Two years ago, the number of homicides hit a 10-year high in Seattle, a city that prides itself on its sense of civility and its belief that it can direct its destiny.
The city responded in several ways. It sent a team of police officers, prosecutors, and physicians to schools to warn young people about the dangers of guns; it ratcheted up a program to deal with domestic violence; and it intensified efforts to recreate a sense of community in city neighborhoods.
The result: Seattle's violent crime rate today is among the lowest in the country.
Seattle isn't alone, of course. Violent crime in the United States has been declining since the early 1990s. Last year, the murder rate dropped 8 percent nationally, driven in part by the downturn in juvenile crime for the first time in nearly a decade. The trend has continued this year, with the number of homicides falling in two-thirds of the nation's largest cities, according to a Monitor survey.
Yet Seattle is a standout. Last year the number of homicides here dropped by 40 percent. This year, they have plunged even lower. Through June, police recorded just 12 homicides compared with 27 during the same period in 1995.
As much as they'd like to, police here don't take full credit for the news that has made life in the largest city in the Pacific Northwest a little safer. They cite demographics (fewer people in their mid-teens and early 20s, who tend to be more crime-prone) and more people in prison than before. There are nearly three times as many people in prison today as in 1980, according to the US Justice Department.
But law enforcement here has a new attitude: that crime prevention can curb violence. "I think you can prevent murder," says Lt. Emett Kelsie, the gang-squad commander of the Seattle Police Department. "You can't prevent every murder, but you can address that frame of mind, that propensity."
Relatively young and prosperous, Seattle differs in many ways from its older peers to the east. It is a mostly white, middle-class city with no discernible ghetto.
Its city leaders fret about managing growth rather than decline. Its inhabitants are deeply concerned about the quality of their lives. Crime has grown here, but it has never been the major problem it is in old industrial cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland.
"We were able to start a lot further ahead with our community policing than a lot of the more established cities," Lt. Kelsie says.
At the core of the anticrime efforts is a series of policies and programs to make fast-growing Seattle, now up to 520,000 residents, remain true to its small-town atmosphere. "We're more polite than most. We return wallets when they're dropped. We're polite drivers," says anticrime activist Kay Godefroy. "We're a small town. I hope we stay that way."
As executive director of the nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Group, Ms. Godefroy has been working with police and communities since 1988 to help reduce crime. She says she believes that community policing and community rebuilding are paying off.
"Some of us feel that programs that we've been working on for years and years are bearing fruit," she says. "Generally people feel crime is going down, but I'm not certain they're feeling safer. It's more like a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel feeling."
What's helped, she says, is that people have become more community-centered. "Everybody in the early 1980s was in that success mode where you were concentrating more on your career than your community," Godefroy says. "The community-building sense is back. People seem ready for it, too. They want to know their neighbors."
That has helped police. When a crime occurs, police want everyone to notice. "We want to take away the anonymity that criminals enjoyed in the past," Kelsie says.
The sense of community also helps police in two key areas of crime reduction: domestic violence and youth violence. In 1994, the city put together a team of police and prosecutors to intervene earlier in cases of domestic violence. As of the end of June, Seattle had not recorded a single domestic-violence homicide for nearly 10 months.
Police also began teaching students about the consequences of carrying or using a gun with graphic displays of gunshot wounds, hard talk about being sent to jail, and advice on how to avoid trouble. The number of youths slain in King County dropped from 30 in 1994 to 20 last year, its lowest level in five years, according to the medical examiner.
Guns aren't 'cool'
"Guns don't appear to be as cool as they were. Violence is definitely down" among young people, Godefroy says. "They've just realized they don't like going to funerals. They don't like knowing friends who have died."
For several years, officers have been paying home visits to parents of teens getting into trouble. "The kids who feel anonymous are more likely to do things that are criminal or antisocial than the kids who think, 'You might know my aunt' or 'You might know my parents,' " Godefroy says.
Police are also visiting the schools of younger children to teach them how to treat other people, manage their anger, and be civil. After all, Kelsie says, "I've heard there are now about 40 million kids under the age of 10."
SAFER CITY STREETS
A Monitor survey of selected US cities (populations between 500,000 and 1 million) shows the number of murders this year continues to decline dramatically in many urban areas.
MURDERS, JAN.-JUNE 1996
PERCENTAGE CHANGE, SAME PERIOD 1995
El Paso, Texas 7 -68.2%
Seattle 12 -55.6
Honolulu 15 -16.7
Austin, Texas 18 -30.8
San Jose, Calif. 20 11.1
Denver 32 -27.3
Charlotte, N.C. 39 -23.5
San Diego 40 0.0
Nashville 45 -4.3
Cleveland 47 -33.8
San Francisco 47 2.2
*Source: FBI, local police departments