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Gay cop creates ‘Safe Place’ program on Capitol Hill

Seattle police Officer Jim Ritter talks to Ashley van Meter on June 24 at Seattle Cigar & Tobacco about his “Safe Place” campaign in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Ellen M. Banner)
Seattle police Officer Jim Ritter talks to Ashley van Meter on June 24 at Seattle Cigar & Tobacco about his “Safe Place” campaign in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Ellen M. Banner)
Sami Edge Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When he was a 14-year-old police cadet in Seattle, Jim Ritter knew he wanted to work for the Seattle Police Department someday. He also knew he was gay.

In the mid-1970s, you couldn’t be both.

After high school, Ritter joined the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office knowing he wouldn’t face questions about his sexual orientation – a disqualifier in some departments in those days.

He waited for three years before he applied to the SPD, nervous that he might face a polygraph test with questions about his sexual orientation.

They didn’t ask. He got in.

Even then, it was 10 years before he felt comfortable coming out. But that didn’t keep him from advocating for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community throughout his career.

Last September, after more than three decades on the force, Ritter, 54, was appointed as SPD’s first full-time liaison to the city’s LGBT community.

Since then, Ritter has been making efforts to connect the SPD and the LGBT community through a program called “Safe Place,” a campaign against bias crimes that labels businesses as LGBT allies and trains employees to call 911 to report hate crimes while harboring victims until police arrive.

Ritter’s appointment comes amid an uptick in reported anti-LGBT bias and hate crimes on Capitol Hill.

“Everybody comes up here because we’re fun and we’re safe – at least, we used to be,” said Shaun Knittel, the president and co-founder of LGBT rights organization Social Outreach Seattle. “On the Hill, should we have to change? Absolutely not. If you come here to party, to live, to work, you should have an understanding of our ideals.”

In March, Ed Murray, Seattle’s first gay mayor, called the increase in crime against sexual minorities a “crisis.” SPD statistics show that bias crimes against the population climbed from 19 to 36 during 2013-14. However, there’s widespread agreement that crimes are still sporadic and minor in comparison to the organized “gay bashing” of decades past.

The goal of the “Safe Place” is to reduce violence and bias crimes within Seattle’s LGBT community and, most immediately, within the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

But to achieve that goal, the SPD will have to improve its image among some people who may be wary of the police.

Ritter said he understands.

When he joined the force in 1983, there was only one openly gay male officer, he said. Although comments about that officer were “not systematic,” Ritter said there were enough to convince him that revealing his own sexual orientation might do more harm than good.

“It’s basically leading at least two lives,” Ritter said.

But Ritter said that has changed. When he came out in 1993, it was “no big deal” to his colleagues. Today, there are about 50 openly gay officers on the force, Ritter said.

“The way we move forward is to show the public that this is 2015 – and we are not the department we were 30 years ago,” Ritter said. He said he hopes to help bust the stereotype around police by personally showing the LGBT community that police care, and SPD Safe Place is “a mechanism in place to prove that.”

Karyn Schwartz, whose apothecary Sugarpill is a part of the Safe Place campaign, said she was the victim of a mugging a few years ago.

She thinks the Safe Place logo – a rainbow flag inside a badge – is a reminder of the inclusive spirit that’s started to feel endangered in the neighborhood.

“It’s really visibly queer in a way that I’ve been craving,” Schwartz said. “Seeing some sort of representation of yourself that says ‘you belong here’ – it brings calm to your soul.”

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