What’s up with the city’s new “emphasis patrols”?

Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that during the month of May the city would conduct “emphasis patrols” in seven neighborhoods across the city “to improve public safety and address community maintenance needs.” This left many people — including most of the City Council members — confused about what this program was about. Council member Lorena Gonzalez sent Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best a letter, asking over a page of detailed questions. After some back and forth, it was agreed that representatives from SPD and other participating city departments would present at Gonzalez’s committee hearing this morning to shed further light on the program.

The new program will focus on seven city neighborhoods:

  • South Ballard
  • Fremont
  • Pioneer Square
  • The downtown commercial district, including the problematic block of 3rd Avenue from Pike to Pine
  • SODO
  • Georgetown
  • South Park

Police “emphasis patrols” are not new to police departments, nor to SPD. It’s a tool that they use when they see a spike in crime in a particular neighborhood, to increase the police presence to try to get the situation under control. As Eric Greening, SPD’s assistant chief for patrol operations, explained this morning, they are generally implemented by removing discretion for officers normally assigned to that neighborhood so that they are required to spend more time in the emphasis area, and by supplementing with additional officers being paid overtime (so it doesn’t reduce patrol coverage in other parts of the city).  Greening noted that SPD has other active emphasis patrols that have been active for some time, including a street robbery patrol in southeast Seattle, as well as in SODO, Pioneer Square, and Fremont since January.  And with the warmer weather, Greening anticipated ramping up emphasis patrols in Alki and Golden Gardens.

What makes the new program unique and notable is the involvement of other city departments, including SDOT, City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, HSD, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Office of Economic Development, and the Department of Neighborhoods. The intent is not just to add more police officers in those neighborhoods but also to make a coordinated effort, based on community input, to simultaneously address a variety of maintenance issues including fixing streetlights, cleaning up garbage and litter, removing graffiti, and repairing potholes and sidewalks, in order to “make neighborhoods cleaner and more vibrant.”

Part of the reason for this is to give police officers a variety of new resources for referrals. According to Greening, officers are the most visible face of the city and citizens bring a wide range of complaints to them — not just law-enforcement issues, but also when a streetlight is out, a sidewalk is broken, a traffic light is malfunctioning, or any other problem that residents notice. Often police officers are at a loss to respond to complaints outside their purview.  But with a coordinated, multi-department  approach, there are resources from those other departments whom officers can immediately refer complaints to and it’s more likely that there can be a speedy response.

But another, more controversial part of the reasoning is the “broken windows” theory, which suggests that people take cues on how socially cohesive a community is — and thus how likely it is to enforce norms of socially acceptable public behavior —  from the built environment. A neighborhood with more broken windows and graffiti sends the message that low-level crime is tolerated, which leads to more of it — and eventually an increase in more serious crime. The corollary is that aggressively dealing with those issues by cleaning up graffiti and dealing with other maintenance issues sends a message that the neighborhood has a high level of social cohesion and will not tolerate unruly behavior and crime. The broken windows theory was first posited by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, and was popularized in the 1990’s by then-Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioner, William Bratton.

Since then, the theory has come under intense scrutiny and has been found not to live up to its reputation. New York City’s drop in crime has been attributed to other factors. And the “broken windows” theory has been tried by other departments with mixed success; further, it has come under criticism as an excuse for racist policies, biased policing, and over-policing.

Given that SPD is still under a consent decree requiring it reform its historical biased policing practices, it is treading on thin ice by adopting a “broken windows” approach. Wilson and Kelling have gone on record saying that the theory is still sound as applied to policing if implemented correctly but shouldn’t be used as an excuse for  “zealotry.”

Gonzalez’s list of questions for the Mayor and Chief Best didn’t touch on this issue, but focused on some of the other potential concerns with the new program. In brief:

  • What criteria did they use to pick the neighborhoods, and how did they land on just these seven? Was it based on crime data, on citizen complaints, or other factors?
  • What instructions were the officers given in terms of what they should be doing while on emphasis patrol? Are they expected to make more arrests, or perform more Terry stops?
  • How much will the program cost?
  • How will the program’s success be measured?
  • What thought has been given to unintended consequences of increasing police presence in certain neighborhoods?

This morning’s committee meeting started out with a long and vocal public comment session, in which over 20 people showed up to voice their support for the new emphasis patrols in their neighborhoods. They listed off the familiar list of complaints, including:  rampant drug dealing and use, used needles, garbage, public urination and defecation, graffiti, theft from local stores, assaults, and generally not feeling safe in their own neighborhoods. And they pushed for the emphasis patrols to be a long-term, sustainable effort, instead of just a one-month sprint.

This prompted several Council members to break from tradition and deliver responses to the public commenters immediately after the public comment session concluded, demonstrating their own sensitivity to the scathing critique they have received over the city’s inability to mount an effective response to the current public safety issues.  Several of them complained that they were being painted as unaware of the public safety and public health issues in the city, as if they didn’t get out in the city or in their own neighborhoods. Some objected to the meme that the Council doesn’t support the police department, noting their approval of the SPOG contract, increasing the budget to hire more officers, and most recently approving a hiring bonus program for SPD officers. (Council member Sawant, the most vocal critic of SPD on the Council, was absent from today’s meeting; her attendance was not mandatory). Mosqueda, for her part, tried to bridge the conversation toward not blaming or demonizing the city’s large homeless population for all the problems and insisting that rather than just rush to put more police officers on the street the city needs to take a public-health approach and implement policy solutions supported by data and evidence.

Both Gonzalez and Herbold also noted that as far as the new emphasis patrols program goes, the Council can ask questions but that’s about the limit of its abilities since the City Charter gives the Chief of Police authority to manage and deploy officers. And they largely agreed with that, given that none of the Council members are law enforcement officials. At the same time, they recognized that the Council has oversight responsibilities for the executive branch and needs to ask questions on behalf of their constituents to understand how the program will help neighborhoods and whether it will have any unintended consequences..

When the time finally came for Greening; Chris Fisher,  SPD’s head of strategic initiatives; Andrew Mantilla, Director of the Department of Neighborhoods; Ken Snipes, SPU’s Chief Administrative Officer and Director of the solid waste division; Genesee Adams, Chief of Staff for SDOT; and other department representatives to jointly explain the program, the conversation quickly came back around to Gonzalez’s original list of questions. And despite efforts by the presenters to emphasize the unique multi-department effort that distinguishes this program from other emphasis patrols, the Council members were most interested in SPD’s part of it.

In particular, they wanted to understand exactly how the list of seven neighborhoods was chosen. Unfortunately Fisher, Greening, and the department heads couldn’t give a crisp answer. They said that several factors were taken into consideration. In part it was based on crime data: neighborhoods that had seen a spike in crime this year, and others that head seen either an increase last year that has sustained into this year, or those where a focused effort by SPD earlier this year had show results and the department wants to try to sustain that progress. What was slightly more problematic was their statements that they had also considered input from the community; that triggered questions from some Council members about whether that simply meant crime reports and/or 911 complaints, in which case the city would be rewarding those communities who complain the loudest rather than the ones who need the most help. Greening and Fisher did their best to explain the other sources of community input they gathered and incorporated, including feedback from officers, the annual Public Safety survey, and community meetings — while noting that across most jurisdictions only about 50% of crimes actually get reported.

Tied up in this was a critique of how SPD presents crime statistics, and the feedback city leaders hear that residents don’t trust the city’s statistics because they don’t match their personal experience of crime in their neighborhood.

Fisher presented statistics showing that city-wide crime increased by only 2.3% in 2018 over 2017’s numbers — and in 2018 the population of the city also increased by 2.3%, so per-capita it was flat.

And that is true, but as the Council members pointed out, over-focusing on that number hides the real story of crime in Seattle, because there are real differences across the different categories of crime, and there is wide variation across neighborhoods. While city-wide property crime increased by only 2% in 2018, “people crimes” (including homicide, robbery and assault) increased 9%, a very noticeable increase. And while many of Seattle’s 59 tracked neighborhoods have extremely low crime rates and it remained that way in 2018, others saw big spikes in 2018 — including most of the seven in the “emphasis patrols” list. Fremont, for example, was a 56% increase in property crimes’ Pioneer Square saw person crime rise by 21% and property crime 25%. The downtown commercial area saw a 43% increase in commercial robberies and a 26% increase in aggravated assaults. In the SODO area, overall crime increased 35%, and South Park saw a 62% increase in person crime, primarily attributed to aggravated assaults.

Council member Pacheco, who questioned why the U District didn’t make the list of seven for the new program, specifically noted the increases in “fear of crime” there too, as detailed in the most recent public safety survey. But Fisher pointed out that f the decision was made purely on statistics, the list would most likely be seven small neighborhoods, where a small increase in absolute numbers of crimes would represent a large year-over-year percentage increase. Or alternatively if it was decided purely on absolute numebers, then the list would likely be just the seven largest neighborhoods. But he reminded the Council members that they tried to factor in information from the other participating departments on where there were opportunities to address other community and maintenance needs as well. Despite walking through a set of slides for the seven neighborhoods that laid out factors that led to their inclusion, in the end Fisher was unable to articulate a crisp enough formula for prioritizing the neighborhoods for the program that satisfied the Council members.  At some level, though, they seemed to accept that the selection process would never be that simple. Pacheco raised an interesting concern: he said that he had heard from many of his constituents that they are afraid to go to the U District, but with a new light rail station opening up there in 2021 it is important that people feel safe going there. Greening noted that SPD had an emphasis patrol in the U District last year, and predicted that they would do another one during 2019 as well independent of the new program.

Greening’s answers to the Council members’ questions on what the officers would be doing on emphasis patrol were received better. He said that officers are not given quotas for arrests, that the main idea is to have an increased, visible presence as a deterrent to crime and as a mechanism to talk to residents and business owners and get better information about the problem areas in the neighborhood. Though he also emphasized that officers will take action and make arrests where crimes are being committed; they are in no way being told to stand down and the city has not tied their hands or prevented them from doing their jobs. Greening said that because there will be more officers in those areas there may end up being more arrests in the end, but he reiterated that the officers don’t have quotas for arrests or for Terry stops, nor will they be using the “stop and frisk” practices associated with over-policing in other cities (and the excesses of “broken windows” overzealous policing). Gonzalez in particular was happy to hear what she interpreted as a balance between empowering officers to enforce the laws, but at the same time not doing “dragnet sweeps of people into our criminal justice system for the sake of people who feel like that’s the only tool left in our toolbox to address some of the livability concerns that we’ve identified.”

Greening and the other department heads were unable to provide the Council members with figures on the cost of the program, in part because the scope of work is still being worked out. The Mayor and the relevant department heads have “neighborhood walks” of the seven selected neighborhoods this week, in which they are gathering information and hearing from community members to inform their plans. They promised cost information to the Council soon after the neighborhood walks are complete. They gave a similar answer for the metrics that would be used to measure success: some are known, such as what happens to the crime rate in those neighborhoods, but they expect to work out the others through the neighborhood walk process, with some differences by neighborhood. Gonzalez specifically pushed them to articulate the theory of change that is built into their vision of what success looks like. She also requested them to keep a list of the specific people in the communities that they talk to as they work out the plans and the metrics for success.

Gonzalez wrapped up her committee meeting discussion by clarifying that the new emphasis program is not the city’s response to the “prolific offenders” report issued earlier this year — though there is a city task force underway to devise a strategy. Greening agreed that the new emphasis patrols program is not a rebuttal to that report, but noted that the officers participating will be tracking who they interact with, and if they come across a prolific offender they will have a conversation with the City Attorney and the King County Prosecutor.

Mayor Durkan, with SPD Chief Best, answer questions about the new “emphasis patrols”

This afternoon, Mayor Durkan and some of her department heads (including Chief Best) conducted their neighborhood walk in the downtown commercial district. They stopped to take questions from press along the way, and Durkan took a shot at explaining the nature of the program:

 “Public safety is really about holistic solutions in our neighborhood. It’s why you see where City Light, the parks department, the Department of Neighborhoods and others, here on the walk together, because we know that our holistic approaches are what’s going to make every community safer. And while we may see spikes in crime that our police intervention helps, it’s only part of the solution. That’s why this emphasis is not just police, it’s really going in a taking away the graffiti, replacing the street lights, activating parks, making sure that the community feels safe in every corner of that community, and empowering the community voice. Most of these walks have, you know, I take walks around the city all the time as you know, and being in these communities and neighborhoods, listening to the voices on what they think they need more of for their community, and then pairing that with the data that they see. We want to have data-driven analysis, but it’s a holistic response, it’s not just a police response, it the whole city, coming together, to serve all the communities across the city.”

She also tried to explain how the seven neighborhoods were chosen, echoing Fisher’s and Greening’s comments from earlier in the day without adding much clarity:

” We’ve made very clear from the beginning that we look at the crime data but we also listen to neighborhoods about what are those other things that neighborhoods need. For example, when I was at South Park, I talked a lot about connecting youth with their park space, removing graffiti, making sure the businesses could stay open and they were free from vandalism as well as activating those streets. So we listen to the whole thing that the community is telling us as we pair with crime, and we see.”

There was some good news on crime today too: according to SPD, overall crime is down 12% since the beginning of the year, as compared to the same time period last year. That said, aggravated assaults are up again (though other categories of “person crimes” are down).

You can watch this morning’s committee discussion of the new program here.


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  1. I thought you did a great job of recapping the meeting and pointed out the problems with SPD’s Crime statistics

  2. Thanks for this detailed write-up. It’s interesting to see the level of questioning from CM Gonzalez. I haven’t seen that level of questioning re: the LEAD program (no new data available to public since 2011-2014 study period, despite wider roll-out and constant political showcasing), nor of smaller efforts like the $270K that she helped allocate in last fall’s budget cycle toward “park ambassadors” to help with public safety at Ballard Commons Park. When I contacted her office to ask how they would evaluate success of that funding, they had no clear answer and were unable to provide any 911/police data nor indicate that they would be requesting any in the future. I ended up doing a public record request because data isn’t available for specific blocks within the MCPP/beat area, so it’s not really feasible to measure localized “hot spot” data over time (while public is chastised for “fear of crime”). Anyway, maybe this is reason to approach her office again and ask for better oversight/support on other public safety efforts.

  3. Good reporting, Kevin. The broken windows theory of crime is absolutely sound; it’s been documented in various academic studies—leave broken windows broken, or streetlights burned out, or trash and graffiti unaddressed and you signal crime is tolerated. The problem, as you point out, is the response which has often involved zero tolerance policing which solves nothing.

    As for the crime stats, the SPD reported today the eight major crimes they report to the FBI, so-called Part One crimes. That’s all well and good, but SPD rarely if ever reports on all the dozens of other crimes, including all drug crimes, misdemeanor assaults, and everything else. I suggest these so-called Part Two crimes—except for theft and burglary—are what people are angry about across our city.

    1. And bravo to Mayor Durkan and SPD for deploying these emphasis patrols. It reflects good judgment and good police work.

    2. re: stats – I have seen a number of comments by some in media, pols, online comments, etc. asserting that ‘crime is down’ in Seattle.

      There’s a saying that says,
      “two points do not make a trend”
      so is looking at 2017 -2018 data sufficient?

      If we just look at FBI ‘Part One’ crimes and:
      1) expand the frame of refrence to this decade (2010-2018)
      2) drill down into the details – break out by type of crime

      perhaps the data tells a different story?

      and, when compared with SPD staffing (per capita) for same period:

      combine these factors with increasing City density – could this help explain why ‘fear of crime’ seems to have been amplified in recent years?

      1. Sure, but also consider the long-term trend: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/is-seattle-dying-not-if-you-look-crime-rates-from-the-80s-and-90s/

        The recent jump up is real, but the city is way down from historical highs in crime rates.

        Also, “fear of crime” is at least partially tied to word of mouth, and so facebook/nextdoor are contributing factors for the increase in “fear of crime” since it’s easier than ever for people to share information about local crime and make it seem more prevalent than in the past.

        1. Agree – but the intent of Gene’s article seemed to be to refute the ‘dying’ claim made by that KOMO infomercial. (which I agree – Seattle is not dying)

          However, I was interested to see that the infographic with per capita crime rates showed a ‘trend break’ starting around 2010. This piqued my curiousity b/c the article didn’t really address that – so I decided to look at the data.

          While looking at data from the 80’s + 90’s makes for an interesting history lesson on Seattle 40 years ago – most of the discussion + debate these days related to effectiveness of current policy + leadership – so more recent trends seem more relevant rather than comparing current trends from ~4 decades ago.

          re: social media – agree that it plays a role – but the fact that people say silly, alarmist, or hurtful things on social media really should be ‘news’ to anybody – so surprises me why some choose to replay that meme by ongoing screenshots, quotes, etc. of stuff said there. And, I would add that I’ve always felt that the local major news outlets were just as bad at amplifying the ‘crime fear’ phenom and always have. YMMV

          Meanwhile – rise in crime (in absolute rates) combined with increasing population density is just as likely to create crime concerns as social media tools. Where 4 houses once stood – if replaced by 100 unit apartment building – a single assault would likely get amplified whether or not social media gets involved.

          And BTW: this is not meant to be a defense of social media groups b/c I have concerns there as well. That’s why I prefer to stick to the data. =)

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