One of the most disturbing offshoots of the plague years has been the violent crime that rose up and raged in Seattle and many other cities and towns.
“It was the largest recorded increase in homicides in United States history,” one criminologist said, about how the social dislocation of the pandemic had triggered an abrupt rise in violence back in 2020.
In Seattle, murder shot up 47% in that first year, and then has stayed high, like it’s a new normal. By last summer, overall violent crime here reached a 25-year high.
Maybe the most dismaying thing about it is that nobody could say why. “Don’t have a clue,” one police detective said when asked about the causes.
But is this unusual crime fever finally breaking – receding now as mysteriously as it settled in?
“Everybody’s kind of cautious to say anything,” Adrian Diaz, Seattle’s police chief, told me about what appears to be a substantial easing these past few months.
“Is this just a lull, finally? Are we about to see another spike? We don’t know. But we’ve definitely seen it tailing off in a significant way over the last few months,” Diaz said.
Crime peaked, we hope, last August. That month saw a record 11 homicides and the most violent crimes, 554, for one month in city history. Most of these were robberies or felony-level assaults, such as attacks involving a weapon (usually a gun).
Last fall, starting in October, something started to shift. For the fourth quarter of 2022, violent crimes dropped 18% compared to the fourth quarter of 2021. According to Seattle police records, December saw the fewest acts of violence reported in the city going back nearly three years, to March 2020, when the coronavirus first upended everything.
Property crime data isn’t as reliable, because so much of it goes unreported, Diaz said. But that too is falling. Total crime in Seattle, after looking like a chart from hell for two years, has dropped enough in the past few months that it now may be trending back toward pre-pandemic levels.
There’s no way to know right now what’s going on with these shifts, whether they are unique to Seattle, or whether they’ll last, said Jacqueline Helfgott, director of Seattle University’s Crime and Justice Research Center. She had proposed an empirical study with Seattle police to explore the root causes of the city’s crime surge, but they didn’t have the bandwidth for it.
That said, there are theories.
“If you increase temptations and reduce social controls, you’ll see an increase in crime,” Helfgott said, citing a principle in criminology called “routine activities theory.” It holds that crime depends mostly on opportunity and whether there’s social “guardianship” around to mitigate it. This could be police, though most often it’s simply other people out and about the city.
“Throughout the pandemic there weren’t enough people on the street, and also were not enough police,” she says. “I think the biggest issue right now that might explain the drop in crime is that we’re returning to a semblance of normal. There’s more people downtown. There’s more people walking around without masks. It just feels more normal.”
Helfgott said it’s well known that psychological anxiety is linked to crime. In fact, mental health experts with the state Department of Health all but predicted the pandemic would trigger a crime wave. Back in the summer of 2020, they put out a behavioral health resource warning that waves of the virus would likely set off a “trauma cascade,” with parts of society becoming disillusioned and “acting out.”
“Acting ‘out’ includes increased aggression, hostility, irritability, substance use and risky behaviors. Because of this, law enforcement may see a disproportionate increase in violent crimes,” the health memo forecast, with deadly accuracy.
“Once we hit the pandemic, there was like a switch,” Chief Diaz says. “There was more road rage, more robberies and these cases where people were snapping.”
Another factor for Seattle was the rise of serious, violent crime related to homeless encampments. Diaz said he joined Seattle police in 1997 and had never seen much of a link between serious crime and homelessness until the pandemic hit.
“The homeless encampments became like these underground markets for violence,” Diaz said.
Seattle had allowed encampments to “stay in place” and grow due to pandemic restrictions on shelters. But by the spring of 2022, up to a third of all shootings were related in some way to the camps, Diaz says.
It’s possible that Mayor Bruce Harrell’s focus on breaking up the camps has contributed to the drop in crime numbers, but again, that hasn’t been studied. Diaz said police had seized 1,260 guns through November, in part by focusing more on encampments.
Helfgott also says the drumbeat of stories in the media “giving a sense that it’s a free-for-all out there, that there’s no police and it’s just total lawlessness,” may have fed a pernicious feedback loop of anxiety and social disruption, prompting still more crime.
So hopefully this story, about how crime finally may be easing, will help break that cycle?
Somehow I doubt it. Crime going up is a story that grabs you; crime going down will either be ho-hummed or outright disbelieved, especially by Seattle’s many national critics. It’s also one of the riskier stories one can do in the news business, as the next big shooting or killing, which is certainly coming, will make me look like an idiot.
I’m not predicting any future here; stories about crime trends as a rule look backward. It’s also true that if your store gets robbed or your catalytic converter gets sawed off your car, about the last thing you’ll care about are broad stats showing that things were moving in the right direction back in December.
But Seattle’s been afflicted with a sort of contagion of bad trends. At times the city’s crime itself has seemed like a virus, spreading and injuring countless victims and businesses, all while city leaders in 2020 and 2021 had no coherent plan to “flatten the curve.”
So it’s big news that it’s on the wane now, for whatever reasons. If it holds, it will be about the best prognosis for Seattle’s health our ailing city has gotten in a long, long time.
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