Sunday, April 21, 2019

Seattle is Dying? Clearing smoke, breaking mirrors

Homeless camp in Philadelphia
by Gregory Saville

Johann Schropfer was an 18th Century charlatan and swindler famous for his projections of "ghosts" in smoke-filled rooms during seances. That trick was the origin of the smoke and mirrors scam, an illusion perpetrated by someone with something up their sleeve - in Schropfer's case, fraud.

A friend recently texted me the TV documentary Seattle is Dying about homelessness in Seattle. The website of the Seattle KOMO TV station that made the film says: "It's about parents who won't take their children into the public parks they pay for. It's about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime."

Homeless shelter in Canberra, Australia
- photo Creative Commons, John Scotas

There's nothing new about blight and fear in urban America. We've blogged on homelessness for years and have been working on the International CPTED Association homelessness committee to develop strategies for CPTED practitioners.

Nor is there anything new about Seattle's homelessness problem. Social workers, police, and others who work with the homeless have justifiably complained about insufficient support and ineffective actions. Politicians struggle to find answers. No doubt this is serious.

But is Seattle's homelessness any different from other places? Local media are supposed to focus on local stories, hopefully, so some good comes out of the coverage. Consider the Los Angeles story about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician befriended by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote articles and a book on his story (later featured in the 2009 film The Soloist). That turned into millions of dollars in city support for the LA skid row.

What's different in Seattle? Local media now claim Seattle's problem is the worst in the country. Is it?

Homelessness in Toronto


Then I saw a Fox News broadcast about the KOMO documentary and heard this from a right-wing pundit: "Seattle is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is among the most liberal and as a direct result of that Seattle is now a haven for homelessness and drug use." That, says Fox News, is the reason for Seattle's problems. That is also, I suspect, how a smoke and mirrors illusion starts.

Here are lessons to help you smash those mirrors and clear that smoke:
  • Lesson #1: Crime stats around homelessness are notoriously difficult to collect. Those cited in the film are sloppy enough to make a criminologist cringe. 
  • Lesson #2: Homeless stats are even more difficult. Some use nightly street counts, others use shelter counts. Problem is, eastern cities tend to offer mandatory shelter beds for every homeless person (due to more extreme winter weather), whereas many western cities do not. That means homeless counts are inflated in some cities and not in others. Blame the weather, not the politics.
  • Lesson #3: Then there is what criminologists call the base rate problem. To equate a homeless population with a city population base depends on whether you include the inner city, the metro area, or other geographies.  

Sleeping homeless on the street outside a resort in Honduras


Here are some actual stats for 2016 - 2018:

In other words, cities like Miami, Tulsa and Oklahoma City have homeless rates much worse than Seattle. Interestingly, Tulsa and Oklahoma City are among the most conservative cities in the country and Tulsa has a homeless rate double that of Seattle! The KOMO documentary fails to mention that. Why?

Sleeping spot for a Denver homeless person


KOMO News 4 is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, among the most infamous media conglomerates and, according to some political scientists, a close ally of the Trump administration.

Political researchers have studied Sinclair and their outlets and concluded Sinclair has engaged in a litany of biased practices in news reporting and faced intense scrutiny from media critics, as well as some from its own station employees, for the conservative slant of their stations' news reporting.

The Nobel winning Center for Public Integrity has repeatedly raised the alarm about bias at Sinclair stations.

And now the KOMO/Sinclair conglomerate tell us "Seattle is Dying". Is this a case of Fox News pundits using smoke and mirrors for another attack on liberal cities at a time when political polarization is epidemic?

Homelessness truly is a serious problem. It deserves proper research and someone telling the whole story. The suffering of those on the street - and the frustration of well-intentioned professionals like social workers, police, and others - deserve no less. As we have advocated repeatedly, homelessness is a modern scourge we must solve.

To offer up a smoke and mirrors claim that "liberal" cities are the culprit and then use a documentary that ignores crucial homelessness data in other cities makes me wonder; Would Johann Schropfer be impressed?

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Science and art - activating space with knowledge

Activating Brisbane with outdoor science

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We have written a number of blogs about activating public space with public art. From music festivals to large murals, neighbourhoods around the world bring people together to observe and interact around art. However, in Brisbane this year, art was mixed with science.

Last month, the city of Brisbane was celebrating all things science in the public sphere. Brisbane had a massive science festival. This included exhibits at the Queensland science museum, an outdoor festival, and perhaps the most engaging: technology-inspired art exhibits around the city. These exhibits, called Curiocity, married together art and science into an interactive and beautiful combination for local residents and tourists alike. The exhibits were placed along the Brisbane river and free for everyone, making them easily accessible and activating these spaces 24 hours day.

Accessible and free - science for the public in Brisbane

Artists, scientists and technicians combine experience in robotics, music, art and technology to create these interactive experiences. The exhibits included “Sky Brisbane” an air-jet activated grid of colourful fabric plumes that move based on the movement of the observer and “Scatter” solar-powered spinning loud speakers that scatter sound as the listener moves throughout the exhibit. These exhibits could be further engaged with through a phone app that was accessed through a scannable bar code at each installation.

"The Universe" outdoor science exhibit, Prague, Czech Republic
- photo Creative Commons Packa 
These kinds of exhibits are not new but definitely are growing in popularity and size. For example, in North Vancouver Canada, Capilano suspension bridge puts on a beautiful holiday light show at the end of each year. Last year they included an interactive light display that turned on and changed colour based on the noise made. Passers-by engaged in clapping, stomping and cheering to see what kinds of colour combinations they could make.

Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge
- Photo Creative Commons Markus Saynevirta


While we often talk about how public art can bring people out and activate space, this combination of technology and art could offer not only further public engagement, but also celebrate and expand science in the public forum. Science festivals that include these kinds of exhibits can encourage curiosity and celebrate the advancement of knowledge, while remaining accessible and enjoyable.

In a time when science and evidence is being replaced by personal opinion and fake news, perhaps the celebration of science in the public realm will not only bring folks out and activate public space but will also encourage thoughtful conversation and curiosity about knowledge and inquiry.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The law of the hammer

The Law of the Hammer - photo from Police PBL
by Gregory Saville

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow, the brilliant psychologist who uncovered the nature of basic human needs, said  “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In spelling out this law of innate human behavior, he echoed a concept called The Law of the Hammer by an earlier scholar,
"We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand."
This afternoon I searched a popular law enforcement website for police training conferences and workshops in June. I counted 193 courses and workshops across the country and that was only June! There is obviously no lack of training opportunities for American police officers.

Digging a bit deeper I discovered that, of those 193 courses, 75 were focused on SWAT-techniques, weapons training, and defensive tactics and another 50 covered investigation methods (interrogation, homicides). The rest included a mix of digital photography, lock picking, and drone usage.

Policing in a new age - photo from Police PBL 

A few seminars included an obsolete, 50-year old recruit field training program called FTO. Another taught how to deploy chemical aerosol projectiles.

In other words, almost 75% of all courses in June dealt with retroactive investigation long after a crime occurs (investigation, after all, requires a crime to have already happened), or they taught techniques in the use of, and response to, force - the bluntest hammer of them all.


There is no shortage of training opportunities in policing, but the majority use very similar hammers and, I respectfully submit, end up with the same results. We need something different.

Missing from this buffet of training courses:
  • Prevention of crime before deadly situations arise, such as neighborhood strategies like SafeGrowth
  • How to help officers problem-solve with residents to build bridges and community support 
  • How to work with the disenfranchised, the poor, and the mentally ill (the very people who get interrogated, get photographed after they become homicide victims, or get arrested following moments of illness or intoxication).

To a person with a hammer…


This year two upcoming conferences provide a different set of tools into the hands of officers and community members seeking a different way forward. These conferences are rooted in long-proven police methods and educational strategies that create a more comprehensive set of problem-solving skills. None of those 193 training courses cover these themes.

  • The Annual Conference of the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning is called “Training for Resiliency: The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Policing”. It is in Madison, Wisconsin, June 5-7th and features exceptional guest speakers including behavioral scientist, Kevin Gilmartin. 
For 15 years the Police Society for Problem-Based Learning has offered education, certification, and skills-training for instructors, academy educators, and field trainers in modern education methods and mental tools for intelligent problem-solving.
The Problem-Oriented Policing Conference features projects from around the world where officers partner with communities to resolve difficult crime and disorder issues. Fellow officers show how to  tackle, (and more importantly, prevent), gang violence, shootings, neighborhood disorder, sexual assaults, robberies, and many others.