By Sara Jean Green
The Seattle Times
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SEATTLE — Car prowling was the top citywide concern when the first survey was conducted in 2015 to gauge the public’s perceptions of crime and how Seattle police respond to neighborhood issues. Homelessness didn’t make the list of the city’s top five public-safety concerns until 2018 but it has consistently been in the mix since then.
Another constant? Police capacity — the number of officers available to respond to calls — has ranked as either the No. 1 or No. 2 citywide concern every year since 2015, long before the Seattle Police Department saw an exodus of roughly 400 cops over the past two years.
The eighth annual Seattle Public Safety Survey, administered every fall through a partnership between the city, Seattle police and Seattle University’s Crime & Justice Research Center, is now available for anyone who lives or works in the city to weigh in. Open from Oct. 15 to Nov. 30, the survey is meant to reach people in all 58 neighborhoods across the Police Department’s five precincts and can be filled out in English, Spanish and nine other languages.
To take the survey, visit publicsafetysurvey.com.
Survey results, available online, help inform the department’s Micro Community Policing Plans for each neighborhood and serve as a focal point for police-community dialogues, with five discussions between community members and police personnel, including command staff, in each precinct from May through August.
“The whole purpose is to collect community perceptions of crime and public safety,” said Jacqueline Helfgott, the director of Seattle U’s Crime & Justice Research Center. “If someone is afraid to walk to the grocery store because they have a fear of crime, it doesn’t matter what the actual incidents of crime are. Perceptions matter, just as much as the incidents of crime.”
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Helfgott said the goal is to reach as diverse a group of respondents as possible, including the city’s unhoused population, and to measure things like police legitimacy and social cohesion at the neighborhood level.
In Sodo, for instance, police legitimacy — meaning, police are viewed as having the authority to enforce the law — typically gets a high ranking but there’s also a fairly high fear of crime, while in a neighborhood like Hillman City, police legitimacy has a lower ranking and there’s a moderate fear of crime, she said.
Seattle is the only city Helfgott knows of that has systematically collected this kind of information from its residents and workers. Surveys, which were once delivered door to door, are primarily sent out to extensive email lists in each precinct, with a wide variety of community groups, religious organizations, business associations and others encouraged to get as many of their members to complete them.
Respondents first enter demographic information, then are asked on a scale of zero to 100 how strongly they agree or disagree with statements like, ” Seattle police officers treat people with dignity and respect.” Other questions relate to a respondent’s own experiences and behaviors — like installing extra locks or actively avoiding certain areas — around crime. There’s a section that asks about specific problems in a respondent’s neighborhood involving property crimes, violent crimes, traffic safety issues and police responses. Respondents are asked how close they feel to their neighbors and whether they’ve participated in community meetings or Block Watch programs.
There’s also a section for respondents to provide written comments — and Helfgott said people often provide thoughtful, lengthy responses that are later analyzed for themes. Last year, 9,000 people filled out the survey, down from 11,000 responses in 2020.
“It was really interesting last year, because citywide, there was higher fear of crime and lower ratings of police legitimacy, but slightly higher social cohesion and informal social control,” Helfgott said. “It’s consistent with some of the research that says that the closer people are to their neighbors, and the more they get involved informally in public safety, that has an impact on lowering fear of crime, regardless of what the actual crime rates are.”
Sgt. John O’Neil, who spent 10 years working in the department’s community policing unit, said when the survey was first introduced, “there was a little bit of angst” among police officers about why the department was collecting data on what residents thought of the job they were doing.
After eight years, though, the survey and the later discussions about the results have helped police identify specific problems and improve the way they respond to issues in different neighborhoods.
“I do love it … and we’ve been pleasantly surprised,” he said of the annual survey and the support for police voiced by many residents.
2020 was a particularly hard year to be a police officer in Seattle in the wake of the racial reckoning that was prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, said O’Neil, who is now the sergeant in the department’s media unit. That summer, when protests were centered on the East Precinct on Capitol Hill, nine out of 10 comments directed at officers were “very negative or even personal,” he said.
But as the department has struggled with its current staffing crisis and 911 response times have gone up, O’Neil said residents he talks to seem to better appreciate how difficult policing can be.
In the last 1 1/2 years, he said he’s been thanked for his service more times than at any other point in his 19-year career.
“What I’m hearing is, ‘We want everybody — all officers — to treat all people with respect.’ That’s really what it is,” O’Neil said. “When that doesn’t happen, of course they’re going to cry out. But overall, the [public sentiment is that the] overreaction that all officers are bad was the wrong thing to do. That’s what I’m hearing nowadays.”
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