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Originally published Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 4:06 PM

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Editorial: Center City Initiative has potential to improve downtown safety

With historical opponents united behind a plan to address downtown street crime, the Seattle City Council should give it a full vetting.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ROUND after round of fiercely fought political battles over perceived rises in downtown Seattle street disorder have cemented a now-familiar script.

Downtown businesses and residents demand more aggressive law enforcement. Human-services advocates suggest that would be criminalizing poverty and addiction. The wheels of Seattle politics seize up. The woefully inadequate status quo remains.

This fall, the Seattle City Council should seize on a unique proposal that resets the debate. The same opponents in previous rounds — including the Downtown Seattle Association, public defenders, homeless advocates and some downtown neighborhood groups — are now united behind a plan to address low-level street crime and disorder through innovative policing philosophies.

This plan, organized under the Center City Initiative, is built on the diversion of people arrested for low-level drug dealing and prostitution from court to human-services providers. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card, and it doesn’t apply to big-time drug dealers. It is a recognition that traditional policing of some crimes hasn’t worked.

The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, has operated quietly in Belltown, but a $1.5 million budget request before the council would expand it across downtown.

In a nifty bit of deal making, the diversion funding is coupled with a request for more downtown patrol officers. Both are included in the 2014 budget proposal of Mayor Mike McGinn, champion of Center City Initiative. The mayor requests 15 new officers, at a cost of about $1.5 million; his opponent, Ed Murray, who also supports the Center City Initiative, suggests 25 new cops.

Will this plan make downtown safer? Maybe. LEAD is still too new to have been fully studied, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is working.

Even without the data, the notion of combining social-services interventions with more officers on the street is the right place to start. Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel, a reformer on drug policy, has bought into the innovative policing philosophy. Historical opponents of past downtown public-safety measures aren’t just talking — they have a plan.

Members of the Seattle City Council, who called out McGinn to acknowledge and address rising downtown disorder after the shooting of a Metro bus driver in August, now must do more than political grandstand against a mayor whom they dislike.

The City Council must give the Center City Initiative a full vetting and tweak it in some areas. It should also air out other ideas to address downtown crime, including reinvigorating the Seattle Municipal Court’s Community Court for low-level crimes.

These ideas will cost some money in the 2014 budget. But downtown Seattle has a real and perceived problem with safety right now. It is home to 41 percent of the city’s jobs, one-third of its tax revenue and 10 percent of its population.

With that much on the line, the City Council needs to step up.

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