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Seattle passes grim milestone with record high homicides

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Seattle has passed a grim milestone — 57 homicides, so far, in 2023. It's the highest level of homicides the city has seen in nearly three decades.

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The Seattle Police Department confirmed the homicide count with KUOW on Thursday. The statistic makes 2023 Seattle's bloodiest year in recent memory.

Callie Craighead, a spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell, called the spike in homicides "tragic, abhorrent, and unacceptable."

"Public safety is a core charter responsibility, and Mayor Harrell believes that every person in our city deserves to be and feel safe," Craighead told KUOW.

The city saw 69 homicides in 1994, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which tracks crime data from across the state as far back as 1980. Those data show 1994 had the highest number of recorded homicides in Seattle. The recent rise in slayings may put Seattle on pace to exceed that figure in 2023.

A spokesperson for Seattle Police did not directly address the city's homicides when asked for comment. The spokesperson instead referred to staffing issues in the department. Seattle has lost hundreds more officers than it's hired in recent years.

"However, SPD continues to re-allocate resources to areas of concern in our communities," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The city set out to aggressively recruit more police in 2022. So far, the effort has failed to meaningfully add to the ranks of SPD. Other cities across the country are facing similar challenges.

The mayor's office also nodded to police staffing: "Our office will continue with efforts to support a well-trained and well-staffed police department, ensuring SPD has the resources to respond to the needs of the community and conduct swift, thorough investigations."

The uptick in homicides has occurred alongside a rise in violent crime in the Seattle area, and Washington state, in recent years.

  • Homicides increased in Washington by 96% between 2019 and 2022.
  • Violent crime across the state went up 8.9% in 2022.
  • In Seattle, 2022 marked a 15-year high in violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, assault). That year, the city saw its violent crime rate rise from 729 per 100,000 residents, to 736 per 100,000.
  • Homicides in Seattle went up 24% in 2022, totaling 52 that year, just behind 2020's count of 53. (According to SPD's 2022 crime report, the department investigated a total of 60 homicides that year, but 52 met criteria for the FBI's definition for criminal homicide).
caption: A graph showing Seattle's violent crime rate between 2008 and 2022, taken from the Seattle Police Department's 2022 crime report.
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A graph showing Seattle's violent crime rate between 2008 and 2022, taken from the Seattle Police Department's 2022 crime report.

Responding to a rise in violence, the Seattle Police Department began a Community Violence Task Force in June. The department's spokesperson mentioned this effort in an email to KUOW, writing that the task force "focuses on apprehending those involved in the violent crimes impacting the safety in our neighborhoods." The task force is comprised of about 50-60 police officers, and partners such as the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In 2022, the U.S. Attorney's Office began pouring millions of dollars into the region to counter rise in gun violence. Seattle received the largest grant with $829,956.

"Addressing public safety concerns is an ongoing challenge and will take a multi-faceted, holistic approach, and Mayor Harrell remains committed to advancing innovative, effective, and proactive solutions to help keep residents safe," said Craighead, the mayor's spokesperson.

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Upon the recent news of 2023's rise in homicides, the Seattle Police Officer's Guild seized the moment to weave it into its own political narrative, partially targeting the city council. In an online video published Sept. 4, the police union associated the recent homicide numbers with protests and attacks against its office in 2020. Those attacks started with eggs thrown at its headquarters, and also included Molotov cocktails thrown outside its building.

SPOG is currently negotiating a contract with city officials.

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