Sunday, September 26, 2021
Sept. 26, 2021

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Westneat: Seattle in no man’s land

City faces rise in crime as officers leave in droves amid ‘defunding’

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When Mayor Jenny Durkan held a news conference the other day about Seattle’s horrific weekend of gun violence, she mostly tried to adopt a “we’re all in this together” tone that stopped short of assigning blame.

But on the subject of the depleted police force, which is down an unprecedented 270 officers in 18 months, she couldn’t help herself. “It’s not unexpected, losing this number of officers,” Durkan said. “When city leaders talk about cutting a department by 50 percent, you will lose employees.”

So true. Imagine what would happen in your own workplace if the bosses came through pledging to slash the place in half. You’d be polishing your résumé before they hit the door.

To be clear, when Durkan called out “city leaders,” what she meant was: “City council.” She’s right on this one, too. It was predictable that the rhetoric about defunding the police by half, embraced last year by a majority of the city council, could easily lead Seattle to where it sits today.

Which is without any coherent plan to address the worst spate of gun violence in recent memory.

“This is forcing tough choices,” said Adrian Diaz, interim police chief (the reason he’s there is because the council drove out the permanent chief by threatening to “defund” her salary by 40 percent). “Essentially my hands are tied between having enough officers to respond to multiple scenes of violence across the city, and having officers staff special events and other lower priority calls.”

There were so many separate shootings around the city last weekend that Diaz said he deployed all his officers on duty from two watches.

It highlights how messed up all this is that it was only Friday, July 23, hours before the weekend shootings claimed the first of five homicide victims, when city officials proposed a way to relieve the staffing stress on the police. They would do it by shifting some 911 crisis calls to a new police-free “Triage One” health team. When? Sometime next year.

It’s a great idea. It’s been tried successfully in other cities. But it’s a no-brainer that this should have been stood up first, before hacking away at the police (the council last fall ended up cutting $46 million, or 11 percent of the police budget, and since then more officers leaving has reduced spending further).

Paying the price

Having covered a slew of shooting outbreaks in Seattle going back decades, I am of the view that police are best-suited to react to crime (to secure shooting scenes and try to catch the killers, for instance). I side with critics of the policing system that we don’t spend enough on efforts to try to stop the shooting before it starts.

Here’s how city council president and mayoral candidate M. Lorena González put it: “We must treat the epidemic of gun violence as a public health problem, not just a criminal justice issue. This includes a broad range of programs from hospital-based intervention strategies, youth employment programs, neighborhood economic development and trauma healing programs.”

Agree, except … shouldn’t these have been implemented, and expanded as the alternative strategy, before the city council started tearing down the only other public safety team we’ve got, the police?

As it is, Seattle now is marooned. Shootings across the city are on pace to smash the record (set last year) of 421. That isn’t the politicians’ fault — gun violence is rising around the state and country. But it is on City Hall that they aren’t positioned to answer this onslaught.

Seattle needs both: Enough cops to respond to rising violent crime, and more counselors to try to prevent it. This is why “defunding” the police was always going to cost more money, not less. It was governing malpractice that the city council jumped into this brandishing a protest slogan, and Seattle now is paying a price.

“So far this year our officers have recovered more than 2,000 shell casings,” Diaz added.

That’s 10 bullets per day. Through June there were 232 shots-fired incidents reported in the city, up 41 percent from last year. More than 100 of those shootings  were centered in the south end around one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods, Rainier Beach.

Nobody is directly to blame for that except whoever fired the guns. But “city leaders” are on the hook for how, and whether, they respond.

They set out to defund the police and instead left the city in no man’s land.

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