Addressing Hate Crimes: Seattle’s Safe Place Initiative
By Jim Ritter
For many years, the public has had myriad reactions to hate crimes in the United States. Too often, they range from disbelief that they occur to acceptance that school bullying and violence directed at people considered “different” simply constitute part of the American fabric. Even more worrisome is the public’s implied tolerance of such acts, based on the lack of political action and community outrage.
Such collective unresponsiveness only emboldens those who perpetrate these crimes and paralyzes many victims, who believe their community—including the police—does not really care. Ultimately, this causes many victims not to report these heinous acts, regardless of severity, and leaves law enforcement agencies unable to respond to incidents of which they do not know.
The long-standing pattern of bias-crime victims’ underreporting remains an untenable problem for police agencies. This challenge becomes exacerbated when some law enforcement officials believe that hate crimes do not occur in their jurisdiction because they never see reports of such acts. To avoid developing these risky assumptions, officials should consider the underlying reasons why these offenses remain clandestine events in many communities.
One Agency's Response
Although Seattle, Washington, has had the reputation of a progressive city that celebrates diversity, its hate crime victims have been reluctant to report such incidents to law enforcement. In 2014, the chief of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) publicly announced the appointment of its first full-time LGBTQ liaison officer. Honored with this privilege, the author, openly gay himself, felt relieved that he could serve as a permanent, reliable resource.
Mr. Ritter retired as an officer with the Seattle, Washington, Police Department and currently heads a private firm that consults with and trains the law enforcement and private sectors internationally regarding LGBTQ-police relations.
The city’s LGBTQ community immediately spoke up. Alarmingly, it became clear that many hate crime victims had not reported these incidents to police. Although the reasons varied—from lacking trust in law enforcement to not wanting to reveal their sexual orientation in a police report—these individuals experienced devastating trauma in silence.
At the beginning of the author’s career in 1980, the phrases “hate crime” and “bias crime” did not exist, nor did any laws protecting victims of these heinous acts. Public education and awareness were lacking, apathy was the norm, and law enforcement’s response was wanting.
Today, the victim’s names have changed, but their stories, concerns, and evident trauma remain the same. After all this time, how far has law enforcement come in addressing these crimes? Not far enough. Although some individuals now may possess the courage to call and report, how many more do not?
SPD decided to act quickly to convince victims that today’s law enforcement agencies take hate crimes seriously. The litmus test would be if the agency could convince the multitude of unknown hate crime victims, especially those in the LGBTQ community, that police cared. Fortunately, SPD did not try to formulate a response because of a specific incident or crisis. Thus, the agency had time to develop an original concept with a higher likelihood of future sustainability and success.
In September 2014, SPD began examining the city’s hate crime statistics, consulting with victims, and meeting with various business owners regarding the creation of an enhanced public safety and education initiative to help protect victims of bias-related offenses, including school bullying. Because most hate crimes occur within commercial districts, SPD needed to convince local businesses and community organizations to work with police and become part of the solution by serving as safe havens for those victimized.
The concept was simple. SPD directed businesses to train staff members, who then would assist crime victims entering the establishment, according to two mandates: 1) have employees immediately call 911 on the individual’s behalf to ensure police know about and immediately respond to the incident and 2) tell personnel to allow the victim to remain on the premises until police arrive. That’s it.
SPD knew that the mission and training for its new initiative, Safe Place, had to be simple. Further, Safe Place had to feature a clearly recognizable brand that victims could see and understand. The agency settled on a multicolored police shield representing “everyone under the rainbow” that features SPD’s name—implying clear ownership, coordination, and commitment—and an easily accessible website. This decal encourages witnesses of hate crimes to report them to 911 and victims to seek shelter from assailants in one of the businesses participating in Safe Place.
For the program’s legitimacy, SPD recognized the importance of a clear public messaging strategy emphasizing the agency’s full engagement and commitment to making Seattle a national model of protection, respect, and connection regarding victims of hate crimes and school bullying. SPD knew that Safe Place ultimately would undergo testing not only by the media, business owners, and schools but also skeptical activists and the public. More important, the messaging would have to clearly and convincingly resonate with victims.
If successful, Safe Place ultimately would increase victim confidence in reporting hate crimes, provide community education, enhance business and school collaboration with police, and demonstrate a significant law enforcement commitment by proactively addressing a historically challenging problem.
In May 2015, after 8 months of planning and design, SPD introduced its Safe Place initiative to the public. Within 4 hours of launch, 55 businesses signed up to become Safe Place premises. The local media provided significant coverage, which instantly generated inquiries from outlets in other regions as a result of national reporting. Soon, business owners and law enforcement agencies from outside Seattle began calling SPD to offer their support and inquire if they also could participate.
The national media’s inquiries appeared to result from a combination of disbelief that a law enforcement agency would spearhead this type of initiative and encouragement that police cared enough to venture down the path of uncertainty. There existed a risk of ridicule both locally and nationally.
Further, within 2 days of the initiative’s launch in May 2015, news agencies from around the world began making inquiries. Several weeks later, a Japanese crew arrived in Seattle to cover Safe Place. The executive producer explained the Japanese media’s interest in the initiative: “Our country never talks about these issues, and it’s time to have that conversation.” Subsequently, the network broadcast to its 40 million viewers a 10-minute prime-time special on Seattle’s concept and efforts to assist hate crime victims. Inquiries from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Europe followed.
As of 2019, over 6,000 Seattle-area businesses take part in Safe Place. These include national corporations, such as a well-known coffee chain, banks, convenience stores, and other types of businesses. Additionally, over 200 law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and Canada have made inquiries to adopt the Safe Place concept in their jurisdiction.
The evidence of Safe Place’s success surfaced within 30 days of launch during Seattle’s 2015 Pride Weekend, attended by over 300,000 people. In prior years during this event, the city averaged eight violent hate crimes targeting LGBTQ individuals. Most of these vicious attacks went unreported, with many victims being found by pedestrians or reporting their assaults days or weeks later. Predictably, few suspects faced arrest.
Eight more attacks occurred during the 2015 event. However, this time proved different. All eight assaults were reported immediately, leading to seven arrests—two in front of SPD Safe Place premises. One of these attacks resulted in witnesses holding down the suspect until police arrived.
Yet another phenomenon followed these results. For many years prior to 2015, Seattle’s LGBTQ activists often engaged in antipolice protests that ultimately resulted in an anarchist or Antifa presence, along with the predictable property damage and violence. Following SPD’s Safe Place launch, all LGBTQ-related antipolice rallies and demonstrations subsided and eventually ceased due to increased positive communication and trust between the two entities. No such incidents have taken place in Seattle since.
“The long-standing pattern of bias-crime victims’ underreporting remains an untenable problem for police agencies.”
Safe Place is the first program where a law enforcement agency designed an initiative that took a proactive, public stance to promote education, business and community collaboration, and internal training to protect victims of LGBTQ hate crimes. Local, national, and international media outlets have viewed the agency’s groundbreaking mission as a seismic and progressive shift in a law enforcement culture that largely has remained silent on the topic.
Safe Place’s success proves that police departments can identify such a critical problem and take appropriate measures to remedy it. To ensure agencies experience long-term, progressive, and sustainable changes, they must proactively enhance community trust, reassure victims, update policies, and continually train officers and civilian staff.
In addition to businesses, community organizations, schools, and corporations, other law enforcement agencies inside and outside the United States have taken interest in Safe Place. While developing this concept, SPD considered that the motivation to commit hate crimes and the traumatic impact they have on victims are universal. Following this same logic, law enforcement’s response to these crimes—for better or worse—also is the same. Regardless of the size of a police department or sheriff’s office, it effectively can implement Safe Place by having a sincere desire to achieve the same goals and results that the initiative was designed to accomplish.
Any agency can demonstrate its desire to change the negative perception that many in society have toward law enforcement by proactively reaching out to minority communities and, in turn, victims of hate crimes. Of course, a police administrator can wait for a crisis to occur and respond in a way that may appear as a veiled attempt to deflect public criticism. However, establishing a program like Safe Place to address hate crime concerns ultimately will lead to increased trust by opening channels of communication with members of the impacted community. This enhanced dialogue with victims ultimately will help defuse social media allegations and activist rhetoric that often target law enforcement with accusations of apathy.
SPD shared its concept with other police departments soon after national momentum built. This “no strings attached” approach to collaborating with other agencies drew the attention of hundreds of police departments and sheriff’s offices internationally.
The interest in this concept arose for two reasons. First, Safe Place constituted a proven success in Seattle that victims, businesses, schools, community members, politicians, and media outlets universally support. Second, it was a simple, effective, prepackaged, ready-to-use concept that is legally defensible.
Through its Safe Place coordinator, SPD allows any law enforcement agency throughout the world to put its name and website on the program’s decals, providing they properly follow the implementation protocols and give SPD credit for the creation of the initiative. Agencies receive the contact information of SPD’s exclusive Safe Place decal printer, which can customize a decal prototype for outside agencies.
Over the past 5 years, many large, midsize, and small police departments throughout the United States and Canada have adopted the Safe Place concept. These agencies recognize the importance of obtaining a better understanding of hate crimes, acknowledge the lack of reporting in their jurisdictions, and fully appreciate a ready-made program that has undergone trial and testing in Seattle.
Examples of Law Enforcement Partners
- Baltimore, Maryland, Police Department
- Denver, Colorado, Police Department
- King County, Washington, Sheriff’s Office
- Los Angeles, California, Police Department
- Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Department
- Miami, Florida, Police Department
- Orlando, Florida, Police Department
- Tucson, Arizona, Police Department
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police
- Vancouver, British Columbia, Police Department
“If successful, Safe Place ultimately would increase victim confidence in reporting hate crimes, provide community education, enhance…collaboration with police, and demonstrate a significant law enforcement commitment….”
Extension of Focus
In January 2019, to increase inclusivity, SPD updated its Safe Place website and decals. The agency removed the LGBTQ-specific verbiage and changed the text to address all hate crimes and student bullying. Now, a wider scope of victims can benefit from the protections the Safe Place program provides.
Low Costs and Efficiency
Examining Safe Place’s success through a marketing lens clearly demonstrates that it accomplishes a variety of highly effective advertising goals that would cost businesses a considerable sum of money. SPD incurred minimal cost to achieve the monumental news coverage of the program.
Aside from its simple mission and ready-made protocol instructions, Safe Place is nearly budget neutral. With only one existing officer needed to serve as coordinator (part- or full-time, depending on agency size), the sole expense incurred by the participating police department is approximately $3 per decal. From a financial perspective, the cost-benefit analysis for this type of public education and safety mission seems obvious, even to the most frugal police executive.
Safe Place was designed to use existing resources efficiently. Promotion of the initiative relies on media reporting, enhancement of the agency’s Safe Place website, social media coverage, community meetings and events, and use of existing patrol and school resource officers to promote the concept during their tours of duty.
Proprietary recognition, continuity, and preservation of a unique initiative represent considerations for any product developer to protect against fraud, misrepresentation, manipulation, and abuse. Safe Place is no different. Unlike a profit-driven concept, SPD’s ability to obtain a registered U.S. trademark for Safe Place offered the agency a variety of protections perhaps not available without that legal standard. The trademark guarantees that this historic concept is recognized as original, its mission is preserved, and the spirit behind its development is carried out correctly, regardless of which law enforcement agencies choose to adopt it.
For Additional Information
Law enforcement agencies that would like to learn more about Safe Place can visit https://www.seattle.gov/spd-safe-place/get-involved---le-agencies. To start the process, obtain additional information, or receive written authorization to use the copywritten and trademarked program, agencies can contact Officer Dorian Korieo, Safe Place Coordinator, at Dorian.Korieo@Seattle.Gov or 206-386-1793.
In an era where divisiveness, hateful rhetoric, and lack of civility seem to continue gaining momentum, the Seattle Police Department’s Safe Place initiative can help provide victims of hate crimes and bullying a level of comfort and solace with their protectors. The positive collaborative energy resulting from this concept also can assist in remedying the divides of the past between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they collectively serve.
Mr. Ritter can be contacted at jamesSritter@gmail.com.