Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice

Seattle generalized zoning mapby Leo Brine

Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.

Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.

The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.

Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”

Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.

Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.

Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)

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Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built). Continue reading “Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice”

Mental Health Advocates Raise Concerns About Psychiatric Commitment Bill

Eastern State Hospital
Eastern State Hospital. Photo by T85cr1ft19m1n, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Kiefer

As Washington lawmakers grapple with the shortcomings of the state’s behavioral health system, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond) is sponsoring a bill that aims to open beds in the two state-run psychiatric hospitals, Eastern and Western State, to provide short-term mental health treatment beds for people with serious behavioral health disorders to stabilize so that a court can decide whether they need to be hospitalized long-term, a process called civil commitment. Neither hospital currently provides any short-term beds; instead, they provide long-term treatment, mostly to people accused of crimes who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The bill would require the state hospitals to admit patients who need to undergo the two weeks of mental health evaluations and treatment needed for a civil court to decide whether they belong in long-term care. It does not set aside a specific number of beds for this purpose.

Across Washington, short-term psychiatric beds are hard to come by, especially for people with a record of violent crime. To fill the gap, Washington courts send hundreds of people each year to regular hospitals, which usually aren’t equipped to provide the level of mental health care that a psychiatric hospital can; some patients with severe behavioral health disorders even end up in emergency room beds, and others are turned away, often into homelessness. In September 2021 alone, King County courts committed 361 people to non-psychiatric hospitals.

Dhingra’s bill would prioritize opening beds at state hospitals for people whose criminal records would make it difficult to place them elsewhere.

“The hospitals are already seeing this group of people. We should take them in when they first come into contact with the civil system instead of waiting for them to commit a felony.”—State Sen. Manka Dhingra

The proposal sparked pushback from mental health advocates, who argue that the bill would only make it more difficult for the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS)—the agency that runs the two state hospitals—to manage its backlog of patients who either need to get into the hospitals for long-term, court-ordered treatment or who are sitting in the hospitals waiting for housing after their treatment ends. Advocates also say that hospitalizing people who need short-term treatment in large institutions far away from where they live works against the state’s larger goal of treating people with behavioral health disorders in their own communities.

In Dhingra’s view, Eastern and Western State Hospitals should help meet the demand for short-term treatment—especially for people that other hospitals refused to treat because of their criminal record. “The hospitals are already seeing this group of people,” she said. “They don’t get the treatment they need in the civil system; they then commit felonies and wind up at Western State. We should take them in when they first come into contact with the civil system instead of waiting for them to commit a felony.” Using the state hospitals may be a temporary solution, Dhingra added, until more local psychiatric beds open; since 2016, DSHS has been investing in small, community-based treatment facilities across the state, but that effort hasn’t met the demand for beds.

Some mental health advocates and DSHS itself, however, say Eastern and Western State Hospitals stopped handling short-term treatment for a reason. During a hearing on the bill last week, DSHS Assistant Secretary Kevin Bovenkamp told lawmakers that opening the hospitals to short-term patients again “moves us in the wrong direction.”

“We worked for years to shift the focus towards getting people places to recover in their own communities,” said Laura Van Tosh, an advocate who previously spent time as a patient at Western State Hospital. “If this plan goes through, it will upturn all those efforts. The last thing we want to do is put more people in the state hospitals.”

From Van Tosh’s perspective, while the bill might get people into psychiatric beds faster, a short stay in a large state hospital is far less useful in a patient’s recovery than treatment in their own community. “From where I stand, this doesn’t seem patient-centered, and it doesn’t seem focused on recovery,” she said. “It just seems like a mechanism to get homeless people off the streets and keep them in hospital beds for who knows how long.” People experiencing homelessness are more likely to be civilly committed, and people who have been civilly committed are more likely to become homeless after they are released Continue reading “Mental Health Advocates Raise Concerns About Psychiatric Commitment Bill”

Poll Tests Messaging on Pro-Density Bill, Dunn Blasts Program He Voted For, Seattle Nice Debates Eviction Ban

1. Supporters of a bill that would legalize small multifamily buildings in residential areas across the state were testing messages for and against the legislation in a telephone poll last weekend.

The bill would eliminate the kind of exclusionary zoning that has preserved three-quarters of Seattle’s residential land exclusively for detached single-family houses, allowing very modest density (between two and six units, depending on proximity to housing and employment centers) in residential areas.

Although the bill is complex, selling it politically will boil down to messaging, which is where polls come in. This one tests how a number of positive messages impact a respondent’s support for the bill, including:

– Bans on homes like duplexes and triplexes make it more difficult for people of color to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods;

– Making more home types available and affordable helps protect our climate and prevent sprawl;

– The housing crisis spans municipal borders, which is why we need statewide solutions.

The poll also tests a number of messages opponents may use against the bill to see which ones are most convincing, such as:

– Traffic here is already terrible. It is impossible to live without a car here. This plan for massive new development will put more cars on the road and some units will not have to have off street parking. Our region is already growing too fast. Let’s not make it worse.

-We need to preserve the character of local neighborhoods. This is blanket fix that eliminates local control of development. It’s a one-size-fits-all mandate, even where new housing does not fit local character and the infrastructure isn’t there. Middle-income housing should not be burdened with fixing the housing crisis.

– This bill will accelerate and increase gentrification. too many working people, especially people of color, have already been forced to move and the solution should be rent control. This is another attempt by politicians in Olympia to line the pockets of wealthy property owners.

Although voters won’t get a direct say on HB 1782 or other legislation aimed at increasing access to affordable housing, a successful messaging campaign could put pressure on wavering density supporters to solidify or back off on their support for pro-housing bills. As happened last year, density opponents are already rolling out competing bills that are riddled with loopholes and designed to preserve the single-family status quo.

Although Dunn voted to fund Restorative Community Pathways’ $5 million budget at the end of 2020, he told PubliCola it turned out to be a bait-and-switch

2. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn introduced a motion on Tuesday to pause a new juvenile diversion program, arguing that the program softens the consequences for crimes he considers too serious for diversion.

In a press release, Dunn cited similar complaints from the mayors of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Renton, who said the program could exacerbate the recent uptick in gun violence.

Dunn is challenging Democrat Kim Schrier to represent Washington’s 8th congressional district—a historically Republican seat. His criticism of Restorative Community Pathways is the latest in a series of high-profile provocations that position Dunn as a law-and-order stalwart on the council; he also led the charge to condemn City Hall Park, adjacent to the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, as a public safety hazard.

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, the only other person quoted in Dunn’s press release, is campaigning to replace outgoing King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, also on a law-and-order platform.

Restorative Community Pathways, launched at the end of 2021, relies on nine nonprofits—including well-known organizations like East African Community Services—to provide counseling and supportive services to young people charged with low-level crimes, ranging from car thefts to some assaults. Most of the roughly 70 people referred to the program so far were arrested for misdemeanors, but the program is also open to young people charged with felonies. Continue reading “Poll Tests Messaging on Pro-Density Bill, Dunn Blasts Program He Voted For, Seattle Nice Debates Eviction Ban”

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

Support PubliCola

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution of any amount, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

St. Louis Made Their Elections More Equitable. Seattle Should Too

By Logan Bowers

In 2021, St. Louis—a majority-minority city—made history by electing its first Black female mayor, Tishaura Jones. How was she able to make history? Because in 2020, St. Louis voters reformed their elections to take back power from special interests and place it firmly in the hands of voters. This November, Seattle will get to choose whether we want the same election reform for our city.

Jones previously ran for mayor in 2017, and despite very strong support and endorsements, lost in a crowded primary by just 2 percentage points. Jones’s opponents included three other major candidates, two of whom were Black. In the end, the only white candidate in the race, Lyda Crewson, won with just 32 percent of the vote.

Far from an aberration in the city’s history, the election continued a trend where the city rarely elects a mayor who reflects the electorate, ideologically or demographically. St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren noted at the time that Jones almost certainly would have won handily if either of her fellow Black competitors were not in the race, since the three similar Black candidates split the vote.

St. Louis had long been dominated by machine politics, where a small number of insiders exert undemocratic influence over elections. In 2017, this manifested as a less representative candidate eking out victory without majority support because three of her challengers split the majority vote.

So, what did St. Louis do? Voters went to the ballot box in 2020 and passed a voting reform initiative with landslide 68 percent support. They adopted an open, non-partisan primary, like Seattle’s, but with one key enhancement: St. Louis voters aren’t forced to choose just one candidate. Instead, in the primary, voters can pick as many candidates as they want. If they like two candidates, they can pick two. If they like four, they can pick four. And, of course, it’s still okay to pick one. St. Louis adopted this change in November 2020, implemented it over the winter, and used it successfully in March 2021, leading to newfound representation for St. Louis voters.

This little change means that two similar candidates will never split the vote and both lose. It means that voters can pick all the candidates that will be good at the job, not just the one they think they have to pick to win. It means having two strong choices in the general election.

This voting method is called Approval Voting, and it is the most representative voting system currently used in America. It’s also the simplest. The ballot has only a tiny change to the instructions and tabulation works the same—just count the filled-in ovals for each candidate. The simplicity means the results are trusted, easy to understand, and immediately available on election night.

In 2022, Seattle voters will have the same opportunity to take power back from special interests, follow in St. Louis’ footsteps, and make our elections fairer, more equitable, and more representative.

Seattle needs this reform more than most cities, and sooner. Because of our previous election reforms, participation in our elections is off the charts. We have high voter turnout, and many great candidates to choose from. But our existing voting method works exceptionally poorly for our packed primary races, and we have exactly the same problem St. Louis faced. The more candidates, the less power voters have, and the more control special interests exert. We can see it in the results. When was the last time you felt like you had two strong choices in the general election, or even that both candidates were trying to serve your interests?

Many groups are working on proposals to make our elections better—and virtually all of them would be incredibly good for democracy. Approval voting is both one of the best changes we can make and the only one we can enact before the next election cycle. Indeed, the next closest reform proposal on the horizon, ranked choice voting, probably won’t be available in Seattle until 2029 at the earliest, and if history is any guide, likely not until the 2030s. There’s no reason to suffer through another decade of disappointing mayors and disappointing council members when we can repair the system today.

Seattle Approves is the grassroots, volunteer effort working to bring better elections to Seattle this year. Starting in mid-February, you will decide if you want to sign the initiative petition, and this November, you will get to decide if Seattle follows in St. Louis’ footsteps. With your help and your vote, we can ensure that Seattle voters always have two compelling candidates in our general elections.

Logan Bowers is a cannabis retailer, software engineer, and co-chair of Seattle Approves. In 2019, he ran for Seattle City Council in District 3 on a pro-housing and pro-transit platform, and his support for Seattle Approves is informed by his experience meeting more than 5,000 voters during the campaign. 

Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis

The King County jail in downtown Seattle (Paul Kiefer/PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”

The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.

The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.

As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine. Continue reading “Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis”

Hospital Overcrowding Prompts Push For Guardianship and Informed Consent Reforms

King County COVID data as of January 14, 2022

By Leo Brine

Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) is working on a bill to reform Washington’s informed consent and guardianship laws, which have prevented hospitals from discharging some patients who need long-term care at a time when hospitals need as many beds as possible to handle the latest spike in COVID cases.

Washington’s guardianship and informed consent laws have prevented hospitals and family members from transferring some patients who cannot make decisions for themselves into long-term care facilities even when a family member has given consent. Macri has a bill cued up which will address the problem, she said.

While the state’s informed consent laws empower family members to make many decisions for incapacitated people, they don’t allow incapacitated patients to leave hospitals for long-term care without the consent of a court-appointed guardian. The reason? Money: Guardians are responsible for paying for long-term care.

It can take months for courts to establish someone as a patient’s guardian, so Macri wants to amend the state’s informed consent laws to make it easier for patients to move to long-term care facilities while allowing courts to establish guardianship for the patient’s long-term financial management later.

Right now, hospitals have patients occupying hospital beds that could be used to treat people with acute needs because they don’t have a paper saying who’s going to front the bill.

Support PubliCola

Hey! Did you know PubliCola runs entirely on contributions from readers like you?

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As of January 12, Washington state has 2,062 COVID patients in hospitals with 172 on ventilators, according to state data. In King County, hospitalizations more than doubled between January 2 and January 9, county data shows.

Hospitals in Washington have said they are in “a state of crisis” after operating for months at high capacity and now with omicron sending more people to the hospital than ever before.

The Washington State Medical Association sent Governor Jay Inslee a letter last week saying that hospitals are in “a state of crisis” and asking the governor to change guardianship laws so that family members can agree to transfers. The letter included the draft of a proclamation that, if Inslee signed, would have that efect.

However, Inslee said last week that he does not have the executive authority to make the proclamation because, “you have to comply with federal law to admit someone to a long-term care facility. I cannot waive federal law.”

Instead, the governor—inadvertently highlighting the need for Macri’s fix—announced Thursday that he hopes to increase the number of social service workers who work on patient transfers. He also proposed create a program to expedite the process of establishing guardianships and increase the number of guardians, which could help reduce the backlog of patients stuck in hospitals. “[This] may involve more resources for the superior court,” he said. Additionally, to help long-term care facilities take on more discharged hospital patients, he’d add new health care workers to long term care facilities.

Macri says her bill is still necessary because establishing guardianship “can still take months even with the steps that [Inslee is] putting in place.” Her bill will change informed consent laws to allow family members, those with power of attorney, and other surrogate decision makers to consent to a patient’s transfer to a long-term facility.

Macri plans to meet with the governor’s team about her bill to hammer out how it fits in with Inslee’s plans and to address some concerns the governor’s office has around informed consent. One potential sticking point is that, according to Macri, Inslee’s team is sticking with their position that only guardians should be able to make these transfers happen.

Meanwhile, patients without guardians are not the only ones who are having a hard time getting out of hospitals. Often, there are no shelter beds available for homeless patients. And some patients came to the hospital from long-term care facilities but are unable to go back into their care because of understaffing.

Seattle Police Will No Longer Enforce Bike Helmet Law and Other Minor Traffic Violations

Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Friday that SPD will no longer stop people for four minor traffic infractions, including violations of the county’s mandatory bicycle helmet law. The announcement, which takes effect immediately, opens the door to additional future reductions in low-level traffic enforcement.

In addition to the helmet law, officers will no longer stop drivers for missing, expired, or improperly displayed registration; items hanging from rear-view mirrors; or cracked windshields. “These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote in a letter to the Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge announcing the decision. “We know there are also reasons for concern that these violations may disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet the financial requirements set forth by law.” Officers will still be able to enforce the underlying laws, but only if they stop a driver or bicyclist for a more serious violation.

The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Last fall, Diaz expressed an interest in introducing traffic stop reforms before the end of 2021. When the reforms hadn’t happened by December, some police accountability advocates who took part in the discussions between SPD and the OIG worried that the election of Bruce Harrell—and his decision to dismiss SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, an enthusiastic participant in discussions about traffic stop reform—would delay the reformsThe chief’s latest letter could help allay those concerns.

The list of violations SPD will decline to enforce could still grow, Diaz wrote, as SPD reviews Seattle’s traffic codes for other offenses that may not justify a stop. For now, he wrote, SPD will continue to stop drivers for other vehicle equipment violations, including broken taillights, which several civil rights groups urged the department to stop enforcing. “For pedestrian and driver safety, we cannot allow vehicles with safety equipment issues to just remain in that status,” he wrote.

Judge’s initial proposal to scale back the role of police in traffic enforcement triggered pushback from some law enforcement representatives, including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan, who called the recommendations “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claimed that they could spur an increase in crime. “Does this now signal people to stop registering their vehicles and completely disregard the rule of law?” he wrote in an open letter last summer.

According to SDOT data, the minor driving infractions listed in Diaz’s letter do not present serious risks to the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. The four leading causes of deadly or serious collisions in Seattle—speeding, distracted driving, ignoring pedestrians’ right-of-way, and driving while intoxicated—made up a third of all tickets given by SPD since 2015, and SPD has no plans to stop enforcement of those traffic laws.

The decision to stop enforcing the helmet law reflects more than a year of debate in King County about the disproportionate enforcement of the law against homeless people and people of color. After Crosscut reported in 2020 that nearly half of helmet law citations in Seattle went to homeless cyclists, the King County Board of Health, which oversees the helmet requirement, began discussing the possibility of repealing the law; the board is set to make a decision on the helmet law year.

In recent years, more than half of all cyclist citations were for helmet law violations, which typically involve a $100-$150 fine; according to Seattle Municipal Court data, 77 percent of those fines go unpaid. In addition to formal citations, a community stakeholder and bike advocate who contributed to the OIG’s discussions estimated that SPD officers may have stopped hundreds or thousands of bicyclists for not wearing helmets without issuing citations, sometimes as a justification to question the bicyclist about a different crime.

Diaz’s announcement does not necessarily spell a dramatic change in SPD’s day-to-day operations. After two years of very high attrition, SPD has dismantled its traffic enforcement unit and moved the officers to patrol shifts, triggering a dramatic decline in the number of tickets and warnings issued to drivers and bicyclists.

Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG

The Guardian, March 2015

By Paul Kiefer

The Guardianthe official newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), went out of print a few months into the pandemic. The paper’s disappearance was a sign of an important shift within Seattle’s largest police union, and one that closed a window into the guild’s interior life.

The print-only newspaper, which had a circulation of about 3,000 at its peak, was read mostly by police officers, retired police officers, labor organizers and city hall staffers. When articles from the paper did make it into the public eye, they were generally buoyed by controversy, like a 2011 opinion piece in which an officer called a training course on racial profiling an attack on “American values” and described Seattle’s elected leaders as a “quaint socialist cabal.”

Among SPOG members and retirees, however, The Guardian’s demise was a sign of a strategic and generational shift. The new guild president, Mike Solan, had recently defeated the incumbent, Kevin Stuckey, by promising to aggressively and publicly defend Seattle police officers against criticism from the public and elected city officials. Solan’s dramatic campaign video, featuring footage of riot police clashing with protesters, drew tens of thousands of views. Stuckey’s video, which focused on the guild’s stability and relationships with other unions, drew only a few hundred views.

After his victory, Solan began reshaping the guild’s approach to public relations. A few months after he took office in February 2020, Solan dismissed former SPOG president Rich O’Neill—who had retired from SPD and returned to SPOG to handle contract negotiations and media relations for Stuckey—and quietly shuttered The Guardian. In December of that year, he introduced a replacement: A bombastic monthly podcast called “Hold the Line with Mike Solan“, produced in the style of conservative talk radio shows.

“On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”—Former SPOG President Rich O’Neill

Typically, Solan uses his podcast to criticize the Seattle City Council, who he argues have sacrificed public safety and the well-being of police officers to appease an “activist mob.” The details of this criticism vary. In one 90-minute episode, Solan decried Seattle’s “Homeless Industrial Complex”; in another, he condemned the vaccine mandate for city workers as an ill-advised blow to SPD’s already shrinking ranks. In contrast to The Guardian, few other guild members have appeared on “Hold the Line”; instead, Solan relies on guests from outside the police department, ranging from former mayoral candidate James Donaldson to encampment removal activist Andrea Suarez.

While Solan’s allies pointed to The Guardian’s shrinking readership among younger officers as a reason to replace the paper with a podcast, O’Neill does not believe that younger officers were to blame for the paper’s demise. Instead, he said Solan made the change as “a way to give the president more control over the guild’s voice. On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”

SPOG published the first issue of The Guardian in 1970 as a venue for editorials about the state of SPD and city politics, announcements about deaths and retirements, updates on contract negotiations, and the occasional recipe. Although the guild appointed officers with writing experience to edit the paper, SPOG’s president had the final say on what made it into print. The paper was mostly written by officers themselves.

“It afforded officers a place to get their frustrations out,” Stuckey said. “If there was a training they didn’t like, they could write about it in the paper.” O’Neill said that he tried to strike a balance between allowing officers to air their opinions and avoiding direct criticism of elected officials or SPD command staff. He did, however, make some exceptions: The paper regularly criticized former city attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes did not return a call for comment.

O’Neill viewed The Guardian as a centerpiece of SPOG’s public relations strategy, and an opportunity for transparency. “It made officers more accessible,” he said. “The department has a policy that says you can’t speak to the press without permission, and if you try to talk to the press anonymously, you can get in trouble. But if you wrote something in the union paper, that was considered protected union speech.”

Some former readers outside the guild, however, believe publishing contentious articles actually harmed SPOG’s mission as a union. Continue reading “Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG”