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Monday, August 25, 2008

Tim Burgess Wages War On... Social Disorder?

Seattle city councilmember Tim Burgess has recently released his plan to combat "social disorder" within Seattle. While admitting that crime rates in the city are the lowest that they have been in several decades, he has come up with a new way to justify a call for more aggressive police tactics and additional hires for the most expensive police force within the state... that justification appears to be something called "social disorder".

There's quite a bit I could say about this plan, but Blogging Georgetown beat me to it with an excellent post about councilmember Burgess' plan that I would be really hard-pressed to add to in any meaningfully worthwhile way. However, there is one specific section of this plan that caused me more pause than any other and it's one I think needs a bit more attention than the rest.

First, this is an interesting item within his plan because he is proposing that the police should be used to assertively enforce a nebulously subjective idea of "social order" instead of enforcing the law. The concern, of course, is that this "social disorder" isn't quantified. Is Tim demanding that police continue criminalizing symptoms of social disorder like homelessness? Perhaps he would also like a harsher response to any acts of social disorder such as protests, like the police did to the October 22nd group? This concept of "social disorder" is not objective, there are no defining parameters or any laws that define this term, so to use it as justification for an "assertive police response" should cause a bit of concern. If not only from a civil rights perspective, but also from a financial perspective as Seattle has had to pay out legal costs for such "social disorder" enforcement efforts in the past.

Secondly, it's this call for more assertive police and for the city government to support proactive policing itself. It's assumed that Tim is talking about this kind of proactive policing where officers are trained to use aggressive tactics to crack down on people that they suspect might commit a crime at some point in the future based on subjective and error-prone profiling techniques that have gotten them into trouble in the past. This also seems to be a subtle call on the council to stop pushing for better systems of accountability within the police department which has been increasingly lax in regards to investigating complaints of abuse and misconduct on the part of Seattle police officers during this year. Basically it appears to be a call for the city to ignore police abuses in support of more aggressive tactics.

Putting both of these together would run contrary to public calls for improved accountability and reduced use of problematic "proactive" police tactics like the use of stand-alone obstruction charges. All this in response to a mere perception of increased "social disorder", but not any increase in crime rates. It's a big risk to take in response to a subjective perception instead of an objective fact, especially when you factor in the most likely reason for such a perception, that being the rapid increase in more affluent residents in the city due to booming development and reduced affordable housing. While the city is actually doing better in terms of crime rates, more people who are used to living in suburbs are experiencing the culture shock of living in an urban area.

While many items in Tim's plan have merit, especially the use of mental health professionals to help the mentally ill instead of just tossing them in jail, there are some problems with what Tim is using a justification for these calls for more assertive and proactive police in a city that has been battered by persistent stories of police misconduct. Overall, this appears to be a very questionable demand for more police powers and more hires in the current circumstances of reduced crime rates and persistent misconduct issues within the department and I think Tim should reconsider this demand in what otherwise appeared to be a fairly reasonable plan. In the very least, we hope Tim takes some time to be VERY specific about exactly what he's asking for, and why.

UPDATE 08/27/08 - Apesma's Lament also has a great post put up about Burgess' war on "Social Disorder" as well, go check it out.

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