We Must Not Allow Intimidation on Seattle's Streets

By Tim Burgess April 18, 2010

There has been a lot of brouhaha in recent days about the proposed aggressive solicitation law, a progressive measure based on the theory that consistent, less severe sanctions can change behavior effectively.

So why do some vocal Seattle progressives oppose this measure? Some erroneously deny we have a street disorder problem. Some believe this law gives police officers unfettered discretion, ignoring the fact that its objective “reasonable person” standard is used throughout our Municipal Code. Other opposition comes from misunderstandings and distortions. So, here are the facts.

Major crime in Seattle increased seven percent citywide in 2009 over 2008, but 22 percent in the downtown area from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square. Nearly one-quarter of city residents say they avoid downtown for fear of personal safety.

A leader in the Chinatown International District recently declared, “The current level of aggressive solicitation is slowly choking the life out of this business district.” A downtown restaurant owner testified, “Our city has allowed an almost anything goes environment to exist on our streets.”

I’ve proposed five measures that will improve the quality of life on our streets:

more police foot patrols, continued hiring of officers to increase police presence in our neighborhoods, enhanced efforts to connect those in need with appropriate social services, giving higher priority to housing and support services for the chronically homeless, and making aggressive solicitation a civil infraction subject to a $50 fine or community service.

I have yet to hear one person suggest that we should tolerate intimidating behavior that causes fear or the compulsion to give. Instead, opponents argue that the ordinance violates due process and “criminalizes the poor and homeless.” I believe these objections are wrong. So do the leaders of major human service providers, including the heads of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Compass Center, Plymouth Housing, Union Gospel Mission, YMCA and YWCA.  These leaders are tired of their clients being unfairly linked to unchecked street disorder.

Procedures for due process involving civil infractions are laid out in state law; this ordinance follows those procedures precisely. The ordinance uses language upheld as constitutional by our federal District Court. Furthermore, it narrowly targets clearly inappropriate behavior and creates a civil not criminal violation.

How does a new law curbing aggressive solicitation contribute to a reduction in other, more serious, criminal behavior?

In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes New York City’s dramatically successful crime reduction efforts in the early 1990s that began with cleaning up graffiti and stopping subway fare jumpers. The literature on policing and criminology is loaded with examples of successful crime reduction that began with seemingly small things, like quelling aggressive solicitation.

The literature recommends other strategies in line with my five-point plan: expanding problem-solving policing, focusing on the few who commit most crimes, and shifting our punishment philosophy from an emphasis on severity (except for violent offenders) to one that favors certainty and swiftness.

Reliance on severe punishment has made our country the largest per capita jailer on earth, a practice that disproportionately harms African American, Latino and Native American communities. Mass incarceration worsens poverty, exacerbates racial inequality and is extremely expensive.

It’s time we turn from the old and tired argument that setting minimum standards for behavior on our streets oppresses anyone. Ignoring our street crime and disorder problems won’t make them go away. Together as a community, we must reassert norms of appropriate behavior—starting with a commitment to not allow aggressive and intimidating solicitation—and make headway in reducing other street disorder that threatens the vitality of our neighborhood business districts, including downtown.

Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess is chair of the council's Public Safety and Education Committee. His aggressive panhandling ordinance is scheduled for a council vote at tomorrow's 2pm full council meeting.
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