2021 Seattle Public Safety Survey

Every year Seattle University conducts a survey on behalf of the City of Seattle (and more specifically SPD) looking at how Seattle residents perceive the police department and other aspects of pubic safety. The report on the 2021 survey was recently released.

I wrote about last year’s report at length for SCC Insight when it was published, and most of my commentary from then continues to hold true. There are a few significant weaknesses in the survey: first, it potentially suffers from selection bias since residents volunteer to give their input — and thus is likely skewed towards those with stronger opinion and thereby a stronger desire to respond to the survey. Second, some of the neighborhoods received very few responses, making the results for those neighborhoods statistically invalid. Third, the results are grouped by SPD precinct, which is not terribly useful since each precinct includes a diverse set of neighborhoods with differing demographics and public safety issues. And finally, the analysis published on the data is very simple and mundane, what one might imagine is the absolute least that could be done and still publish a report.

On the bright side, the data is all there in the report, so I scraped it and did my own analysis (and charts. So. Many. Charts.)

The survey questions are rolled up into five aggregate measures of public safety:

  • police legitimacy;
  • social cohesion;
  • informal social control;
  • social disorganization; and
  • fear of crime (split out into nighttime and daytime).

All five are calculated on a scale of 0 to 100, with a score of 100 being the best for the first three, and a score of 0 the best for the last two.

Here are the city-wide metrics for 2021:

The good news is that social disorganization and fear of crime dropped in 2021, and informal social control rose; the bad news is that social cohesion dropped a bit and police legitimacy dropped substantially.

I’ll spare you the precinct-by-precinct statistics; they are all in the report if you care to read them. Instead, I’ll show you why they are not only useless, but also misleading. Here is the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data on the social disorganization metric, color-coded by precinct:

Each precinct is far from uniform, and aggregating the results by precinct masks the wide variation. Police legitimacy shows the same kind of diversity:

The other metrics show similar sorts of diversity by neighborhood. That is interesting in itself, but it doesn’t tell us anything about patterns underlying the diversity. So let’s dig deeper.

When we compare the 2020 and 2021 results on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, we see that nearly every neighborhood saw a decline in police legitimacy.

And the exceptions are notable: Eastlake, Miller Park, Hillman City, New Holly, High Point, and Morgan Junction.

The change in social disorganization follows a similar pattern:

The change in fear of crime is more of a mixed bag: the declines are smaller, and there are more neighborhoods that saw an increase.

Some of them match up with the neighborhoods that saw an increase in police legitimacy. That suggests the we should be looking for correlations between the metrics — and perhaps with other demographic factors. For starters, let’s look at police legitimacy and fear of crime:

We see that a drop in police legitimacy has only a weak relationship with a drop in fear of crime; there were plenty of neighborhoods where fear of crime went up and police legitimacy still went down. On the other hand, an increase in police legitimacy is strongly correlated with an increase in fear of crime; in fact police legitimacy only went up in neighborhoods where fear of crime rose. You’ll note the empty bottom-right quadrant: there are no cases where police legitimacy went up and fear of crime went down. Fear of crime is part of the story, but not the whole story.

Since the way SPD treats Blacks and African-Americans is a major subtext to overall views towards the police, let’s revisit the analysis I did last year on how the public safety metrics differ for Seattle’s neighborhoods with sizable Black communities (with demographic data updates via the 2020 Census, where available). Much of what we saw last year still holds true: there is no appreciable difference in police legitimacy, social cohesion, or informal social control based upon the size of the Black community in a particular neighborhood.

However, we see that the neighborhoods with larger Black communities all are on the low end of the social disorganization metric, and tend toward the low end on fear of crime.

(it’s worth noting that all of these metrics tend to cluster in the middle, in the 30-60 range, so there is not enormous variation in total)

That hints at a correlation between social disorganization and fear of crime, and as we saw last year, that continues to be true. Any one who is familiar with the controversial “broken windows” theory (as distinct from discredited broken-windows policing policies) will not be surprised by this: it suggests that people take cues from the appearance of their neighborhood to assess how safe it is.

Now if we go back to the changes between 2020 and 2021, we see that the changes in police legitimacy and fear of crime were mostly unrelated to the size of the Black community in a particular neighborhood.

However, the change in social disorganization shows a distinct pattern: nearly all of the neighborhoods that saw an increase in social disorganization had small Black populations, with one very notable exception, High Point, and one lesser exception, Westwood/Roxhill/Arbor Heights.

For the record: the cluster of points in the upper-left corner of the above chart includes Miller Park, Phinney Ridge, Sand Point, Alki, Morgan Junction, and North Admiral.


What should we take away from this? First, it continues to be the case that the city’s Black neighborhoods are largely not the ones where fear of crime is high, even though they tend to be over-policed to the detriment of Black residents; they have some of the lowest levels of social disorganization in the city, and also some of the lowest fear of crime. Second, police legitimacy dropped across the board, with only a handful of exceptions in places where fear of crime also rose (though most of the places where fear of crime rose did not see an increase in police legitimacy; it seems to be necessary but not sufficient). Third, social disorganization also decreased nearly across the board, for reasons that are unclear though perhaps related to COVID and more people spending increased time working from home and populating their own neighborhood around the clock.

Fourth: we should expect more from the people being paid with taxpayer dollars to do this kind of survey and analysis. There are important learnings here, but surface-level analytics rarely uncover them.


Two notes on the analysis performed for this article. First, a few of the neighborhoods have been removed where the total count of survey responses was too small to be statistically representative. Second, a few of the smallest neighborhoods don’t have published census data on the percentage of Black/African American persons living there, and those neighborhoods were removed from the analysis of correlations of the other metrics with the size of the Black population in each neighborhood. Also, some of the 2020 Census neighborhoods/boundaries don’t perfectly align with the neighborhoods chosen by Seattle University for its survey, so a few of the demographic numbers included herein are approximations.


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