KOMO, the ABC affiliate in Seattle, recently aired an hour-long special taking a hard look at the serious and metastasizing problems that city is experiencing with crime, drugs and vagrancy. The spot is called “Seattle is Dying,” a title that might seem a touch hyperbolic until the viewer witnesses the scenes of gestating squalor and wretchedness.
What the piece films and describes is the result of Seattle’s permissiveness in lieu of an effective policy to deal with the rampant homeless situation, fueled by equally rampant drug use. Fetid encampments strewn with all manner of trash, human waste, rats, used needles, and other by-products of general human misery were shown in parks, alleys, open areas, along roads — virtually anywhere. Juxtaposed against these wretched scenes are the corresponding crime statistics.
The figures are arresting. Seattle’s rate of property crime is nothing less than staggering, at 5,258 per 100,000. For comparison, that is about 2,000 more per 100K than Chicago, roughly double the rate of Los Angeles, and more than three-and-one half times the rate in New York. Among the 20 major U.S. cities, only San Francisco, which pursues similar social policies as Seattle comes in higher, at just over 6,000 (Denver, for those keeping score, falls in for the time being around the middle, at 3,667).
Even more illuminating than the raw statistics are the data compiled by an independent researcher of the top 100 repeat offenders in the city. What is alarming is not simply the sheer number of criminal cases logged by each individual over the past few years — generally on the order of 30-60 — but the fact that even with that volume of charges, each one of those people are back on the streets.
The spot makes a number of salient points. The first is that the serial recidivism and escalating crime rate are not because the beleaguered and desperate local police are not doing their jobs; it is due to official policy not allowing them to effectively enforce the law, and the revolving-door criminal justice system that is in place, masquerading as “compassion.”
It is useful to compare the relative situations in Seattle today to New York in the 1990s. NYC, leading up to that decade, was infamously riddled with street crime. The solution, employed to extraordinary success by then-mayor Rudolph Guiliani, was to adopt professor James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of policing and crime reduction. The theory uses a building as a metaphor for society; if little things go unaddressed — a broken window, for instance — the resulting sense of disorder becomes a new norm and accelerates further damage. Translated to police work, it means that letting little things go — trespassing, drugs, that sort of thing – creates an atmosphere of disorder that breeds more and worse crime. By restoring order, you reduce crime.
It worked in New York. But the perception of “tough on crime” policies as being too harsh or uncompassionate resonated with more liberal municipal politicians, resulting in the latitudinarian policies that the Seattle reporter argues are killing his city.
The other pertinent nugget in the piece is the recognition that the “homeless” problem is far less about situational economic misfortune and almost entirely fueled by drug addiction. The unfortunate family who has been evicted following a job loss is not who we are seeing in these encampments and on the street corners.
The sobering thought which one is struck with while watching Seattle is Dying is that Denver is on the brink of following Seattle down that path. Initiative 300, which will be on Denver’s municipal ballot this May, will permit camping in any public space in the city. Dubbed the “Right to Rest” measure by its proponents, and “Right to Die” by its detractors, the proposal is opposed by businesses, law enforcement, and, notably, the current Mayor Michael Hancock, all of whom appear cognizant of the devastating impact it would have on the city.
But this is Denver, which in the recent past has, among other things, voted itself one of the largest sales tax burdens in the region, and passed a “green roof” initiative, adumbrating some of the nuttier elements of the Green New Deal. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Denverites will approve Initiative 300.
Which would be a shame, and a humanitarian travesty. The troubled souls on streets of Denver, like those in Seattle, need intervention and treatment; not free tents, free needles, and a free place to die in squalor.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. A version of this articel originally appeared in Colordo Politics.