Yes, you should be scared of Seattle crime
A recent study suggests our fear of crime “exceeds reality” in Seattle.
Only, the reality is, fear is indeed justified and you should, at the very least, be alert. Much crime goes unreported and the Seattle police aren’t able to effectively enforce the law, stymied by a city attorney who won’t prosecute many crimes.
Writing in The Seattle Times, Gene Balk cites a Seattle University study, done for the City of Seattle, that shows crime rates in some neighborhoods are lower than the fear those residents experience. That, in Balk’s estimation, means “folks think that crime is a lot worse than it is.”
I’d argue that the crime – and potential for crime – is worse than Balk estimates and that, perhaps, residents know a bit more about the area than those of us who live elsewhere.
His piece – and the data – has been willfully and consistently misinterpreted by community activists and bloggers obsessed with Nextdoor.com, a website where neighbors discuss pertinent topics, like crime.
What the data actually says
On a scale of 1-100, Seattleites who took the survey experience a crime fear rate of 45.4 (unsurprising, it’s higher at night, than it is during the day). Balk calculated the crime in Seattle neighborhoods to compare our fear versus the reality of crimes being committed. For example, he looked at Beacon Hill, which has a high fear of crime from residents, when the data suggests it has the lowest rate of crime. Conversely, there’s higher crime in South Lake Union than resident fears of crime.
The questions on the study didn’t ask residents about a very wide range of crimes. The focus was on theft (home break-ins, car prowls), vandalism, and assault (including sexual assault). And they asked if you worried about these things, not necessarily whether or not you were personally impacted by them.
These types of studies — based on feelings — are obviously problematic. What does it mean to be worried, exactly? That I’m so preoccupied by that fear that I can’t think of anything else? That, in the back of my mind, I know that I could become a victim of some kind?
As noted in the Balk piece, our fear is informed by our experiences. That, for example, I’ll have a different level of fear of sexual assault versus someone who has been the actual victim of a sexual assault. Perhaps, for example, I’ll have higher level of fears of a car prowl (because it’s happened to me four times in Seattle), than someone who has never owned a car.
What the data actually means
Seattle is notorious among residents for not addressing low level crime, such as car prowls. You can call cops and report it, but we’ve been trained, at this point, to know nothing will come of it. The SPD is woefully understaffed and rarely investigates these crimes. And even if they could, City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg won’t prosecute, cops tells me.
As a result, many residents won’t report these crimes. Though anecdotal, over the weekend a friend said she her car had been rummaged through in Magnolia. I had to convince her to report the incident, even though she knew there’d be no investigation. How often have we heard from people who won’t report the crime because they don’t think anything will be done or because nothing major had been stolen? But these experiences help lead us to fear for safety in our neighborhoods.
This study comes out as residents notice the worsening homelessness and drug addiction in Seattle. A quick walk through Pioneer Square to the Sounders game this past weekend, a homeless person on drugs literally growled at me. She didn’t commit a crime, but I did experience some fear and tried to hurry past her. This doesn’t get reported to the SPD, but it does impact our perception of safety.
Indeed, walk a few blocks in Pioneer Square at night and tell me how safe you feel. The activist bloggers will dismiss these concerns, but they do so from behind a keyboard in their studio apartment they never leave. The rest of us have reasonable fears, especially given the spate of dangerous crimes committed by homeless in the area. According to the Crime Dashboard, this neighborhood is already well on its way to matching or exceeding the numbers we saw in 2017 for rape and aggravated assault. But, using Balk’s approach, since we’re not getting many reports to the cops in Pioneer Square, you shouldn’t really be scared. Go ahead, put your guard down, there’s no real data to back up your fear.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced a plan to bring Tiny Home Villages into densely populated residential neighborhoods that already experience high rates of crime, like South Lake Union. The residents go through very light screening and neighbors have overwhelmingly come out against some of these encampments. Consequently, there is a greater level of fear in the neighborhood, with one retiree saying she won’t be able to feel safe picking up her paper from her porch anymore.
But this fear, apparently, “exceeds reality” because there’s no crime data to back it up? That’s not how fear works, so it seems naive to say “folks think that crime is a lot worse than it is.” We just know the crime isn’t always reported and aggressive, growling people on streets corners have a menacing effect on neighborhood safety.