By Erica C. Barnett
City attorney Pete Holmes is running for reelection, he told PubliCola Monday, in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the federal consent decree, the state of downtown Seattle, and last year’s historic protests. If he’s reelected, Holmes said, he will have served alongside six mayors, about 30 council members, and “six or seven police chiefs,” and “we’ll be negotiating my third or fourth police contract.” Coming out of the pandemic, he said, “I can’t think of a time that it’s been more necessary to have steady and strong leadership.” If Holmes didn’t run again, in other words, who would take his place? Scott Lindsay?
That’s a scenario that makes many Seattle progressives shudder, and why you can expect to see most of them supporting him this year. (State attorney Bob Ferguson is an early endorser).
Holmes, who was first elected in 2009, has been an easy conservative punching bag, beginning in his first term, when he dismissed all pending marijuana cases and campaigned for Initiative 502, which legalized and regulated marijuana statewide. More recently, Seattle’s right-wing pundits have excoriated him for declining to prosecute some low-level misdemeanors, including property damage during protests and so-called “survival” crimes, saying he’s part of the permissive culture that lets “prolific offenders” run roughshod over the city.
But Holmes has frustrated some progressives, too, by seeking to end federal oversight of the police department, continuing to promote court-based solutions to public health problems such as addiction and mental illness, and what some see as his failure to aggressively pursue supervised drug consumption sites, which a King County task force recommended five years ago.
Holmes defended his record on police accountability, saying that the city has made impressive progress toward compliance with the consent decree, even if the exact path toward freedom from federal oversight remains unclear. “The final word [on the consent decree] is, does Judge Robart agree that we have gotten there? I think the good news is that he has recognized that we’ve achieved an amazing amount.” But, he added, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what happened this summer, and the new [court] monitor [Antonio Oftelie] has got a plan that will hopefully address it this year.”
PubliCola asked Holmes about his approach to people who commit misdemeanor crimes (the only kind the city prosecutes) that are rooted in poverty, addiction or mental illness. Last year, Holmes helped reboot the city’s community court, which provides alternatives to conviction or jail for people convicted of certain low-level crimes. Given that diversion alternatives already exist, though, why put people through the criminal legal system at all?
“Amen,” Holmes said, “and in fact, why not upstream it even further so that no crime’s been committed to begin with? The truth is, and the problem is, that once a crime has been committed it’s too late. Now we’re trying to deal with our failure to address the social safety net gaps up front.” That didn’t really answer the question, so I pressed: Would Holmes aggressively support fully funding the diversion programs that already exist, such as LEAD and Co-LEAD? What about defunding the police department to free up funding for upstream approaches, like community-based crisis response?
“These are all programs that we know work,” Holmes responded, “and the problem to date has been they haven’t been comprehensively embraced and funded to the extent that hey really need to be effective across the city.” But Holmes suggested it would be a mistake to slash funding for the police department without a comprehensive plan for implementing “programs that work” to replace some of the things police traditionally do, like arresting people for low-level crimes or responding to 911 calls.
“I’m not criticizing ‘defund the police,'” he said, but “my question is, how much and what is the plan, what are we going to invest in, what are the needs that are going to be addressed by that, and what does it cost? And all of that needs to be bargained” with the police union, he said.
After former police chief Carmen Best resigned last summer, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she wouldn’t launch a search for a new chief right away, because candidates wouldn’t “know what they were applying for.” Six months later, it’s clear that this will be a job for the next mayor, whoever they are. Holmes said he didn’t blame the mayor for kicking the police chief decision to her successor.
“It would be a rushed process in the final year of her term,” Holmes said—one that could produce a police chief without a mandate. “If you rush that process, I don’t think you’re going to get the breadth of candidates that you want to see,” he continued. “I just think it was a good call.”