Tim Barlos was bartending at the Satellite Diner two weeks ago when one of his patrons was blindsided with a blow and knocked out in front of the downtown Spokane bar.
The punch, which came after about 15 minutes of arguing according to witnesses, was caught by a local TV cameraman. The station’s website said the man was “sucker-punched by a street kid.”
The violent act has seized Spokane’s attention, arousing fear and stoking downtown Spokane’s reputation as a dangerous place. Newfound worries of roving bands of young thugs plying the streets with violent intentions have been lodged in the heart of Spokane.
But how dangerous is downtown?
Mayor David Condon said he was “very angry” after seeing the video, causing him to lament the “unfortunate and sometimes catastrophic events that are happening in our downtown area.”
Police Chief Frank Straub said street people “are disconnected with mainstream society … are purposefully aggressive and pushing the limits to see what exactly they can get away with.”
Andy Dinnison, who has owned and worked at Boo Radley’s for 20 years downtown, echoed the concerns of many downtown business owners when he said something’s changing downtown.
“You can hear the hornet’s nest,” he said, adding that he worried the aggression could turn into violence if left unchecked.
Still, all of these people were quick to point out that downtown is not a dangerous place.
And police statistics, as Straub pointed out, show a marked decrease in violent crime downtown. Crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery and assault are down by almost 7 percent compared to last year.
Barlos, on a recent quiet evening at the Satellite, said he thinks downtown’s about as dangerous as it was when he started slinging drinks 15 years ago, before the Rookery Block was razed, the Davenport Hotel revived, and the Ridpath Hotel emptied of its guests and employees, as people have gotten used to the new STA Plaza, the new mall, and scores of new restaurants and concert venues.
“I think it was a lucky shot, that he got video of it,” Barlos said. “We’ve dealt with street kids for well over a decade. … Aggressive panhandling is nothing new to Spokane.”
Cops armed with data
According to the most recent data, one robbery and four assaults were reported in downtown Spokane between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14. The week before that, there were two robberies and one assault. The week before that there was a single assault. (These numbers do not include property crimes such as theft or larceny, which is the biggest crime downtown.)
The accumulation of data is part of Straub’s initiative to let information guide how his department deploys officers. It’s the numbers that convinced him of the need for a downtown police precinct office, staffed by a police captain, sergeant, corporal and up to 12 officers, and he said the plan is working.
“Crime is down,” Straub said. “In the past year, downtown has become considerably safer. The heightened uniform presence, the commitment of staff – significant staff – to the downtown facility has brought a level of increased safety to downtown.”
He may be right.
According to statistics from the Spokane Police Department, overall crime is down, mirroring trends across the nation.
Violent crime across the country has reached a historic low, according to data from the FBI, at its lowest point since 1963. Though the rate of violent crime went virtually unchanged in 2012 compared to 2011, the long-term trend is going down. The 2012 violent crime total was almost 13 percent below 2008 totals.
According to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the Spokane Police Department reported an average of 1,323 violent crimes per year between 1985 and 2012. The highest number of violent crimes came in 1994, when almost 1,700 violent crimes were reported by police, and the lowest year was 1987, when police reported 1,095 violent crimes.
So far this year, 1,058 violent crimes have been reported, which is about 4 percent lower than the same period last year.
Most notably, at this point last year there were four homicides in the city’s core. This year there have been none.
The one noteworthy increase in crime downtown comes in the form of aggravated assault – the type of violent crime local media have focused on in recent weeks. And it would be safe to say it’s not much of an increase. At this point last year, police recorded 53 instances of aggravated assault downtown. This year, there have been 55 cases of aggravated assault.
But for all the uproar, the perceived increase in danger might be just that: a perception.
Council President Ben Stuckart said perception can be as bad as the real thing.
“If a city gets a perception, then people will take advantage of that and it does get worse. People will stop coming downtown,” he said. “Whether it’s real or not, we need to nip it in the bud.”
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, agreed.
“The fact that there is a perception, an image, that’s not real positive for economic development,” he said, adding that the “ambiance of downtown” suffers.
Coming from a representative of business interests, this sentiment shouldn’t be surprising. But Richard argues that “economic development” helps everyone, from business owners to the homeless to an unemployed 20-something.
‘I’ve earned this’
Reuben, unemployed and 22, is carrying an acoustic guitar and has a young man’s beard coloring his jaw.
It’s approaching midnight and he’s standing near the northeast corner of the Ridpath Hotel with a couple of friends.
Reuben, who declined to give his last name, is well-spoken, sober and just waiting around. It’s dollar beer night at Mootsy’s, the Riff and Lion’s Lair, and he thought there’d be more people out, but the cold night is quiet.
Reuben isn’t planning on going home just yet, but he does have a home. He’s traveled – recently he’s been in San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Las Vegas living the vagrant’s life – but lately he’s been crashing in his parents’ garage.
Regardless, he considers himself a “street kid,” even if he finds the term offensive.
“It can be a derogatory term, depending on who’s using it,” he said. “But I’ve earned this. I’ve learned how to live on the streets and do this.”
He said he’s been hassled. The other day, he asked someone for a dollar and they got in his face and told him to get a job.
“You try to find a job in Spokane,” he said. The conversation turns to a redress of his grievances with society, and while many might argue with his conclusions, at least he’s thought about it.
He feels public education failed him and others by giving him few skills for work. He feels he became an adult when there was little chance for him to find work, let alone the incentive to pursue a career. He feels people condemn him simply for standing on the corner, being young and asking for money.
‘Downtown belongs to everyone’
Reuben is not homeless. He doesn’t have a mental illness. He wasn’t breaking any laws.
But he and his friends were sitting on the sidewalk when approached last week for an interview. For that, if proposed changes to city law go through, they could be arrested.
A handful of ordinances have been introduced to focus on the problems facing downtown, including measures that punish those who act inappropriately in the transit center or on buses; skateboard on sidewalks; or carry vehicle prowling tools.
But the proposed law that has faced the most significant criticisms is one that would strengthen provisions against sitting or lying on public walkways.
After critics of the law said it would “criminalize homelessness,” Stuckart pulled the sit-lie law for further consideration. Soon, two versions of the bill were being put forward, one by Stuckart and a stricter one by Councilman Mike Allen. Late last week, Straub requested both be held after receiving dozens of complaints.
Breean Beggs, who worked with police early on to assure the bill’s constitutionality, said he hasn’t given support to the proposal.
Beggs, who has long been a watchdog for police accountability, said he’s concerned that resources will be tapped if the sit-lie law is used to its full potential.
“If you sweep all of those people into jail, then we won’t have money for more cops or affordable housing,” he said.
Beggs pegged the sit-lie ordinance as the “most expensive and least effective” of tools available to better downtown, and said at its worst the law could be used to target a certain segment of the population.
“It gives cops a reason to roust people based on other things. If they say they’re not going to do that, then what are the standards?” he said. “Downtown belongs to everyone. I think sometimes our city forgets that.”
Time for ‘a very public discussion’
Straub, for one, said he hasn’t forgotten that. But as he spoke about issues downtown, he got visibly frustrated with the state of the conversation within the community.
“We have 16-year-old girls, pregnant, walking around smoking cigarettes. That’s a problem. We have children raising children. We need to address that as a community,” he said. “We don’t want police to be the solution to the problem. We don’t.”
Straub, who has been chief for just over a year, said the time has come “for a very public discussion around the downtown phenomena.”
He wants everyone to know the difference among homeless people, people with mental illness and “street people.”
“What we have to do as a community is agree to what is the social norm for downtown,” he said. “How do we as a body of people share public space, that’s really what’s going on. How do all of us, regardless of our perspectives, our backgrounds, our economic status, how do we share that space in a manner that is equitable to all of us?”
Straub acknowledged there are pockets within street people that are “inherently criminals.” But he added there was an “Oliver syndrome” taking place, where a criminal “gathers the wayward boys and sends them out to steal for him.”
“We have that phenomenon here,” he said. “We have highly active offenders who have a group around them that traffic in stolen property, that break into stolen cars, that traffic in meth.”
Straub said he is working toward solutions and that he and the mayor will be holding a series of meeting with various “stakeholders,” such as human services providers, the Center for Justice, Gonzaga Law School and others.
The plan is to enact a series of laws and establish a community court, giving those who break the law the option of getting help finding housing, for their substance abuse or finishing their education. Or, if they choose, go to jail.
Police need “the option of enforcement, zero-tolerance enforcement, broken windows enforcement,” Straub said. But more importantly, Spokane needs a community court.
“It can and it should and it must happen before next spring. Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the business of incarcerating people, except those people who truly are highly active offenders who deserve to be incarcerated because they just don’t get it.”
Finally, Straub said painting “street people” with a broad brush is wrongheaded.
“I think those street people have every right to sit and enjoy Riverfront Park, just like the Frisbee players do,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with them walking down the street. I don’t have a problem with them congregating, as long as they’re not interfering with my or someone else’s ability to walk down the sidewalk. So the problem we have is, how do we share that sidewalk?”