Improving Seattle's public safety requires proven solutions, not myths

Friday, October 29, 2021
Everyone wants safe communities, and it is always troubling to see our community members suffer due to violent crime. However, it is also troubling that in the run-up to Seattle’s Nov. 2 election, recent reports about rising homicide rates have resurfaced myths that increasing police budgets reduces violence, when the truth is that investing in alternative solutions will not only reduce violence and crime, but also help build a society that ensures everyone’s basic needs are met.

We know that crime and violence result from a complex web of issues, including mental health needs, poverty, alcohol, guns, and juvenile trauma. These are deeply rooted problems that policing and punishment are not designed to solve. Despite this, the United States has consistently relied on these tools to address crises arising from inadequate funding and access to housing, education, and health care.

Black and Indigenous peoples and people of color, in particular, are disproportionately harmed by violent crime, and by highly funded, militarized police departments.

A new approach is required if we hope to have a long-term, meaningful, and positive impact on public safety. It requires reallocating resources away from policing to fund non-punitive solutions – including investments in housing, access to health care and education – that are proven to reduce crime and violence.
Around the country and locally, community-centered programs are already effectively addressing the root causes of the social problems we often rely on police to handle.
For example, a study by New York University sociologists of 264 medium-sized cities over 20 years found that each additional community-focused nonprofit led to notable reductions in homicide rates, violent crime, and property crime.

Restorative justice programs are an example of this type of non-profit, which reduce both violence and incarceration, while centering victims and their needs. In Seattle, Community Passageways is working to replace youth incarceration with community-based interventions, including felony diversion, mentorship opportunities, trauma counseling and other evidence-based violence-prevention efforts. In focusing on healing not punishment, their work treats victims as central to the process rather than an afterthought, as often occurs with the retributive criminal legal system.

Reducing the ineffective and even harmful parts of police budgets would free funds to support such programs and allow for more public investment in mental health counselors, conflict resolution, and other efforts that prevent violent encounters in the first place and connect people in crisis with the resources they need.

Unfortunately, instead of thoughtfully considering proven solutions to reimagine public safety, the discussion in the media and among some candidates foregrounds the backlash against efforts to shift funding priorities to invest in community-based programs.

And while it’s tempting to equate an increase in spending on policing with an increase in public safety, there’s little evidence that more police funding leads to safer streets and less crime and violence.

Police budgets have climbed for six decades in the United States with no correlation to crime rates. In fact, last year, homicides rose in Houston, Nashville, Tulsa and Fresno — and each of those cities had previously increased their police budgets. Closer to home, Yakima, Spokane, Renton, and Kent all recorded dramatic spikes in homicides last year. None of these cities have moved to reduce police funding.

Some also perpetuate the myth that police are underfunded. In reality, Seattle’s spending on police dwarfs its investment in other essential services. The Seattle Police Department’s 2020 budget was three times bigger than the Office of Housing’s budget and four times that of the Department of Education and Early Learning.

A strategic budget reduction could streamline police departments to focus on solving major crimes rather than the low-level and non-serious offenses that currently account for about 80 percent of arrests, which deepen inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines.

As the election approaches, voters should select leaders who follow the overwhelming evidence about how to make our communities safe for all. The answer lies in reimagining public safety through robust public investment in community-led programs and access to high-quality education, housing, and health care rather than continuing a punitive approach that increases harm instead of reducing it.
We need leaders who understand that relying for so long and so singularly on policing to curb violence has proven ineffective and especially costly and dangerous for communities of color.
Robert S. Chang is a Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law.
Michele Storms is Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.

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