The C Is for Crank Interviews: Scott Lindsay

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Scott Lindsay, Mayor Ed Murray’s onetime public safety advisor and a former senior counsel to US Rep. Elijah Cummings in Washington, D.C., was best known, until recently, as the guy the mayor sent to neighborhood and city council meetings to defend his encampment removal policies. Since he announced he would challenge incumbent city attorney Pete Holmes in April, however, Lindsay has won some surprising endorsements from erstwhile Holmes supporters like Harriet Walden and Lisa Daugaard, two members of the Community Police Commission and longtime advocates for police accountability and reform. The CPC soured on Holmes when he proposed delaying police reform legislation earlier this year, on the grounds that it created a CPC that was too large and sprawling to pass muster with the federal judge overseeing the consent decree between Seattle and the federal Department of Justice. Daugaard told me in April that she also felt Holmes had not done enough to advocate for defendants who “serve long sentences on cases with excessive probation, are held in lieu of bail because they are poor, and are made to give up their trial rights to get services.”

I sat down with Lindsay at Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square last month.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: As a political unknown running for a fairly obscure office in a mayoral-election year, you’re going to have to make a compelling case against the incumbent. So, lay out the argument against Pete.

Scott Lindsay (SL): The best thing going for Pete Holmes is that he’s kept such a low profile for that office. But when you actually dig under the surface, there’s deep dysfunction in our criminal justice system. The King County Jail is filled with misdemeanor defendants whose underlying issue is homelessness and addiction. Words that have never come out of Pete Holmes’ mouth are in any way talking about heroin or the effects of substance use disorders on the defendant population in the criminal justice system, or actual ways that he could provide leadership to fundamentally start to change the way that we engage with that population. How do we actually change outcomes instead of just going through these cycles of arrest and release? Because the outcomes that we’re getting now have been terrible for defendants stuck in the cycle, and terrible for neighborhoods, and terrible for those who are actually stuck with the consequences of the failures of our criminal justice system.

“Words that have never come out of Pete Holmes’ mouth are in any way talking about heroin or the effects of substance use disorders on the defendant population.”

Let me give you a couple specific examples. So while these were imperfect, at least we used to have specialty courts—mental health court, drug court, which is at Superior Court, and community court. Now, those started with imperfect designs, but rather than provide any leadership about how to really fix them, those courts, in effect, have died on the vine. Referrals into mental health court are way down, and it’s vastly underutilized and may shut down because of underutilization, and community court has been shut down, and Pete Holmes has done nothing to replace it. So now everybody’s just going mainstream. Where are the innovations? Where’s the vision? Where’s the leadership?

Pete has had eight years to lead on a lot of these things, and he’s no longer a leader on many criminal justice issues. He does not have a vision, and after eight years has not articulated a vision, for how we can use our criminal justice system to help address the real public safety issues and social issues and public health issues that we have in the city. We invest a lot of money in our criminal justice system and in the city attorney’s office, and they have more [contact with] people struggling with homelessness and substance use disorders, practically, than our human services department. Our criminal justice system is in effect, by default, one of the largest social service organizations that we have. We just don’t think of it in that way, and it’s not actually producing outcomes that anybody can be proud of.

“The Navigation Team was my idea, and I worked to get that created over the course of a year against a lot of institutional reluctance to do things in very different ways.”

ECB: Until you declared your candidacy with a platform focused on police oversight and accountability, I think it’s fair to say that you were viewed as one of the more conservative members of the mayor’s staff, especially by neighborhood activists who wanted the mayor to do more to clean up homeless camps.

SL: I think I have a reputation as a guy who actually listens, tries to figure out what’s going on, and then tries to come up with innovations and creative resolutions. But I am willing to take on the tough and controversial issues. I’ve been the leader within the [mayor’s] office on supervised consumption—not exactly a law and order topic. I was the leader on the heroin epidemic and asking how we can get more prevention, more user health care, more treatment options. I was the leader on, how do we get much better services to our homeless population and shift from a two-decade-old sweeps policy to a more compassionate approach?

But I also believe, absolutely, that we have some very real public safety challenges in this city, and it doesn’t help anyone to not talk about that in open ways. Up in the north end, we have  a lot of public safety complaints about what’s going on in Mineral Springs Park—needles and drug dealing and tents and other issues—so it’s obviously a real struggle for the neighborhood. At the same time, we had a lot of real people suffering and living in conditions that were tragic for them. We have to have a discussion about how we resolve both of those things and tie them together, rather than talk about homelessness in ways that don’ t actually connect to a lot of what’s happening on the ground.

“It’s the responsibility of the city to step in and intervene and separate out the really bad actors who prey on the weak and vulnerable from people who are struggling with public health diseases.”

ECB: The city has organized a “Navigation Team” made up of cops, outreach workers, and service providers to offer services to people living in encampments before they remove them. The numbers the city released recently show that about 160 people entered an “alternative living arrangement,” which is a big jump from where we were before but a drop in the bucket relative to the total number who need help. What’s your assessment of those results?

SL: The Navigation Team was my idea, and I worked to get that created over the course of a year against a lot of institutional reluctance to do things in very different ways. The idea of taking police officers and having them have a really social service focus, I think, is radical. It took a lot of work to convince all the powers that be that that was the right way to go, and I will absolutely say that 160 people sleeping indoors is an incredible number in 11 weeks, as compared to the success that we historically have gotten out of plain outreach efforts. I would be very surprised if we got 150 people indoors in all of 2016, coming in from hardened, really unsafe situations.

ECB: But not all are indoors—in fact, about half of them were simply moved to other encampments.

SL: Of course, and absolutely, authorized encampments are only a temporary solution, but we have to find some better options. And if you look a little bit deeper at what’s going on at some of the unauthorized encampments, where they’re at a critical mass, you have real predatory behavior and people who are taking advantage of the homeless people, who are the most vulnerable in our city, and exploiting them in terrible ways. That’s exploiting teenage girls, it’s exploiting people with mental illnesses, it’s exploiting people with substance use disorders, and as a result, terrible things happen to those people. It’s the responsibility of the city to step in and intervene and separate out the really bad actors who prey on the weak and vulnerable from people who are struggling with public health diseases, and that’s very often mental illness and most often substance use disorders. As a city, we are absolutely getting crushed by the heroin epidemic, and it is tragic and terrible, and a lot of the folks who are falling into that trap are really young people. If you go and you talk to Youthcare [an organization that works to get homeless kids off the streets], six years ago, they say one in five of the people who came into Orion Center [a youth shelter and drop-in center] were IV drug users. Today, it’s four in five. That’s almost an entire generation that either will be lost, or we have to find ways to help them out of that and break that cycle.

“If you ask SPD about, say, property crime in the north end, they will say that it would be difficult to find one person among 300 [for whom] the underlying cause of their criminal behavior was not a heroin addiction. They would say easily 99 percent if not 100 percent.”

ECB: When the city decided to locate the new low-barrier Navigation Center shelter in the Chinatown International District, they got a lot of pushback from the community, who said they hadn’t been consulted on the decision, and ultimately, the opening was postponed. What did you think of how your boss at the time, Mayor Murray, handled the outreach for the Navigation Center?

SL: It very obviously did not go well. I wasn’t involved intimately in the siting decisions, but that did not go well. I think when you dig into that, I’ve spent more time working on issues within Chinatown and the International District than any other neighborhood in the city, and they have very real issues with street safety and low level crimes associated with people who are struggling with substance use disorders, and we have not, as a city, figured out how to provide them with support. Ultimately, the Navigation Center will be part of that, but we also have to be very clear and articulate what we’re doing to provide relief to that community, which is under a lot of strain. There are a lot of mom and pop business with very slim margins that are open early in the morning and late at night. and they feel under real duress from what’s happening in their neighborhood, and they’re very unhappy about it.

ECB: Do you think the Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion program, which provides pre-booking diversion for low-level offenders in  part of the center city, should be expanded citywide?

SL: LEAD is exactly the type of innovative program that is addressing people who are struggling with substance use disorder, and most often most of their clients are struggling with homelessness, and the idea is break them out of the criminal justice system, which is completely failing to address the root causes of their behavior, and try and have interventions that can actually break them out of the cycle. Let’s take that in contrast to the rest of our criminal justice system right now. The King County jail, today, is filled with misdemeanant defendants who who are struggling with substance use disorder, many of whom have mental illness, and most of whom are also homeless. We are doing nothing at the misdemeanor level to effectively intervene to break them out of the cycle. We know that incarceration alone as a strategy to change their behavior does not work. We know that not incarcerating them, not taking any action, does not change behavior. So we need to radically rethink what we’re doing to come up with new solutions to intervene, and LEAD is one fantastic example of that strategy, which is, get them at the front end. Get them out of the criminal justice system and intervene with significant behavioral health interventions.

ECB: As I recall, you’ve said before that we need to prosecute drug offenders more, and argued that we’ve effectively legalized heroin in Seattle. Can you speak to that?

SL: Just as a fact right now, the city makes very few drug arrests and our filing standards related to drug arrests are fairly low, so almost no one in the city is being prosecuted for simple possession of heroin or crack or anything else. And I’m okay with that. But if we are going to make that policy decision, then we also have to figure out what are the ways we address actually changing their behavior. When you look at crime maps of Seattle, there is an absolute correlation between where we have major hubs of drug activity—open-air drug markets—and where we have the most criminal activity, from car prowl to burglary to assaults to shootings. So we can say we’re not going to arrest somebody for possession of heroin, and I think that’s right, but at the same time we’re arresting them for property crimes where the underlying root cause of why they’re engaging in property crimes is because they have a heroin addiction. So we’re still interfacing with the same crowd through our criminal justice system, we’re just doing it through different mechanisms. And what hasn’t’ changed, and what’s very frustrating to me, is that our criminal justice systems at the misdemeanor level, but also at the felony level, have not really reoriented or adjusted to focus on public health solutions to these public safety challenges. That is, you have to address the substance use if you’re going to break the cycle of the behavior, and if you’re going to address the substance use, you have to address the homelessness.

Literally right now, just based on King County jail data for repeat offenders in the municipal system, we know that 60-plus percent of them are struggling with substance use disorders. And I swear that that is a significant underreporting, because there are a whole bunch of incentives not to admit to your substance use issues during intake into King County Jail. If you ask SPD about, say, property crime in the north end, they will say that it would be difficult to find one person among 300 [for whom] the underlying cause of their criminal behavior was not a heroin addiction. They would say easily 99 percent if not 100 percent.

ECB: So what’s your policy solution for those problems?

SL: The radical rethink here is to, in effect, focus intense resources through both diversion and/or using the criminal justice system to get people who are struggling with substance use disorders and homelessness the actual help and solutions they need. So how do we do that? One, citywide expansion of LEAD. Two is, we actually need to get defendants who are in the King County Jail the drug treatment that they need, and then when they’re exiting that system, they need to exit into something that is not just reentry back into the system. Right now, our system takes them in, holds them in for a few days, spits them out, waits for them not to show up back in court, and then issues a bench warrant for them. And that goes on and on and on until they have lots of outstanding bench warrants and are never getting the treatment that they need. We need buprenorphine induction available on demand to anybody who wants it in the King County Jail. And then next, we need to make sure that they’re not exiting straight back in to homelessness. And then a third part of the reform piece is simply bail reform. Our system right now is still a money-based bail system. That doesn’t make sense when most of our misdemeanor defendants—non-DUI, non-domestic violence misdemeanor —are impoverished and/or homeless and don’t have the resources to be able to work t through our bail system.

I’ve got a lot of respect for Pete Holmes’ history as an advocate for police reform going back to his days on the police review board in the mid-2000s. He was an early leader. And I also have a lot of respect for the approach he took in insisting on the consent decree as the model for achieving police reform here in Seattle. But Holmes disappeared for a long time from the kind of heart of the discussion, [including] police reform, the consent decree, and the larger civilian oversight and [Community Police Commission] discussion. And when he was absent from those, that’s when I was right in the middle of it as special assistant for police reform to the mayor,  working sometimes until 1 in the morning with CPC leaders, with Lisa Daugaard, with the ACLU, with Harriett, with many others. We hammered out some really significant civil oversight legislative proposals and a detailed plan, and at that point, Holmes came back in and he decided that he wanted  to redo that process, and they started over, and here we are a year and a half later and we’re basically at the same point where we were when I departed. And I departed from this issue because after negotiating in good faith for a year and a half with the CPC, I felt that the rug was being pulled out from beneath us. From my perspective, speaking separately from the mayor’s office, I thought it was particularly unfair for him to have been absent from much of the hard work of those discussions and then come back in and say, ‘Let’s start over and I am going to run a new process and that process is going to look like this.’  I thought that rhere were ways to get to the result that we’re at today faster, and frankly, I think if you go and ask the CPC members—Lisa and Harriett are only two, but I think there are plenty of others—there’s a lot of frustration with the way that Holmes has actually handled police reform over the last two years.

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