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Originally published August 14, 2013 at 9:52 PM | Page modified August 15, 2013 at 10:23 AM

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Less violent crime downtown? Not by numbers from police

Times Watchdog: Despite the reassurances of the mayor and police that downtown crime is falling, a Seattle Times analysis shows violent crime steady over the past five years with spikes in the summer months.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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After the shooting Monday of a Metro bus driver, both Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and West Precinct police Capt. Jim Dermody sought to reassure the public that the incident wasn’t reflective of crime trends downtown.

“We are seeing a significant reduction in violent crimes downtown and throughout the city,” McGinn said after the shooting in which the bus driver was wounded and his assailant shot dead by police on a second bus as he tried to flee.

Asked about a recent letter from downtown business and hospitality executives that called the level of violence in the retail and tourist center of the city unacceptable, Dermody said, “From their perspective, it may feel like it’s getting worse. The good news is, we’re one of two precincts with a double-digit reduction in crime, including violent crime.”

But a Seattle Times analysis of four downtown police beats shows the level of violent crime in the retail core has basically held steady, averaging about 80 incidents per month over the past five years, with noticeable spikes in the summer the past three years. The 119 violent incidents in that downtown core in July is the highest one-month total in the past five years.

The analysis of crime looked at murder, rape, robbery and assault, and included simple assault to reflect the street disorder that has alarmed merchants and visitors.

Comparing the first seven months of this year with the first seven months of last year, crime is down about 12 percent in those four downtown beat areas. But that reduction is driven by a drop in property crimes. Violent crime there in the same time period is up about 7 percent.

When simple assaults are removed, incidents of crime in the central downtown area are still up 4 percent over last year, according to The Seattle Times analysis.

The crime data come from the Seattle Police Department’s “precinct data by beat” available online at www.seattle.gov/police/crime/stats.htm.

On Wednesday, McGinn said that when he spoke Monday about downtown violent crime, he was relying on Capt. Dermody’s July blog post that says violent crime through May is down 9 percent in the West Precinct compared with the same period last year. But the West Precinct covers about 11 square miles and includes the residential neighborhoods of Magnolia and Queen Anne, as well as industrial Sodo. He also wasn’t including simple assaults, which are misdemeanors.

The Seattle Times examined data for the area bounded by Battery Street, James Street and First Hill north of Harborview Medical Center.

“If you focus on selective beats, you will always see fluctuations,” McGinn said. He added that a truer reflection of crime downtown would have included all the sectors between the Denny Triangle and Chinatown International District, where his Center City initiative is attempting to address chronic street violence and disorder.

“We care about those fluctuations. We’re always trying to respond to data and assign police resources to hot spots,” he said.

When The Times added areas immediately north and south of downtown, violent crime levels over the past five years were relatively unchanged.

The mayor’s office also pointed to a chart showing major crime in the city at a 30-year low, a statistic McGinn cites frequently in public forums as he campaigns for re-election. Those statistics include violent major crimes (not simple assault) as well as the property crimes of burglary, larceny/theft and vehicle theft.

Major crime peaked in the city in 1988 with 72,694 incidents and fell to a low of 34,607 in 2012.

That parallels crime trends across the country. The U.S. crime rate is at its lowest point since 1963. Analysts cite several reasons, including the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic and longer sentences that keep more criminals off the streets.

But the single biggest reason is the nation’s changing demographics, said Clayton Mosher, a sociology professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, and the author of “The Mismeasure of Crime.”

“More than anything, the falling national crime rate has to do with the aging population and fewer people in the 16- to 25-year-old category, which typically accounts for the most crime,” Mosher said.

McGinn frequently has pointed to his Center City Initiative, launched in January 2012 in response to concerns about street disorder, drug dealing, public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and mentally ill people intimidating visitors, residents and downtown workers.

The initiative brings together law enforcement, social-service providers, city officials, business leaders, prosecutors and others to identify root causes of the crime problem. The city also has added police patrols in areas of high crime, the mayor said.

The July 31 letter from the Downtown Seattle Association and the 40 business and hospitality leaders said they support the mayor’s comprehensive approach to address chronic crime issues downtown.

But they added that “the increasing pattern of violence must be addressed immediately.” They called for the all-day presence of park rangers in downtown parks and a significant and immediate increase in foot and bike patrols.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

Justin Mayo: jmayo@seattletimes.com or 206-464-3669.

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