Category: Courts

Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions

West Seattle and Spokane Street Bridges
Unauthorized drivers who used the lower Spokane Street Bridge (right) when the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs racked up more than 130,000 traffic citations in 2021 and 2022. Photo by Lizz Giordano.

By Lizz Giordano

A windfall from traffic tickets during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge could soon reach the Seattle Department of Transportation, as more than 74,000 citations from traffic cameras on the Spokane Street bridge, also known as the “lower” West Seattle Bridge, head to collections next year. 

When the West Seattle Bridge closed for repairs in 2020, the city banned most drivers from using the lower bridge except between late night and early morning to give buses and emergency vehicles a clear path between West Seattle and downtown. The city first relied on police officers to catch scofflaws, then installed automated cameras to issue citations in early 2021. 

As of the end of this October, more than half of those citations remain unpaid. At $75 per citation, that adds up to more than $5.5 million in potential revenue, half of which goes to the city.

Most people used the First Avenue Bridge, located two and half miles south of the high bridge, as their detour route.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, noted that most commuters didn’t break the rules during the bridge closure.

However, she added, “It’s sad that over 500 drivers … had such a large number of tickets, [disobeying] policies that were created for everyone’s safety. While an occasional violation is perhaps understandable, this quantity suggests disregard for the need to keep the bridge use at a level that allowed for unimpeded emergency vehicle access.”

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

In 2021, photo enforcement cameras along the Spokane Street Bridge issued 89,041 citations to unauthorized drivers on the low bridge. This accounted for nearly half—46 percent—of the 192,432 camera citations issued citywide that year. In 2022, before the West Seattle Bridge reopened in September, drivers using the lower bridge racked up another 41,535 citations, for a total of more than 130,000 tickets on the bridge.

According to Seattle Municipal Court data, drivers have paid just 32 percent of these tickets. The court suspended late fees and stopped sending outstanding tickets to collections at the beginning of the pandemic. But starting at the end of January, drivers who have failed to pay their fines will be subject to late fees.

The court also plans to start sending unpaid fines to a collections agency, which tacks on a 15 percent fee on each ticket, as soon as the end of April.

“People with unpaid tickets from 2020-2022 should plan to respond to their tickets by January 30, 2023,” said Laura Bet, a spokeswoman for the court. “People can respond to their tickets by setting up a payment plan, setting up a community service plan if they are low-income, or scheduling a hearing.”

A handful of drivers could face some particularly hefty invoices. Two vehicles racked up more than 300 citations for crossing the Spokane Street Bridge without authorization in 2021 alone, according to the data. Another 35 drivers amassed more than 100 tickets each and more than 500 accumulated more than 20 citations that year. 

The city was able to deploy the cameras on the low bridge as part of a pilot program after the state legislature expanded the city’s authority to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The new law also allows camera enforcement when drivers ”block the box” by stopping in intersections at red lights.

State law dictates that half of the revenue for the pilot goes to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to fund bicycle, pedestrian and non-motorized safety projects. SDOT is using its half of the money to add accessible signals that vibrate and chirp to some pedestrian crossings.

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

Before the pandemic, drivers paid 74 percent of citations from photo enforcement cameras issued in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the court.

A spokesperson for SDOT declined to comment on the large number of tickets drivers racked up on the Spokane St. Bridge.

So Much for That Backlash: Voters Saying “Yes” to Progressive Local Candidates

By Erica C. Barnett

Anyone hoping for a continuation of 2021’s local backlash election, when Seattle voters chose a slate of candidates who promised to crack down on crime and visible homelessness, should have been disappointed by Tuesday’s early election results, which showed progressive and left-leaning local candidates defeating their more conservative opponents by solid margins.

As of Tuesday night, public defender Pooja Vaddadi was defeating incumbent Seattle Municipal Court judge Adam Eisenberg by a margin of 56 to 43 percent; embattled progressive municipal court Judge Damon Shadid was beating assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins 69 to 30 percent; and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, was defeating Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell 55 to 44 percent.

In fairness, it’s tough to directly compare the results of an odd-year (“off-year”) local election to those of an even-year midterm when progressive voters, in particular, are keyed up and perhaps unusually attuned to electoral politics. (Creeping fascism and the imposition of forced-birth laws tend to inspire a renewed interest in democracy).

And there is a major dropoff between high-profile, ballot-topping national races and those lower down the ballot—people simply vote in the national races and ignore the local ones. For example, in King County, nearly 50,000 people voted in the US Senate race between incumbent Patty Murray and Republican Tiffany Smiley (which Murray, defying some polls, was winning handily) and then chose not to cast a vote for King County Prosecutor—a dropoff of about 10 percent. In Seattle, King County Elections has counted about 218,000 ballots; yet fewer than 130,000 of those voters bothered choosing a candidate in either of the competitive Seattle Municipal Court races.

Still, those voters who did bother to vote in local races behaved differently than last year’s electorate, choosing more progressive candidates, and by larger margins, than many (including me) predicted. Conventional wisdom before the election was that Manion would face a tough challenge, if not outright Election-Night defeat, from Ferrell, a tough-on-crime former prosecutor who had the backing of local police guilds, suburban mayors, and the Seattle Times.

Manion, though no lefty crusader, supports alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, including the Restorative Community Pathways diversion program for young people accused of first-time felonies; Ferrell called RCP a “look-the-other-way program” that lets kids off without consequences and criticized the entire concept of pre-filing diversion.

The municipal court races offer clearer ideological splits, along with margins that are unlikely to close enough to reverse the outcome after more votes are counted.

Vaddadi, who has to bring a public defender’s perspective to the bench, has accused Eisenberg of being excessively punitive toward some defendants and inflexible in his approach to domestic violence cases. Although Eisenberg has touted his work establishing the Domestic Violence Intervention Program for DV offenders who want to change, he belongs to a faction of the court that leans toward conventional, punishment-based approaches to crime, while Vaddadi represents a sharp left turn.

Shadid, meanwhile, faced what initially looked like a daunting challenge from Rose-Akins, whose primary campaign issue was the incumbent’s management of community court—a therapeutic program that enrolls qualifying misdemeanor defendants in services, including health care and case management, instead of jailing them. The city attorney’s office office battled with Shadid earlier this year when he declined to exclude Davison’s list of about 120 “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from community court, and Rose-Akins announced her candidacy shortly after Davison won that battle.

At the state level, Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs was narrowly defeating nonpartisan challenger Julie Anderson in a race that is still too close to call.

One wild card this year is the vote to decide whether Seattle will adopt a new election system; as of Tuesday, Seattle voters were almost evenly split on this question, with slightly more saying we should keep our existing system than those saying we should adopt either ranked-choice voting or approval voting. (The ballot measure splits voting reform into two questions, asking voters whether they support changing the system and, in a separate question, whether they prefer ranked-choice voting or approval voting, regardless of how they voted on the first question.)

Seattle could end up rejecting both potential new systems by voting “no” on the first part of the ballot measure, but even if they do, the results for the second half of the question show overwhelming support for ranked-choice voting—the option supported by most local progressive groups, including all of Seattle’s Democratic legislative districts.

King County will release the next batch of ballots around 4:00 tomorrow afternoon.

PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Candidate Pooja Vaddadi

Candidate Pooja Vaddadi for JudgeBy Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.

In the race for judicial Position 3, public defender Pooja Vaddadi is challenging incumbent Judge Adam Eisenberg, who has served on the bench six years. Vaddadi is running against Eisenberg from the left, calling his decisions in some cases excessively punitive and vowing to take a more compassionate approach to sentencing.

Eisenberg, who just became presiding judge this year, spent years hearing domestic violence cases and helped establish the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, a treatment program for domestic violence offenders. Prior to his appointment in 2017, he was a municipal court commissioner and, before that, a criminal prosecutor, making this a race between an ex-prosecutor and a current defense attorney.

PubliCola sat down (virtually) with Seattle Municipal Court candidates during September and October.

PubliCola (ECB): Tell me a little bit about your background and why you want this position.

Pooja Vaddadi (PV): I started working in [Seattle Municipal Court] in August 2021. And it was that 10-month stint before I announced my candidacy that made me feel that the time had to be now. I was not planning on doing this. I was actually hoping to practice in as a public defender for a lot longer. I really, really liked it. It was my dream job to work at King County DPD. But it was painful to practice in that court. And I don’t mean because of the caseload or anything like that. I mean, I would have a genuinely innocent client, and both my client and I were forced to fight for that innocence, rather than having a city attorney understand that the client was innocent, or having a judge understand that. And just kind of having every roadblock in front of me to try to defend my client.

The really defining moment, the last straw that kind of broke the camel’s back for me, was this moment I had in the jail calendar at SMC. I had this client who had been struggling for most of his life, and he got picked up on a community court warrant, which was only $25. That was the only thing keeping him in jail. The city attorney was not objecting to his release, nor were they objecting to him participating in community court. And as you may know, you have to be out of custody to participate in community court. And the judge had just seen his record of failures to appear and decided that he needed to, quote, “have some skin in the game.”

Meanwhile, my client is begging on his knees for this judge to release him. I’ve highlighted that he had temporary respite housing, the kind of housing that you have to check in every 24 to 48 hours or risk losing your bed. He had a job interview lined up for the following week. He was getting his life back together, because this respite housing had given him the chance to focus on something other than survival. But just that 24 hours in jail rendered him homeless again.

“I think the court is really lacking my perspective, being in the trenches, interacting with Seattle’s most vulnerable populations, interacting with people that are victims of crimes that my clients have committed.”

And that was it for me. I couldn’t believe the lack of compassion that judges in this court had for the struggles that people go through in Seattle. I think they lack perspective. I think they don’t understand that failures to appear are a lot of the time unintentional and due to circumstances, whether it’s because somebody’s very mentally ill, or whether someone is living in the most desperate conditions and court is just not a priority, survival is. I think the court is really lacking my perspective, being in the trenches, interacting with Seattle’s most vulnerable populations, interacting with people that are victims of crimes that my clients have committed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had victims of domestic violence crimes actually contact me, asking me to figure out how to get the charges dropped against their partner, and just feeling the roadblocks that were there to even listening to victims of crimes. Now was the time. It was not getting better.

ECB: Why did you decide to run against Judge Eisenberg, in particular, and what are some of the issues you have with how he runs his court?

PV: The reason I initially chose Judge Eisenberg was mainly driven by the perspective at the public defender’s office and the attorneys that I had spoken with about the culture of SMC. The general consensus was that it needed to start with Judge Eisenberg. A lot of my colleagues had had experiences with him where he acted very punitively, and acted in such a way that he very much was a second prosecutor in the courtroom.

A lot of my female colleagues also expressed that they felt their treatment in front of him was very different from how he treated men in that courtroom. They felt that he had some bias against them because they were women defense attorneys. And although I have not had extensive experience appearing in front of him, I had seen him act very unprofessionally to a few of my female colleagues, to the point of raising voices and chastising them in front of their clients. That kind of behavior is unacceptable.

He’s also been in a position of leadership. And I’ve seen the court get worse and worse. I’ll admit it was only just 10 months that I was in this particular court, but people talk. People tell me that it used to be different at some point. And I felt that he was the he was a main driver behind why the court is acting the way it is. I’m here to tell you that he does not treat women well. He does not treat his employees well. And he’s a danger to the people of Seattle if he remains on that court.

I’ve seen that he has routinely administratively denied petitions to rescind or modify no-contact orders made by the protected party. I’ve read those petitions, they’re typically handwritten and not by an attorney, and they’re by the protected party who wants her partner home and is desperate to do that. And I’m honestly not even sure if they get notice that the petition has been denied.

ECB: Do you think the Domestic Violence Intervention Program that Judge Eisenberg started is working, and how would you improve or replace it?

PV: It’s not working. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s hard to get data on it. Judge Eisenberg calls it a pilot program still, even though it’s been operational for four years, and I am unclear if there’s any data. What I can tell you is that practicing in that court, I didn’t see that it worked for people that were represented by the public defender’s office. The program is only for straight cisgender men. The DVIP program has its benefits, if you’re able to actually participate in it, but it’s time-consuming. They sometimes require that you engage with therapy through DVIP, but also go out on your own and get a substance abuse evaluation and engage in that treatment. Sometimes mental health treatment will go along with that as well.

And so it becomes a very, very involved treatment regimen. You might be living in your own home or whatever. But it’s almost equivalent to being in an inpatient facility, in terms of the level of involvement that the individual needs to engage in. It’s not conducive to people who need to support families or are single parents, for example. It’s not conducive to people who are living paycheck to paycheck and struggling with housing. I think it ends up becoming really, really selective and only benefiting those who are in a [higher] economic bracket.

It’s a waste of money, because it only helps a very small percentage of people that come in and out of that court.

“Jail is not conducive at all to people getting healthier. It destabilizes people. When people get released from jail, they go back to the environment that they came from.”

ECB: Judge Eisenberg mentioned that he supported in principle the idea of providing treatment inside the jail itself rather than sending people to inpatient treatment since it’s a place people can’t abandon treatment. What do you think of this idea, and what are the pitfalls?

PV: I don’t like using jail as a tool for therapy or anything like that. Jail is not conducive at all to people getting healthier. Treatment within the community is what works. Jail is a very controlled environment, as is inpatient treatment, let’s be honest. And the thing that jail does, I think even worse than an inpatient facility, is it destabilizes people. When people get released from jail, they go back to the environment that they came from.

You can get clean and sober in jail just fine. You can do the treatment, you can do the 12 step program, you can do all of that. But it’s an institution, and the second they’re released back into the community, there’s no guarantee that they’re not going to go back to their problems that they dealt with before. They’re suddenly bombarded with all the stressors of what society has put on them previously, coupled with the stigma that comes with being previously incarcerated. They struggle to get jobs, they struggle to find proper housing, they struggle to interact with the community at all in any meaningful way, because they were separated from them. That is stressful and anxiety inducing. They’re probably going to go back to whatever substance abuse issue that they had, unless the court is willing to help them along the way. And so I don’t think SMC should be moving toward trying to push treatment within the jail. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Candidate Pooja Vaddadi”

PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.

In the race for judicial Position 3, public defender Pooja Vaddadi is challenging incumbent Judge Adam Eisenberg, who has served on the bench six years. Vaddadi is running against Eisenberg from the left, calling his decisions in some cases excessively punitive and vowing to take a more compassionate approach to sentencing. On Saturday, October 22, Vaddadi released the first of what she said would be several statements from women who worked at the court in some capacity accusing Eisenberg of misogyny and discriminatory treatment of women.

Eisenberg, who just became presiding judge this year, spent years hearing domestic violence cases and helped establish the Domestic Violence Intervention Project, a treatment program for domestic violence offenders. Prior to his appointment in 2017, he was a municipal court commissioner and, before that, a criminal prosecutor, making this a race between an ex-prosecutor and a current defense attorney.

PubliCola sat down (virtually) with Seattle Municipal Court candidates during September and October.

PubliCola (ECB): You piloted a program called the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, which provides counseling, treatment, and other services to people who commit domestic violence and want to change. You’ve touted this program as a success, but is it evidence-based? What can you point to, in terms of research on this or similar programs, to demonstrate that DVIP is more effective than other approaches, including jail?

Adam Eisenberg (AE): : Most one-size-fits-all DV treatment programs aren’t that effective. We believe we’re adopting the best practices in the county. When we started the program in 2018, we knew we wanted to make it a research-based project. Two researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha came on in 2019 to help us make sure it’s effective, or determine whether it is or isn’t effective. We’re up to almost 400 people, and the people who have been in the program [so far] have a lower recidivism rate for domestic violence—like 15 percent lower than folks who didn’t complete the program. It’s very preliminary, and recidivism isn’t the only thing we’re looking at, but the bottom line is we’re actually looking at this the program through a research lens.

The difference between us and drug court is we do have regular hearings, but we stretch them out farther and give them more time. It’s not as intensive as drug court, where you show up every two weeks. The multidisciplinary team meets on a fairly regular basis and they might massage the intervention without the court necessarily pulling the person out of the program. We review at the half-year mark and another six months later, which is partly for data. And one of the things people are told when they enter DVIP is, “We want your feedback. We want to know what works and doesn’t work, so give us honest feedback,” and a lot of people actually do.

I’m trying to get another program off the ground. This is something I learned about when I was in a conference in 2019, four months before COVID hit. I met a judge in Brooklyn who was doing a juvenile court really low-level juvenile DV, like throwing a phone and smashing it. They would send them to a 12-week class to teach them how to have empathy, how to communicate. We don’t do juveniles, but we do 18 to 24 years, and I started talking to attorney general’s office about something that might even be prefiling diversion, or it could be pretrial [for that group].

The new city attorney [Ann Davison] and [criminal division head] Natalie Walton-Anderson are very interested in figuring out if we can get this off the ground. If there’s someone out in the community that might be able to put these classes on, that could be a huge game changer for very low-level DV where someone does not have an extensive history.

“Community court is meant to be a triage court—get them in and get them into services and get them on their way. There are some people who are not good candidates for it, and figuring out how to help them is an ongoing challenge.”

ECB: Speaking of Davison, her office pushed for, and won, the exclusion of so-called high utilizers of the criminal legal system from community court, a therapeutic court that’s aimed at addressing the root causes that lead people to commit low-level crimes. Did you support Davison’s efforts?

AE: This whole conversation happened before I became presiding judge. But the thing to understand is the prosecutor has discretion. They can walk away. This is a voluntarily cooperation between the parties. And so when the prosecutor said we want to ID this list of people that are not going to be eligible for community court—there are people who don’t belong in community court. It’s meant to be a triage court—get them in and get them into services and get them on their way. There are some people who are not good candidates for it, and figuring out how to help them is an ongoing challenge for the court. As a judge I recognize that she does have discretion. Whether that list is the right way to do it, I don’t know.

ECB: Many people fail to show up for their first appearance, and appearing physically in court can be a significant barrier to people who are homeless, lack phones, or are struggling with basic needs. Do you support efforts to make court more accessible, either to people facing charges or their case managers?

AE: There’s an argument if you make them come to court, you’re holding them accountable [but] if you make them come to court twice, you’re infringing on their lives. There’s this pushback about, if you make them come to court to take a class on life skills, if you make them come to court to get a phone, if you make them come to court to get hooked up with health care, you’re infringing on them. You’ve given them too many responsibilities. What happens if they fail to show up? I can tell you in the last five or six years, we have not been putting people in jail for failing to show up. We’re just not doing the model anymore that we did in the 1990s where if someone doesn’t show up, you put them in jail for 90 days.

The cases that I’m most concerned about are ones where people are getting hurt, like DV and DUI. Offering interventions for these folks is critical and interventions are alternatives to jail. Over time, we have held people in jail less and less. But there are folks where, for various reasons, there doesn’t seem to be any other remedy to keep the streets safe or keep the victims safe.

[Former] Judge [Ed] McKenna said, if we’re holding people in jail for various reasons, why aren’t we giving them drug treatment while they’re in jail? There are so many people who go to treatment and walk away from treatment. I think if you’re concerned about trying to give people treatment In a way that they can’t walk away, doing it in jail might be one solution.

Judge McKenna got into a kerfuffle after the city and defense recommended that the person give [a frequent defendant] mental health treatment or drug treatment, and he gave them a year in jail. A year in jail is really 270 days, because the King County Jail gives a third off for good time. So the person got out within 270 days, and within 72 hours, he threw a coffee on the two-year-old outside of Old Navy.

So that case came in front of me. I knew the defense was going to come forward with a request to release him to inpatient treatment, and sure enough, they did. And the family was very much in favor of this person not being held in jail. They were very much on the side of treatment. The prosecutor objected, but the defendant came into court and said he’s tired of being in the court system. He’s in his 50s, he wants opportunity to do this. I agreed to release him to treatment, and he said he would go to treatment the next day. He walked away from treatment within 8 hours and got arrested on the warrant. But it might have worked, it might had changed him. So that’s the kind of decisions you have to make in this job—do I take the risk or not?

[If there was treatment inside the jail], it would have a better chance of succeeding, because he would have been able to stay in treatment and get the actual treatment. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg”

PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.

In Position 9, assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins is challenging incumbent Judge Damon Shadid, who got crosswise with City Attorney Ann Davison after she demanded that he exclude a list of so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from community court, which he oversees. When Shadid asked for more time to discuss Davison’s proposal with his colleagues, Davison went around him and got the full court to agree to her request; not long after that, Rose-Akins jumped into the race. Rose-Akins has focused on community court, arguing that the court should stop automatically releasing people from jail when they enroll and suggesting that therapeutic courts should be restricted to people accused of only the lowest-level crimes.

Shadid has overseen the SMC’s three therapeutic courts, which provide alternatives to the mainstream court system for some veterans, people with mental illness, and low-level offenders who agree to participate in a program that might include classes, treatment, or enrollment in health care.

PubliCola (ECB): Talk to me a little bit about some of your accomplishments and what you hope to do with another term.

Damon Shadid (DS): I started out in the court doing first appearances in the jail. Every time a new charge is filed and a person was booked into jail, they would come before me for a release decision. And I really saw firsthand the disproportional treatment of poor and BIPOC people in the jail, especially when setting bail. And it was that first year in jail that really set the tone for me and wanting to reform the criminal legal system.

Early on, the judges decided to abolish the [then-]current iteration of community court. And I thought that that was a huge mistake, along with Judge Willie Gregory. I knew that the system had to be reformed. I knew that we needed bail reform. And I knew that we needed to have a better way of handling low level nonviolent property crimes. And without a community court, that was very difficult.

So first, I tried to make reforms without consulting the city attorney’s office and the Department of Public Defense. That did not work out as well as I had hoped. And so once we got a couple of new judges on the bench, who I thought would be favorable to a new community court, I tried again. And this time I brought together at the Department of Public Defense, the city attorney’s office, and the court, and I was able to create a new community court fixed the errors of the past iterations.

“As we all know, BIPOC communities get policed heavier than white communities, and therefore have a larger criminal history and are discriminated against when it comes to therapeutic courts. We therefore made the decision not to include criminal history in your eligibility for community court.”

First, we made it a release-first model. This is what the city attorney’s office and my opponent are attacking me for—they don’t like the idea of a release-first model. However, what we’re doing here is on low-level property crimes, we are individually making assessments of what that person needs, as far as services, to get them out of the criminal legal system, and then we release them while trying to connect them to those services.

The second thing we addressed was racial disproportionality. As we all know, BIPOC communities get policed heavier than white communities, and therefore have a larger criminal history and are discriminated against when it comes to therapeutic courts. We therefore made the decision not to include criminal history in your eligibility for community court. If you were charged with certain kinds of crimes, then you were eligible, and only the judge would make the decision on whether or not you could enter, not the prosecutor. So we’re very, very proud of that. The community court has been a huge success. Ninety percent of people who show up for court enter the community court when given the opportunity, and 75 percent of those who enter graduate. That’s a big deal for us.

ECB: Your opponent has argued that the release-first policy has created a revolving door where people get arrested, automatically get sent to community court, and automatically get released to go commit the same crimes again. How do you respond to that?

DS: My opponent works for [City Attorney] Ann Davison. My opponent has not stepped foot in Seattle Municipal Court in six years—she has never come to community court to view it, either virtually or in person. Neither has Ann Davison. Neither has [deputy city attorney] Scott Lindsay. The only person who has ever come from the city attorney’s office is [criminal division director] Natalie Walton Anderson. And that was one time. And yet they have insisted that community court is a certain way, when it very clearly is not. And it’s been very frustrating.

The only thing that community court changed was that the prosecutor was no longer the gatekeeper of who was able to enter community court. However, and every single case, a judge makes a decision about whether or not that person is appropriate for community court. And a judge can screen out the person if they don’t think that that person or that crime is appropriate. However, if the judge agrees to it, then it is an automatic release.

ECB: What is the measure of success for you in community court? How do you know if it’s working with an individual?

DS: The way that I know that it’s working is people come before me every day, making transformative changes in their lives, that make me confident that they’re going to exit the criminal legal system. We have been able to hook people up with housing, with inpatient treatment, with mental health services, with Apple Care [Medicaid] insurance, right there at the court. And it’s these connections to services that the court needs to concentrate on. I just think this way is proven to have more positive effects for our community than putting people in jail, destabilizing them, making them lose their services, and then releasing them back into the community with less connections to services than they had when they entered.

ECB: We’ve talked a lot about community court. Are there other programs that you’ve worked on that you’d like to highlight?

DS: The next program that I really wanted to address was mental health court. I volunteered for mental health court four years ago, and I stayed for four years because I really felt like I needed to finish the job I started. The city attorney’s office was making these recommendations that were just unreasonable considering the amount of work the person was doing. They were demanding convictions. They were demanding jail time instead of doing a diversionary route. And after much discussion, we were able to negotiate with the city attorney’s office to get them to come way down on those recommendations to make the option much, much more attractive to defense attorneys. So we’ve tripled the number of people doing mental health court programming.

ECB: There was a lot of talk early on, before the primary, that other municipal court were going to have challengers from the right. Why do you think you’re the only one? Did it start with the clash over Davison’s proposal to ban high utilizers from your court?

DS: It all started with the high utilizers, certainly. When [deputy city attorney] Scott Lindsay and Ann Davison came in, they demanded certain changes, and I had a lot of questions about it. And they were unable to answer the questions regarding racial disproportionality, regarding how many people were (potentially mentally incompetent), but most importantly to me, how they were going to handle the people if they barred them from community court. They couldn’t answer the questions. But without the court’s permission, they went and reserved beds in the jail and got the jail to change booking policies for their high utilizers.

So I told them, “Listen, it sounds like you’re just trying to jail these people. You haven’t given me any other plan.” I said, “let’s wait for a couple of months before you take them out of community court, and let’s figure out how we can handle them together.” But they refused. I told them, I would take their proposal to the judges. And within 24 hours, Ann Davison went public with a press release, stating that I was refusing to negotiate in good faith with them. I didn’t want to battle this out in the press. But it was just false. I told them, “I’ve had 24 hours—I haven’t had a chance to talk to the judges yet about their opinions.”

After that, things went downhill. And I drew a challenger from Ann Davison’s office, who was using the same consultant that Ann Davison used, and who has made her singular issue the same misinformation about community court as Ms. Davidson was spreading. Now, did miss Davidson put her up to running I don’t know. I have no proof of that. What I do know is that she is using Ann Davison’s erroneous talking points in her campaign against me.

ECB: Let’s turn away from community court and talk about a related issue—bail. To what extent do you believe cash bail is necessary, and would you support eliminating it?

DS: Well, let me say off the bat that all cash bail discriminates against poor people. And therefore, it has to be reformed—you can’t have a system that discriminates disproportionately against one group of people and call it a justice system. That is not just. And when the original community court was abolished, jail bookings went up significantly. I already told you about how we tried to reform the cash bail system through a release-first model in community court. I would venture to say it is the largest and most effective bail reform that Seattle Municipal Court has ever implemented. And I would like to expand that.

People who come into mental health court suffer many more barriers than some of the other  defendants who come into the court. Many times, they’re violent or dangerous, and holding them in jail for too long exacerbates that problem for them. And so we’ve really beefed up our release planning with a new court clinician that allows us to have much more structured releases for people who might be a real threat to community safety.

“I will be the first to admit that I impose cash bail on defendants who I think are an imminent risk to community safety. And if I cannot structure a release plan that is satisfactory to protect the community, I will not release that person. However, I am very liberal about allowing defendants’ attorneys to add those cases back onto my calendar once they have a plan.”

My new project is to create what’s called a jail release toolkit that will be available to all judges. This toolkit will break down silos in the community, and will get more active partners and more centralized planning, to really hook people up with services instead of holding them in jail. The next logical step for Seattle Municipal Court is to really double down on all these planning efforts to avoid holding people on cash bail.

ECB: Are you opposed to cash bail in general?

DS: I will be the first to admit that I impose cash bail on defendants who I think are an imminent risk to community safety. And if I cannot structure a release plan that is satisfactory to protect the community, I will not release that person. However, I am very liberal about allowing defendants’ attorneys to add those cases back onto my calendar once they have a plan and to hear out a new argument for release. Many of my colleagues are reluctant to do that on a regular basis. But I have an open-door policy to re-argue release at any time. And many times we are able to come up with a satisfactory plan for release. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid”

PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Candidate Nyjat Rose-Akins

Nyjat Rose-Akins campaign photoBy Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.

In Position 9, assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins is challenging incumbent Judge Damon Shadid, who got crosswise with City Attorney Ann Davison after she demanded that he exclude a list of so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from community court, which he oversees. When Shadid asked for more time to discuss Davison’s proposal with his colleagues, Davison went around him and got the full court to agree to her request; not long after that, Rose-Akins jumped into the race. Rose-Akins has focused on community court, arguing that the court should stop automatically releasing people from jail when they enroll and suggesting that therapeutic courts should be restricted to people accused of only the lowest-level crimes.

Shadid has overseen the SMC’s three therapeutic courts, which provide alternatives to the mainstream court system for some veterans, people with mental illness, and low-level offenders who agree to participate in a program that might include classes, treatment, or enrollment in health care.

PubliCola sat down (virtually) with Seattle Municipal Court candidates in September and October.

PubliCola (ECB): Tell me a little bit about your experience as a prosecutor and in a pro tem judge, and what you’ve learned in those roles that would that you’d bring to the job of Seattle Municipal Court judge.

Nyjat Rose-Akins (NR): I was a prosecutor with the city attorney’s office for six years, and in that role, I basically did all the rotations. I did specialty court, which included mental health and community court, I did domestic violence court, I did the regular trial track, I was in charging. So I really was able to get a full understanding of all the things that are done in Seattle Municipal Court. And [a previous iteration of] community court was one of the first rotations I did in the city attorney’s office in 2010. And it was really interesting to observe and see just how alternative courts can really help and assist people.

As a pro tem judge in King County, I have done jail calendars, probation calendars, and arraignment calendars, as well as the first appearance calendars. And it has really been an interesting and rewarding experience over the last few years. As a prosecutor, I’ve been on one side, whereas as a judge, you have to consider all the individuals who are involved in the criminal legal system. It’s not just necessarily just the victim, but it’s the defendant, it’s the community, it’s everyone who is involved.

“The way community court is constituted right now, it doesn’t really hold people accountable. I think we can still be compassionate and hold people accountable, while also really getting people the services they need.”

So as a judge, you really do have to make some tough decisions sometimes, looking at the facts and the law and what each party is telling you. I’ve learned that if you are if you understand the dynamics of what’s happening, in the sense of looking at the case, looking at the history, and really listening to the parties, you can create solutions that may not necessarily make everyone happy, but balance out some of the things that are that are happening. And what may work for one group or one individual may not necessarily work for another defendant.

ECB: You’ve been critical of community court as it’s being run by your opponent, Judge Shadid. What has changed between the previous incarnation of community court and the current one, and why do you think it’s gone off the rails?

NR: When I did it in 2010, it was a smaller subset of cases, and people only had a certain amount of times to go through community court— I think it was no more than three cases. And the thought was that first case was your first opportunity, and then, maybe a year or six months later, you had another case. So it was a bit more structured. Whereas now, looking at the community court dockets, an individual can have five or six cases at one time. And I think that can be somewhat problematic.

If you’re in community court with four, five, or six cases at one time, and you opt in [to community court], the court is only going to take 14 days to adjudicate the case. But then after that, there’s nothing, really, that you have to do other than potentially make an appointment. And I don’t think that’s very helpful to people, if we’re seeing this as the group of people that really need resources and really need help. If you’re just going to make an appointment, and then not have to do your community service hours, I don’t know if that really sends a message of “We are here, we believe in you, and we want to really help you stop committing this sort of behavior.” I just don’t think it’s very helpful. And it’s really not doing much of anything, in my opinion.

ECB: If you’re elected to this position, you could have the ability to implement changes to community court. What kind of changes would you want to see?

NR: A lot of the cases that are in community court are theft cases. And in my job as an assistant city attorney—working in the community, working with businesses, working with other government department—I see the other side of just the rampant thefts that are happening downtown. I work close to Third and Pine and I often just walk down to that area. And so I would increase the time [people spend engaged with the court], because if we’re really talking about providing people with resources and helping them, then we need a little bit more time to do that.

When I took community court in 2010, as I said, the charges were very limited. It was really only thefts and maybe criminal trespass in the second degree. Right now, the charges that can go into community court are about 20 to 23 [types of] cases. I think that could be fine, except a few charges they may not be appropriate for community court, but I think people need some more time and more probation resources. A number of individuals who commit crimes may need a little bit more hand holding. And the way community court is constituted right now, it doesn’t really hold people accountable. I think we can still be compassionate and hold people accountable, while also really getting people the services they need. And I like the idea of really having a one stop shop, where multiple providers are in the court resource center at one time to really connect people. Zoom and calling in—sometimes that’s what we have to do. But I think it can also just disconnect people. A warm handoff, I think, is what most people need.

“We need to address [low-level misdemeanor] cases quickly. Are they the crimes of the century? No. But there are crimes that affect most all of us, especially if you live in the city. I’ve seen people stealing in the grocery stores, I’ve experienced or seen people trespassing— those are things that we all see on a daily basis.”

ECB: A lot of times people will fail to show up in court when they’re supposed to, especially if they’re unstably housed or have behavioral health conditions that make it especially challenging to make appointments. When you when you see that an individual has a lot of failures to appear on their record, what does that say to you, and is that a reason to penalize them?

NR: With COVID, we realized that we can do some of this stuff via video. And I think we do need to have some of those options, especially if we’re doing a review hearing or other certain types of hearings where people can maybe just pop in via Zoom. But looking at failures to appear—they do matter to me. Now, if they’re all failure to appears from many years ago and I see that someone’s been consistent since then, I am not going to hold that against someone. It is an individual by individual basis. But I do look at failure to appear, and it does matter, especially if someone has multiple cases and multiple failure to appears. And if they’re in different jurisdictions—not just Seattle, but also Pierce County or Snohomish County—then that, for me, signals that maybe there’s other things going on, and we’d love to see that person in court. So maybe bail is warranted at this time, because, you know, we’ve done multiple to orders to appear, and the court still hasn’t been able to get you into court.

My point is we need to address those cases quickly. Are they the crimes of the century? No. But there are crimes that affect most all of us, especially if you live in the city. I’ve seen people stealing in the grocery stores, I’ve experienced or seen people trespassing— those are things that we all see on a daily basis. And we’re getting to a place where people are now engaging in self-help. And that’s what’s concerning to me from a community perspective, when people are now saying, “I have to take matters into my own hands and take care of this myself,” because the court isn’t working and the police aren’t working to address it. And that’s what’s beginning to really concern me. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Seattle Municipal Court Candidate Nyjat Rose-Akins”

Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban

exterior of Union Gospel Mission, downtown Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit that runs shelter and feeding programs and provides supplies to people sleeping outside, sued to evict one of the homeless women living at its Re:Novo transitional housing building in West Seattle at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the group was exempt from local renter protections because their work helping and housing homeless people is “incidental” to their primary mission—proselytizing and promoting “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Last week, a state appeals court rejected the last of UGM’s arguments against Re:Novo resident Rebecca Bauer, whom the organization started trying to evict in March 2020, shortly after the state and local eviction moratoriums began.

The ruling, which prevents UGM’s eviction motion from showing up in tenant screening reports, concludes UGM’s two-year-long effort to evict Bauer, and contrasts the nonprofit with other religious housing and shelter programs operating in Seattle, such as Catholic Housing Services and Mercy Housing, which complied with the state and local bans on evictions during the pandemic. The group can seek to evict Bauer in the future, but has not tried to do so since last year.

Bauer moved into Re:Novo in July 2018, after moving to Seattle from Minnesota. She found out about the program from UGM’s Hope shelter in Kent. When she asked about the program, she told PubliCola “they said, ‘This is a Christian program,’ and I was like, ‘Hold up, first of all, I’m not a Christian,'” Bauer said. “And they told me, ‘that’s no problem.'”

In its formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed)), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans.

Bauer moved in to her new apartment—a $500-a-month “apodment” style unit that shared a kitchen and common area with four other rooms—in 2018, but didn’t sign her housing agreement until the following year. That agreement, amended by a staffer to exempt Bauer from program requirements like mandatory church attendance and religious counseling, was at the heart of UGM’s case to evict her. It says the length of the Re:Novo program is “one to two years … decided on a case-by-case basis for each resident.”

Re:Novo’s rules go far beyond a typical shelter or housing program. In addition to a ban on alcohol and “addictive drugs” (a category that, for UGM, includes medication to treat opiate addiction as well as poppy seeds) Re:Nov bans women living at the building from having any sexual relationships, watching movies rated PG-13 or R-rated movies, participating in “occult activity,” and leaving their rooms without “proper clothing,” including “bras underneath their clothes.”

The program also requires residents to attend services at Trinity West Seattle, a conservative church that believes in heterosexual marriage, with the wife serving in “submission” to her husband, as the only “normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women.” Bauer said that on several occasions, a program staffer asked invasive questions about her dating life, implying she was a lesbian. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up UGM’s appeal in a discrimination case filed in 2017 by a lawyer the group refused to hire after discovering he was in a same-sex relationship.

The eviction notice came at a difficult time for Bauer. Since moving to Seattle, she had started to get back on her feet. With the help of the YWCA, which featured her as a speaker at its annual luncheon in 2019, she got her license as a certified nursing assistant and went to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle, “which I loved because it was something new. I had always worked in nursing homes, and [the VA] was completely different. It was so exciting.”

Then COVID hit. Bauer got sick, landing in emergency room three times, and on March 30, 2020, UGM told her she had to be out by May. Their initial explanation was that she had failed to comply with program requirements by leaving her room at least once to cook food while she was sick and waiting for her COVID test results, putting the safety of other residents at risk.

Later, in a formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans. UGM’s eviction motion also claimed that Bauer was rude to staff, moved to a downstairs unit without permission, and left a stove burner on, and that her behavior ultimately forced UGM to abandon the entire half of the building where Bauer lived, leaving several units vacant. 

Rebecca Bauer’s program agreement exempted her from requirements that she attend church and participate in counseling—two issues Union Gospel Mission would later bring up when seeking to evict her.

These conditions, UGM argued, constituted an “imminent threat” to the health and safety of other tenants and staff, one of the only explicit exemptions to the city’s eviction ban.

UGM did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement responding to PubliCola’s questions about the lawsuit, UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor focused on Bauer’s alleged health and safety violations.

“The entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”—UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor

“The Mission offered multiple times to help relocate Ms. Bauer to a more suitable housing situation, which she repeatedly declined,” Taylor said. “Most of the participants in the Re:novo recovery program are highly vulnerable, often fleeing domestic violence or recovering from addiction and susceptible to relapse. Ms. Bauer’s conduct put others at risk and the Mission felt that legal action was the only remaining option for protecting other program participants.”

Although Bauer vehemently denied all of those charges, both in court and in a lengthy conversation with PubliCola—in particular, she said her housing manager told her she could move into a unit another woman was vacating if she helped to clean it out—UGM didn’t actually make the “imminent threat” argument a centerpiece of its lawsuit.

Instead, they argued that they didn’t have to comply with the eviction bans because the housing UGM provides is just “incidental” to its central purpose of “proclaim[ing] the gospel and love of Jesus Christ to women.” As UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor put it in his argument before a King County Superior Court judge last year, “the entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.” Continue reading “Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban”

Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

Police Monitor Praises Progress, But Does Not Recommend Ending Federal Consent Decree (Yet)

Seattle’s court-appointed police monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie

By Erica C. Barnett

As soon as next year, US Judge James Robart could lift the consent decree with the Seattle Police Department that has been in place since 2012, when the US Department of Justice concluded that SPD routinely used excessive force, engaged in biased policing, and lacked appropriate structures to ensure accountability for bad actors.

But the department still has to make significant improvements to its accountability and crowd control practices before seeking release from federal oversight, according to a report released last week by the court-appointed monitor who oversees SPD’s reform efforts, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, and his three-person team.

Overall, the monitor’s report found that SPD is in compliance with the consent decree in key areas, including crisis intervention, stops and detentions, and use of force, “except during the waves of protests over the summer of 2020, in which the serious concerns from both the community and the Monitoring Team described herein evidenced a need for further work in the area of policy and training around use of force, force reporting, and force review in large-scale crowd management events.”

The report does not deal explicitly with police accountability, which Oftelie told PubliCola is “still very much an open area” in the consent decree that will have to be addressed in the future; however, it notes that Oftelie’s team will conduct an assessment of Seattle’s entire accountability system as part of a larger monitoring plan that could wrap up as soon as the end of this year.

“The accountability system in Seattle is one of the best in the country, but it does have certain gaps or areas that could use improvement,” Oftelie said.

SPD has been under federal oversight since 2012, after the US Department of Justice determined that the department routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing practices, including bias and excessive use of force, and that it lacked meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms to address unconstitutional behavior by officers.

Since then, the city has asked Judge Robart to release it from the consent decree on two occasions, both times unsuccessfully. The most recent request, from former city attorney Pete Holmes and former mayor Jenny Durkan, came in May 2020—just before protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, when police targeted large groups of demonstrators with blast balls, tear gas, and other “less-lethal” weapons, leading to more than 19,000 complaints.

Setting aside the protests, which the report addresses separately, the monitor concluded that SPD has sustained its compliance with the consent decree on use of force, stops and detentions, and how the department responds to people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

“SPD officers respond to nearly 10,000 people in crisis per year, and Crisis Intervention Teams have dramatically improved interactions and outcomes – with force used in only 1.5 percent of contacts with individuals experiencing crises and many improvements made in connecting individuals in crisis to supportive human services,” the report says. (Crisis Intervention Team officers have gone through special training to respond to behavioral health crisis.)

“And when officers stop or detain a person, they must now articulate the reason for a stop and provide justification for searches,” the report continues. “As a testament to this progress, policing organizations around the nation, to advance their own reforms, have come to Seattle to learn from SPD and adopt policies and best practices in crisis response, de-escalation, and critical decision-making models.”

In a letter to Oftelie shortly before the monitor released the report, City Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted that the report also found a sharp increase in the number of people contacted by SPD officers while in crisis more than five times, with the greatest increase among people contacted more than 16 times.

Chart showing police stops by race in Seattle

The report also notes that even when it’s impossible to prove officer bias, disturbing racial disparities persist in almost every kind of police contact the report covers. Black and Native American people “are disproportionately stopped, detained, subjected to force,” according to the report, which also notes that officers are more likely to frisk Black people than white people, even though “frisks of White subjects more consistently find weapons.” Officers are also more likely to stop and frisk people when they’re in a neighborhood with more people of a race other than their own, the report found, and more likely to point their guns at Black individuals than people of any other race.

“Significant and persistent racial disparities suggest that continued monitoring of implementation of biasfree policing could result in positive community outcomes,” Herbold wrote.

The report also notes a strikingly high percentage of people—23 percent of those subjected to force, 16 percent of crisis contacts, and 17 percent of people stopped by police—whose race officers recorded as “unknown.” (Excluding the 2020 protests reduces the proportion of “unknown” use-of-force subjects to 15 percent.) The percentage of people of “unknown” race SPD interacted with spiked dramatically starting in mid-2019, when SPD stopped recording “Hispanic” as a racial category, according to the report, and apparently started reporting the race of most Latinos as “unknown.”

The report incorporates findings from several preliminary assessments, which found that officers’ use of force declined 33 percent between 2015 to 2019 and 48 percent between 2015 to 2021, with a more significant reduction in the most serious types of force, such as shooting; that officers responding to people in crisis rarely resort to force, “a dramatic improvement from DOJ investigative findings that led to the Consent Decree”; and that although there are still troubling racial disparities in who gets stopped and detained by police, officers are generally able to articulate “sufficient legal justification” for their actions by establishing “reasonable suspicion” when stopping or frisking a person. 

“I would describe the challenge right now with the number of officers as a crisis from the consent decree perspective. Are officers being supervised, is data being analyzed, is force being analyzed at the right level? All those systems are near collapse.”—Seattle Police Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie

The consent decree, Oftelie says, does not define aspirational goals for SPD; it establishes a “floor,” not a ceiling, by setting minimum standards for constitutional policing. Although the city council has groused at times that the consent decree makes it hard for them to pass laws reforming the department—for example, by transferring some of its duties, and funding, to civilians outside the department—Oftelie argues that “the ceiling is relatively unlimited,” and that the city could impose new rules on SPD—requiring special training on how to deal with people who are walking brandishing knives, for example—without violating the terms of the consent decree.

“I don’t agree that the judge has put any limitations on polices and practice that the city can put in place,” Oftelie said. “It’s situational, but I think that issue has taken on a narrative in the city that’s overblown… I think the community, and maybe sometimes the council, has used the consent decree as an excuse not to innovate new things.”

The report cautions that that the final phase of the consent decree will be “challenging,” and notes that SPD still has work to do to build on the progress it has made and restore trust with Seattle residents, particularly when it comes to protest response and accountability.

“In the comprehensive assessment, we deemed SPD in sustained compliance with use of force exclusive of crowd management, stops and detentions, and crisis intervention—what I didn’t say is that I recommend that these paragraphs in the consent be closed out and terminated,” Oftelie said. “SPD will have to write a new policy for crowd management that takes into consideration state law and the less- lethal weapons ordinance, and that policy will need to be reviewed by the DOJ, the monitor, and ultimately the court.” Continue reading “Police Monitor Praises Progress, But Does Not Recommend Ending Federal Consent Decree (Yet)”

How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse

Photo of downtown Seattle Target exterior
The downtown Seattle Target where, according to police and prosecutors, a homeless man stole dozens of bottles of liquor in less than a month, resulting in a felony charge for “organized retail theft”

By Erica C. Barnett

Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: A “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)

In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, SPD officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the state Department Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state—emphasis in the original.

Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And  there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out—details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.

For instance: Nearly  every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address—usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the city had swept his encampment at least four times—most recently in April, when they threw away the cell phone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court. 

“They throw people away.”—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH

Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not reoffended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.

“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up… and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”

In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street level-drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.

Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years). But his offenses fall under another category city and county officials have also vowed to target: Organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over a several weeks.

Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court—a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.

Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.

“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”

Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander]—people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion said that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.

” In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,”  Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.” Continue reading “How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse”