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Volume 3, Issue 23 • April 2010
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Safer Streets, Less Punishment

Can we have less crime and less punishment at the same time? I think we can.

The City Council will vote next Monday on a new aggressive solicitation ordinance, the first step in our efforts to reduce crime and make our streets and sidewalks safer for everyone. (The new law passed out of committee last week on a 3-1 vote; Conlin, Bagshaw and myself in favor, Licata opposed.)

The ordinance is part of a five-point plan (my personal blog) to address street crime and disorder. It has generated heated objections from some who claim it attacks the homeless and sweeps our city of people who look unpleasant or make us uncomfortable. That's simply not true. In fact, the leaders of major human service providers fully support this legislation, including the heads of the YWCA, YMCA, Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, Union Gospel Mission, and the Compass Center.

It's important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of this ordinance and why it is crucial that it be adopted.

First, crime is a serious and complicated issue we cannot ignore. Major crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and vehicle theft) increased 7% citywide in 2009 over 2008, the second consecutive year of increases. This two-year increase followed four years of steady decline, which brought our major crime rate to its lowest point in 40 years. But, last year in our downtown core - stretching from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square - these same crimes increased 22% overall. Most of the increase was attributable to robbery and theft.

Second, complaints to the City Council about street crime and disorder have soared; many downtown residents and business owners especially are concerned that we may be approaching a tipping point where permanent damage is done to our city's reputation and what is a very fragile retail environment. These complaints include descriptions of aggressive and intimidating solicitation. (Read sworn affidavits from individuals with personal knowledge and professional expertise related to these issues.)

Third, our response to street crime and disorder is still, by and large, predicated on traditional policing practices and an approach to punishment that stresses severity over swiftness and certainty. Our focus on severity carries huge societal costs; the United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation. This approach is especially damaging in African American, Latino and Native American communities, where at least two generations of young men have watched many of their peers receive long prison sentences.

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Rethinking our approach

Thankfully, there is a growing body of literature suggesting that this approach is no longer necessary, at least for non-violent offenders. We now have examples of alternative strategies that will reduce crime and make our streets and sidewalks safer for everyone. Perhaps the best illustration is the H.O.P.E. project in Hawaii. There, a renewed focus on the certainty and swiftness of punishment has created large declines in probation and parole violations. (You can read about H.O.P.E. in this article in the New York Times.).

At a broader level, there are two policing strategies that I hope our police commanders will embrace wholeheartedly - concentrated deterrence and re-asserting community norms against violence and disorder.

Concentrated deterrence is a philosophy of policing that focuses on the few individuals who commit the most crime; in the private sector this is called the 80-20 rule, 80% of business comes from 20% of the customers. The same is true with crime.

We've seen this play out right here in Seattle. In 2005, Seattle police decided to target the most prolific auto theft suspects, the individuals who turned Seattle into one of the hottest auto theft markets in the country. Between 2005 and 2008 our auto theft rate fell 66%!

The idea of re-asserting community norms is quite simple, too. Here, neighbors link up with the police and communicate a unified message that violence and other forms of disorder won't be tolerated. Such a combined voice is powerful and produces good results - lower levels of crime and a new sense of community. We've seen this right here in Seattle last August through the Drug Market Initiative (my personal blog), an innovative police-community effort aimed at eliminating the open-air drug trafficking along 23rd Avenue in the Central District.

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Listening to the experts

Two of the leading advocates for concentrated deterrence and norms assertion policing are David Kennedy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and Professor Mark Kleiman of UCLA. They have written about these evolving theories of policing in their respective books, Deterrence and Crime Prevention: Reconsidering the Prospect of Sanctions and When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. My office is bringing Professor Kleiman to Seattle for a series of discussions and meetings, including a free public forum at Town Hall on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. I hope you can join us there (my personal blog).

The aggressive solicitation ordinance is predicated on concentrated deterrence and norms assertion policing. Evidence suggests such an approach will not only deter aggressive and intimidating solicitation but could very well lead to a reduction in more serious crime as well.

The current issue of the journal Criminology includes an article reporting the findings of a recent study that compiled data from several cities to determine whether a police focus on disorderly conduct and drunk driving arrests could lead to a reduction in more serious crime, in this case robbery. The authors found that police attention to relatively low-level offenses led to a significant decrease in robberies.

Another example comes from New York City in the early 1990s, when police attention to graffiti and subway fare jumpers kicked off large and sustained reductions in overall crime rates. Malcolm Gladwell highlights the New York story in Chapter Four of his book, The Tipping Point.

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A step away from business as usual

The aggressive solicitation ordinance - a civil infraction that carries a $50 fine or community service for those who cannot pay - is an attempt to follow these success stories. It reflects an important step away from business as usual.

Crime sometimes seems intractable. It's easy to glance away or push the problems off to the next generation. As chair of the Council's Public Safety and Education Committee, I'm not willing to do that. I think it's time to change the status quo, to innovate and to adopt strategies that will make our neighborhoods and our people safer.

Tim's signature

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