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.
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 pr
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.