‘Third World hellhole?’ New data shows Seattle had lowest property crime rate in decades

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2 of 2 On May 23, 2018, Seattle Police Crisis Response Team Sgt. Eric Pisconski displays guns seized from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Seattle sure has had a rough couple of years. At least in the public relations department.

Seattle Under Siege.” “Left-coast Lawlessness.” These are just two of the countless recent national headlines casting apocalyptic shade at our fair city.

Here’s the dystopian treatment we got from a writer for National Review magazine last April:  “With each visit, the intensifying Mad Max vibe gets madder, the streets dirtier, and that fear — not felt since the early ’70s riding the 4 Train through the South Bronx — of becoming a crime statistic has come out of its long hibernation.”

Public safety was perceived as so out of control that three current or former Seattle cops ran for City Council to clean up the joint (all lost). Over in Spokane we’ve become shorthand for urban unrest: “We are Seattle now: a failed Third World hellhole,” a resident fretted last July to the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Even Rush Limbaugh pig-piled on our fishing village in 2019:

“What happens next is people are gonna start leaving Seattle,” he predicted. “It may not be imminent, but with crime and homelessness worse than Los Angeles and New York, the only thing keeping people there is the climate.”

You know Seattle is dying if the best thing we’ve got going is the climate.

Anyway, even though I live here and love Seattle and know all that is exaggerated, even I was caught off guard when the year-end figures from the Seattle police crossed my desk.

The truth is that while all that caterwauling was happening around the Internet, here on the streets crime actually went down, across the board, in 2019. Robbery was down 9 percent from a year ago, burglary was off 6 percent. Property crime in total was down 6 percent – with the raw number of property crimes (mostly thefts) the lowest recorded since 2013.

Maybe people are so fed up they aren’t reporting all the property crimes? Violent crime was also down, by 4 percent compared to last year. There were five fewer murders, 81 fewer aggravated assaults and 181 fewer robberies than in 2018.

What especially stands out though are the low crime rates. Seattle’s violent crime rate of 6.1 incidents per 100,000 people was the second lowest in a decade, according to city data. But the property crime rate of 4,949 incidents per 100,000 people is by far the lowest recorded in the city since at least the 1970s.  The rate in 2019 was 20 percent lower than it was just five years ago, and more than 40 percent lower than it was twenty years ago.

How can we have historically low crime, but also be in a frenzy about it to the point that we’re a Third-World hellhole?

Social media, probably. Plus a conflation of homelessness with crime.

“We have people on Twitter in other parts of the country saying ‘I will never visit Seattle because it’s dying, it’s too dangerous,’” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department.

It’s not just from other parts of the country. In October, KOMO News ran yet another version of what has become a staple of local media (us included): The ‘why I’m quitting Seattle’ story. The hook in this one was that even a Seattle city employee couldn’t take it anymore.

“The crime is ridiculous,” he said, packing up. “We’re being overrun basically by almost lawlessness, if you will.”

How come nobody ever interviews the 138,640 people who have moved into Seattle since 2010?

I asked Whitcomb about the theory that police may not be enforcing certain laws as much as they used to, which could lead to fewer official crime reports. He released data showing that the number of calls for help from the public was also down in 2019, by 3 percent, even as Seattle’s population grew by about 17,000 people. Calls about theft, historically the city’s biggest nuisance crime, were down 20 percent.

Seattle’s obviously got its problems, which I promise I will go back to harping on in my next column. And these are broad stats that could certainly obscure more localized crime hotspots. Also, as Seattle University professor Jacqueline Helfgott points out, it’s “important to understand that the effects of fear of crime can outweigh the effects of actual crime on individuals and communities.”

But the overwrought and, at times, national display of exaggerated concern about public safety here sure feels forced. Phony, even – like it’s code for something else. I say we resolve, in 2020, not to get anywhere near as caught up in the hype as we did last year.

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