Category: Crime

Homelessness Authority, LIHI Clashed Over Reporting of Two Deaths at Tiny House Village

Friendship Heights Village
Friendship Heights Village; image via LIHI

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority accused the Low-Income Housing Institute last year of failing to report several deaths at its “tiny house village” shelters in a timely fashion, including a homicide and an overdose that both occurred the same week in August at the Friendship Heights village in North Seattle. In response, LIHI denied that they had violated any rules, and accused the KCRHA of singling the agency out for criticism based on “falsehoods and factual errors” about its response to the two deaths.

PubliCola obtained documents and emails about the incidents at Friendship Heights and other tiny house villages through a records request.

None of the details about the two deaths at Friendship Heights, or an unrelated overdose death at the Interbay tiny house village in August, are in dispute. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, a woman living at the village stabbed her partner inside the tiny house they shared on August 28, killing him and fleeing before police arrested her a few hours later.

A Seattle Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.

Separately, on August 29, Friendship Heights staffers discovered the body of another man who had died of an overdose in his unit at some point in the recent past; it’s unclear how recently staffers had entered his unit, although Lee says staffers are supposed to check in on residents every 72 hours. The victim went undiscovered enough, in the summer heat, that the floor had to be replaced because of decomposition.

“I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if there’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee

The two agencies’ accounts diverge over what happened next. According to KCRHA Chief Program Officer Peter Lynn, LIHI failed to report the homicide in a timely fashion, providing details only after Lynn emailed Lee the afternoon of September 1, after residents of the village began contacting KCRHA directly to find out “what was going on at the [tiny house village].”

Critical incidents of this nature must be reported to the RHA within 24 hours,” Lynn wrote. “We have also received information that there are ongoing unsafe conditions at the site, and therefore the program management team will visit the site to review conditions and follow up with LIHI staff and management.”

Lee responded an hour later, saying she thought the reporting mandates had been “suspended” due to concerns from providers that they were vague and overbroad. The reporting requirements extended to lower-level incidents, such as damage to units, in addition to “significant events” like murder. “You should know that LIHI Senior Management is totally engaged on this and staff have cooperated fully with police and are working with staff and clients on these traumatic events,” Lee wrote.

“Clearly, we reported it,” Lee told PubliCola, referring to her September 1 response to Lynn. “I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if here’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.”

“Of course it was a shock to everybody that the man was killed and the suspect was his partner,” Lee added, but “it’s not like somebody broke into the village and killed somebody,” which might be cause for more general alarm.

Lynn told PubliCola that the KCRHA suspended its reporting requirements for lower-level and common incidents, like damage to a unit, in response to feedback from providers that “maybe this was too much.” But, he added, the authority still expects to hear about critical incidents as soon as possible. “We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day,” he said. “When there are traumatic impacts on community members, on staff, on program participants, those are all things that we want to make sure that we are able to support.”

In response to the August incidents, the KCRHA issued “corrective action plan” in September that, among other stipulations, required LIHI to notify the homelessness authority within 48 hours any time a unit is “damaged or unusable”—a proposal Lee, in a heated response, called “preposterous” and “not reasonable.” The corrective plan was LIHI’s second formal reprimand since May. 

LIHI says the KCRHA closed out both corrective action plans.

Failing to comply with the requirements, the plan concluded, “may result in further actions by the KCRHA, up to and including suspension of payments, disallowed costs for the violation period and suspension of contracts or cancellation of contracts.”

Four days later, Lee sent a lengthy email to staff and board members at the authority, inquiring rhetorically whether staff at the KCRHA—whose CEO, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model in the past—were “being directed to find fault with LIHI in order to discredit the Tiny House Village program.”

“We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day.”—Peter Lynn, King County Regional Homelessness Authority

“While we have had past differences with Marc Dones over tiny houses, I was hopeful that we would be able to move forward working together. KCRHA’s most recent actions tell us otherwise,” Lee wrote.

Although the authority and LIHI appear to have reached a détente—the flurry of emails subsided in October, and Lynn said he would “not describe our relationship with LIHI as tense”—the dispute over the two deaths at Friendship Heights village is not the only point of conflict between LIHI and the KCRHA over how it runs its tiny house villages.

In the May corrective action plan, which related to conditions at LIHI’s True Hope (Central District) and Othello (Southeast Seattle) villages in May, KCRHA said they found leaking toilets, piles of bicycles, and damaged units they said LIHI had failed to report within 48 hours.

At Othello Village, one of the units was damaged by a propane tank explosion; KCRHA said that village had improperly stored propane tanks. In a response to KCRHA, Lee denied most of the agency’s charges, including the one about propane tanks, and argued that at least two of the agency’s demands were unreasonable, including a proposal that would require parents or caregivers to supervise children at all times. Two months later, the authority wrote Lee to say they considered the issues at the two villages resolved.

Earlier this week, a former resident of the Plum Street tiny house village in Olympia sued LIHI, claiming they had illegally evicted him from his unit. In a conversation with PubliCola, the plaintiff, Ryan Taal, described conditions at the village where he lived for two years, including a poorly stocked outdoor kitchen and a water heater that, according to Taal, was broken for a month, leaving residents with no hot water. “It was pretty sad—it kind of felt like a refugee camp,” Taal said.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages and a member of the KCRHA’s governing board, said he was reserving judgment about the 2022 incidents and the conflict between LIHI and KCRHA.  “Obviously, we need to make sure all of our providers are staying in close contact with the KCRHA, and they need to have unobstructed and uninhibited information from their providers … but I want to see a final report on how [LIHI] met their obligations or didn’t before I comment on it,” Lewis said.

Seattle Center, Which Will Run Waterfront Park, Issued Dozens of Year-Long Parks Exclusions; City Will Let Private Buses “Share” Up to 250 Bus Stops

1. On Wednesday afternoon, the Seattle City Council’s public assets committee approved plans to have Seattle Center take over management of, and security at, the new waterfront park—an agreement that will bring stricter enforcement of park rules to the waterfront than at other parks throughout the city.

Under a “parks exclusion” ordinance dating back to 1997, the city’s parks department has the authority to ban anyone from a park for violating parks rules for up to a year. Since 2012, however, the department has voluntarily agreed not to trespass violators for more than a day, except when their actions threaten public safety. 

As PubliCola reported last week, Seattle Center operates under different rules, excluding people from the campus for longer periods and for lesser violations. Last year, outgoing director Robert Nellams told us, Seattle Center barred 37 people for periods ranging from a week to a year.

In response to questions from Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Seattle Center provided a more detailed list of those exclusions. Of the 37, the vast majority—24—were for 365 days, for violations ranging from showing up again while barred from the campus for a shorter period to serious criminal allegations, such as arson and assault. One person was banned for six months after passing out in the bathroom of the Armory building; another person, who had at least seven previous run-ins with Seattle Center security, was barred for a year for being intoxicated and panhandling. 

Four people received seven-day trespass notices for “camping” after “multiple warnings.” Nellams said Seattle Center’s policy on people sleeping at Seattle Center is to “respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

The committee approved the proposal unanimously; Herbold said she was convinced to support the plan after REACH, the outreach agency, endorsed the proposal in a letter to council members. Friends of the Waterfront, the nonprofit group that has led much of the planning for the new park, pays for two REACH staffers to provide outreach along the waterfront; the group will also pay for four “ambassadors” to answer questions and respond to minor issues once the park is open. Seattle Center will also provide 15 security officers.

2. Also this week, a council committee approved plans that could dramatically expand the number of public transit stops that King County Metro buses will “share” with private shuttle services run by companies like Microsoft and Children’s Hospital. The private buses parallel existing bus routes, using limited city-owned curb space for a system that only their employees can use.

Since 2017, Children’s and Microsoft have paid $300 per vehicle each year to share a total of 12 bus stops with the county’s public transit provider. The new rules, which the full council will consider Monday, would increase the potential number of new shared stops to 250 citywide, with no more than 50 stops reserved for any single employer.

During the meeting, Councilmember Tammy Morales asked rhetorically whether it makes sense to hand over limited curb space so that private companies could exempt themselves from the public transit system. “I see these shuttles everywhere,” Morales said. “I would much prefer that people ride a shuttle rather than drive a single-occupancy vehicle, and I would prefer to see that our public system was serving these folks instead of having a private system.”

Morales also asked, less rhetorically, why the city couldn’t just remove a couple of parking spots near transit stops so that buses and shuttles wouldn’t have to compete for space. SDOT planner Benjamin Smith responded that removing parking might harm nearby businesses—a familiar argument that assumes people won’t use transit to get to businesses even if the city makes it more convenient.

The new rules would limit which bus stops the private shuttles can use, excluding those “with the highest potential for conflicts with transit and other modes.” They would also require employers to pay a nominal fee of $5,000 per stop, per year, ora total of up to $250,000 per employer.

Ultimately, Morales voted to approve the new rules, which passed 4-1, with Councilmember Dan Strauss abstaining because, he said, he hadn’t had a chance to look at the rules in detail. The full council will also take up the bus stop sharing plan on Monday.

Seattle Center Plans Stricter Rule Enforcement at Waterfront Park

By Erica C. Barnett

A new linear park on Seattle’s downtown waterfront won’t be fully open until 2025, but the plan to enforce rules and maintain security in the park is already causing consternation at City Hall.

Last week, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned the city’s public safety plan for the new park, which will—unlike the 430 parks that fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department—be managed by Seattle Center. That agreement, along with funding for the equivalent of 11.5 security staff, will be on the council’s agenda later this month.

Since 2012, as we’ve reported, the Parks Department has voluntarily agreed not to kick people out of parks for more than a day except for serious law or rule violations, even though they have the authority to issue “parks exclusions” for up to a year. When Seattle Center does not have a similar agreement, and has excluded dozens of people from its campus for periods ranging from 7 to 365 days in the past year.

“The Parks Department voluntarily constraining itself evolved over time… because of the research that was done on the use of parks exclusions,” Herbold said. The parks exclusion ordinance, one of many “civility” laws passed in the late 1990s under former city attorney Mark Sidran, essentially gave police and parks rangers carte blanche to prohibit people from using public spaces without any due process. The policy led to cruel and sometimes absurd results.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record.”—Seattle Center director Robert Nellams

In a conversation with PubliCola, retiring Seattle Center director Robert Nellams and incoming interim director Marshall Foster, who previously led the city’s Office of the Waterfront, said Seattle Center has been judicious about enforcing its rules against bad behavior. Before issuing an exclusion, Nellams said, “We to work with people, we try to get them to comply. And even if they only comply a little bit … we don’t go down that path” toward kicking people out.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record,” Nellams said.

If a person is trespassed from Seattle Center, though, it’s always for at least seven days, Nellams added. “If everybody understands and knows that that most that they can be excluded for is for one day, then that usually leads to some behavioral issues.”

According to the operations plan Foster and Office of the Waterfront Tiffany Melake presented to the city council’s public assets committee last Wednesday, the Friends of the Waterfront—a nonprofit that works with the city on waterfront planning, funding, and programming—will be responsible for social services along the waterfront through a contract with the outreach nonprofit REACH, and will employ “park ambassadors” to respond to minor issues.

Foster said the city has already tested out the public safety model it plans to use in the waterfront park on Pier 62, which reopened in 2020. What they found is that while “the vast majority of folks using it are following the code of conduct and everybody’s having a great time… you do need some rules which [allow you to] remove people from the space for a period of time. … If we’re not willing to enforce those things that have consequences [for other park users], it’s very hard for us to help people follow the right behavior in the park.”

Other nearby parks, such as Victor Steinbrueck Park just to the east of the waterfront, will still be subject to the Parks Department’s exclusion policy, meaning that someone could be excluded from the waterfront park for a rule violation that would not get them kicked out of a park next door.

Because the waterfront is directly adjacent to downtown—an area with a large number of unsheltered people and nonprofits that serve them—I asked Nellams how his department planned to deal with encampments in the area. (The Parks Department is chiefly responsible for responding to and removing encampments in other parks). Nellams said it was too soon to say, but noted that there are no tents at Seattle Center. “At Seattle Center, camping is not allowed,” Nellams said, “so we respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

Arrests of “Prolific Shoplifters” Netted First-Time Offenders, People Previously Deemed Incompetent

Photos distributed by SPD showing items recovered during recent shoplifting arrests downtown
Photos distributed by SPD showing items recovered during recent shoplifting arrests downtown

By Erica C. Barnett

Capping off a year of renewed focus on low-level street crime such as shoplifting, the Seattle Police Department announced just before the new year that it had arrested 11 “prolific shoplifters” in an operation targeting downtown retail theft, booking eight of them into the downtown jail.

In a post on the department’s blog, SPD described a carefully orchestrated operation in which officers worked with security staff at three stores to identify prolific thieves and apprehend them after they “gather[ed] items like clothing, makeup, food, and liquor, and then walk[ed] out of the store with no attempt to pay.”

SPD declined to provide police reports for the arrests, and information about the eight bookings hasn’t shown up yet in the Seattle Municipal Court’s public portal. However, the department did post images of the recovered goods, which included beer, ice cream, sandwiches, lip gloss, and toilet paper. With the exception of a case of beer and what looks like two sample bottles of cologne, none of the items appear to be worth more than several dollars.

Of the three people with multiple prior arrests or charges, two were deemed incompetent to stand trial in the past because of mental illness, including one whose history of paranoid, delusional outbursts, attributed to schizophrenia in court documents, is described at length in police reports.

Indeed, while the SPD post makes it sound like police targeted some of the city’s worst offenders, our review of the court history of the eight booked offenders shows that most of them have scant criminal records or well-documented histories of mental illness and addiction—conditions that aren’t addressed by sending people to jail for a night or taking them to trial. At least two people on the list have been declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness in the past. None appear to be on the city’s “prolific offenders” list.

SPD released three of the suspects without booking them, and booked the remaining eight into jail; the department provided the names of those eight to PubliCola in response to a request.

Of the eight, one—as SPD noted in its post—had several outstanding warrants and faced additional charges, including possession of auto theft tools.

Among the remaining seven, only three have been charged with, or arrested for, more than one misdemeanor in Seattle in the past, according to court records—an extremely minimal definition of “prolific.” The remaining four had either zero or just one prior case in Seattle Municipal Court records, which go back decades.

Of the three people with multiple prior arrests or charges, two were deemed incompetent to stand trial in the past because of mental illness, including one whose history of paranoid, delusional outbursts, attributed to schizophrenia in court documents, is described at length in police reports.

Almost every person who was booked into jail as part of this highly publicized operation was released within a day, and City Attorney Ann Davison’s office declined to file charges in seven of the 11 cases.

In other words: The great holiday Retail Theft Operation of 2022 was a bit of a bust.

Because SPD, and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have placed such an emphasis on the need to prosecute people who engage in frequent shoplifting from downtown stores (a practice that, as we’ve documented, can be prosecuted as “organized retail theft” even if the person is stealing something for their personal use), it’s worth taking a closer look at the cases in which the city previously arrested or charged the people picked up last month for other misdemeanors.

The only clear-cut case of a “prolific offender,” the Northgate Target shoplifter, was arrested repeatedly for stealing clothes, including 10 incidents in 2020. In the December bust, SPD picked him up for taking $51 worth of items from a downtown Bartell drug store, including pens, two sodas, and a notebook.

According to court records, the man had been referred to community court for several of his previous cases, but didn’t follow through; in a mental health evaluation in 2020, he acknowledged a history of drug abuse and claimed he was having auditory hallucinations, but was found competent to stand trial.

The other two cases involve people whose mental health issues and struggles with addiction were well documented.  In one, the court referred an alleged serial shoplifter to mental health court; the man, who is homeless and reported daily drug use and heavy drinking, was recently found incompetent to stand trial in several cases and referred for a mental health evaluation. All but one of those cases involved shoplifting from downtown stores; the other was an alleged assault at the downtown library in 2016.

A spokeswoman for SPD noted that officers don’t always arrest people identified as shoplifters by store security guards. It’s also true that security guards don’t always call police when they witness or confront someone shoplifting, so the number of arrests doesn’t represent the actual number of shoplifting incidents.

The second involves a man court records describe as schizophrenic. The man had been arrested, most recently, in August, after neighbors called the police when he was “standing in the street and screaming” in a “possible mental crisis,” according to police reports. Officers who responded to that call arrested the man for subsequently walking out of a nearby drug store with three board games. His criminal history included many arrests for harassing and attacking members of his family, who lived nearby, when he was “off his medication” and using drugs.

Asked to comment on the downtown arrests and the details of specific suspects’ legal histories, a spokeswoman for SPD noted that SPD doesn’t always arrest people identified as shoplifters by store security guards, so some of the people could been repeat offenders without being arrested. Additionally, security guards don’t always call police when they witness or confront someone shoplifting.

“The Retail Theft Operation was conducted to assist in identifying prolific offenders, but also deter shoplifting in the stores overall,” the SPD spokeswoman said. “Detectives, Officers and Loss Prevention teams often contact suspects, who have shoplifted liquor or other items multiple times, but may not arrest these suspects for various reasons. Most often the contact is reported as a terry stop, shoplift or trespass by officers.”

The City Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment about their charging decisions.

Chamber Poll On Homelessness, Public Safety Shows That It Matters How You Frame the Questions

Graph showing high support among Seattle voters for removing encampments

By Erica C. Barnett

A new poll from the Greater Metro Chamber of Commerce, produced by EMC Research, reveals that many Seattle voters’ “top concern” has shifted from homelessness to crime, but fails to shed any light on the reasons behind the shift. whether this shift represents declining empathy toward people living on Seattle streets.

Overall, according to the poll of 700 registered Seattle voters, 57 percent of people named homelessness as one of the issues they were most “frustrated or concerned about,” followed by “crime/drugs/public safety” at 46 percent. Both categories declined slightly from last year, while “racial issues/policing/police brutality” and “taxes” ranked slightly higher as matters of public concern. Asked what changes would improve the “quality of life” in Seattle, “closing encampments in parks, on sidewalks,” and in public rights-of-way ranked number one on the list, with 79 percent of voters saying their lives would be improved by encampment removals.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated. This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.”—Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Rachel Smith

During a media presentation on the poll results, Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith said she believed voters are somewhat less concerned about homelessness because of “an all-hands-on-deck regional approach that has made a visible difference” in the number of tents on the street. As we’ve reported, Mayor Bruce Harrell has dramatically accelerated homeless encampment removals since taking office, and has proposed expanding the city’s homeless outreach and encampment removal team and making many temporary “cleanup” positions permanent.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated,” Smith continued. “This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.” Andrew Thibault, an EMC partner, added that most of the voters in the survey identify as Democrats and progressives.

Breakdown by demographic category of support for encampment removals among Seattle voters

Like all the previous versions of this annual survey, the poll framed a question about homeless encampments in a misleading way that does not represent what the city actually offers unsheltered people during sweeps, nor the reasons people “refuse” shelter or services that may be unsuitable for their needs. The survey asked voters whether they would support the city “continu[ing] to close homeless encampments once people have been offered shelter and services, even if it means those who refuse help will be displaced.” Only 18 percent of respondents said they would oppose such a policy.

The problem is that this policy does not exist, nor can it be “continued.” In reality, the city has only “closed” two encampments—one at Woodland Park and another at the Ballard Commons, which remains fenced-off and inaccessible—by making individualized offers of shelter and services to encampment residents. Other than these exceptions, the city removes encampments the same way it always has—typically, by posting a notice two or three days in advance so people know they have to leave, giving encampment residents the option to take one of the handful of shelter beds typically available citywide on any night, and sweeping anyone who remains on site on the appointed day. That’s a far cry from “offering shelter and services” to people who, for whatever (presumably irrational) reason, “refuse” to take them.

As long as the question describes a far more ideal scenario than the one that actually exists, people who might oppose removals will likely continue supporting them—after all, who can blame the city for sweeping people who simply don’t want any help?

Voters, particularly Republicans and people living in North Seattle, said they felt less safe than they did last year and supported hiring more police; more than half also said they were “actively” thinking about leaving Seattle, largely because of crime. These question routinely get high positive responses, to the point that you might think bullets were routinely whizzing through the empty streets of Phinney Ridge and Laurelhurst, past empty houses abandoned by people fleeing the city.

Graphs showing support among all demographic categories, except Republicans, for "more housing in your neighborhood"

Poll respondents also said they didn’t trust the Seattle City Council to reform the police department—an oddly worded question, given that the mayor, not the council, oversees SPD and is responsible for setting policy for department. There was no corresponding question about the mayor. Blaming the council for problems at the police department and other departments that are controlled by the mayor is a longstanding Seattle pastime—one that reflects a general misunderstanding about how city government works that is exacerbated by polls suggesting the council has more power than it does.

Voters continue to support the general idea of “more housing in my neighborhood”; however, as in previous years, the Chamber’s poll doesn’t push that question beyond “duplexes and triplexes” to include denser housing types that might also include affordable housing. As the Urbanist noted in its coverage, the Chamber has supported legislation to increase density further in single-family areas and Smith said the framing of the question wasn’t meant to indicate that triplexes should be the upper limit.

The poll includes a demographic breakdown of respondents that lumps all BIPOC people into a single “POC” category—a grouping necessitated, according to Thibault, by the fact that breaking the categories down further would lead to an excessive margin of error. According to the crosstabs provided by EMC, the “POC” group included 26 Black voters in all, an average of fewer than nine Black respondents for each of three broad geographic areas sampled in the poll.

Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?

By Erica C. Barnett

Six months ago, City Attorney Ann Davison announced a new initiative that would target so-called high utilizers of the criminal justice system—people with more than 12 misdemeanor referrals in the last five years—by subjecting their actions to greater scrutiny, excluding them from community court, and keeping them in jail for months, much longer than current misdemeanor booking restrictions allow.

Since launching the High Utilizers Initiative in February, the city attorney’s office has filed charges against people on the list 82 percent of the time, compared to a 63 percent charging rate for all misdemeanor cases so far this year. In 2021, under former city attorney Pete Holmes, the office charged people meeting the new “high utilizer” standard just 58 percent of the time. The initiative was also supposed prioritize this group for mental health services and treatment.

So far, the initiative has resulted mostly in more charges for people on the list, although the city attorney’s office says additional policy proposals are coming.

“We are declining fewer cases for this population than for the overall population,” deputy city attorney Scott Lindsay said. “I think it tells us that this effort is doing exactly what Ann said it would do: For individuals who are repeatedly having a significant disruptive impact on their neighborhood, we are trying to make sure that they are not slipping through the cracks.”

The initiative also allows the city to keep people on the list in jail for longer, bypassing rules that have prohibiting most misdemeanor bookings. “When somebody has a record of 35, 40 criminal cases and then they have a new property destruction case in Ballard and they’re saying you can’t do anything about that, that doesn’t make sense,” Lindsay said.

Critics of the high utilizers initiative argue, citing considerable research, that repeatedly jailing people who are homeless and suffer from significant behavioral health conditions does not reduce crime and makes the people being incarcerated sicker and less likely to be able to thrive in their communities. Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the people on the high utilizers list “should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.”

“It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney. What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”—Anita Khandelwal, director, King County Department of Public Defense

Lisa Daugaard, co-director of the Public Defender Association, whose programs serve people involved in the criminal legal system, said creating a list of people who are frequently arrested for misdemeanors isn’t a “good thing nor a bad thing by itself. It could be helpful if it caused local authorities to come up with a plan for these people’s situation, which is highly likely in need of a plan or support or intervention.”

So far, Daugaard acknowledges, the focus has been on the enforcement side.

“If they are choosing to file against people on the list more often, to me, that means we’re not getting busy making plans proactively for people who we already know are in difficult situations,” she said. “There should be a lot of energy pushing for programming and placement options that just don’t exist for this population right now—and they would have a lot of allies.”

PubliCola obtained a copy of the most recent high utilizers roster, from July, and reviewed the recent criminal and legal histories of each of the 111 people on the list. Two things stand out right away. First, the vast majority of people on the list are either homeless or show signs of housing instability; fewer than 10 had consistent residential addresses in the Seattle area. Second, most “high utilizers” show signs of major behavioral conditions, including addiction and mental illness.

In many cases, people’s behavioral health issues were so severe that a Seattle Municipal Court judge has recently questioned their ability to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense, a process used to determine, among other things, if a case can proceed. Nearly half, or about 54, have been ordered to undergo a competency evaluation within the last year, and 30 have been found incompetent multiple times—a high bar that requires not just a transient lack of understanding (which might be caused by drug use) but a profound underlying mental health condition.

Prosecuting such people, Khadelwal says, is pointless and counterproductive. “It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney,” Khandelwal said. “What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”

Katie landed on the high utilizers list after racking up more than two dozen separate charges in the last five years—everything from tampering with a fire alarm to vehicle prowling to pedestrian interference, for walking in the middle of busy Rainier Avenue South. She spends most of her time in Ballard, despite restraining orders and arrests and people warning her, over and over, to stay out of the area. She has a connection to the neighborhood—it’s where her family once lived, she has told officers and court officials and anyone who will listen, and where her “street family” lives now.

Mostly, Katie’s charges involve stealing from, screaming at, and harassing employees and patrons of businesses and institutions in Ballard’s commercial core, including retail stores, a car dealership, and the Seattle Public Library. Typically, she will enter a business, yell and knock things down, and run off with random items, such as pile of Starbucks paper cups a barista set outside one day. For just one person, people familiar with Katie say, her impact is tremendous; she might enter a single business multiple times a day, causing havoc and running out only to return a few hours later.

Katie has also assaulted people directly—pulling an earring off a waitress who told her to go away, attacking an employee at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, which offers daily meals from its building across from the Ballard Commons. St. Luke’s is among at least half a dozen Ballard businesses that have a no-contact order barring Katie from coming within 1,000 feet of their property—an almost unprecedented move for a church whose institutional mission includes serving Ballard’s homeless population. Earlier this year, because of her status as a “high utilizer,” she was detained for nearly five months at the King County Jail; when she got out, she went straight back to Ballard, where she was promptly arrested—not for harming anyone, but for simply being there.

This time, the city attorney’s office didn’t seek to keep Katie in jail , and she was released two days after her arrest. But her months-long stay in jail had consequences she was still living through. During that period, her name had come up on a waiting list for housing, but no one noticed; as a result, she missed a crucial deadline and fell off the list. Now, after case conferencing that included representatives from the city attorney’s office, she’s staying in a tiny house in a neighborhood across town. But she’s still barred from most of Ballard, which will make it hard for her to avoid arrest in the future.

Despite her erratic behavior, Katie has been found competent at least once, after two previous incompetency findings. Her most recent evaluation, in February, concluded that she was competent to stand trial as long as she stayed away from drugs—a conclusion that shows one of the limits of “competency” as a measure of behavioral health.

Peter, another “high utilizer” who has been found incompetent to stand trial repeatedly, most recently in July, frequents the University District, where his name is on a private list of high-impact individuals maintained by the University District Partnership (UDP), which represents businesses in the area.

“There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”—Daniel Malone, Director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Peter—also a pseudonym—has been arrested repeatedly for walking into businesses, stealing small items—a can of Campbell’s chicken and dumpling soup, an Ace bandage, a bottle of A&W root beer—and threatening employees who catch him or tell him to leave. He says things like, “If you stop me, I have a gun and I will kill you,” and “fuck you, I’ll kick your ass,” and “if you call the police, I will murder you,” according to police reports. On occasion, he’s taken a swing or tried to “head butt” a clerk. Once, he grabbed a “small pink pen knife” from a homeless woman’s cart and pointing it toward a Safeway clerk, Other than the pen knife, which he returned to the woman who owned it, police reports do not indicate that has ever been caught carrying a weapon.

Peter is also, as his many incompetency findings make clear, profoundly disabled, to the point that he’s frequently incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation. He may be “terrorizing” a neighborhood, but he’s also lost in his own delusions of money, grandeur, and persecution; it’s hard to imagine him understanding the nature of the charges against him, much less sitting still in front of a judge and testifying in his own defense.

“We have a lot of clients who are just so gravely disabled that you’re not going to get the same result if you tell them to do something” the way you would with most people, said Ailene Richard, the North Seattle LEAD supervisor for the homeless outreach organization REACH. “They’re not internalizing information in the same way. You have to ask people, what is your motivator? Why do you keep stealing things? Even to do that takes relationship building and trust building.”

The UDP participates in case conferencing—a process that involves sitting down with representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, neighborhood organizations, LEAD, REACH, and the city attorney’s office and figuring out how to address and assist people who are having a negative impact on local residents and businesses. But for cases like Peter’s, UDP president Don Blakeney says, they’re at a loss.

“What is the solution for someone who is having a negative impact on the neighborhood but is not really a great candidate for behavioral change?” Blakeney said. “Those kind of people on the list are going to be hard [to deal with]—they can’t keep impacting the neighborhood the way they do because it’s terrifying of folks who are stuck in one place,” such as behind the counter at a retail store. “If you get to a point in the neighborhood where people are doing that every day, it has a cumulative impact.”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which supported previous efforts to crack down on drug dealing and sales of stolen goods such as the short-lived Operation New Day, also supports the high utilizers initiative. But the group’s CEO, Jon Scholes, says simply arresting people and releasing them back into the community without health care and housing won’t address the impact high utilizers have on the neighborhood or help them access the services and housing they need. “There’s very few people in our constituency who want to lock up mentally ill people forever—they they want to reduce the impact [and] they want a better outcome.”

Unlike the University District and SoDo neighborhoods, which have access to case conferencing, Scholes said the city and service providers “haven’t set that kind of table with us and other [business] groups. We’ve never set aside the housing and other services that are really needed for this population. …A list is just a list if there’s no meaningful intervention that’s being offered.”

Both Katie and Peter, along with many others on the high utilizers list, are connected with case managers from groups like REACH and LEAD, which work with unhoused people facing charges and those who have co-occurring behavioral health conditions, including mental illness and addiction. But identifying appropriate housing and services for people with huge, sometimes lifelong, challenges takes time, even years, and in the meantime, the prescription from the city attorney’s office often prioritizes immediate neighborhood demands. 

And even some homeless service providers say there are times when jail is justified. Staffers for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which has provided (or currently provides) shelter or housing for many of the people on the high utilizers list, call police when a client assaults another client or threatens guests or staff—as happened earlier this month, when a man on the list exposed himself to residents and staff at DESC’s Hobson Place apartments.

“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid said, he hoped Davison’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”

“We’re supposed to [call police] not just when we’re upset at a lack of compliance or cooperation, but when it’s reached a point where we’re unable to manage the situation safely and effectively,” Malone said. “There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”

Richard said going in and out of jail all the time can cause “tremendous” harm—”jail is not a therapeutic place.” At the same time, jail can provide “a sort of break from everything they’re usually doing,” she added. “Sometimes if we’ve had trouble finding that client, that’s a way we can contact them. It is sometimes the only opportunity that we have to be able to meet with certain folks who we have not been able to find on outreach.”

Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid oversees community court, an alternative to mainstream criminal court that offers access to services such as mental health and addiction treatment, occupational therapy, and life skills classes. He says the city attorney’s office needs to demonstrate, with clear evidence, that jail is helping not just businesses and neighborhood residents but the people who are being jailed over and over again with few visible results. “If they’re going to charge these people more, they need to prove that they’re having a positive impact.” So far, he said, they haven’t done so.

Instead, Davison took action early in her term to specifically deny access to community court to anyone on the list, arguing that people who commit the same offenses repeatedly need strict accountability, not treatment and classes. Davison, and Lindsay, especially objected to the fact that community court is a “release first” model, which gives people who enter the program the benefit of the doubt instead of, as Khandelwal put it recently, keeping people in jail “simply because they are too poor to post bail.” Continue reading “Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?”

City Attorney Filing, But Also Diverting, More Cases; City’s Shelter Enrollment Rate Remains Low

City Attorney Ann Davison

 

1. City Attorney Ann Davison’s office released a detailed report this week confirming what PubliCola reported earlier this month: In the first six months of 2022, her office has filed charges in only about half of the criminal cases it has considered, declining to pursue charges at a rate similar to that of her predecessor, Pete Holmes. Between 2017 and 2019, Holmes’ decline rate ranged from just over 40 percent to just under 60 percent, only slightly lower than Davison’s.

Between January and June, the city attorney’s office declined about 51 percent of cases. That number includes cases from a backlog left after Holmes left office, which resulted from a combination of failure to file cases prior to the pandemic and an increase in unfiled cases in 2021, when the Seattle Municipal Court was not operating at full capacity due to the pandemic.

Excluding those cases, Davison’s decline rate was lower (46 percent between January and March and 41 percent between April and June), but without more details about what cases the office considered from the backlog, or what cases came in between April and June, it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions from that comparison.

Digging into the numbers in the report, the rate of domestic violence cases that the office declined has risen steadily over the years, and remains high under Davison (over 60 percent) so far; one reason for this, according to the report, is that domestic violence victims often don’t want to file charges against their abusers. Assault, property destruction, and harassment topped the list of domestic violence cases where no charges were filed.

The report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services.

Davison’s office did file charges in a much higher percentage of new non-domestic violence and non-traffic criminal offenses (those committed in 2022) than Holmes—around half in the first quarter of this year and 37 percent in the second quarter. If that trend continues, it will mean that Davison is choosing to pursue charges against more people accused of crimes like assault, theft, and trespassing, which are often crimes of poverty.

 

Ann Davison portrait

Perhaps most interestingly, the report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services. Overall, Davison referred about 750 cases to community court, more than 600 to LEAD, and about 180 to mental health court.

Earlier this year, Davison sought, and received, authority to deny access to community court for the 100 or so people on her “high utilizer” list, which includes people with more than 12 cases (not charges) in the past five years. The city attorney’s office really is treating this population differently: In contrast to their overall approach, the office has filed charges in 82 percent of cases involving this group, a decline rate of just 18 percent.

2. The latest quarterly report from the Seattle Human Services Department on the work of the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) Team shows an uptick in the number of people who received referrals to shelter from the HOPE Team and actually enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and stayed for at least one night. The HOPE Team does outreach at encampments, primarily the city’s regularly updated list of encampments it plans to sweep.

Between April and June, 173 people went to shelter based on a HOPE team referral, amounting to 41 percent of the total number of people who received at least one referral. (Overall, the team made 458 referrals, including multiple referrals for some individuals). Put another way, that means about 58 people went to shelter on HOPE team referrals every month last quarter. The numbers are approximate, because some people who enroll in shelter choose to remain anonymous, making them harder to track.

Those numbers, while they represent a slight improvement, continue to reveal that the majority of shelter referrals don’t result in shelter enrollments (and shelter, of course, isn’t housing)—people are getting referral slips but aren’t using them. This can happen for a variety of reasons: Leaving an encampment for shelter can involve a long trek across town, along with tough decisions, such as whether to leave an established street community or abandon a pet.

Notably, the second quarter of this year also included the removal of a large encampment at Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell identified early on as one of the top priorities for his administration. As we reported at the time, the city asked the Low-Income Housing Institute to set aside dozens of spots in tiny-house villages—a desirable, semi-private shelter type that has a very high enrollment rate—for people living in the park. Out of 89 shelter referrals at Woodland Park, 60 were to tiny house villages.

The city also made a special effort to ensure that people forced to leave during the high-profile removal, offering direct transportation to shelters for everyone who received a referral, which likely boosted the overall enrollment rate. PubliCola has asked HSD how many of the 173 enrollments between April and June came from Woodland Park and will update this post when we hear back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times Columnist Wants Seattle To Have So Many Cops, They’ll Rush Across Town to Arrest IPhone Thieves

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote that the Seattle Police Department was recently forced to adopt a new policy to keep track of all the calls they’re no longer able to respond to. “It’s called the ‘Z protocol,'” Westneat claimed. “I don’t know why they picked the letter ‘Z.’ Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?”

Westneat’s characterization of the new police policy—as an acknowledgment that police are no longer able to do their jobs— was wrong. In reality, the new “z disposition” (not “protocol,” although that does sound more dystopian) means that more people will have eyes on low-priority calls before the police department decides not to show up. That’s because it replaces an older policy, known as “priority call handling,” that was in place for most days during each of the past three years.

Under that policy, most low-priority calls would never even get to the police department; instead, 911 responders would tell callers to report the incident online or call back later. Now, these low-priority calls get dispatched and screened by a police supervisor, who decides whether they merit a police response and what kind of response is appropriate. For people, like Westneat, who blame slow call response times at least partly on what Westneat calls a “political class hostile to the idea of policing,” this greater police involvement ought to be something to celebrate.

If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to his iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

Prioritizing calls by urgency isn’t some new phenomenon brought on by staffing shortages; it’s a basic part of policing in every city in America. In Seattle, the police have long deprioritized calls that fall into the “Priority 3” and “Priority 4” categories, largely because many of them don’t require an immediate police response.

Priority 4 calls are non-emergency calls that may not require any written report. Priority 3 calls include complaints about illegal parking, fireworks illegal bonfires, and off-leash dogs. Many Priority 3 calls are the kind of situations that tend to resolve themselves; others are crimes that don’t require an immediate response, like package theft and car break-ins. Overall, police response times for these kind of calls have been slow for many years, because the police have more important things to do—like responding to Priority 1 (risk to life or serious injury or crimes in progress) and Priority 2 (altercations or situations that could escalate) calls.

The two examples of “Z-Protocol territory” Westneat describes in his column are good examples of Priority 3 calls—calls the police have always responded to more slowly than higher-priority emergencies. Both involve iPhones whose owners (Westneat and “a guy I know,” respectively) decided to chase down the thieves using the “find my iPhone” function, and were annoyed to learn that police don’t drop whatever they’re doing to rush to the scene of a petty theft.

“Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system,” Westneat complained.

This privileged view of what police are for (“What has this city come to when the cops won’t even show up to arrest a perp I’ve tracked and collared myself?”) is easy to dismiss as a macho version of the Karen complex—the idea that the city should fund cops so lavishly that every low-level complaint would get an instant, in-person response.

But demands to have police respond in person to every emergency and nonemergency also serve as a counternarrative to the idea that not every situation requires or benefits from the presence of uniformed officers with guns. If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to their iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

This has been amply debated. I would argue that the debate has even been settled—there is now broad consensus on the basic principle that not every call requires a police response. “Defund the police”—which never happened—was always about how to fill the gaps, by setting up and funding alternative systems for responding to situations that should never have fallen to police in the first place, like mental health crises.

Westneat called “z disposition” a “white flag” to criminals. In reality, it’s an acknowledgement that police resources, which will always be limited, have to be prioritized. Not everything is an emergency. The police, and political leaders, could do a better job of making this fact clear, by communicating transparently that the police will not show up for every kind of call, and by providing and promoting alternative options for resolving issues that aren’t actual emergencies. In the long run, many calls should be shifted away from police, and handed off to more appropriate responders at the point of dispatch.

Let’s keep Z disposition, though—and reserve it for people who treat 911 like their personal complaint line.

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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