By Paul Kiefer
At Tuesday’s city council public safety committee meeting, Seattle University Crime and Justice Professor Jacqueline Helfgott presented the results of the 2020 Seattle Public Safety Survey, a collaboration between her university and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) conducted annually since 2015. The goal of the survey, Helfgott told PubliCola, is to monitor the public’s perceptions of crime and policing year-by-year, with the goal of shaping SPD’s neighborhood-level response to public safety concerns. The survey results were part of a series of presentations about the city’s efforts to stand up non-police public safety programs.
According to Helfgott, the survey began as a tool for SPD to tailor its neighborhood-level presence; an SPD captain in the North Precinct, for instance, might direct officers patrolling in Ballard to bear in mind residents’ concerns about “aggressive panhandling.”
Responding to a question from Councilmember Lisa Herbold about how the survey related to the city’s plans to shift public safety away from police, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s senior public safety advisor, Julie Kline, told council members that the survey results could “help the city choose how to prioritize non-police public safety investments” that can address Seattle residents’ public safety concerns.
The survey itself primes its participants to view Seattle through the lens of enforcing public order: in one question, the survey presents children skipping school, disrespecting adults and playing loud music as threats to the “social cohesion” of a neighborhood. I
What are those concerns? For the more than 11,000 Seattle residents who responded to the survey, the most common concern was city government itself, followed by “public order crimes,” property crimes, reduced police capacity, and homelessness. With the exception of the outsize frustration with city politics, respondents to the previous six surveys had almost the exact same priorities.
There were some variations by neighborhood. Respondents living north of the ship canal, for instance, perceived homelessness as a more significant public safety threat than residents elsewhere in Seattle, while respondents in Hillman City expressed lower confidence in SPD than residents of any other neighborhood.
Most people who took the survey expressed confidence in SPD; the department’s favorability ratings were highest among Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and older respondents, and lower among white respondents and those younger than 25. White people, particularly white women, were strongly over-represented in the survey. Overall, the survey showed show only a slight decrease in confidence in SPD across all neighborhoods since 2019.
Helfott’s presentation to the council did not clarify the survey’s role in shaping the city’s efforts to rethink public safety. On a granular level, the survey is still calibrated to shape SPD’s approach to policing Seattle, not how the city should invest in alternatives to policing. And the survey itself primes its participants to view Seattle through the lens of enforcing public order: in one question, the survey presents children skipping school, disrespecting adults and playing loud music as threats to the “social cohesion” of a neighborhood. In contrast, most of the existing non-police public safety programs in the city aren’t intended to enforce public order.
Helfgott said that her research team doesn’t have plans to substantively change the survey’s framing; doing so, she said, would prevent SPD and other city leadership from comparing public responses from year to year. But as the city’s approach to public safety shifts away from the police-based model on which the survey was built, its relevance to decision-makers seems likely to decline.