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Originally published September 7, 2013 at 3:58 PM | Page modified September 11, 2013 at 12:00 PM

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Editorial: Downtown Seattle feels unsafe. Fix it

Downtown Seattle has a problem with street disorder. It’s time to fix it.

Seattle Times Editorial

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TO work toward a solution, the problem must first be acknowledged: Downtown Seattle has a problem with street disorder.

Crime statistics, as analyzed by The Seattle Times and the Seattle City Council, show a small uptick in violent crime in the core downtown, while property crime is a tick down compared to last year. Neither category captures the perception of disorder created by untreated psychosis, the wafting smell of urine, doorways turned into beds and open-air drug dealing.

That perception is more damaging than data, because statistics change month to month, but reputations become set in stone. Anecdote after anecdote — most recently from King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who said his wife is “scared” to walk near the King County Courthouse — cement the damaging narrative that downtown Seattle sidewalks feel unsafe.

It undermines two decades of work to revitalize a once-fading retail core and bring residents, including families, to live downtown. With $1 billion more being invested in the next few years on the Seattle waterfront, now is the time to reverse the narrative.

A smart response requires social work as much as police work because we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. Seattle can’t “criminalize poverty,” as Councilmember Bruce Harrell said during a council hearing on crime this week.

On the police side, downtown needs more visible police presence, as the Downtown Seattle Association has repeatedly said. Mayor Mike McGinn, who is running for re-election, recently allocated $400,000 for extra patrols, but it shouldn’t take the midday shooting of a bus driver for the mayor to heed the concerns of downtown retailers.

Seattle police hiring dipped badly in the recession; even last year, McGinn’s hiring request was so low that the City Council had to boost it by $2.5 million. Currently, 504 officers are available for 911 callouts or proactive policing. A recovering economy offers an opportunity to work toward the goal of 605 officers, as established in the pre-recession 2007 Neighborhood Policing Plan.

Law-enforcement targets should include those who serially blow off citations and court dates for low-level offenses, such as public urination, until the no-shows turn into a misdemeanor. Civil citations for drinking and urinating in public have plunged tenfold since 2007, and arrest warrants for serial violators are almost nonexistent, suggesting both depolicing and a lack of prosecutorial interest.

Rather than resort to traditional lock-’em-up penalties, which simply don’t work, serial violators should be funneled into Seattle Municipal Court’s Community Court, modeled on the highly successful drug and mental-health courts that use judicial power to facilitate social-service interventions.

Community Court has been woefully underused: Case filings dropped from 874 in 2009 to 178 in the first six months of 2013. City Attorney Pete Holmes, who is running for re-election, should make reviving Community Court a priority.

On the social-work side, a promising partnership between business, police and human services, called the Center City Initiative, suggests a way to compassionately target people whose mental illness or addictions leave them on the streets.

McGinn frequently cites Center City in his campaign — promising, but right now, it is mostly talk. The city, along with the Downtown Seattle Association and human-services providers, must turn it into action with focused public, private and nonprofit resources. That, hopefully, will reduce the need to turn to arrest power.

The clearest, longest-term fix for Seattle’s problem lies in Olympia. A fully funded public mental-health and substance-abuse treatment system would save police time, retailer headaches and, most important, lives wasted by untreated illness. This should be a bring-home-the-bacon issue for Seattle’s legislative delegation.

Downtown Seattle has a problem. It also has solutions. Now, it needs the will to put them into action.

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