King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments

1. King County Public Health will not provide routine COVID-19 tests for people who enter temporary winter shelters during the cold-weather emergency, a spokeswoman for the department told PubliCola. Instead, the department will test shelter guests when a shelter provider calls to report having two or more guests or staff with “COVID-like illness,” or one or more confirmed COVID cases, and will direct people to isolation and quarantine sites if they test positive. The county will also do contract tracing when there’s a confirmed COVID case at a shelter site.

“Public Health does not have the staffing capacity to provide proactive, daily testing at each of these sites,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said. “As we do for all other homeless services sites in King County, if a shelter has staff or residents who appear to have COVID-like illness, our homeless services support team will provide on-site testing and consultation to help control any potential COVID spread.”

When the department gets word of a possible COVID outbreak in any homeless shelter, including winter emergency shelters, “Our testing team calls the shelter to discuss the individual symptoms to determine if it is likely COVID-like illness, in addition to providing ASAP guidance on steps to take to limit spread, and then (assuming team believes it is COVID-like illness), our team visits to conduct on-site testing for all staff and residents who agree to be tested,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said.

The spread of the omicron variant has been startling, with positive rates at some testing sites nearing 50 percent. That’s for the general population; people living in crowded congregate settings, such as bare-bones mass homeless shelters, are even more at risk. Cole said the health department is not currently experiencing a shortage of rapid COVID tests.

2. The Seattle Police Department has referred roughly one-quarter fewer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes and child abuse unit this year than it did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of felony cases that SPD referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic. In May 2020, the office received 30 felony sex crimes cases from SPD; in June, the office received fewer than half that number. While the number of monthly referrals has fluctuated since then, the average over the past eighteen months has fallen to 19 cases, compared to an average of 26 cases per month before the pandemic.

While a reduction in SPD’s ranks after two years of high attrition—and the resultant transfer of many SPD detectives, who are responsible for criminal investigations, to patrol units since last fall—may contribute to the decline, the trend is not limited to Seattle. At a presentation to the mayors of the largest South King County cities earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office presented data showing a widespread decline in the number of felony cases referred to their office from police departments across the county. The police departments of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn, for instance, have referred nearly 30 percent fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office since the start of the pandemic.

Other reasons for the shift may include a decline in the number of people reporting sex crimes and child abuse. PubliCola has reached out to SPD for comment.

3. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced another round of leadership appointments on Wednesday, including the sister of police-violence victim Che Taylor, a leader of King County’s No Youth Jail movement, a former state legislator and Seattle Port Commissioner, and a reality-TV producer.

Overall, the Harrell administration is shaping up to be a list of familiar faces, both from Harrell’s own inner circle (former Seattle NAACP director Gerald Hankerson as external affairs liaison; Harrell’s niece Monisha Harrell as deputy mayor) and local government (ex-Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton as director of intergovernmental relations; former Homeless Strategy and Investment division director Tiffany Washington as deputy mayor; Tim Burgess).

Mariko Lockhart, current director of the city’s Office for Civil Rights, will be bumped down to a deputy director position in the Department of Education and Early Learning and replaced on an interim basis by Derrick Wheeler-Smith, King County’s director of Zero Youth Detention.

Other new key appointments include:

Kendee Yamaguchi, a Bellevue attorney who serves as a top trade and economic advisory to the Snohomish County Executive, will be the third deputy mayor, heading up external relations with a focus on arts and culture, sports, and nightlife, among other areas.

Matt Chan, a longtime TV producer who created Hoarders, among other reality-TV shows, will be a special advisor on “the City’s strategic use of digital technology to enhance public engagement, strengthen transparency, and address the digital divide,” according to the announcement.

DeVitta Briscoe, director of the police violence prevention organization Not This Time!, will serve as gun violence prevention liaison. Briscoe’s brother, Che Taylor, was shot by Seattle Police Department officers in 2016; during the Durkan administration, she argued against defunding the police budget and in favor of ex-police chief Carmen Best. During the protests against police violence last year, Durkan appointed Briscoe’s brother (and Not This Time! founder) Andre’ Taylor as “street czar,” a (short-lived) $12,500-a-month position.

Two longtime Harrell council aides, Jennifer Samuels and Jeremy Racca, will join the administration as chief of staff and legal counsel, respectively.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer