Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime

Screen shot from “Seattle Is Dying”

1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would  “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”

Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”

In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”

Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.

Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”

Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.

Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.

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2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.

Instead, the mayor responded to the 7-1 vote by reigniting the debate over the council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which Durkan vetoed (unsuccessfully) after the council voted to eliminate the Navigation Team. In a statement Monday night, Durkan characterized the council’s vote as a decision to “restor[e] funding for the Human Services Department to coordinate homelessness outreach” and called the legislation “similar to previously proposed legislation negotiated in August” that would have kept the Navigation Team intact. 

That statement is misleading. In addition to the fact that the Navigation Team no longer exists, the new legislation places a number of restrictions on the work of the outreach and engagement team that will replace it, including a prohibition on “direct outreach” by anyone on the team.

The role of the new team (which includes two social workers who were hired specifically to do direct outreach, not sit at desks) is unclear.  Lewis, the mayor’s office, and key service providers have agreed on a set of guiding principles that include an acknowledgement that encampment removals, or sweeps, “don’t reduce the number of people living unsheltered, and exacerbate difficulties of providing/continuing services to people living outside” and a commitment to moving as many as possible into hotel-based shelters and permanent housing.

It’s a promising start, but as we’ve noted before, translating those principles into policy will depend on trust between the council and the mayor’s office—trust that has been frayed in the very recent past by battles like the one over the Navigation Team and the mayor’s budget veto.

3. On Monday, the Downtown Seattle Association, along with a number of other business and neighborhood groups, sent a letter to the mayor, city council, and a number of city departments demanding that they address “[m]ajor public health and safety concerns” created by encampments and illegal activity in city parks. The groups want the city to create an interdepartmental team to take “near-term actions” to “allow all people to safely use outdoor spaces in Seattle.”

The letter gives several examples of parks that are no longer “safe” or “welcoming,” including Westlake Park downtown (where “public safety is an issue even during the day”), Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, and the Ballard Commons Park in Ballard. As we reported yesterday, the removal of tents from the Commons merely caused the people living there to set up their tents elsewhere in the neighborhood, and the park itself is again populated by unsheltered people.

Since the issues the letter raises are complex and involve behavioral health, lack of access to adequate housing or shelter, addiction, and poverty, among other factors, the most likely “near-term action”—removing encampments on an ad hoc basis on the grounds that homeless people are “obstructing” other people’s use of parks—is unlikely to actually solve the problem. Like Lindsay’s law-and-order approach, parks “cleanups” are a short-term fix that delays, but does not substitute for, long-term solutions like housing, health care, and harm reduction.

8 thoughts on “Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime”

  1. The best case scenario of this would be that someone having a mental health crisis will be sent back out to the street to face a cold street, beatings, rape. Health and case workers will tell you stories about folks with socks full of maggots and toes coming right off. Why the city doesn’t propose something like CAHOOTS or COET (caseworkers embedded with police), mental health crisis intervention teams, stabilization and sobering respite centers, psychiatric emergency centers and so on – just basic solutions working well in other cities – is beyond me. As it is, people with misdemeanors are generally released without bail and there are a lot of mechanisms where people can void their misdemeanor warrants in Seattle.

  2. Public safety should not be an issue identified as “Democrat” or “Republican.” These monikers are irrelevant to the issue, and your use of them is intended to cast doubt on Scott Lindsay’s reporting, as though in a predominantly Democrati-voting city anyone who has agreement with Republicans is suspect. The city charter requires:

    “Under authority conferred by the Constitution of the State of Washington, the People of the City of Seattle enact this Charter as the Law of the City for the purpose of protecting and enhancing the health, safety, environment, and general welfare of the people; to enable municipal government to provide services and meet the needs of the people efficiently; to allow fair and equitable participation of all persons in the affairs of the City; to provide for transparency, accountability, and ethics in governance and civil service; to foster fiscal responsibility; to promote prosperity and to meet the broad needs for a healthy, growing City.”

    These initiatives to decriminalize what is criminal behavior if the perpetrator of the crime is “hungry”, “in poverty”, in a state of “mental disorder” or a suffering from a “substance use disorder” essentially neuter the criminal code. It is true that if people go to jail they have a much harder time getting a job or housing afterwards: They also have a harder time getting a job in a city that ignores the arson, looting and vandalism that shuts businesses down, often permanently. We have lost thousands of entry level jobs in grocery stores, retail and food service due to the unending siege downtown and in commercial areas. How many Starbucks have to be boarded up before we see that these are actual lost jobs? Taxes?

    Further, why is the responsibility of the victims of crime, (who watch their businesses and homes being broken into with no response from the police or jail time for looters) to ensure the opportunity and happiness of the people destroying their property? If you don’t want to go to jail don’t commit the crime.

  3. Hi, I hope that people are not talking past each other. People in crisis and not currently housed need more help. Parks are also scary and unsafe–the recent situation where the cop car got set on fire started as a fight in Denny Park, as an example. We can do both–we can provide resources to people in need, while also making our Parks clean and safe. To not do so harms everyone. This may sound pollyanna but I feel that both “sides” accuse the other of not caring…and that’s not productive. Rather than taking sides, let’s help people. Let’s stop having a power struggle and a turf war (this is directed at the electeds, staff, and the providers). Why the hell are we not doing everything we can to get mental health, addiction and housing to people? COVID has shown that pretty amazing things can be done if people decide to do them.

  4. Durkin is a Twit to stop the navigation team from the much needed mental health care for the homeless people!

    1. Does the phrase “mental health care” refer to the medications which suppress their symptoms sufficiently to allow them to care for themselves and not endanger anyone else? I assume you are not referring to counseling the homeless until their schizophrenia disappears, which fails in most cases. If you are referring to meds, then you are referring to the same meds which many homeless schizophrenics refuse to take due to the side-effects. In addition, there is no way to compel anyone to take such meds due to relevant cases decided by progressive judges. Please let us know what kind of magic is supposed to happen when the Navigation Team provides mental health care.

  5. Seems like the correct response from the council would be to ask if the DSA and the neighborhood groups are ready to be taxed appropriately and allow upzoning and additional housing in their areas.

  6. Everyone has their own problems. But there is no such thing as a problem which makes it right to steal someone else’s property, injure them, or murder them. This is not fake fear or invented fear, or pandering for ratings like you say it is. It is a simple fact. Violence must always be a crime. You must be so proud of the role that you have played in all of this. I await the next round of crime stats to check on your contribution to this violence. Congratulations in advance.

    Regarding Seattle’s parks, you can put “safe” and “welcoming” in quotes all you want. But I guarantee that if you had a family you would feel threatened to take them to Westlake Park and Ballard Commons. Steve Willie.

  7. I don’t fault the Downtown Seattle Association for writing to the City that the parks are unsafe and not welcoming. They are not. I wouldn’t want to go to those parks for a picnic or take my children to any parks where campers abound. Too much drug dealing, drug using and other scary and nefarious activity going on. It’s much worse than before the pandemic and everyone needs to admit that. Also, how is a new navigation team that has been prohibited from “direct outreach” going to help any homeless?

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