial I would hear when writing about the coronavirus.
I realize it’s awkward for Seattle and the liberal project right now that crime here is soaring. But it is. Acting like it isn’t is no better than when right-wingers in Idaho pretended last year that their hospitals weren’t triaging medical care.
Seattle’s spike is coinciding with a cratering of police staffing, at a time when both activists and the City Council have urged less policing, not more. The anti-police politics didn’t cause the crime wave — the best guess from experts is that the isolating forces of the pandemic did. But at a minimum it’s now hamstringing the city’s ability to respond.
C’mon, Seattle: Shootings are up 75%. This is not normal. Are we going to do anything about it?
When Mayor Bruce Harrell gets asked this question, he talks about ending the unauthorized homeless encampments, where nearly 20% of the shootings have been occurring. He’s right, but this gets him accused of “criminalizing poverty.”
This past week, two Seattle City Council members, Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda, both of whom backed defunding the police, pilloried police for prioritizing officers to homeless encampments instead of to sexual assault investigations.
One of reasons the cops are so focused on the homeless encampments lately though is because of all the shootings. This is why I’m bringing this up: How are we liberals going to go after guns if we also instinctively oppose sending police after them?
One long-term way is to try to prevent violence before it happens. Seattle has some great programs doing this social work — Choose 180, Community Passageways, Mentoring Urban Students and Teens (MUST), to name three. Do they need more attention and financial support? If so, let’s give it to them.
But Harrell also wants to change the state’s preemption of gun laws, so he can push stricter gun ordinances at the local level. He wants to ban guns in city parks. He wants city authority to seize guns from people who are intoxicated or on drugs. All of it sounds like a liberal wish list — but also like police potentially doing frisk-level interventions out on the streets. Is Seattle going to be OK with that?
Recently, DeVitta Briscoe, Harrell’s gun violence prevention coordinator, was asked at a public forum how Seattle might make headway on gun crime, given how we say we want hard gun control but soft enforcement.
“Get us past these polarized politics,” she answered. “On one side we have blame-shifting, on another side we have people who don’t want to cooperate with law enforcement at all. … Get us past all that. Because we have to have both — both community and enforcement-based solutions. That’s the only way we’re going to see progress.”
She also said progress might mean a 10% reduction in shootings, which “might not seem like much. But this is hard work.”
Twelve years ago, Briscoe’s then-17-year-old son was shot and killed on the streets of Tacoma. Six years ago, her troubled brother Che Taylor was shot and killed in a confrontation with Seattle police.
It’s safe to say nobody in Seattle has a more visceral understanding of the scourges and causes of gun violence, or how agonizingly difficult it is to do something about it. We should listen to her.