A 10-year study from the Seattle University Criminal Justice Center examining misdemeanor trends in Seattle shows a decrease in crime and which neighborhoods are affected more by misdemeanor crimes than others.
Researchers, professors and local stakeholders presented the study during a public event at Seattle U on Oct. 25.
Most neighborhoods, including Magnolia and Queen Anne, have seen the lowest misdemeanor arrests and charges from 2006–16, and all neighborhoods are showing a steady decline in misdemeanor crimes.
The neighborhoods with the highest rate of misdemeanors are Chinatown/International District, Northgate and Downtown Seattle.
“Capitol Hill has crime, but say they are not afraid of crime,” said Criminal Justice Center Director Jacqueline Helfgott. “Magnolia has nearly no crime, but they say they are afraid. If we look at the misdemeanors, in relation to fear of crime and other scales we are measuring, what is the relationship between misdemeanors and quality-of-life perceptions and measures?”
Helfgott said the 10-year study was partially funded by a $3 million, three-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Future studies will include the perception of misdemeanors in communities, case processing and a study on misdemeanor incidents involving a behavioral crisis.
The study also highlights a disproportionate amount of minorities, especially black and indigenous people, being arrested and charged versus other populations. Large portions of misdemeanor arrests were also related to a behavioral crisis, such as mental illness or drug use.
Data was collected from multiple agencies and stakeholders, including the Seattle Police Department, City Attorney’s Office, Seattle Municipal Court, King County Adult and Juvenile Detention and King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said he was anxiously awaiting the results of the study because the city is working to reform its criminal justice system.
“I’m not shy about making changes on how we do things,” Holmes said. “For that, we need to rely on data, and good data. Unless we are stopping to take our pulse and measure outcomes … all the improvements we make won’t mean a lot.”
What the study showed
The majority of individuals processed through the criminal justice system nationally are arrested for misdemeanors, typically shelved as low-priority events with little research attention, the study states. Seattle was one of seven cities chosen to participate in this 10-year study model. Seattle stood out as only one of two cities in the study that had deprioritized and then legalized marijuana, the second being Los Angeles. Seattle was also unique compared to similar cities because of community initiatives, such as SPD’s micro-community policing plans.
There were some key takeaways from the study:
• Arrests, referrals and charges of misdemeanors have steadily declined in Seattle from 2006-16.
• Rates for arrests, referrals and charges are higher for black and indigenous groups, much higher than whites and Asians. There was no data reported for Hispanic or Latino groups.
• The rates of felony and misdemeanor bookings have decreased while the rates of misdemeanor warrants have increased.
• Arrest rates offenses involving people, property, theft, weapons, drugs, prostitution and public order declined in the 10-year span.
• The rate of misdemeanor dismissals was higher than convictions from 2008-15. Conviction rates exceeded the dismissal rate in 2016.
• Although both felonies and misdemeanors are declining, there is still a higher number of misdemeanors than felonies being reported.
“As a group, as a whole, black individuals were arrested at a higher rate,” Helfgott said.
While black men have the highest arrest rate, that rate had the steepest decline in the past 10 years, while indigenous males had a small but steady increase in arrests in the past three years.
A glance of Seattle's demographics show the racial composition of the city in 2016 was 65.7 percent white, 14.1 percent Asian, 7 percent black and 0.4 percent Native American.
The study also divided up Seattle by micro-communities. When divided by east, north, south, southwest and west communities, the data shows West Seattle had the highest rate of misdemeanor arrests. Rates across the city decreased from 2010 to 2014-15, with a subtle increase in the last two years.
In Seattle’s east sector, Chinatown/International District was above any other neighborhoods for misdemeanor arrests rates. The district has a smaller population than nearby Capitol Hill, Madison Park, Madrona and North Rainier neighborhoods.
“It’s not reflective of the people who live in those communities,” Helfgott said, referring to Chinatown. “But it was a hotspot (for misdemeanors).”
Capitol Hill had the next highest misdemeanor arrest rate, and only Madrona and Leschi saw an increase between 2014-16.
In the North Precinct, Northgate showed the highest rates of misdemeanor arrests, followed by Lake City and Ballard South, respectively. Northgate saw a steep and steady decrease from 2011 to 2014, but misdemeanor arrests started to rise again between 2015-16.
Downtown Seattle had the highest rate of misdemeanor arrests in the West Precinct, with a varying rate of rises and falls in the 10-year span. Chinatown/International District West followed Downtown, but has seen a steep decrease in arrests in the last three years of the study.
Magnolia and Queen Anne had the lowest misdemeanor arrest rates in the whole precinct, hovering just under 2,500 arrested per 100,000 on the charts.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said the numbers will help her department make better decisions when it comes to police reform. She said the study defined misdemeanors as “low-level” crimes, but said her officers take misdemeanors seriously.
“If someone is breaking into your car multiple times, it’s not a low-level crime to you,” Best said. “If someone is dealing a small amount of drugs in front of your house, it’s not low-level drug selling to you. Those things really matter to people. So, it’s important we take a look at these issues.”Best said the study shows the city has made great progress, but she hopes the city can better address how law enforcement interacts with Seattle’s communities.
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