A good August is when nothing happens. But this one has been more like the devil’s month, as some call it in South America.
During a time that, one hoped, was going to mark some summer recovery from the social dislocations of the pandemic, Seattle is instead continuing to slide backward — dangerously so in the areas of street crime and drugs.
Seattle has seen 11 homicides this month — making this the deadliest single month in the city as far back as the police’s crime dashboard has records (to 2008). The previous high for any month was nine homicides, and for any August before this one, six.
How that 11th killing came about sums up Seattle’s August. Police were up on Aurora Avenue late Monday night for a domestic violence call, when the alleged perpetrator began shooting at them. Right when that stopped, officers heard shots coming from a new direction.
“While taking him into custody, they heard multiple gun shots coming from the north,” police Chief Adrian Diaz said Tuesday.
A few blocks away, also on Aurora, near North 145th, two men had been gunned down in the street in a completely unrelated shooting. One died there.
Crime like this can ebb and flow. But currently the city is on its deadliest pace in nearly three decades. Seattle this month has also passed 500 shootings for the year — a year that is only two-thirds done.
I know I sound like old man shouting at clouds, but here goes anyway: When is Seattle going to rouse itself from its comfortable numbness and acknowledge it’s got a serious crime problem?
I recall communitywide outrage and mobilization about a decade ago when Seattle first started seeing an average of one shooting per day. Now there are two shootings daily — up 100% from before the pandemic. But there’s no similar rallying to action. The shootings — even the killings — are becoming background noise.
I fear the same is happening with drug overdoses and deaths. August has been the cruelest month on that front, too. The city’s 911 system has recorded 53 drug casualty calls just this month, more than double the average from the spring.
King County tracks all overdose calls. In August, so far, paramedics have attended to 141 opioid overdoses just in downtown Seattle. That’s five overdoses per day in that one neighborhood.
A year ago it was less than half that. Most of these are nonfatal, but the number of deaths due to fentanyl overdoses is about to exceed last year’s grim record — and again, it’s only August.
This all can’t start to feel like normal.
As many readers point out, these twin crises of rising crime and drugs are not unique to Seattle or Washington state. Cities, towns, and rural areas across America are struggling as well. There’s no simple known cause — other than the big obvious one, the pandemic. It isn’t clear though exactly how the pandemic triggered, or accelerated, such a cascading series of social ills.
I think I’ve harped enough, for now, on how our city botched its relations with police, and then also failed to stand up much in the way of alternatives. The politics of that time didn’t cause these crime or opioid waves. But the dysfunction sure isn’t helping the city fight them now. Hopefully city leaders can find a way past all that.
To move in a more positive direction, maybe one effort Seattle could try now is a citywide push to “reverse the pandemic.”
What happened during the pandemic? We separated. Schools and other institutions closed; programs went dark; mentoring stopped. It seems to me that this rending of social networks was quietly very damaging, but hasn’t gotten much of a repair effort.
Mayor Bruce Harrell had an inspiring idea when he got 4,000 volunteers to show up for a Seattle “Day of Service.” That was one day. How about a citywide drive to “reverse the pandemic” with tutoring, volunteering, block watching, mentoring?
I mean it’s got to be more productive than buying giant planters and filling them with gravel to block the RVs from camping in front of your house — as some desperate residents have now done out in Ballard.
It’s clear from the August data cited above, and stories like that one out of Ballard, that something has frayed. It often seems like some city leaders won’t acknowledge this, let alone marshal help. So sometimes people feel compelled to take matters into their own hands.
The pandemic was a powerful disruptive force; it stands to reason it could take an equally mighty effort to stitch things back together.
Recently a national council on crime put out a report titled “Pandemic, Social Unrest and Crime in U.S. Cities.” It found 10 things cities can do, right now, to improve the situation — from taking responsibility, to setting clear crime-reduction goals, to engaging and empowering the community to help. Seattle has done maybe three of the 10.
“These actions can begin immediately, without the need for massive budgets or new legislation,” the report said. “The main ingredients are courage and commitment.”
For Seattle, I’d go down one notch more basic. First we need to admit we have a problem. August can’t end soon enough, so there’s always September to get started.