Seattle sets national example with LGBTQ-friendly safe-haven plan

Officer has enrolled more than 380 Seattle businesses for training in reporting hate crimes and harboring victims

Sami Edge
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE  — In the 2½ months since Jim Ritter began recruiting businesses to provide safe havens for the city’s LGBTQ community, he’s been working nonstop to keep up with demand for the rainbow-badge window decal that denotes “Safe Places” around Seattle.

The sticker designates businesses as places of refuge for victims of assault or harassment, particularly for members of the LGBTQ community. Employees at the businesses are trained to report the crime to police and harbor victims until cops arrive.

(Seattle Police Department Image)
(Seattle Police Department Image)

Since the program’s launch in May, Ritter, a Seattle police officer and his department’s first full-time liaison to the city’s LGBTQ community, has pushed his efforts outside Capitol Hill, but word-of-mouth and media coverage have also generated interest in the program throughout the state and beyond. A television interview about the Safe Place program was even broadcast in Japan.

“There is no more room for hate; there is no more room for ‘us and them,’ ” said Emilie Shepherd, executive director of the Georgetown Merchants Association, who asked all 60 or so businesses in the South Seattle neighborhood to sign up for the “Safe Place” initiative.

“Everybody is supportive of anything we can do to help,” she said. “We need everybody who comes to Georgetown to feel safe.”

Ritter and Shepherd walked the streets of Georgetown on July 28 and enrolled 17 of the area’s businesses.

Ritter has enrolled more than 380 Seattle businesses so far and is also fielding calls about the program from people in Everett and Buckley — even as far away as Cleveland.

“I got excited because this is such a simple idea,” said Ric Scardino, an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) safety in Cleveland. “How many people could it save?”

Scardino says he forwarded information on Safe Place to Cleveland officials as soon as he learned about it, and immediately reached out to Ritter about how to implement the program. So far, he’s found a printer to make the stickers, and is working to raise community support for the initiative.

He planned to advertise Safe Place at the Aug. 8 Cleveland Pride festival.

“Those stickers will not only help the gay community, but they help the community in general because they know it’s a safe harbor,” Scardino said. “I’m serious about doing it.”

The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, pastor of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, sees Safe Place as a good way to advertise that Trinity Episcopal is a safe haven for all people, and to encourage other LGBTQ-friendly organizations to do the same.

“Religious or nonreligious, it’s irrelevant,” Taber-Hamilton said. “We want the community to see us as a safe harbor for all LGBTQ people — they are welcome.”

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that Seattle is blazing the trail”” - Jim Ritter, Seattle police LGBTQ liaison

Taber-Hamilton has been in contact with Ritter about becoming a Safe Place, but acknowledges the program will need support from local authorities to be an effective community effort. Everett police said last week they were unaware of any city-sponsored programs similar to Safe Place.

In late July, Sgt. Ren Emerson, the LGBTQ liaison for the Olympia Police Department, followed Ritter to businesses around Seattle to learn the ropes of recruiting partners for Safe Place and training employees in program responsibilities. She plans to launch Safe Olympia by mid-August.

“It was so nice to see that these businesses are open to the LGBT community,” Emerson said. “(Safe Place) really brings everybody in — all walks of life.”

Members of the Olympia Police Department walked in the Olympia pride parade for the first time this year, and a few officers came to walk in Seattle’s at the invite of SPD. Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts says he’s grateful for SPD’s willingness to share its techniques as his department works to strengthen relationships and trust with the community.

Ritter says law-enforcement agencies across the country have reached out about implementing Safe Place in their own jurisdictions, and that he’s gotten phone calls from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI offering support.

“When you start a program like this you never envision any influence outside of your own little bubble,” Ritter said. “I couldn’t be more thrilled that Seattle is blazing the trail.”

Copyright2015 The Seattle Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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