One of the first things Jim Ritter did when he became LGBTQ liaison officer for the Seattle Police Department earlier this year was to page through reports of hate crimes. The numbers indicated a possible modest uptick in attacks and menacing behavior aimed at the gay community. Anecdotally, however, Ritter was encountering something very different.
“I’m getting calls from people saying it had happened to them or their friends,” Ritter recalled. “I’m getting calls from people and they’re not matching up with the reports I have. I’d say, ‘Well, did you report these?’ and they’d say no. It was clear to me that this was a huge problem for us, because if we don’t know about it we can’t devote resources to it.”
That realization that hate crimes were more frequent than the numbers indicated prompted Ritter to create the Seattle Police Department Safe Place program.
Designed to identify plentiful safe and secure places for victims of anti-LGBTQ-related crimes and harassment, SPD Safe Place’s mission is intentionally uncomplicated. Window clings with the program’s rainbow logo are circulated to Seattle area businesses and public facilities identifying them as places where staff who’ve received SPD Safe Place training will call 911 and allow victims to remain on the premises until police arrive.
“We’re not wanting employees to tackle the suspect who is doing this,” he emphasized. “We want to make sure the employees stay safe and people in the businesses stay safe. I think the way this was designed, that’s certainly happening. Remember, these suspects don’t want to be seen. They don’t want to be following victims into a room full of people who can identify them.”
Starbucks has embraced the SPD Safe Place concept and expects to complete the process of circulating signage to each of the 97 company-owned stores in the greater Seattle area. About 2,000 partners (employees) will complete training by November 9.
“This definitely aligns with our values as an organization – to create a safe and inclusive environment in our stores,” said Heather Jennings, director of Starbucks Regional Operations. “It’s been really well-received by our store partners. I think what Jim is doing is about bringing the community together to say harming people, whether they be LGBTQ or not, isn’t acceptable.”
Drawing Inspiration from the Past
The welcomingly simple nature of SPD Safe Place – to get targets of crime to safety and keep them there until help arrives – was inspired by Ritter’s memory of posters with a silhouette of a hand he’d see in windows when he was growing up in Bellevue, Washington, in the early 1970s. The veteran police officer, who is gay, recalled the comfort he felt when he observed the silhouette signs, which identified homes where kids who were being menaced could seek protection. Four decades later, he’s now updating the concept for a problem he’s charged with addressing in Seattle.
While he’s seeing more reports of crimes directed at Seattle’s LGBTQ community, Ritter feels the higher numbers may indicate that an underreported problem is finally being effectively addressed.
He pointed out that eight hate crimes reported during last summer’s Seattle Pride celebration prompted seven arrests.
“The victims of these crimes are feeling more comfortable reporting them,” Ritter said. “The officers are doing a great job making arrests. The community, law enforcement and prosecutors are working in unison to hold perpetrators accountable. I think the message is getting out there to people who commit these crimes as much or more than the victims.”
Ritter’s efforts have earned him fans in the Starbucks community, where training he’s provided has cascaded down to the store level. “He’s really pushing this with shoe leather and passion,” said Shannon Boldizsar, senior manager of Starbucks Government Affairs. “He’s doing it for all the right reasons.”
Though only months old, SPD Safe Place is gaining momentum in Seattle. Ritter estimates that 600 businesses are currently participating in the effort to create safe places, and the Seattle School District recently came onboard.
The program has also gained international attention. A Tokyo TV news crew trailed Ritter one day and press coverage has surfaced as far away as Dubai.