SPD Data Shows What D.C. Capitol Attack Proved in Primetime: Cops Don’t Represent Us or Democracy

by Sarah Stuteville

Watching the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of white supremacist election deniers, I assumed I’d need to delay my column about Seattle policing. Among other things, new data visualizations from the University of Washington Communication Leadership program (published throughout this column) show that an overwhelming majority of Seattle police officers live outside of Seattle. It’s a fact with deep financial and cultural implications for the movement to defund the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

80% of Seattle police live outside the city limits.

Darker blue indicates a higher concentration of officers residing in those zip codes. Graphic by Vera Burgos. Source: 2016 SPD public records request. (Seattle, flanked by Elliot Bay and Lake Washington, is left of center in this image.) Click image to *view interactive map. *If it doesn’t open automatically, click here to go to Tableau.

At first glance, it seemed that last Wednesday’s attempted coup — the most recent result of touching a match to four (and 250) years of gassed-up, enraged, and entitled white people in this country — would overshadow any other stories. And then, what police were protecting at the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, evaporated. In the absence of any meaningful police presence, the mob of sometimes-armed, neo-fascists marauded through the nation’s capital looting, kicking in doors, setting off explosive devices, and threatening representatives who huddled in gas masks on the floor of the House and Senate chambers. There was even a gallows on the lawn outside.

Closer to home, an echo of those sickening images was repeated at the Washington Governor’s Mansion in Olympia as camo-wearing, occasionally gun-carrying Trump supporters walked past minimal security to demand a recount of our state’s (also indisputably legitimate) gubernatorial election results. For anyone who participated in (or even casually observed) the police response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, it was stunning to observe the total lack of reaction from law enforcement. And it inevitably follows that at least two Seattle police officers are being investigated for having participated in the violent mob in D.C. last week.

It took D.C. police hours to lightly tear-gas the advancing mob at the Capitol Building. From there, riot cops gently escorted people who could easily be labeled “domestic terrorists” to safety as though they were misbehaving fans at a football game. There was no doubt that had these people been Black Lives Matter protesters (or Black and Brown people of any political orientation), they would have been shot and killed on the spot. We would have been watching a massacre.

Police forces across the country are designed at their core to police some communities (Black, Brown, poor, immigrant, and leftist) more harshly than others (white, wealthy, conservative). The attack on the Capitol is a raw, stark example of what has been true since the poisoned seed of policing took root in southern slave patrols and mutated to policing new immigrant communities in the north. The police aren’t a “thin blue line” between “good citizens” and “criminals,” and they never were. They are an armed and sometimes militarized force assembled to control marginalized people and ideologies, while serving those who have traditionally been in power. Central to this culture is the concept of policing the other. 

And that is why it made such deep and intuitive sense when data — obtained via a public records request in 2016 by The Seattle Globalist — showed that 80% of Seattle police officers live outside of the city. That year, only 323 of the 1609 total SPD employees in public safety and crime prevention roles lived inside the city limits — and there’s no reason to believe that’s changed much since. Take a moment to let that sink in along with all the full implications. That means that the rubber bullet or face full of teargas you caught a few months ago while you were protesting racist police violence likely came from a cop who took his paycheck (which you fund) right on out of Seattle when he clocked out that day. That cop pays his taxes elsewhere and is generally economically and personally invested in a completely different community. All told, that accounts for at least $150 million flowing out of Seattle each year (not to mention police pensions). It’s a financial insult — which I would add is a really good place to start when arguing about ACAB with your dad.

Over $150 million leaves the City of Seattle each year in the form of police salaries.

Darker green indicates more salary dollars paid to officers in those zip codes. Graphic by Alex Stonehill. Sources: 2016 Public Records request to SPD; data.seattle.gov. Click image to view interactive map.

But beyond the drain on our city budget, there are troubling cultural implications. What would make someone want to so brutally police a city they don’t live in? What apocalyptic reel from KOMO’s fear-mongering series “Seattle is Dying” is looping in his head when he gets in his car and drives from Snohomish or Pierce County (both counties that had around twice the percentage of Trump voters than King County) to a police precinct in downtown Seattle or the Rainier Valley? Is he considering the people he encounters there as his community? What made him want to arm up and police them as his career?

Seattle police daily commutes

A representative sample of the flow of police officers into the city, based on their residence zip code and the precinct where they work. In this image, the SPD East Precinct is shown as the destination. Graphic by Amanda Arndt. Source: 2016 SPD Public Records request. Click image to view interactive map (use check boxes to select different precincts).

I want to be careful not to suggest that if police were in fact drawn from within the city limits of Seattle they would somehow be a kinder, gentler force. Chicago has required that their police live inside the city for a century (though it’s sporadically enforced), and their police serve up plenty of violence. They just live in different neighborhoods than they typically patrol.  

Similarly, there has been lots of discussion about the racial, ethnic, and gender representation of police as a fix for abusive behavior and excessive use of force. The SPD scores ok(ish) in that department (with the exception of women and Asian Americans, who are vastly underrepresented).  But a (sort of) racially and ethnically representative police force (because a 9% Black and 71% white police force cannot possibly be described as “diverse”) doesn’t take into account the lack of diversity in who is policed and how.

Representation in the Seattle Police Department

Seattle population data from US Census. Graphic by Vera Burgos. SPD employee data from 2016 Public Records request. Click image to view interactive graphic.

Creating new reforms regarding where police live, like reforms that center around more diverse hiring, is still a red herring to distract from what we all know is true — the institution of policing isn’t malfunctioning and in need of tweaks. It’s doing exactly what it has always been meant to do: brutalize Black, Brown, poor, and immigrant communities in the service of the white and rich for whom all political systems and institutions are designed. 

As author Dr. Badia Ahad put it in a recent tweet, “I don’t think diversity training is going to fix this.” And neither will insisting police are drawn from within the Seattle city limits. But it is still important to illuminate all of the ways that policing is designed for maximum abuse in this country, especially in the days after we watched white supremacist insurrectionists attack our nation’s capital with almost no resistance. The Capitol attack was, among many other things, a stomach-churning argument for the Defund Movement. To quote Twitter again, this time from filmmaker, musician, and activist Bree Newsome Bass, “Tell me again why we can’t defund the police and military when they’ve shown us today that they don’t intend to use any of their expensive gear to protect the Capitol from a domestic invasion?”

Policing is often the most tangible manifestation of the oppressive, divisive systems that control our country. It is an institution born to capture and punish slaves. It is an institution that was developed to “protect” the wealthy from immigrants. It is an institution that maintains a racist, white supremacist order through terror. And it is an institution that inherently depends on the nonstop “in grouping” of some populations and “out grouping” of others, all at the pleasure and service of the powerful. As more and more people come to this realization, public trust in police is further eroded.

Police approval ratings are at historic lows, both in Seattle and nationally.

Graphic by Alex Stonehill. *Sources for this data are at the bottom of this article. Click image to view interactive graphic.

We saw it in high relief as the doors were held open for armed men carrying Confederate flags into the nation’s capitol this week. The very same Capitol where a few months ago, unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters were met with the full force of overfunded, militarized riot police who beat, tear-gassed, and arrested them by the hundreds.

It may have been on a national stage this week, but it also happens here in Seattle every single day.

Author’s Notes: 

Original public records request was made by Melissa Crowe in 2016 for the Seattle Globalist. 

All SPD employment data are filtered to remove administrative staff, parking enforcement, etc. in an effort to include only jobs that are public facing and/or have a crime prevention, response, public safety, or leadership elements. Shoreline zip codes 98177 and 98133 are half inside and half outside of the city limits. In residence calculations we’ve included 98133 as part of the city and 98177 as outside the city.

*Data Sources: https://news.gallup.com/poll/317114/black-white-adults-confidence-diverges-police.aspx ; https://news.gallup.com/poll/213869/confidence-police-back-historical-average.aspx ; https://news.gallup.com/poll/183704/confidence-police-lowest-years.aspx ; https://crosscut.com/news/2020/10/poll-king-county-voters-want-change-not-defund-police ; https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/904866/download ; https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5425b9f0e4b0d66352331e0e/t/562ce664e4b022641dac5c59/1445783140680/ALG+SUMMARY+-+SEATTLE+POLICE+SURVEY+2015.pdf

Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and nonprofit media consultant currently pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year.  Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a nonprofit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.

Featured image by Derek Simeone; used here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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