Seattle Mayor's Race 2013

The Candidates Speak Up on Public Safety

At a forum on public safety this weekend, the candidates for mayor talk panhandling, police priorities, privacy, and more.

By Erica C. Barnett June 24, 2013

At a Saturday morning forum at City Hall that began an hour after the original announced 9:30 start time (traffic, thanks to the Rock n' Roll Marathon, the Fremont Solstice Festival, and a viaduct closure, was hellish), seven of the nine candidates for mayor fielded questions about public safety, police accountability, and the question of security vs. privacy. 

City council member Tim Burgess, who dropped out of the race for mayor last month, introduced the candidates, joking, "It's good to be with the gang again [but] it's much easier on this side of the room" before retreating to sit in the audience with his wife, Jolene. 

For a forum (sponsored by the Citywide Precinct Advisory Council) on such a contentious set of issues, the tone (of both the candidates and the audience) was surprisingly decorous. That may be because, in a rare departure from the rapid-fire pace of most recent forums, the candidates were given a full two minutes to answer most questions. 

(Host Brian Callanan, of the Seattle Channel, targeted each question at a single candidate, which is why you won't hear every candidate on every question.)

Despite the odd format, Harrell, who heads the council's public safety committee, managed to dominate the discussion, parrying with Mayor Mike McGinn and delivering well-rehearsed, fact-filled answers to the questions he was given. So you'll hear a lot from him below.

To the issues!

Police priorities.

Both Bruce Harrell and Peter Steinbrueck agreed that SPD has focused too much on 911 response and not enough on neighborhood policing. Steinbrueck said the current policing system "is driven by 911 response times. ... I think we have moved far from the days of neighborhood policing. ... There are some 97 neighborhoods in our city, and I would like our police officers … to know people in every neighborhood." 

And Harrell said he'd like to see a "quarterback" approach to policing, with less time spent on 911 response and "somewhat random" activities. "Wherever the problems are, you identify them and you come up with a plan of attack."

Police staffing 

Kate Martin, who has made excessive police overtime a theme of her campaign, said she would slash overtime and use the savings to hire 300 additional cops, bringing Seattle's force to the same per-capital level as San Francisco's.

Mayor Mike McGinn responded that one reason SPD uses overtime is to keep staffing on the street up while some officers take part in specialized training. And he said staffing levels are back up to where they were before the recession hit, with plans to increase staffing further; "As our budget expands, public safety will get its due."

Picking a new chief of police

Harrell said he would be willing to consider candidates from both inside and outside SPD (currently, former deputy chief Jim Pugel is serving as interim chief), and blamed McGinn for failing to start the process of choosing a chief before the election.

"Certainly we'll open it up and look for outstanding candidates outside the state," Harrell said. "I think we should have started that process by now. The new mayor should have 10 candidates waiting for him on his first day on the job."

Cameras, Drones, and Privacy

The question of security vs. privacy—specifically, how much of the latter should we give up for the former?—sharply divided Harrell and Murray, the two candidates who had a chance to address the issue. On this question, as he has in the past, Murray emerged as an anti-surveillance state stalwart.

Harrell, an unabashed fan of all things technological, said he supported using cameras in targeted areas for "predictive policing," as well as deploying body cameras on police officers and implementing an automated gunshot locator system. (The council rejected McGinn's proposed gunshot locator system as too expensive and unproven last year.) "We have to be the masters of technology," Harrell said.

Murray couldn't disagree more. After expressing his opposition to both surveillance cameras and drones, Murray said, "I don't think we have in place enough civil liberties protections, either at the state or the city level, to prevent ... collecting data that we shouldn't have our hands on. 

The ability to monitor behavior is going to conitnue to grow. My issue is not that we should not use those technologies but that we shouldn't use those technologies until we have the laws in place that will protect people's privacy and protect us from potential abuse. London, where everywhere you are there's a camera on you, is not my vision for the future of Seattle."

The Community Police Commission

The candidates also differed on the effectiveness of the Community Police Commission, an 11-member advisory group appointed to help guide the DOJ-ordered police reforms. 

McGinn, who appointed the commission's members, praised it as the first time ever that leaders from communities of color and SPD representatives have sat down together to talk about "our longstanding issues and how we solve them together." (McGinn has rightly taken credit for instigating the CPC.)

Harrell, who heads the council's public safety committee, was less enthusiastic. Although his committee approved the CPC, he said, "I have very mixed feelings about the Community Police Commission" because they lack enforcement power. "I think they're going to be incredibly frustrated. ... I don't think it will be a tool of reform until you have a strong mayor that is willing to negotiate hard with the rank and file and command staff." 

Police training

Both Martin and Murray brought up the issue of police training; specifically, their concern that cops aren't getting the training they need to function in a diverse, urban setting. 

Martin pointed out that it's been more than eight years since the department received domestic-violence training; "That's not acceptable." Murray, picking up on the same theme, added that while crime overall is down, "domestic violence statistics are actually up. I wouldn't study a Family Justice Center, I would create a Family Justice Center to address that issue."

Aggressive panhandling and public safety downtown

Charlie Staadecker, who lives downtown, said he feels perfectly safe walking alone downtown at night, but added that he recently heard a concierge "at one of our leading hotels" warning visitors to avoid Third and Pine. "Can you imagine a concierge of our city having to direct a guest not to feel safe?" he asked rhetorically. "London, where everywhere you are there's a camera on you, is not my vision for the future of Seattle."–Mayoral candidate Ed Murray

Harrell, who said there have been 18,000 pedestrian-interference incidents in the last two years but just 20 arrests in 2012, said McGinn had failed to lead on downtown safety. "The problem with [Burgess' controversial 2010] aggressive panhandling ordinance, as an example, is that he vetoed it but he didn't come up with anything else to replace it. ... The mayor, quite candidly, has been MIA in terms of public safety."


One audience member asked the candidates what they would do about Nickelsville. Martin, always ready with a contrarian response, said she would "dissolve" the controversial encampment immediately. "I simply don't think that tents of any kind are a solution to homelessness. … I just cannot get behind the idea of illegal encampments being overlooked. ...

"I think that when we are dealing with homelessness, we have to stop finding comfort in throwing all sorts of people under that label and acting as if they're a big problem we can solve monolithically. I like to say triage and not tents. We need a very qualified system of triage so we can get each person help as individuals."


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