By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order on Thursday providing direction to the Seattle Police Department as it develops policies to implement a recently passed law that makes public drug use, along with simple possession, a gross misdemeanor. The law also criminalizes simple drug possession and empowers the city attorney, Ann Davison, to prosecute drug cases. The new law does not apply to public use of alcohol or cannabis.
The order, which describes fentanyl use as a “health crisis,” says that “diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to public possession and use” in instances where police determine a drug user poses no potential harm to anyone else. But it also says that arrests may be appropriate when a drug user poses a “threat of harm to others,” then defines this potential “harm” broadly, to include any drug use that impacts “the ability of others to use shared public space.”
The drug law adopted last week defines “harm to others” in similarly expansive terms, asserting that “unchecked” drug use “in certain areas of the city” harms “businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.”
SPD is expected to issue its own guidelines to officers who will be implementing the law within the next few days.
The executive order, echoing the Harrell Administration’s earlier effort to prosecute “disorderly conduct” near transit stops on Third Ave., specifically notes that locations where drug use presents an “inherent impact on public safety and security” may include any location “in or within close proximity to a transit stop, rail station, or other transportation structure or facility.”
Harrell’s order is mostly suggestive rather than prescriptive. Officers who believe a person’s drug use inherently threatens those around them can decide, based on their training and “the totality of the circumstances,” to arrest a person or attempt to divert them to LEAD, the city’s primary diversion program. The number of arrests that officers will actually make is constrained by the booking capacity of the downtown jail, which is severely limited due to a shortage of guards.
The order also requires outreach providers that contract with the city to create a “by-name list” of every person “significantly affected by” the opioid crisis in downtown Seattle between the Denny Triangle and the stadiums south of the Chinatown/International District. (Since the new law and the rest of the executive order refers only to people using drugs in public, it’s safe to assume the list will exclude housed downtown residents who use addictive drugs indoors.)
Jamie Housen, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city “is not planning to collect a list of names or individual clients, but instead to use an approach that creates a baseline estimate of those using drugs and in need of treatment and services, so that we can measure those needs, changes over time, and if progress is occurring.”
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the order released on Thursday “inappropriately uses a By-Name List,” which is supposed to be “a tool used by people who are offering focused engagement and have appropriate resources to connect people with.”
Providers that serve unsheltered people often create “by-name lists” of people living in a discrete area, such as an encampment, in order to keep track of them as part of a specific project. Recently, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority acknowledged that its own effort to create a “by-name list” of every unhoused person downtown, as part of the Partnership for Zero effort that recently folded, was unproductive, because people can and do move around.
Data on drug users from providers, including the number of drug users they’re serving downtown and the kinds of issues those individuals are facing, “will help determine how many individuals the City is trying to assist and to provide a better understanding of the underlying issues and facts addressed by this [order].” After 12 months, according to the order, the city will “conduct a follow-up assessment” and compare the two sets of data “to gauge the effectiveness of the strategies” in the order.
Council members who switched their votes on the drug law, a version of which failed back in June after Andrew Lewis decided to vote against it, said they were convinced to vote “yes,” in part, by the mayor’s promise to propose an executive order that would emphasize diversion over arrest. Before Harrell issued the order out on Thursday, Lewis said he expected that it would “provide clarification” on how the city will implement the new law. We’ve reached out to Lewis for comment on the order.