Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes

This post was originally published at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, a 35-year-old man who had been released from jail less than one week earlier attacked a county employee in a women’s restroom at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The assailant, a Level 1 sex offender with a history of attacking women, is homeless and told detectives he had smoked “homemade meth” immediately before the attack. A police report filed after the incident indicates the attacker may suffer from mental illness.

The particulars of this case might lead a reasonable person to conclude that people who commit sex offenses need closer monitoring once they’re released from custody, along with access to housing and mental health care to prevent them from reoffending once they’re released.

Instead, the assault became a symbol for conservative officials, who suggested “solutions” that included sweeping dozens of homeless people from a nearby encampment and directing women to change the way they behave in public.

In a message that went out to all courthouse employees, the county suggested that employees who might be vulnerable to sexual assault could avoid being attacked by following a list of “tips… to enhance your personal safety and avoid potential trouble” while downtown.

The “personal safety tips” will be familiar to many women, who are often told that we must restrict our movements and remain hypervigilant in order to prevent our own sexual assault: Leave all personal belongings behind when you leave your car, or “if you must carry a purse,” hug it close to your torso; wear flat shoes and loose clothing that will allow you to run; don’t walk outside and take a security escort if it’s dark out; use underground tunnels to completely “avoid surface streets” downtown; huddle near buildings while waiting for crossing signals so no one can sneak up from behind; don’t use headphones or look at your phone; and avoid “shortcuts,” including “parks, parking lots, garages and alleyways.”

Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.

I don’t remember the first time I was told to never walk to my car alone, to stay home at night, to keep my back against the wall, or to keep a key lodged firmly between my middle and index fingers in case I need to stab an assailant in the eye. I just know that I internalized the lesson that I can prevent my own sexual assault, and its corollary: If I’m assaulted, it’s because I did something “wrong.” I wore my purse on my shoulder, instead of clutching it to my chest with both arms. I listened to music instead of my surroundings. I didn’t identify every potential exit route. My female body was the problem, and I failed to follow all the restrictions imposed on its movements.

It’s a comforting idea, especially if you’re a policy maker who wants to shift blame from systems to individuals. If we can make women “safe” from assault by convincing them to move through the world in a certain way, there’s no need to address the larger question of why some men feel entitled to women’s bodies, or why the punishment for sexual offenses is, too often, incarcerating men and releasing them with no support system in place to prevent them from offending again. If we can identify the problem as “homeless people” rather than “homelessness,” the solution becomes much simpler: Make the people go somewhere else. Problem solved.

These narratives may seem different—blaming individual women for failing to protect ourselves, and homeless people in general for the actions of one homeless person—but they’re doing the same work. By shifting blame onto individual behavior in the first instance, and onto a group of people in the second, both narratives suggest that people, rather than systems, are at fault. Women, not boys who grow up believing that women’s bodies are property. Homeless people, not an economic and political system that leaves millions with no safety net. “Criminals,” rather than a criminal justice system that fails to rehabilitate.

People are, in theory, much easier to fix. Stop looking at your phone. Don’t walk alone. Quit drugs and get a job. Stop “choosing” to live outdoors. Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.

And there are other systemic issues at work here too. Although many details about the alleged assailant’s life are unknown, we do know that he was released from King County Jail directly into homelessness, instead of housing or supportive services—a situation practically designed to ensure he would reoffend. Now he’s headed for jail again. Has justice been served? Are we “safe”?

The problem with the courthouse attack isn’t the courthouse —a place bristling with armed officers, where any woman following the “tips” laid out by King County should have expected to be safe. Nor is it the homeless encampment next door, where—according to outreach workers on site at the encampment daily—the assailant did not live. Nonetheless, the solutions proposed by elected leaders and judges focus on both. King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers has demanded that the city sweep the park, and Reagan Dunn, a Republican King County Councilmember, wants to lock down the courthouse so only people with official business can enter. The irony of shutting down a building whose ostensible purpose is justice and rehabilitation appears to be lost on many who inhabit it.

4 thoughts on “Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes”

  1. Steve Willie’s comment is very helpful indeed. I am always thankful when a man suggests we let someone “rot in jail” to protect us women. I am not sure Steve actually read the article, but let me clarify. It said the man was using meth right before the attack. And yes supportive services are designed to provide housing and addiction treatment, things that actually prevent crime. If putting more people in prison prevented crimes, the US should be #1 in safety as we have 25% of the world’s prison population. But it isn’t. The current system is the problem. But I understand why Steve likes to scapegoat. Makes life very simple.

  2. Erica: These perps are your people. This crime is the inevitable result of Progressive judges, Progressives going soft on criminals, and Progressives handing out free stuff to those on a bad plan. Letting this rapist rot in jail forever is the solution. Individuals are in fact responsible for their own actions. You disagree with that, which makes you part of the problem. I cannot imagine that providing any type of “supportive services” would change anything. Supportive services are actually the primary enabler. This is similar to those who enable alcoholics. Plus, there is nothing wrong with giving personal safety tips. You have made up a whole bunch of fiction on this one. You actually seem to believe that this sicko attacked the woman because he had no safety net. Lets see if giving him a bunch of free stuff helps. You also reveal that you think he could have been taught not to be a sexual predator. WOW! Just plain stupid. Steve Willie.

    1. Erica: Maybe we should have provided better “support services” to Mario Cuomo, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton before they groped those numerous women (all three Progressives of course). Yes, if we only had those support services to prevent predator behavior. Steve Willie.

  3. Systems take a long time to change. Rape and homelessness may be solved in ten years, but more immediately, we need to safely get through the day.

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