Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.”

Dones also expressed skepticism about the city of Seattle’s decision to keep outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness within its own Human Services Department (HSD). “I am anxious to have a conversation about outreach with the city on that point,” Dones said. “I’m of the opinion right now that as we navigate the final movement of all this stuff over to the authority that the right stuff will be in that basket.”

Currently, HSD’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division currently handles contracts relating to many types of shelter and services; because the regional authority is currently seven months behind schedule, the division (and its employees’ jobs) was just extended through the end of the year. Asked whether HSI employees will get special consideration for positions at the new authority, Dones said that labor law required the authority to hire its new workforce from scratch. “Establishing the authority as an independent, multi-jurisdictional agency means that everybody, myself included, has to apply for a spot, so we can’t really allow anyone any differences in how they become an authority employee.”

The city’s homelessness division employees have been on tenterhooks for more than a year, and about half have chosen to leave the city instead of sticking around to see when their jobs will end and if they’ll have new positions at the regional authority when they do.

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3. The city’s moratorium on ticketing and towing vehicles parked in one place for more than 72 hours expired on April 1. The policy impacts people living in their vehicles, particularly inoperative vehicles, as well as anyone who does not move their car frequently or who owns a car that is broken down and happens to occupy a street parking space. (Homeowners with nonworking cars in the driveways of their single-family houses are exempt from enforcement by virtue of this private property ownership.)

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.” This “period of education” will include parking enforcement “courtesy notices” to let people know the moratorium has ended. After the education period has ended, Schulkin said, the city will start ticketing and fining people who don’t move their vehicles every three days.

Retrieving a towed vehicle can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on how long the vehicle remains in the city’s impound lot. In practical terms, once a vehicle is towed, many people experiencing homelessness simply don’t have the resources to retrieve it; each person who loses their vehicle thus becomes another person who may take up residence in one of the encampments that have become such a point of contention around the city. The Washington State Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could force the city to stop towing cars and RVs in which people live.

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