Among the many recent headlines concerning the travails of Seattle's police department, including what's called “de-policing,” one in particular stood out: “Report Cites Plunge in the [Seattle PD's] Enforcement of Low-Level Crimes.”
The story's takeaway was that court filings for misdemeanor offenses in Seattle had dropped by almost 50 percent from 2005 to 2013. The revelation, according to the Seattle Times, “set off alarm bells in City Hall.”
Mayor Ed Murray accused the department of participating in a “steep decline in proactive enforcement activity in Seattle.”
A 50 percent drop is a big number.
And the first thought of the mayor was that officers disgruntled by a use-of-force “pattern and practice” consent decree that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had imposed on the city were engaging in a work-slowdown protest.
The assumption wasn't farfetched. According to the report, officers' questioning of suspects on the street and in their cars declined by 80 percent.
Shortly after the report appeared, a lawsuit was filed by a breakaway group of Seattle cops against the DOJ. So it's reasonable to suspect that some kind of unofficial work action is taking place.
More interesting, however, has been the 71 percent drop in infractions filed for drinking in public, public urination, loitering and other violations commonly associated with homelessness.
And it's there that the story grows far more complicated, as the focus shifts to the law enforcement challenges presented by the destitute, often-addicted and/or mentally ill individuals who populate the streets of too many of our nation's cities.
This is what's really at the heart of the de-policing debate in Seattle.
Although serious crime is down in the city, it is the petty, quality-of-life crimes that many people—particularly those running businesses in downtown Seattle—just want to see it go away.
So the controversy over “de-policing” is really code for anxiety about one particular segment of the city's population.
“A lot of what folks are anxious about is not showing up in crime statistics,” says Lisa Daugaard, co-chair of Seattle's Community Policing Commission. “It's really low-level, quality-of life stuff that isn't going to be in the reported crimes.
“Seattle, like most places, has a high level of untreated mental illness and unhoused homeless people out on the street behaving in ways that make people uncomfortable.”
How best to manage the problem is the question. Does a city like Seattle deploy long-term, comprehensive, data-based solutions? Or do municipal authorities leave it to police to “clean up” the areas in which the homeless live and congregate?
Seattle is no backwater when it comes to dealing with these issues. Municipal leaders have been trying to find solutions that won't, for example, leave them in the same position Los Angeles now finds itself.
In 2002, Los Angeles' downtown skid row had turned into a centralized human trash heap that featured a large open-air drug market. People regularly OD'd in public; Small tents and discarded brown cardboard box “bedrooms” occupied long rows on the street, festooned with shopping carts containing the possessions of the roughly 1,500 degraded, beaten-down men and women living their lives in full view, out on the street, in the heart of the city.
The newly appointed chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Bill Bratton, made “cleaning up” skid row one of his first priorities. And, at least temporarily, he accomplished the clean-up by de-concentrating the area's homeless population.
Which was a good thing, as far as it went.
Bratton set in motion a process that would eventually lead to lower crime rates in the center of civic Los Angeles, and to the slow but steady gentrification of Skid Row—a work still in progress in an area just yards away from the shining new LAPD headquarters and City Hall. He had acted, and those were the pay-offs. Neither was a small accomplishment. And it's a fool's errand to argue that the city isn't decidedly better off for it.
But beyond that, his actions had no big-picture payoff.
By having his officers write over 1,000 tickets a month to people who couldn't possibly pay them, thus driving them through the jails' revolving door (and off skid row), Bratton had done nothing to change the plight of Los Angeles' homeless, still one of the highest such populations in the nation.
In effect, he'd taken a problem that was severe and obvious, and made it severe and dispersed.
But then Bratton wasn't shooting for much more. As he once told the Los Angeles Times, his “responsibility is not [homeless] housing, not their medical care, not their social needs. Those are the responsibility of city and county government; and in those areas, both the county and the city and the state have been incredibly deficient in serving that population.”
But really, in his way, so was Bratton. Could he have done more?
That's Seattle's challenge.
The city's so-called de-policing problem began long before the consent decree was issued—in 2009, in fact, when the King County prosecutor and the Seattle city attorney dramatically changed their filing standards for minor, quality of life crimes.
Hoping to keep low-level crimes and infractions out of the formal criminal justice system as much as possible, they opted for a policy based on diversion programs— as a way to help Seattle move past the war on drugs to new approaches to addiction and homelessness.
To treat them, in other words, as public health issues.
But those changes, according to Daugaard, had been poorly communicated to Seattle's cops.
“There is no question that they've received the message that when they make these arrests the city attorney's office won't file them,” says Daugaard. “But there is no explanation. Nobody has gone out to roll call to explain the situation as a matter of policy. This is less a police protest than 'we can't tell what the hell you want us guys to do.' “
It's a leadership problem that can and should be addressed by Seattle's new reform-minded chief, Kathleen O'Toole.
One of the many questions she'll have to answer is just how does a police department handle low-level public disorder— especially among the homeless? One fundamental answer is that it requires different ways to assess police productivity, and a more problem-solving approach to assessing what's working and what's not.
O'Toole is a disciple of Bill Bratton. When she addresses Seattle's homeless problem and its approach to quality-of-life policing, she'll actually have two Bratton models to choose from.
The first, his LA clean-up model, should be rejected out of hand.
Instead, she should focus on the second: a long-term strategy gifted to Bratton when he first became commissioner of the New York Police Department in the mid-1990s.
Shortly after he took the job, large numbers of mentally ill and/or drug- or alcohol-addicted street people began disappearing from the streets of New York—thanks to a policy initiative of New York's previous mayor, David Dinkins, who had gotten then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo to help finance 7,500 units of single residency apartments where the homeless could be placed.
One hundred million dollars, meanwhile, began flowing in from the Bill Clinton administration for homeless housing, at the same time that large numbers of new public housing units commissioned by Mayor Ed Koch's administration during the 1980s were also coming on line.
The disappearance of the homeless and of aggressive panhandlers had an instant quality-of-life impact that forever rebounded to Bratton's credit. And it made a huge difference as well to how New York City's destitute population was treated.
But of course at the time, the lines between the responsibilities of police and other municipal helping agencies stayed firm.
Two decades later, we live in a different world—where police often find themselves faced with social problems that city governments do not (or cannot afford to) address.
That's all the more reason why police chiefs should expand their coalition-building skills around innovative long-term solutions to persistent crime problems.
Police officers, instead of feeling threatened by change, should augment their community-policing skill set in exactly the opposite direction of the rising Warrior Cop culture, and become partners and social workers of last resort with the mental health and welfare communities when required.
Hopefully, that's where Kathleen O'Toole and the Seattle PD are headed.
Joe Domanick is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in February, 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.