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Behind 'Political Grandstanding,' Shared Views on Street Safety


The race for mayor of Seattle has put public safety downtown front and center, and at first it might seem to be following a familiar storyline: a polarized fight between the get-tough camp and the services-oriented approach. 

"There are hotspots, and we’ve been very, very slow to act,” said challenger Ed Murray, advocating the hiring of 100 new police officers. 

"You know, that's political grandstanding," said Mayor Mike McGinn, arguing we "can't arrest our way out of the problem."

But underneath the verbal tussle, the candidates' disagreements are pretty small. McGinn says crime is at a 30-year low. Murray says that may be, but such is not the case in all neighborhoods. Murray wants to hire 25 officers a year for four years while McGinn budgeted 15 new officers this year. They've each talked about the need for more help for people dealing with addiction and mental illness, and both condemn a crackdown on aggressive panhandling. 

Ultimately, both candidates want a balanced policy under which struggling people get services and dangerous people get prosecuted. But figuring out where one group ends and the other begins proves to be a challenge.

A Blurry Line

Murray says cops on the beat are getting mixed messages and need clarity on what their priorities should be: "Not going after people who are homeless, but to go after people who are breaking the law."

One problem is that some say it’s hard to be homeless and avoid breaking the law. It’s illegal to sleep in a park, to urinate in an alley or to be publicly intoxicated. So where to draw the line?

“I think if you’re dealing with open drug markets, I think if you're dealing with violent assaults, that’s a pretty clear line,” said Murray.

Both candidates support expanding a program that allows officers to hand off non-violent offenders to service providers instead of taking them to jail. And McGinn is backing a big working group representing business and homeless advocates, among others.

“We’ve built a coalition where we’re saying: When are services appropriate? When is responsible prosecution appropriate? And we will have the political will to do both,” McGinn said.

How it Looks in Real Life

So what might doing both look in a place like Westlake Park? The plaza, in the center of downtown, is also a hotspot: in September, police filed 23 reports for incidents on this block—more than any other downtown block.

You can get a glimpse of that balanced approach through the eyes of Philip Craft and John Fox, two of the park concierges. In their yellow vests, they're highly visible. They keep the place clean and are widely trusted. They notice when a homeless park regular has been missing for a few days, and put the word out. And when there’s trouble, they have a range of ways to respond.

“If someone’s really dangerous, we call the police. If someone is so-so, on the edge, we call the [park] rangers,” said Craft. “We don’t intervene, although John here was quite the hero when Joey was being beaten up.”

“Joey” is a security guard who recently got jumped in the park. His brutal beating put this park at the center of election-season arguments over downtown safety. 

“They started kicking on him,” Fox recalled, “hitting him on the head and stomping on him. And I was trying to scan everything, you know, trying to identify as much as possible for when the police would get there.”

Fox helped pull Joey out of the scrum. And because Fox knows everybody around the park, his report helped police track down the main perpetrator. Craft says it’s an example of how, in ways large and small, the concierges quietly make this place safer and more cohesive.

“So you don’t have just one gang of drug dealers occupying the park and chasing everyone else off. What we have is a community of people taking the park back, and so when that element comes in, they're not dominating the tone of the park. You know, we’re setting the tone of the park,” Craft said.

Craft and Fox are helping achieve some small measure of balance in Westlake Park, this microcosm of downtown. And for all the campaign talk about cops versus coalitions, that balance is something both candidates say they want.

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.
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