Category: Crime

Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences

Russell Harvey attends his resentencing hearing via Zoom on June 3, 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Russell Harvey still looked nervous. The 60-year-old sat facing a webcam in an office at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County—his beige uniform matching the empty wall behind him—as King County Superior Court Judge David Steiner signed the paperwork releasing Harvey after more than two decades in prison.

Just before Judge Steiner ended the hearing, Harvey leaned closer to the computer in front of him. “Thank you, Judge. I’m sure it was a tough decision.”

“It wasn’t,” Steiner replied.

Harvey is the second inmate in King County to be resentenced under a new Washington law that retroactively removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.” In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strikes policy; at the time, the measure received broad bipartisan support.

But some Washington lawmakers are now trying to correct the long-term consequences of the “tough on crime” era, including by reconsidering the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. The bill that led to Harvey’s release, sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), is only one element of the broader push to address excessive sentences, but for both incarcerated people and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the new law is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy.

“For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released. And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way.”—Carla Lee, King County Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-four years ago, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Harvey to life in prison after his third arrest for second-degree robbery, which—unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter—generally doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. In the early years of his sentence, Harvey told the court, he repeatedly clashed with prison administrators and spent time in an “intensive management unit”—in other words, solitary confinement.

One of his trips to “the hole” brought him to breaking point, Harvey said. “I called my mom and I asked her what I should do,” he told the court in his opening remarks. “The disappointment in my mom’s voice—there’s no mistaking it. … She basically just hung up on me, right after she asked, ‘when are you going to learn?’ I didn’t want to be affecting people like that. That was when I hit rock bottom.” Harvey’s mental health suffered; according to his attorney, Susan Hacker, Harvey struggled through a series of “trials and errors” by prison medical staff who tried to prescribe him medication after diagnosing him with depression.

But in 2009, Harvey’s case caught the attention of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which was assembling a list of inmates serving life sentences for three-strikes offenses involving at least one second-degree robbery with the goal of bringing their cases before Washington’s clemency board. That list grew to 45 names. Nearly two dozen received clemency, but Harvey was not among them.

Then, in 2020, the state legislature passed a law giving prosecutors the discretion to request resentencing for people whose original sentences no longer serve the “interest of justice.” In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office created a sentence review unit and added Harvey’s name to a list of inmates eligible for re-sentencing. Largely because of COVID-19-related court delays, that resentencing effort also stalled, but Harvey received a third chance at release when the state legislature passed the new law that specifically affects inmates facing life in prison for three second-degree robberies.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit, told PubliCola that the newest resentencing law follows a model developed in King County since the prosecutor’s office first identified Harvey as a candidate for a reduced sentence. “For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released,” she said. “And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way. Our model has now been legislated, so other prosecutors now have to follow it.” Continue reading “Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences”

New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule

Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Brewbooks, Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington )

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that voided the state’s existing drug possession laws—a decision known as State of Washington v. Blake—has drawn considerable attention; the ruling requires judges across the state to review and correct the sentences of people charged with drug-related offenses.

But a wave of resentencing hearings unrelated to Blake is also looming on the horizon for courts statewide.

Lawmakers in Olympia have discussed ways to fix excessive sentencing repeatedly over the past decade, with a particular focus on Washington’s three-strikes law, a state statute that imposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”

In early April, state lawmakers passed legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), that requires judges to resentence anyone facing life in prison under Washington’s three-strikes law if one of their “strikes” was a second-degree robbery charge. Such charges generally do not involve a weapon or injuring a victim, in contrast to other “strike” offenses like rape and manslaughter. The law directs judges to base the new sentence on the final “strike” on the defendant’s record.

“They always say wheels of justice turn slow,” said Orlando Ames, one of the nine people charged for a three-strikes violation and released by the state’s clemency board. “But this has been almost a dead stop.”

“Robbery two… was just not like the others, and certainly not not consistent with the initiative’s goal to place behind bars for life any person who had been a persistent, violent and violent offender in the state,” said Sen. Darnielle during an online press conference on Wednesday.

Sen. Darnielle said that her office has identified 114 people across Washington who will be re-sentenced as a result of the new law—just under half of the 277 people currently serving life sentences as a result of the three-strikes law. Carla Lee, who leads the King County Prosecutors’ Office’s sentence review unit, said during Wednesday’s press conference that she’s aware of 29 people in King County who are now eligible for re-sentencing.

Washington voters passed the three-strikes law by initiative in 1993, making the state the first in the nation to adopt such a law. At the time, proponents promised that the new law would dramatically reduce the state’s crime rate. “Everyone knows that the three-strikes initiative passed with overwhelming public support,” said Darnielle. “And many other states followed in our path. But it’s proven itself to be very racially disproportionate, and it demonstrates some of the real inadequacies in our justice system.” More than a third of those sentenced under Washington’s three-strikes law since 1993 have been Black, though the state’s population is less than 5% Black. Of the 114 people eligible for resentencing, 53 are Black. Continue reading “New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule”

Morning Fizz: Downtown Business Cash Funds Homelessness Initiative, Council Funds Hate-Crime Prevention Position

1. The campaign for a proposed charter amendment on homelessness, Compassion Seattle, just filed a batch of contribution reports that show who is funding the campaign so far. The donors, a laundry list of developers, downtown businesses, and deep-pocketed private equity firms and investors, reveal who is really supporting the initiative, which began its life as a Tim Burgess-backed proposal to reinstitute homeless encampment sweeps.

The latest version of the charter amendment (which may not be the last) would impose a new, unfunded mandate on the city to provide 2,000 new shelter beds in the next year. It would also require the city to spend 12 percent of the city’s general fund on homelessness and human services in perpetuity, and to “ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of encampments.”

The top donors to the initiative campaign so far include:

• Developer Martin Smith ($50,000)

• Downtown (and Weyerhaeuser building) developer Greg Smith ($50,000)

• Vulcan, Inc. ($25,000)

• Mariners owner and retired Microsoft guy Christopher Larson ($25,000)

• Pioneer Square-based timber company Weyerhaeuser ($20,000)

• Property management firm Vance Corporation ($20,000)< • Clise Properties ($20,000) • 4th Ave. Associates, a property management firm ($20,000) • Consolidated Restaurants/E3 Restaurants, which include the Metropolitan Grill and Elliott's Oyster House and others ($10,000) • Private equity firm Five Point Capital, ($10,000) • Investors Mikal & Lynn Thomsen ($10,000) The campaign also reported a $5,000 in-kind donation from political consultant Tim Ceis, a former deputy mayor who was heavily involved in drafting the charter amendment (and is the partner of Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith); and a $182,050 expenditure to Landslide Political, a Salt Lake City-based signature gathering firm. Compassion Seattle's filings do not include any work or contributions by homeless advocates, homeless service providers, or any members of the supposed "unlikely coalition” that is backing this sweeps-and-shelter measure. 

2. In a unanimous vote, the Seattle City Council voted to slightly alter the course of a $1 million spending bill intended to address the past year’s increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during Monday’s council meeting.The original bill, which Mayor Jenny Durkan presented to the council in March with support from Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, proposed allocating $150,000 from the city’s general fund to create at least one civilian “bias crime prevention coordinator” position within the Seattle Police Department.

Though the bill also added investments in community nonprofits that provide mental health resources and advocacy services, the proposal to finance a new position inside SPD drew vocal opposition from advocates of police abolition. Most speakers during Monday’s public comment session testified against the bill; some seemed to be reading from a similar script. “This legislation exploits tragedy to push expansion of policing and the criminal legal system,” one commenter said.

Behind the scenes, both González and Mosqueda were also skeptical of the proposal to finance an ill-defined civilian position within SPD. Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the council members and their staff reached an agreement with Durkan’s office to the bill to direct the $150,000 to a “public safety coordinator” position in the Department of Neighborhoods.

González told PubliCola on Monday that a “public safety coordinator” model would not be new to the Chinatown-International District. After Donnie Chin, the director of the International District Emergency Center, was murdered in 2015, González said she championed a similar program “after community leaders expressed the deep need to call someone other than the Seattle Police Department to report safety concerns.” The initial public safety coordinator program, she added, later spread to other neighborhoods, including South Park and Georgetown. The Chinatown-International District’s current public safety coordinator works for the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District.

Rosanna Sze, an organizer with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, was one of the few commenters during Monday’s meeting to highlight the amendment. “If this position is supposed to be housed under the Department of Neighborhoods,” she said, “the funding [for the position] should still come from SPD’s budget and not the general fund.”

Sze’s suggestion did not spur any action by council members: a separate plan to cut $3 million from SPD’s budget has stalled under pressure from the federal court that supervises reforms to the department, which all but precludes any additional cuts to the department’s budget. Instead, the council passed the amended bill without argument.

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”

2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of the people who were suddenly kicked out of an Aurora Avenue motel by the city, a proposal to keep track homeless system clients using fingerprints or digital IDs, or the detective who had the city’s Navigation Team haul away her personal trash, read on.

The Everspring Inn Eviction

One of the saddest and most complex stories we covered this year was a sudden mass eviction at the Everspring Inn on Aurora Ave. N—a semi-derelict motel that was home to dozens of people who were already living on the margins when the pandemic hit. The ouster was unusual among COVID-era evictions because it was instigated not by the landlord, but by the city—specifically, the Seattle Police Department, which declared the property a “chronic nuisance” after two shootings, multiple reported rapes, and ongoing drug activity.

In the days after the eviction notices (which said they had to leave “immediately,” almost certainly in violation of landlord-tenant law), tenants reported that security guards hired by the motel’s owner, Ryan Kang, had boarded up their doors and windows, locked them out of the property, and offered them as little as $100 to leave. Not all of the tenants did, and they said Kang cut off their hot water and towed their cars in retaliation.

Perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

Since then, most of the tenants have been moved temporarily to another hotel with the help of the Public Defender Association, whose LEAD and Co-LEAD programs help people engaged in low-level and subsistence crimes such as drug dealing and sex work. Although it took a while, the city of Seattle eventually gave the PDA authorization to use money left over from its 2020 contract to move the Everspring residents to another hotel and released funding so that they could enroll many ofthe residents in the LEAD program. (SPD, which was aware that many of the tenants were engaged in low-level criminal activity, had the authority to refer them to LEAD all along, but did not do so.)

It’s a common misconception that people experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness, all require expensive interventions such as permanent supportive housing, mental health treatment, or jail if they’re engaged in low-level criminal activity. In reality, many just need a place to live that they can afford with a little financial help. However, precisely because they are not disabled, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or unable to work, people in this category are generally last to receive subsidies through rapid rehousing programs, which prioritize clients with more barriers to housing, not those who can almost pay for housing on their own.

The former Everspring tenants typify a group of homeless or marginally housed people who work in the illegal economy because they can’t find legal jobs that pay enough to cover rent, Daugaard says. They’re “high-functioning but economically insecure, and many have had no alternative to the illicit economy.”

The PDA has paid for the former Everspring residents to stay in a hotel for the next several months. By pre-paying for hotel rooms, rather than providing short-term rent subsidies for “permanent” housing, LEAD ensures that its clients remain eligible for other housing subsidies and assistance that’s only available to people who are “literally homeless”; perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

But funding for the PDA’s other hotel-based programs, including Co-LEAD and JustCare, which uses federal relief dollars to move people directly from encampments (like the ones near the downtown King County Courthouse) to hotels, is running out. If the city (or county) doesn’t come up with a new funding source for these hotel-based shelters, many will have to close at the end of January. 

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Digital IDs for people experiencing homelessness

Back in 2019, PubliCola reported exclusively, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the Human Services Department to study biometric tracking of the city’s homeless population, using fingerprints or other unique identifiers. The idea was to create “efficiencies” in the homelessness system by making it easier for service providers (and clients themselves) to keep track of clients’ personal records, such as medical documents, IDs, and the services they access across the homeless system. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents”

Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions

By Ashley Archibald

A 90-minute KOMO special, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” debuted on Dec. 13, prompting alarm among homeless advocates. The program, a sequel to the infamous (and viral) “Seattle is Dying” special, presents Seattle as a seedy den of iniquity fostered by elected officials with lenient policies toward drugs and crime.

Since 2013, KOMO has been owned by the right-leaning Sinclair media conglomerate. Much of its recent programming, including “Seattle Is Dying,” seems aimed at painting a misleading portrait of a city in chaos for a national audience primed to believe the worst about progressive West Coast cities.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” aims to reveal a city held hostage by a few thousand people experiencing homelessness caught in the thrall of addiction, propped up by lenient harm reduction policies, and never facing the consequences of their actions—unlike the upstanding (housed) citizens who suffer at their hands. It throws in references to the uprising against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as further evidence of social unraveling.

In reality, it is 90 minutes of tape exploiting the most vulnerable people in Seattle, shoved through a sepia filter and tailor-made to confirm the preexisting beliefs of people who wish they never had to see a poor person again.

To be clear, Seattle has issues. Homelessness and drug use are real. The human suffering on the streets cannot be swept away. But the weakness in “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” stem from the fact that it fails to grapple with root causes, instead using homelessness as a wedge issue.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions

“I’m going to start by saying this,” reporter Eric Johnson intones at the top of the piece. “Seattle no longer feels the need to stop anyone from doing anything for any reason at any time.” The words land over images of homeless people asleep on the ground, exposed to the elements, evidence of the city’s culture of permissiveness.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” which ran in March 2019, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions like affordable housing, access to mental health services, provision of appropriate shelter space and the ability to raise funds through equitable taxation.

As though housed people do not commit crimes. As though they do not suffer from addiction. As though homelessness was some kind of moral failing.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

If there is any kind of failing here, it is one of journalism.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is replete with long-distance shots of people experiencing homelessness at the nadir of their lives, including some who Johnson alleges are using drugs right on camera. But there is no evidence that Johnson spoke to the people whose lives he trots out on screen as proof of Seattle’s decline. This is bad practice, but it’s also perilous. In Johnson’s previous work, “Seattle is Dying,” he included long-distance shots of a man rolling on the ground, insinuating that he was homeless.

Crosscut reporter David Kroman found Robert Champagne, who hadn’t been homeless in more than three years by the time “Seattle is Dying” aired.

And, while he insinuates that the block in front of the Morrison Hotel—site of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter—is the most dangerous area of Seattle, Johnson did not bother to contact the shelter itself.

I know this because I did.

Daniel Malone is the executive director of DESC, Seattle’s largest shelter provider. In the nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC decamped from its main shelter to the Red Lion hotel in Renton, although it still offers housing at the Morrison and behavioral health services in the vicinity.

“It’s not like we picked up and left,” Malone said.

Had KOMO contacted him for the piece, Malone said, he would have shared the stark reality. He would have explained the efforts that DESC goes through to provide help to people dealing with serious mental health challenges. He would have explained the limitations of what they are able to provide.

“But I didn’t have that opportunity,” Malone said.

Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor to Mayor Ed Murray, did.

“Let’s be super clear,” Lindsay says. “It is the drugs.”

In a follow-up interview via email, Lindsay clarified that he objects to the way that the city handles homelessness and crime. Continue reading “Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions”

Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The Renton City Council will take final action next week on legislation that would require the Downtown Emergency Service Center to kick out about half the population of its shelter in the Renton Red Lion at the end of May, and evict the remaining shelter residents by the end of 2021. PubliCola covered the council’s initial discussion of the proposal last month.

The legislation also creates a restrictive new land use designation for “homeless services,” limits the number of clients any homeless service location can serve to 100 people, and imposes a number of requirements on service providers and people experiencing homelessness in Renton, including a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service provider. Homeless service providers say the restrictions—modeled on legislation in other cities that continue to lack permanent shelters, like Bellevue and Puyallup—effectively bans non-emergency shelters from Renton.

A hearing on the legislation Monday night brought out a mix of supporters (who pointed to the incredible improvements people living at the hotel have experienced and pointed out that without shelter, people die) and opponents (who expressed “empathy” for homeless people right before suggesting that these homeless people ought to be arrested, or shipped “back” to Seattle, or taught the value of hard work). Although the vote was a foregone conclusion, some council members did suggest extending the date of the shelter’s eviction notice and increasing the number of people the shelter can accommodate from 125 (100 in the initial version of the bill) to 175. Those proposals failed.

In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density.

For months, Renton has maintained that the use of the Red Lion as a shelter violates its zoning laws, which don’t include a specific designation for shelter. Renton has interpreted this lack of special shelter zoning to mean that shelters are currently banned every in Renton, but this is an interpretation that assumes that unless a special designation exists for a land use, it isn’t allowed. In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density. Renton is acting like it’s doing homeless service providers a favor by adding a zoning designation that might, theoretically, allow a very small shelter to operate somewhere in a non-residential part of the city, but in reality it’s creating new restrictions that didn’t previously exist.

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There were a number of changes between the version of the legislation released in November and the version the council considered this week. The wordiest of these was the addition of more than 20 “whereas” clauses, most of them arguing that the shelter’s residents, by virtue of their “violent” nature and the fact that so many are living in proximity to each other, are dangerous to the surrounding community and to each other. The legislation now argues even more explicitly that DESC and the county have been breaking the city’s zoning laws by operating the shelter, a claim that is currently being litigated. Continue reading “Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton”

Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority

1. After listening to public comment from both sides of the debate (one woman, who rattled off the first names of several homeless people she claimed to know, said a guy named “Josh” told her, “The only way you can help me is to arrest me and have me sweat it out”), the council’s public safety committee discussed a proposal from council member Lisa Herbold that would create a new affirmative defense for people who commit crimes of poverty.

The proposal, a version of which Herbold originally proposed as part of the 2021 budget, would enable people who admitted to committing misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, to meet a basic human need to use this fact as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then determine whether the defendant actually committed the crime to meet a basic need or not.

The concept has been widely mischaracterized as a plan to “legalize all crime” by conservative interest groups Change Washington and business leaders who claim it would allow people to vandalize small businesses, walk out of stores with armloads of cell phones, and squat on people’s property with impunity. In reality, creating a “basic need” defense would  merely add one more affirmative defense to the list that already exists in city law. Defendants already have the ability to argue, for example, that they committed a crime because they were under duress. Judges and juries then have the ability to agree or disagree with this defense.

These facts didn’t stop public commenters from claiming that creating a new defense would effectively unleash “addicts” and “criminals” on the streets of Seattle. And it didn’t stop council member Alex Pedersen from rattling off a list of extremely implausible scenarios if the bill passed.

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone made Seattle a “national embarrassment,” he said—and a basic need defense might do the same, impacting everything from the US Senate races in Georgia to the future makeup of the Supreme Court. Renters, he said, might see their renters’ insurance premiums go up as insurance companies decide en masse to “classify all of Seattle as a high-risk zone.” And how, he wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?” (Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).

And how, city council member Alex Pedersen wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?”

In any case, Pedersen continued, it makes no sense to address the judicial system’s response to crimes of poverty before the city knows the impact of cuts to police, the outcome of the participatory budgeting process that just got underway, and the details of the next Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. “Let’s first see how these other changes work before this council is immersed in a time-consuming and distracting debate over whether we would be the first city in the US to weaken our laws that protect each other,” he said.

Finally, Pedersen argued that City Attorney Pete Holmes has already said that he doesn’t prosecute crimes of poverty, which means that there’s no reason to even discuss the issue for “one to five years,” the length of Holmes’ current and (likely) upcoming terms.

Herbold is still working on draft legislation. Outstanding questions (outlined in this memo) include whether to narrow the defense to a specific list of misdemeanors, whether to put the burden of proof on defendants to show that they had no choice but to commit a crime, and whether people who shoplift merchandise for resale should be allowed to use the defense.

2. Documents just posted on the website of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority indicate that the timeline for hiring a director for the agency has slipped again, from mid-January to mid-February of next year. Originally, the new homelessness agency—which is supposed to come up with a unified, regional approach to homelessness for the entire county, including Seattle and dozens of suburban cities—was supposed to approve the CEO in September. Continue reading “Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority”

Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution

Image via King County Elections

1. As the federal government and state police prepare for possible civil unrest on Election Night, the city of Seattle says it does not plan to physically open its Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates emergency response during crisis situations and extreme weather and public health events.

However, the Seattle Police Department has restricted time off for officers who may be deployed to respond to demonstrations during the week following the election, and the city has sent information to businesses in neighborhoods where protests are common, such as  Capitol Hill, about “how to prepare and secure their employees and customers as well as their property to mitigate the impact of broken windows and graffiti, should that occur,” according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

As of November 1, 72 percent of ballots sent to registered voters in King County (and nearly 75 percent in Seattle) had been returned. Although Washington state votes by mail, the county has opened seven voting centers where people can vote in person until 8pm on election day, including two in Seattle.

Durkan’s spokeswoman said SPD “does not have any intelligence to indicate that there will be large-scale demonstrations on Election Night or the days following. Our partners at King County Elections have not reported any threats or security issues at any ballot boxes. As such, the SPD and Seattle Fire Department’s planning is for contingency purposes only, and does not indicate that there will be demonstrations or unrest.”

City council member Tammy Morales formerly introduced her proposed alternative to Durkan’s proposed replacement for the Navigation Team, called the HOPE Team, last week. The five-member team would be a scaled-back, service-focused version of the Outreach and Engagement Team proposed by Durkan and council member Andrew Lewis last month—a team that would itself be a kind of scaled-back Navigation Team, one that would put the members of the recently disbanded Navigation Team to work in new roles “coordinating” the work of the city’s contracted outreach providers.

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During the council budget hearing on Friday, Lewis suggested that the differences between his plan and Morales’ were minor, but said he wouldn’t co-sponsor her proposal “because of my involvement in a parallel process.” Last week, Morales told PubliCola she believes the language in Lewis’ proposal is still “vague” enough to allow members of the larger team to do direct outreach. “I think we need to leave that work to the service providers—to the folks that are out there every day and understand the importance of developing relationships,” Morales said.

The HOPE team would include a team manager, a liaison to coordinate with other departments like Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the “purple bag” encampment trash pickup program, one data analyst (read more about why one data person may not be enough for a team dedicated to coordinating outreach and shelter referrals here), and two “provider and neighborhood liaisons” who would work with King County Public Health and providers to “provide reasonable notification of a[n encampment] removal and time to plan and implement the relocation.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution”