SEATTLE — There are few physical reminders of activists’ occupation of an anti-police “autonomous zone” two years ago, but a backlash of rising crime and police resignations has spread far beyond the boundaries of the Capitol Hill neighborhood where the infamous protest took place.
The takeover known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, lasted a month and became a symbol of a social justice movement that spun out of control. The city has yet to fully recover.
The Seattle Police Department said violent crime soared 20% last year to a 14-year high. Property crime was up 9%.
Even worse, shootings in the city were up 75% in the first five months of this year despite Washington state’s tough gun safety laws.
In the past two years, the Seattle Police Department has lost about one-fourth of its officers, including Police Chief Carmen Best. She blamed the “defund the police” movement for the hundreds of police resignations, including her own.
“Crime has increased everywhere. We’ve got poverty, drugs, everything,” said M.K. Wheeler, who works as a security guard at Pike Place Market, a popular tourist destination. “There’s a shortage of resources for the police, and officials like the mayor and council can do more to help them out, for sure. But at the same time, you’ve got to have people who want to join the force.”
Many residents also blame the spike in crime on elected officials’ bowing to the “defund the police” movement, which spread to most major U.S. cities after the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Kim Douthit, who gives ghost tours in Seattle, said she has witnessed the slow police response after she called for officers to handle a possible stabbing incident outside her office in Pioneer Square.
“The police aren’t really doing anything since everything happened with CHOP and stuff,” Ms. Douthit said. “I grew up here, and it’s sad to watch this kind of slow decline.”
Said one resident who lives in Puget Sound: “Crime is so bad. I grew up here, but I never go downtown anymore. I never go into the city. It’s become an embarrassment after all the CHOP stuff happened. The ultra-progressive policies have ruined everything.”
Beyond frustration among residents, rampant crime has pushed businesses out of Seattle because of unchecked thefts and concerns about the safety of employees.
From March 2020 to March 2021, more than 160 businesses closed or relocated from Seattle. Most of them cited violent crime concerns. Some blamed the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starbucks, which originated in the city, announced last month that it would close five of its “high-incident” stores across Seattle. The coffee company said it would close 16 stores nationwide because of safety concerns, including several stores in California and Oregon.
Seattle sustained a series of lawsuits related to its delayed response in shutting down CHOP, which former Mayor Jenny Durkan once referred to as a “summer of love.”
Some elected officials insist the impact of the protest was exaggerated and overhyped by news media.
“What was actually happening inside, it was literally like an arts festival. I think that right-wing media was the only ones focused on that,” said state Rep. Noel Frame, a Democrat.
As the “defund the police” movement swept blue states, Seattle went further than most other major cities when its leaders promised massive police reform in the name of racial justice. The City Council voted to cut about 20% of the police force budget. Several council members initially pledged to slash the budget by 50%.
The City Council also offered residents a chance to voice their opinions in the budgeting process. Members earmarked $30 million to find long-term solutions of “reducing police violence, reducing crime, and creating true community safety through community-led safety programs and new investments.” Of the $30 million, $12 million was diverted from the police department’s budget.
Although the council said no functional cuts were made to the city’s police force, officers resigned in droves over the decision and the lack of support from city leaders.
Several businesses sued the city for damages they sustained during the occupied protest. In June, Seattle reached a $500,000 settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit over the killing of 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson, who was shot in the zone.
Mr. Anderson’s father said the city encouraged people to break the law while occupying the police-shunned area.
Last month, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Antonio Mays Jr., a 16-year-old who was fatally shot inside the zone in June 2020.
Stores that remain open are dealing with a lack of response from law enforcement and attacks by increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs.
In December, Seattle police arrested 35 people who stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from a downtown Target store. Officers said it was an organized effort.
The perpetrators were given trespassing notices and no jail time under the lax laws for petty theft in King County, which classifies shoplifting items worth $750 or less as a misdemeanor.
A downtown resident who lives a few blocks from Target said it’s common to see people on the street selling merchandise they took directly from the store.
A sign on the Target door spelled out the reality of life in that neighborhood: “For the safety of our guests and the team, these entrances will be closed at 7:45 pm each night.”
Amazon temporarily moved employees out of one of its downtown buildings this year after multiple shootings.
In Capitol Hill, a few signs written in graffiti or chalk signal the continued support of toppling the police force. One message on the ground reads, “abolish the police.”
The area has a colorful vibe with street artwork donning the sides of buildings and signs that pay homage to social justice causes such as Black Lives Matter. Most businesses greet visitors with a note that reads they’re LGBTQ-friendly.
An officer walking into the East Precinct police station, which some protesters attempted to set ablaze during the CHOP takeover, said the office reopened several months ago. It was evacuated two years ago because of nightly protests.
Outside, the precinct looks empty, with just a single, unoccupied police car. Its online hours still list the building as being “temporarily closed.”
The officer, who started with the force two months ago and didn’t give his name, said he has few complaints about the job, though the daily call volume is high with theft and homicide reports.
He said of the crime spike, “There are good days and bad days.”