By Paul Kiefer
Hand-sized stickers bearing a rainbow-colored police badge are ubiquitous in storefront windows around Seattle. They are the calling card of the Seattle Police Department’s “Safe Place” program, a six-year-old project that theoretically recruits business owners to provide shelter to victims of hate crimes and to report hate crimes to the department. The project doesn’t cost the department much—stickers, printed materials and a single staff member are the only expenses. But whether it has made a difference for victims of hate crimes is still hard to discern.
The Safe Place program is one of SPD’s points of pride. Since launching the program in 2015, SPD has trained and licensed nearly 300 other law enforcement agencies to replicate it across the country. The goal of the program, Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz said during a press conference to announce new translations of Safe Place materials last week, is to give victims of have crimes a “safe place” to call the police—inside a business with one of the program’s stickers in its window. Business owners who sign up for the program gets a sticker, written instructions, and a short training from an SPD officer on how to respond if the victim of a hate crime enters their business in need of help.
“As far as we know, the program is mostly a way for businesses to signal that they’re inclusive, whether or not that’s actually true in practice.”—Catherine West, Legal Voice.
But does the Safe Place program work? According to SPD LGBTQ Liaison Dorian Koreio, who administers the program, the department has no way to track whether the Safe Place program has led to an increase in reports of hate crimes, which is how SPD would know the program was having an effect. Koreio said SPD doesn’t review hate crime reports to determine whether a Safe Place business sheltered the victim or reported the crime—in fact, he said, the department doesn’t keep track of Safe Place businesses’ locations. “I know where they are roughly,” he said, but he has no data to test the program’s impact.
Those who work with the groups most frequently targeted in hate crimes—in Seattle, Black and LGBTQ residents—say the program may not live up to the fanfare. “As far as we know, the program is mostly a way for businesses to signal that they’re inclusive, whether or not that’s actually true in practice,” said Catherine West, an attorney with the women’s and LGBTQ rights advocacy group Legal Voice. “And more importantly, some members of the LGBTQ community do not feel safe engaging with law enforcement, so the other question is whether encouraging people to document hate crimes by calling the police will really give you an accurate picture of who experiences those kinds of crimes and harassment.”
Detective Beth Wareing, who investigates hate crimes for the department, argued that it’s possible that the Safe Place program prompted more people to report hate crimes to SPD over the past six years. After the department launched the program in 2015, Wareing said, there was a roughly 60 percent increase in reports of hate crimes compared to the previous year; between 2013 and 2014, hate crime reports only rose by roughly 15 percent.
In the years since, reports of hate crimes have continued to rise steeply; SPD received nearly 800 reports in 2020, compared to 205 in 2015. The increase in hate crime reports in Seattle vastly outpaced the rise in hate crime reports nationwide. According to Wareing, who spoke with PubliCola after last week’s press conference, a steep rise in the number of reported hate crimes doesn’t necessarily mean that more hate crimes took place—instead, she said, it may mean that more people were able to report hate crimes to the police than in past years. The number of crimes that still go unreported, she added, is “unknowable.”
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Wareing hypothesized that the program might achieve results by relieving some pressure for victims fleeing an attacker. “When we talk to victims, they talk about the barriers to reporting, or the things that would make calling 911 more attractive option,” she said. “And having a safe place to do that where they can wait is undeniably one of those ways.”
While some advocacy organizations in Seattle collect reports on hate crimes independently of SPD, Wareing told PubliCola that she doesn’t see any clear alternatives to calling the police to report a hate crime, despite concerns like those raised by West. “I never advocate for calling anything other than 911 as a first step,” she said.
While some nonprofits—the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for instance—sometimes gather hate crime reports themselves, Wareing said that using nonprofits to collect hate crime data is an unreliable alternative to the police. “One of the issues with people reporting to alternative [hate crime report] aggregators,” she said, “is that there isn’t one central one, and the others that exist don’t necessarily communicate with one another or have clear standards for the information they collect in each report.” Besides, she added, reporting to a civilian agency “may give the false impression that something is going to happen—it doesn’t move the ball down the field in terms of stopping something from happening in the future.”
But some advocates argue that gathering accurate hate crime data, not filing charges, should be the top priority. Juan Fernando Luna, the civic engagement and advocacy coordinator for Seattle-based Latinx LGBTQ group Entre Hermanos, told PubliCola that some victims of hate crimes—particularly immigrants with limited English and LGBTQ people—don’t feel comfortable providing a report to the police or testifying in court, so they opt not to report their experiences to SPD. “It would be more helpful if we actually invested in community groups’ ability to gather good statistics and anecdotal information on hate crimes and hate crime victims,” he said, “than focusing on the police or any single institution as the go-to for gathering hate crime data.”
Wareing added that she has struggled to find preventive strategies for reducing hate crimes, which she called “opportunistic.” SPD made arrests in slightly fewer than half of all hate crime incidents in the first six months of 2020—the most recent period for which data is available. In comparison, SPD makes arrests in the majority of homicide cases and less than a fifth of rape cases. Downtown, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill saw the largest numbers of reported hate crimes in 2020.