December 1, 2022

Seattle business groups press for input on public safety as mayor and City Council eye changes

Some Seattle business groups are seeking more input as Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council discuss potential changes to policing and public safety.

The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) and groups from certain other neighborhoods, such as the Ballard Alliance, Alliance for Pioneer Square, Sodo Business Improvement Area and the University District Partnership, plan to deliver a petition Monday asking Durkan and the council to pledge to keep small businesses safe.

The campaign comes amid mayor-council negotiations over Police Department budget cuts and transfers. The negotiations began in reaction to an ongoing uprising for Black lives that has included mass protests against police killings and advocacy by community coalitions.

The petition’s signers include a selection of local stores, restaurants, firms and hotels, representatives from some corporations like Amazon and some individual residents, according to a list compiled by the business groups. Many other businesses haven’t become involved, including some that are supporting a push to reinvest Police Department funds in other services.

The lobbying also comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered some establishments and crippled many more.

Though business groups have circulated petitions previously, the pledge is a somewhat new approach. It says the city will maintain safety for employees, customers and owners; create a new office with counseling for crime victims; and include small-business representatives on panels related to public safety.

For example, the pledge would commit the city to “preserving the ability for employees to enter and exit their place of work free of threats to personal safety.” It also would commit the city to “preserving a safe work environment protected by duly sworn officers, emergency responders and/or crisis responders if threatened or attacked.”

The pledge isn’t designed to actually be legally binding. “All parties acknowledge that no contractual relationship is created between this Pledge, but agree to work together” to meet the spirit of the commitments, the document says.

“Everybody should be able to say, ‘People should be safe when going to these small businesses,’ ” DSA vice president Don Blakeney said. The point is to ensure business owners are heard as city leaders revamp Seattle’s public safety system, he said.

That system has disproportionately harmed Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color, leading many protesters this summer to demand that policing dollars be redirected to social programs and unarmed solutions.

Durkan has said she wants to transform public safety in Seattle, though she last month vetoed bills meant to shrink the police force and scale up alternative options, contending the council was moving too quickly.

The DSA, which in past years has supported more police presence downtown, criticized the council bill meant to reduce the force by up to 100 officers.

Interim police Chief Adrian Diaz announced this month he would move about 100 additional officers and supervisors from other units to patrol.

Chuan Lu, co-owner of Boba Up restaurant on University Way Northeast, has signed the small-business petition. Lu said the corridor feels more dangerous than when he was a college student in the 1980s, mentioning a recent break-in, drug dealers and disruptive people.

“The City Council and mayor, they’re clueless,” said Lu, who warns employees about walking in the area at night. “They want to use social workers [to handle people acting out in businesses]? They’re in la la land.”

Blakeney said the petition and pledge aren’t intended to oppose the changes under discussion at City Hall. A Monday letter accompanying the petition and pledge requests “a reimagined municipal social contract … that protects and lifts up all of us,” without mentioning the police.

“When we zoom in on a specific budget cut or allocation, we lose track of the values we do share,” Blakeney said. “We want to support safe and vibrant neighborhoods … while also reforming the way we do policing.”

Lisa Daugaard, who created a Seattle program that brings case management to people who otherwise would be arrested for street crimes, sees an opportunity in the tack the business groups seem to be taking.

“They’re saying they’re agnostic about the means as long as there are certain outcomes,” she said. “That’s super welcome and super important.”

Petition signer Bianca Szyperski, who recently closed her Pioneer Square juice bar after employees were threatened with a knife, said the many people struggling with mental illness and addiction in the area made business difficult. The police didn’t always show up when called, she said.

“We felt left alone by the city,” the Juju Beet owner said. “I don’t like the name ‘defunding’ but I’m all for restructuring the police and way more money needs to go into helping mentally ill people.”

The groups behind the petition and pledge don’t speak for all small businesses, noted Luis Rodriguez, who co-owns The Station cafe on Beacon Hill. Rodriguez maintains safety at his business by getting to know all community members and treating them with respect, he said.

“If you treat your community good, your community will treat you good,” he said, arguing police dollars could be better spent on other needs, including more COVID-19 help for small businesses. “Nobody is going to break our windows, and even if they did, that’s why we have insurance.”

The community coalitions pressing the city to defund the police by 50%, Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, count a number of small businesses as supporters, according to a Decriminalize Seattle list that also includes many nonprofits and community organizations.

The Postman, a mail business in the Central District, wasn’t asked to sign Monday’s petition, co-owner Keanna Pickett said. While every business wants safety, “everybody wants and needs different types,” said Pickett, a King County Equity Now supporter.

For Pickett, defunding the police means moving money to entities that can provide what all business strive for, she said — better customer service.

“My community members don’t always trust the police,” Pickett added. “We trust our community members, because they always show up.”

Staff reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this story.

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