Category: Crime

City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy Erica C. Barnett

City Attorney Ann Davison sent a letter to the entire Seattle Municipal Court on Wednesday asking the court to give her the ability to deny “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—a group of about 120 people who have had 12 or more referrals from the Seattle Police Department to the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) in the past five years—access to community court, a therapeutic court in which defendants define their own goals, such as reduction of substance use, and participate in mandatory community service. The change would effectively make prior criminal history a factor in determining someone’s eligibility for community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors are automatically eligible for community court, which allows defendants to access services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. Crimes like theft, pedestrian interference, and resisting arrest are eligible offenses; more serious misdemeanor offenses like reckless driving, harassment, and DUI are not.

For weeks, Davison’s office has been negotiating with Municipal Court Judge Judge Damon Shadid, who presides over community court, over how to treat this group of defendants. As of Wednesday, according to Davison’s letter, those discussions “have come to an impasse.” In her letter, Davison asks the judges to overrule Shadid and allow the city attorney to deny access to community court for people the city attorney categorizes as high utilizers, and to “clarify how many chances individuals get to have their cases referred to Community Court.” Currently, defendants can go through community court a maximum of four times.

In a statement responding to Davison’s letter on Thursday, the municipal court said community court was ”

founded to address the root causes behind low-level criminal activity while reducing the harm of pretrial incarceration” and “designed with the Washington State Pretrial Reform Task Force Final Recommendations report and The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2020 report front and center.” (Links in original.) The court said it was still evaluating Davison’s proposal and “will continue to work with her office and the Department of Public Defense to identify how to move forward together and create a prioritized plan for people whose needs and issues are not being addressed, and have not been addressed historically, by our criminal justice system.”

“The letter mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings (and I have been in attendance at these meetings). The letter causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

Davison released her letter in a press release at 8:00 Wednesday night after PubliCola obtained a copy and sent her office a list of questions about it Wednesday afternoon.

“Unfortunately, in the Community Court Steering Committee meeting last Friday, Judge Shadid insisted that he would not agree to exclude those meeting the High Utilizer criteria from Community Court and would potentially refuse to oversee Community Court if his fellow judges agreed to the changes that I have requested,” Davison’s letter to the Municipal Court judges said. “At this juncture, I am formally requesting that the full Seattle Municipal Court consider this important modification of the 2019 Community Court agreement.”

That agreement, signed by then-city attorney Pete Holmes, lays out a process for the city attorney’s office to refer defendants to community court and describes the court’s less punitive approach to misdemeanor crime. “Simply stated, this version of Community Court (with its ‘release-first model,’ voluntary referrals to services, and limited accountability mechanisms) is the wrong place for those committing repeat, high-impact criminal activity,” Davison’s letter says.

King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) director Anita Khandelwal says Davison’s letter “mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings,” which Khandelwal has attended, and “causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”

Judge Shadid, Khandelwal said, did not “insist on anything,” as Davison’s letter claims. Instead, she said, he suggested postponing any major changes to community court until July, to “allow for us to work collaboratively to develop a plan for people on the list, because the only plan that the City Attorney’s Office seemed to be putting forward involved incarceration (including overriding jail booking criteria) and traditional prosecution.”

Importantly, the 2019 agreement removed a requirement that defendants plead guilty before getting access to community court—a requirement for other alternatives to the mainstream court system, such as King County Drug Court. According to the community court rules and procedures, “An individual should not have to choose between their Constitutional rights to a trial and having the ability to access services that will help them exit the criminal justice system. Therefore, a person doesn’t have to give up trial rights to participate and gain benefits from Seattle Community Court.”

Khandelwal says community court is designed to avoid the harmful outcomes that are common in the mainstream court system, which often leads to a cycle of incarceration and disproportionately impacts people of color, unsheltered people, and people with a history of being declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.

In fact, a DPD analysis found that the people on Davison’s “high utilizer” list are overwhelmingly people who fit into one or more of those three categories. Nearly six in ten have “indications of housing instability,” such as giving 77 South Washington—the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square—as their address. More than half (51 percent) have been through a court-ordered evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial. And 40 percent were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), higher than the proportion of BIPOC Seattle residents.

“Prior criminal legal system involvement is often a result of racially biased policing, which is only perpetuated or deepened by prosecution,” Khandelwal said. “DPD worked hard with the court and CAO to develop a court that did not look at criminal history to avoid perpetuating that bias.”

“Our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.”—City Attorney’s Office spokesman

According to a spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, the 2019 agreement “removes [the city attorney’s] prosecutorial discretion to consider prior criminal history. Because community court is a release-first model, individuals with a history of repeat criminal activity are able to immediately return to their criminal behavior without consequence. Ultimately, as this agreement is written, we have no discretion to screen out any candidates that fit the high utilizer criteria without being in violation” of the agreement.

“Without modification to this agreement, many individuals meeting the high utilizer criteria are required to be repeatedly routed through Community Court despite little to no change in their criminal activity,” Derrick said. In general, he added, “our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.” Continue reading “City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court”

New Councilmember Sara Nelson at Center of Debates Over Hiring Bonuses, Renter Relief, and Nonbinding Resolutions

1. At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday, City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued to push for spending up to $4.5 million on hiring bonuses for new Seattle Police Department recruits and lateral hires. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox to accelerate the hiring of officers,” Nelson said. “If we don’t do this, what else are we going to do?” 

Nelson’s resolution states the council’s intent to lift a budget proviso, or restriction, the council imposed on SPD’s funding last year. That proviso stipulated that if SPD failed to meet its hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022, they can’t spend the extra money until the council lifts the proviso and allocates the funds to a specific purpose. SPD now projects that it will hire around 98 new officers, leaving between $4.1 million and $4.5 million unspent. 

Although Nelson has proposed using the unspent money to pay bonuses to new recruits, the funds may be needed elsewhere. The city budget office has asked every city department to come up with potential cuts of between 3 and 6 percent of their budgets in anticipation of a budget gap of around $150 million next year. Unspent money from this year, including the $4.5 million left over from SPD’s 2022 hiring budget, could help fill that gap.

Just as debate on her hiring bonus resolution was wrapping up, Nelson attempted to walk on a last-minute addition to the committee agenda. The bill, which committee chair Lisa Herbold’s office confirmed she had not seen, proposed lifting the proviso on the $4.5 million to allow SPD to spend it on unspecified “staffing incentives,” including anything that “accelerates and prioritizes the hiring of police officers,” according to a draft of the bill.

Herbold attempted to cut Nelson off by closing debate, but Nelson interrupted, telling Herbold, “this should be the job of the public safety committee.” Although Herbold shut her down by moving on to the next item, the debate over hiring incentives isn’t over; in fact, Nelson has made it a cornerstone of her agenda, arguing that the only way to reduce crime and cut down on “addiction and overdoses” is to hire more police, and the best way to do that is through hiring bonuses. 

The city has consistently found that hiring incentives have no significant impact on the number of new officers SPD hires. Last month, the Seattle Department of Human Resources Department issued a memo concluding that a short-lived 2021 hiring bonus program had little impact on hiring, and an earlier report about a lengthier bonus program in 2019 found that only 18 percent of SPD applicants cited the potential bonus as one of the reasons they applied. 

Mayor Bruce Harrell has not requested funding for hiring bonuses.

A separate bill, sponsored by Herbold, would provide $650,000 out of the provisoed funds for two items the mayor’s office has requested: Reimbursement for moving expenses for new officers and a professional recruiter for the department.

Both Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen left the online council meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers

2. Less than two hours after the public safety meeting ended, Nelson raised objections to several bills on the full council’s afternoon agenda, including legislation updating the city’s renter protections to comply with state law, which she argued would hurt small landlords. (Even Alex Pedersen, who’s with Nelson on the “naturally occurring affordable housing” debate, voted for that one).

Nelson also objected to a nonbinding resolution by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda condemning a federal pilot program critics call a first step toward privatizing Medicare. Accusing Mosqueda of “legislating by slogan,” Nelson she didn’t have enough information on how the pilot would affect “our constituents, and that’s who I represent—I don’t represent advocates or medical service providers.” 

Council members will soon take up legislation that will allow them to abstain from some resolutions that aren’t directly connected to city business, but for now, council rules require them to cast a vote. To avoid this, both Nelson and Pedersen left the online meeting immediately before the vote—the equivalent of standing up in the middle of a council meeting and marching out of chambers.

Although this action technically violates the council’s rules, violations are hard to enforce—back when council meetings happened in person, certain council members were notorious for taking bathroom breaks just before big, controversial votes. After the resolution passed 6-0 (with Kshama Sawant excused from the meeting), Councilmember Dan Strauss took a moment to thank a legislative aide who is leaving. “I’m sorry Councilmembers Nelson and Pedersen aren’t here to hear this,” Strauss said.

City Attorney Davison’s Plan to Clear Case Backlog Includes Dismissing Nearly 2,000 Low-Level Misdemeanors

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy Erica C. Barnett

City Attorney Ann Davison’s office announced Davison will decline to prosecute nearly 2,000 misdemeanor cases referred by the Seattle Police Department as part of an effort to eliminate what she has described as a 5,000-case backlog left over by her predecessor, Pete Holmes. “In order to maintain close-in-time filing for present day cases, some cases from the backlog will be declined, including those involving: Property Destruction, Theft, Criminal Trespass, and Non-DUI Traffic,” the announcement from Davison’s office says.

A spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, said the cases are, on average, 334 days old, “making them very difficult—and in some cases impossible—to prosecute.”

The city attorney’s office will prioritize the remaining cases according to the severity of the charges: “Crimes against persons” such as domestic violence and sexual assault, followed by misdemeanors involving firearms, DUIs, people who meet the criteria of the office’s “high utilizer initiative,” which identified 118 people with 12 or more misdemeanor referrals, and anyone with three or more cases in the backlog. The city has repeatedly announced initiatives to target so-called “prolific offenders” for enhanced prosecution, raising concerns from public defenders who argue that punitive approaches do not lead to rehabilitation or long-term public safety.

Earlier this year, Davison announced she would speed up filing decisions on misdemeanor cases, saying that “the best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department.” On the campaign trail in 2020, Davison vowed to aggressively prosecute misdemeanors, accusing her opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, of wanting to legalize crime. On her campaign website, Davison said Thomas-Kennedy believed that “if we stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes … such an approach would magically make crime disappear.”

Davison’s criminal division director, Natalie Walton-Anderson, struck a markedly different tone in her statement about the decision to decline almost half the cases that make up the backlog. “Simply filing every case would not resolve the backlog,” she said. “[T]he court system cannot handle an influx of cases of this magnitude all at once.”

Derrick, Davison’s spokesman, said the office doesn’t “anticipate that another mass decline will be necessary to clear the backlog by the end of the year”; he added that the decision to decline low-level misdemeanor cases only applies to the backlog, not future cases.

According to today’s announcement, the criminal division of Davison’s office is now “fully staffed.” However, the office plans to ask the city council for extra mid-year funding to hire more staff to address the backlog. The office is scheduled to present their approach to addressing the backlog to the council’s public safety committee next Tuesday.

Downtown Seattle Could Get Storefront Police Precinct, Finalist for Sheriff Would Have to Go Back to Police Academy if Appointed

1. The Seattle Police Department could open a “mini precinct” in a storefront owned by the Low Income Housing Institute on Third Avenue downtown, and is also considering a second location at LIHI’s Frye Apartments in Pioneer Square, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and LIHI director Sharon Lee confirmed.

The Third Avenue storefront, a short-lived Shake n Shake location, is on the ground floor of LIHI’s Glen Hotel Apartments, a single-room occupancy low-income housing building. Before the pandemic, the block was home to a Kress IGA grocery store and a TJ Maxx discount store, but both shut down in 2020, leaving most of the block without a tenant to attract foot traffic. The site is one block from Third and Pine, a locus of the recent crackdown on street-level crime known as Operation New Day. According to Lee, the “illegal market activity” has gotten worse since police swept Third and Pine, as drug dealers and people selling shoplifted items moved to nearby locations.

Lee said people have broken in to the apartment building and slept, urinated, and defecated in the hallways and stairwells. “The residents upstairs are scared to come out at night; they’re scared to walk around the neighborhood,” Lee said. “So we decided to offer the city the use of the space as a place where community service officers or bike officers can use it to park their bikes, take a restroom break, write up reports, and keep an eye on the street.”

LIHI would provide the space to SPD at a “nominal” cost, Lee said.

The Frye Apartments, located across the street from Prefontaine Fountain and fenced-off City Hall Park, used to have a mini-precinct on the first floor, Lee said, but the space was occupied until recently by Aladdin Bail Bonds.

A spokesman for Harrell, Jamie Housen, said the mayor’s office “is in early stages of considering what a neighborhood precinct could look like. We are continuing to explore all options for enhancing public safety downtown, including a more permanent police presence.” The two LIHI buildings “have been offered as potential options, but are by no means the only locations being considered,” Housen said.
A spokesman for the Downtown Seattle Association said the DSA would welcome a permanent police presence downtown.“As we’ve seen over the past month, dedicated resources along Third Avenue have led to a safer, more welcoming environment. Sustaining this effort is essential for the people who live and work along Third, and it’s critical as more workers and visitors return to the heart of the city. … If a mini-precinct is an element that will help enhance safety, then it should be welcomed,” the spokesman said.

2. Interim King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall, one of three finalists for the permanent sheriff position, would have to attend the state’s 19-week-long police academy and be certified by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission if she’s selected and confirmed as sheriff; during that time, an undersheriff chosen by Cole-Tindall would serve as sheriff, King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office confirmed.

Cole-Tindall, 57, mentioned the requirement during an interview with members of the press on Tuesday. Although Cole-Tindall attended the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy decades ago and is a commissioned officer, she spent most of her career outside of law enforcement, working as an investigator for the state Employment Security Division and the county’s labor relations director before joining the sheriff’s office as head of the Technical Services Division, which oversees a miscellany of operations, including courthouse security, the automated fingerprint ID system, and the county’s 911 system.

“[When] I went through [the police academy] 30 years ago, I was 30 years younger,” Cole-Tindall said. “And it’s a lot… It’s doing firearms, Taser, traffic stops—things that, as a police administrator, are not things I would be using on my day to day job.” Cole-Tindall said she would also have to pass a physical assessment test that includes “pushups, sit-ups, and squat thrusts” before entering the academy.

A spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said that when the county has a permanent sheriff but the sheriff is unavailable, an undersheriff assumes the job. Although Cole-Tindall appointed Jesse Anderson as interim undersheriff when she became interim sheriff earlier this year, she could appoint a different undersheriff if she becomes permanent sheriff, and that person would then serve as sheriff in her absence.

Constantine will nominate a permanent sheriff in early May. The other finalists are Maj. Reginald Moorman from the Atlanta Police Department and Killeen, Texas police chief Charles Kimble.

Chamber Poll Asks Leading Questions, Gets Predictable Answers

By Erica C. Barnett

The head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Rachel Smith, expressed optimism during a press briefing to roll out the Chamber’s latest poll, which concludes that a supermajority of Seattle residents “actively” considered moving last year and that only one in four people would feel safe going downtown after dark. “This data shows us that the voters know what’s going on in our community, they understand it, they have complex reactions to it, and fundamentally, they want action… and I think that’s good news for the kind of leadership that they need,” Smith said.

The editorial board of the Seattle Times didn’t take long to read between the lines, publishing an editorial that called the poll a “cold-water shock” that should prompt the City Council to take a hardline approach to crime and homelessness. The Times piece paid particular attention to a poll question about encampment sweeps, gloating that “[e]ven 55% of the dozens of self-identified Socialists in the poll said the ‘stop all sweeps’ idea is wrong.”

As with all polls, though, how you ask the question matters. The Chamber’s question about encampments was particularly misleading, creating a false choice between an option that does not currently exist in the city of Seattle—offering appropriate housing or shelter, along with health care, treatment, and other services that meet the needs of people living outdoors, and only then asking them to move—and the most extreme “no sweeps under any circumstances” option. Would you rather “provide outreach and offer shelter and services to individuals before closing encampments,” or do you agree that “no individual should be moved unless they agree to alternative shelter or housing”? Given that false choice between two options that no one in city government has proposed, it’s little wonder that both socialists and self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly picked the former.

The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

Similarly, the poll set up a question about police spending in terms that pitted an option most voters would consider reasonable—hiring better-trained police while implementing “alternative policing and sentencing programs”—with one many people would consider an extreme approach: Decriminalizing all nonviolent misdemeanors and eliminating police. Not surprisingly, just 23 percent of respondents said the city should legalize misdemeanors and get rid of the cops.

So what can such a poll tell us? Questions about whether the city is on the right track or the wrong track, whether people have considered moving somewhere else, and whether people trust the city council perennially receive responses suggesting that everything is worse than ever, and that the city council, which has far less power in Seattle’s political system than people generally assume, is to blame. (Having covered such polls for the better part of 20 years, I can’t recall a single example of a business group releasing a poll showing that voters think things are going great and that they trust the council more than they would a random guy on the street).

In a sense, surveys like this one serve as early indicators of how people will feel about (or whether they will vote for) policies that business groups support, like increased police funding, crackdowns on homelessness, and tax breaks. They are less useful, however, at predicting things like how many people actually will leave Seattle (Republicans perennially say they plan to leave, and yet here they still are) and whether people are, individually, happier living here than they would be somewhere else. The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

And because many questions are designed in a way that produces maximal results for certain outcomes, it can be hard to tease out what voters are actually “saying.” When 61 percent of voters identify homelessness as the issue that they are “most concerned or frustrated about,” that response almost certainly includes people who actively work against encampment sweeps as well as those who are annoyed at the sight of tents on the freeway.

Questions about “crime and public safety,” similarly, look different from the perspective of someone living in a neighborhood deeply impacted by gun violence and the owner of a $2 million house in Laurelhurst who hears about what’s happening in the “inner city” from their local TV fearmonger.

And, as always, there are internal contradictions: Most people agree that the city to spend more money on all sorts of things, including behavioral health care and homelessness solutions, but also overwhelmingly oppose more taxes to pay for all that new spending uamid a $150 million deficit.

The poll did include one somewhat surprising result: Most people, including homeowners, say they support “more housing” not just along commercial streets but in their own neighborhoods. There’s a caveat for that one, though, too: The Chamber only asked about duplexes and triplexes, not apartments; had they asked homeowners whether they would welcome a three-story apartment building next door, they might have gotten a much different response.

A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear

The Seattle Police Department’s Mobile Precinct on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle.

By Paul Kiefer

A month has passed since the Seattle Police Department moved its mobile precinct to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle, scattering an open-air market for drugs and stolen merchandise that had recently been the scene of two murders.

SPD has maintained a presence at the intersection since then as part of a push to crack down on crime downtown called Operation New Day, mostly making arrests for shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes. Unlike a similar crackdown in the Little Saigon neighborhood in February, there have been few felony arrests in the long-troubled area. Meanwhile, the social services that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said would follow the sweep at Third and Pine are still on hold.

Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell says that the relative scarcity of felony arrests doesn’t tell the full story. “Felonies take a while—you’ve got to build those cases,” she said. Unlike at 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, where federal law enforcement began investigating a similar illicit market and a pattern of EBT fraud long before SPD cleared the intersection, Harrell said the sweep of Third and Pine was a direct response to the shootings on February 27 and March 2 that killed 52-year-old Reno Maiava and 15-year-old Michael Del Bianco, respectively. SPD later arrested suspects in both shootings, though neither arrest took place on Third; officers tracked Maiava’s killer to a Tukwila motel, while Del Bianco’s killer turned himself in at SPD’s West Precinct.

Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said.

Harrell added that while SPD is still working with federal partners to make drug arrests in the area, the investigations require patience. “We’re not trying to get the low-level dealers,” she said. “We’re trying to get the folks who are a little further up the food chain, and you can’t put that on a calendar.”

Judges have already released many of the people arrested at both Third and Pine and 12th and Jackson; one man released by a King County Superior Court judge after his arrest in Little Saigon reappeared along Third, where SPD officers arrested him again for drug possession and carrying a gun illegally. According to Harrell, the repeat arrests have frustrated some prosecutors. “What I’m hearing from prosecutors is that they’re making their best cases and their strongest recommendations” to judges, she said, “and sometimes they’re feeling unheard.”

According to US Attorney Nick Brown, finding a “high-level” drug dealer at an intersection like Third and Pine—or at any of the encampments in greater downtown that SPD has swept in the past two months—is unlikely. Most of the dealers whose crimes could rise to the federal level, he says, “are, in fact, not Washingtonians. … Most of the people we identify as significant in those cases are not even in Seattle; many are in Mexico or California. Those that are here only come for a short period of time.” Brown’s office has the discretion to decide which cases rise to the federal level; the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the vast majority of felony cases. So far, Brown’s office has taken four cases from the crackdowns in Little Saigon and along Third Ave.

In the view of some skeptics of the operation, most of the behavior drawing negative attention at Third and Pine doesn’t rise to the felony level. “Most of what people complain about aren’t felonies,” said Kevin Toth, a social worker with the King County Department of Public Defense. “Drug dealing, sure. Robberies, shootings, also, yes. But most of the atmosphere down there is the result of lawful behaviors or misdemeanors at worst.”

Meanwhile, the operation at Third and Pine has re-opened the direct line between police officers and the Public Defender Association-run program LEAD, the city’s primary diversion option for people who commit crimes related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. LEAD’s early model relied on referrals from arresting officers—so-called “arrest diversions”—but in the past two years, the program shifted focus, relying instead on community groups, business organizations, outreach workers and prosecutors to refer clients for diversion. Community referrals don’t create an arrest record—one reason the program began shifting away from arrest diversions to begin with.

However, according to LEAD project director Tara Moss, that trend is reversing. “We’re now seeing the current mayor’s office and SPD leadership break the logjam and start sending LEAD referrals again” after a two-year pause on arrest referrals, she said. In 2021, LEAD received one arrest diversions; this year, the program has received eight arrest diversions. Moss also noted that while the program currently has some “capacity issues” as a result of a new wave of referrals, she anticipates that LEAD will be able to take on more clients later this year.

Since officers haven’t done arrest diversions in years, Harrell said, SPD is currently retraining officers on how to engage with LEAD and introducing officers hired in the past two years to the program for the first time.

SPD did not arrest everyone at the open-air market on Third and Pine; some scattered to nearby corners, to Pioneer Square, or to other parts of the city. V, an organizer with the drug user solidarity group DUST, says that dispersing people—many of them unhoused—across the city by sweeping corners like Third and Pine can create tension in the places where those people land. “[It] puts a strain on the homeless people in each neighborhood because the service providers there have limited capacity,” they said.  Newcomers can trigger conflicts, V added, that can escalate into violence.

The weeks following SPD’s clearance of Third and Pine have not been peaceful. Eighteen people were shot or stabbed in the past month or so, most of them in or near encampments; in response to some of those shootings, the city cleared encampments in Chinatown, Little Saigon, and the University District. But Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said. In Ballard, for instance—the site of two shootings, one of them fatal, in the past month—the deputy mayor said that a pattern of gun violence long predates the crackdowns in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear”

PubliCola Interviews King County Prosecutor Candidate Stephan Thomas

by Paul Kiefer

When longtime King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced his retirement in January, his office was in the middle of a decade-long transformation. Since Satterberg took over 15 years ago, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has branched out beyond standard prosecution, partnering with felony diversion programs for young adults and launching a new unit to review and correct excessive prison sentences imposed in the past. The race to replace Satterberg will determine whether King County voters believe those transformations moved the prosecutor’s office in the right direction—or whether the office needs to shift further in the direction of restorative justice.

Stephan Thomas emerged as a Satterberg critic nearly a year before he entered the race last month. After Satterberg challenged a Washington Supreme Court decision requiring judges to consider a defendant’s age when sentencing children in adult courts, Thomas wrote an a Seattle Times op-ed condemning Satterberg for “doubling down on a racist practice that fails to keep our community safe”; Satterberg’s attempt to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court later failed.

Thomas is no stranger to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He joined the office as an intern in 2010; became a deputy prosecutor a year later, spending six years as a trial attorney in the criminal division; and ascended into Satterberg’s executive team in 2017 to lead the office’s community justice initiatives before departing two years later. He now teaches law in an adjunct position at Seattle University.

PubliCola sat down—virtually—with Thomas to discuss his priorities for the prosecutor’s office.

PubliCola: You cite Satterberg’s defense of Washington’s so-called “auto-decline” law, which requires the state to prosecute children as adults for some crimes, as a key reason for your decision to join this race. If you are elected to be King County’s next prosecutor, how would you approach a case involving an underage defendant accused of a serious felony?

Stephan Thomas: The first thing I think of is a case that happened not so long ago in which two teenager shot and killed two people in an encampment under I-5 called the Jungle. They were charged as adults, and they ended up getting sentenced to TWO? decades in prison. It didn’t seem like anyone sat back and looked at the failed systems that lead to those kids being in that situation in the first place. First things first, we need space to be able to ask those questions. There were multiple missed opportunities that we had to reach them, and no one else has been held accountable except for these young men. And the only accountability in that case, or quote-unquote accountability, is sending them to prison for multiple decades.

PC: In a practical sense, what does that mean? Does it mean lobbying for the state law to change, or does it mean simply improving our interventions upstream so you don’t wind up prosecuting young people for murder?

ST: People need to recognize that the prosecutor has a powerful advocacy role. And even with the law as it stands, we have the ability right now to look back at what might have brought a young person into contact with the prosecutor’s office to identify holes that we need to fill. It might be education, it might be housing, and it might be mental health treatment opportunities—those are also things the prosecutor can advocate for. I also think we don’t accomplish the goal of rehabilitation by transferring young people into the adult prison system. We need to advocate for the state to lengthen the amount of time a person can be held in the juvenile detention system.

PC: King County’s jail population plummeted during the pandemic, in part because the County decided it could reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by not filling the jails with people booked for nonviolent misdemeanors. Those restrictions will end once the pandemic subsides, which could mean the jail population rises once again. As elected prosecutor, how would you advise the county to approach detention in a post-COVID world?

ST: I’m looking for other opportunities to be able to secure people in a place that is not in a cage. Can the King County Jail be reformatted or reformed in a way that’s much more rehabilitative than steel cages? Can we recognize that a jail cell is not a place for someone to get the help that they need? Right now, it seems like we’re just trying to nibble around the edges. We decide that certain people won’t go to jail for certain offenses, at least temporarily. That isn’t a long-term fix, and jail has never been a long-term fix.

PC: The next elected prosecutor will need to find a way to work with the City of Seattle if it goes forward with a policing strategy that targets so-called crime ‘hot spots.’ Do you think there’s a way for that strategy to be effective?

ST: Look at what happened. We cleaned up [12th Ave S. and S. Jackson St.], and people moved to [Third Ave. and Pike St.]. Then two people get shot and killed there. So, we move people off that corner, but the same thing will happen over and over again. What we should have done, and what I would advocate we do if I’m prosecutor, is start with outreach teams from housing and service providers. We should take time to figure out what people at a corner need, and then we should make sure we have real opportunities for housing, job training, and treatment to offer—not just hollow offers, which is often the case now.

It is a shame we’re telling these business owners the best thing and the only thing we can offer is to lock up everyone on the street outside. That shouldn’t be the first step. Growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, I saw that first-hand. They turned up with the police and battering rams, busted down doors, sent people to prison, and said it would make our community safer. All we got was mass incarceration, our community remaining under-resourced, and families being broken apart.

It is a shame we’re telling these business owners the best thing and the only thing we can offer is to lock up everyone on the street outside. Of course, if we exhaust all other options, then law enforcement should come in, but that shouldn’t be the first step. Growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, I saw that first-hand. They turned up with the police and battering rams, busted down doors, sent people to prison, and said it would make our community safer. All we got was mass incarceration, our community remaining under-resourced, and families being broken apart. Right now, it feels like we’re going back to that era. As prosecutor, I would want to push the prosecutor’s office and its partners to think about providing services first instead.

PC: As prosecutor, you would also lead an office that sexual assault survivors frequently criticize for doing too little to support victims of sexual assault. What would you say to sexual assault survivors mulling their options in this race?

ST: Right now, the court process is horrible for survivors. I’ve talked with prosecutors who told me that if one of their children was assaulted, they would not want to send them through the court system to seek justice. They know that once you get into the court system, you get cross-examined, you are made out to be a liar, and the entire experience only does more harm. I would try to figure out what we can do to provide all survivors with the support they need, and a first step towards that is recognizing that not every survivor will want to use the courts as a path towards healing. We only get a small percentage of people who have caused harm before a judge, so we’re already missing the vast majority of sexual assault cases. For now, I would look for ways to find more community support for survivors, so survivors who may not feel comfortable participating in the process or confident that the system will bring them peace of mind have someone to listen to them and care about them.

PC: Though you certainly have experience in the prosecutor’s office, you are also the candidate with the least executive experience. What makes you more prepared to lead the prosecutor’s office than the other candidates in this race?

ST: I’m personally impacted by the issues the prosecutor’s office deals with. I’ve had personal experiences as a victim of crime, as a gang member, as a trial attorney. I’ve handled domestic violence and sexual assault cases. I’ve been on the executive team. I’ve been a trainer for prosecutors across the country. Given all those experiences, I am uniquely positioned to understand the impact of what the prosecutor’s office does. I am also the candidate who is really being honest about how the current system is failing us.

The only path forward is for us to look towards transformation, to build something that is not built on the foundation of racism and discrimination and instead aims for true safety and rehabilitation for everyone who comes into contact with it. are built on a pathway of true safety and restoration. The other candidates are talking about nibbling around the edges. Right now, we’re returning to the mistakes of the 1990s. If you want real transformation, if you want someone who’s going to be really honest with you, that’s me.

PubliCola Interviews King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion

Leesa Manion headshotBy Paul Kiefer

Longtime King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced his retirement in January, setting in motion what is sure to be a heated race to fill a position with enormous sway over how King County balances new restorative justice projects with traditional prosecution.

Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s chief of staff, was the first candidate to step forward to replace the 15-year incumbent. Since Manion first joined the King County Prosecutor’s Office 27 years ago, the office has branched out beyond prosecution, partnering with felony diversion programs for young adults and launching a new unit to review and correct excessive prison sentences imposed in the past.

But the prosecutor’s office has critics on both the left and the right, including law enforcement groups who accuse prosecutors of being too lenient and civil liberties groups who condemn Satterberg’s defense of a Washington state law requiring children charged with some serious crimes to be tried as adults.

PubliCola sat down—virtually—with Manion to discuss her priorities for the prosecutor’s office.

PubliCola: Fear of crime was a driving force in Seattle’s most recent election, and it will likely remain a driving force in the race for King County Prosecutor. You’ve said that one of your goals is to combat myths about crime and public safety. What’s one of the most widespread misconceptions about crime and public safety in Seattle, and what problems do misconceptions about crime create for the prosecutor’s office?

Leesa Manion: I was in a meeting just earlier this week where people were asking why juvenile crime is out of control. The truth is that juvenile crime is down, even while crime committed by adults is up. If we don’t share that information and share it often, it doesn’t allow people to know that some of the juvenile diversion strategies we’ve had in place for years are working—and that the public can have faith in them.

PC: Several county officials, including one of your opponents, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, have criticized the prosecutor’s office for expanding juvenile and adult diversion programs. How do you make the case to skeptics that diversion should be a larger component of the county’s public safety strategy?

LM: I know that there’s a great deal of frustration in our community right now regarding public safety, and especially with regards to organized retail theft, catalytic converter theft, and other commercial crimes. I have always been proud of the fact that the folks in Seattle and King County are compassionate, and I know their compassion has been tested.

“I think that every person who is arrested, convicted and sent to prison as a result of Operation New Day will eventually be released. We have an obligation to make sure each of them comes back out with a different skill, that they can access opportunities and get back on their feet.”

I also know that our citizens are super smart. And they understand that there is a difference between individuals who are systematically preying upon businesses and others to profit off their criminal acts, versus the individuals who are acting out of a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or behavioral health issue. And both populations, if you will, are deserving of accountability. But accountability looks different for different people. And as we know from our juvenile diversion programs, because we’re getting fewer young people referred to the prosecutor’s office than ever before, diversion works. It can be evidence-based, and it can be very effective.

PC: At the same time, you appeared at a press conference last Friday to announce the early results—mostly arrests—of the Seattle Police Department’s Operation New Day, a crackdown on so-called “hot spots” for the trade in stolen merchandise and drugs in Little Saigon and downtown. How does “hot spot” policing mesh with your vision for a more sustainable, long-term public safety strategy in King County?

LM: I don’t like the phrase “hot spot,” but that’s not the question. I do think focused enforcement can have an impact. If you walk around [12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St.] today, it feels vastly different than it did two months ago. Individuals who are preying on others, dealing dangerous drugs, and targeting businesses need to be held accountable. That said, I think there’s a belief that the criminal justice system should prosecute people, put them in prison and throw away the key. I don’t think that’s effective or warranted. I think that every person who is arrested, convicted and sent to prison as a result of Operation New Day will eventually be released. We have an obligation to make sure each of them comes back out with a different skill, that they can access opportunities and get back on their feet.

PC: During that press conference, you mentioned that you are working with Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison’s office to aggregate some misdemeanor theft charges into felony charges based on the value of the items that a person stole or the number of times they shoplifted. Why do you feel that is necessary, and if you were elected prosecutor, would you use the same strategy on a larger scale?

LM: I would do that in areas that have really extreme challenges. Business owners in the downtown core are asking for relief from organized retail theft. They are closing their shops and their customers are afraid. In that context, it makes sense to aggregate misdemeanor charges to combat things like organized retail theft. Do I think that’s warranted in every single misdemeanor case? No. I don’t think we would aggregate a bunch of misdemeanor trespass cases into a felony. Someone who is sleeping in a doorway or someone who, because of mental illness, is still frequenting businesses where employees have to tell them to leave doesn’t need a felony charge. Those individuals can be referred to service providers. Aggregating charges is not a blanket approach.

PC: Speaking of communicating across offices, how do you think the county should approach booking restrictions at King County jails once COVID winds down? Right now, the county is starting to loosen its rules up a bit, but the restrictions on booking people for nonviolent misdemeanors are still in place.

LM: Like most things, you’re not going to be able to solve the complex problems that show up at the doors of the criminal justice system with an all-or-nothing approach. You really have to do an individual examination of each case, and you have to be thoughtful about how you use your resources. I don’t think you can say, “everyone gets booked,” and I wouldn’t get behind that. I also don’t think you can say, “no one gets booked.” Those are false choices.

PC: But the current booking restrictions aren’t all-or-nothing, so isn’t that a bit of a straw man?

LM: I think that there’s a common misunderstanding that booking restrictions are all-or-nothing. Say you wanted to have blanket restrictions on booking people for all misdemeanors. I don’t think you can do that, because there might be someone who is facing a misdemeanor charge but who has something very troubling in their criminal history or they’re currently under investigation for a serious crime. Until we share that information with the jail or get that information from law enforcement, and before we can assess our options, it’s hard to have a blanket policy saying that we can’t book them.

“Business owners in the downtown core are asking for relief from organized retail theft. They are closing their shops and their customers are afraid. In that context, it makes sense to aggregate misdemeanor charges to combat things like organized retail theft.”

Similarly, I don’t think you can say that out an abundance of caution, we should book everyone. There are probably a lot of individuals who commit nonviolent crimes and who we could effectively navigate to service providers. That said, we might see a 30-day rise in the number of people in the jail if there’s a new emphasis patrol or a new focused enforcement spot. With Operation New Day, there might be an extra 10 people in the jail on an average day than there were before it. If you take credit for jail numbers going down, you have to be prepared to take heat when they go back up. Continue reading “PubliCola Interviews King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion”

Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement

City Attorney Ann Davison touts "arrests and prosecutions" as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city's latest targeted policing action.
City Attorney Ann Davison touts “arrests and prosecutions” as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city’s latest targeted policing action, Operation New Day.

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department moved a black van known as the “mobile precinct” to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle on Thursday morning, scattering the dozens of people gathered there to buy and sell drugs and stolen merchandise.

While the move came a day after the second fatal shooting at the corner in less than a week, the department had started preparing to clear the intersection weeks earlier—the second phase in a crackdown on crime “hot spots” announced by Mayor Bruce last month. That campaign, called Operation New Day, began two weeks ago, when police cleared a similar site at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in the Little Saigon neighborhood; the mobile precinct van was parked at that intersection until Thursday, when it moved downtown.

On Friday morning, Harrell convened a press conference to tout the first results of Operation New Day, including dozens of arrests. Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz stood beside him, as did City Attorney Ann Davison, King County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Staff Leesa Manion, and two federal law enforcement officials: Nick Brown, the new US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Frank Tarantino, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Seattle office. Leaders from Seattle’s social service providers, who Harrell has promised will eventually become partners in his push to target “hot spots,” were notably absent. No one from the Seattle City Council was at the press conference.

Service providers and non-police responders were a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day

The stretch of Third Ave. between Pine St. and Pike St may be the most persistently troubled block in Seattle. For at least the past three decades, mayoral administrations have attempted to stem crime on the block by increasing the number of police officers in the area. One such effort in 2015, called “the Nine and a Half Block Strategy,” succeeded in reducing the number of drug-related 911 calls in a small area surrounding Westlake Park, though calls increased dramatically in practically every neighborhood within walking distance of the park during the same period. After a shooting during rush hour in January 2020 killed one person and injured seven others, SPD scaled up its presence on the block once again, only to pull back once the COVID-19 pandemic began two months later. Each time, a market for stolen goods and narcotics reappeared on Third and Pine.

Harrell said that he planned to avoid the mistakes of earlier mayors—and to “revitalize” intersections like 12th and Jackson for the long term—in part by relying on outreach workers and service providers, who he believes will be able to direct homeless people living at or near targeted intersections to substance abuse treatment or housing. “We can’t arrest and jail our way out of this,” Diaz added. So far, no social service providers are involved in Operation New Day; the city relied on police alone to clear both 12th and Jackson and Third and Pine, though diversion groups like LEAD already do outreach near Third and Pine.

Before bringing the social service component of the operation online, Harrell said that his office is “doing an inventory of community-based organizations that are recipients of city funds to make sure they’re aligned with our vision.” He did not specify what “doing an inventory” would entail, nor would he specify which organizations they’re considering for the task—or what traits would disqualify an existing service provider from working on Operation New Day.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown and chairs the council’s committee on homelessness, told PubliCola on Wednesday that he sees one clear choice for an outreach provider: JustCARE, a pandemic-era cooperation between several social service providers that provides shelter and wraparound care to people who have previously interacted with the criminal justice system.

“I want to be sure we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, “because we have something that works and works well.” Lewis said he’s willing to be patient as Harrell considers options for incorporating service providers into Operation New Day, although he said he will be concerned if the mayor’s office hasn’t made a decision by the time JustCARE’s contract with the city expires at the end of June.

But non-police responders were largely a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day. Since January 21, SPD arrested 16 people for felonies—especially commercial burglary, illegal gun possession and narcotics offenses—at 12th and Jackson; nine of those people were later released by King County judges after their first court appearance. Some will face federal charges. The US Attorney’s Office has already filed charges against three people arrested in Little Saigon as part of Operation New Day and is reviewing the case of a fourth, a man initially arrested at 12th and Jackson who was released and subsequently re-arrested at Third and Pine. Continue reading “Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement”

As Fewer Sexual Assault Cases Go To Court, More Survivors Seek Help

Sexual assault referrals to prosecutors from King County police departments have declined since the start of the pandemic (Source: King County Prosecutor’s Office)

By Paul Kiefer

The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) connected more people to therapy, legal support and other services in 2021 than at any other point in the past five years, even as law enforcement agencies referred fewer sexual assault cases to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

In 2021, the prosecutor’s special assault unit, which handles sexual assaults and child abuse, filed 485 charges; about 85 percent of those charges were for sex crimes. In the same year, more than 5,000 people sought help from KCSARC, compared to 4,905 in 2019. In the past five years, the number of people seeking support from KCSARC rose by 23 percent.

KCSARC Director Mary Ellen Stone says the mismatch points to a growing problem in King County’s law enforcement agencies, including the Seattle Police Department: With fewer detectives to investigate sexual assaults and a growing backlog of cases, police have left more cases on hold, or declined to investigate reported assaults, than at any other point in the past decade. For some victims, she said, the prospect of delays and dead ends is enough to dissuade them from reporting an assault. “Our system relies on people saying, ‘this happened to me, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,'” she said. “We aren’t making people feel like that’s worthwhile.”

The drop in the number of sexual assault referrals began early in the pandemic, when police departments across the county began losing officers and focusing their resources on patrol instead of investigative units. Since the spring of 2020, the number of sexual assaults the Seattle Police Department’s referred to the prosecutor’s office fell by a quarter compared to the previous five-year average; the King County Sheriff’s Office’s average monthly referrals fell by roughly 20 percent.

Sergeant Jason Escobar heads the special assault unit, which investigates sex crimes and child abuse, at the King County Sheriff’s Office. He says his team of detectives has shrunk by nearly half since the start of the pandemic. As of this week, Escobar has only five detectives to investigate sexual assaults, and four vacant positions; he added that one of his detectives may soon leave because they haven’t complied with the department’s vaccination requirement.

“As it is, our remaining detectives are carrying heavier caseloads,” he said. “Even then, some of the reports we receive—if the victim isn’t a child, or if someone isn’t in immediate danger or in the hospital—we have to hold until we can find a chance to assign them. If someone reports an assault that happened months or years ago, we will still assign that case to a detective, but it’s not going to be right away.” Escobar assigned 30 fewer cases to his detectives in 2021 than in 2020, and his unit’s backlog of unassigned cases is growing.

Escobar said his unit would be able to investigate more cases if he could bring on more detectives. For now, the sheriff’s office isn’t letting him bring in new officers from patrol units because of the staffing shortage. But Escobar sees another hurdle on the horizon: as the King County Superior Court begins holding trials that the pandemic delayed, some of his detectives will need to split their time between giving testimony in court and working on investigations. The court currently has a backlog of more than 400 sexual assault cases; the average age of the victims of those cases is 16. Continue reading “As Fewer Sexual Assault Cases Go To Court, More Survivors Seek Help”