Category: Crime

Davison Unilaterally Ends Community Court Program

City Councilmember Sara Nelson and City Attorney Ann Davison

By Erica C. Barnett

But City Attorney Ann Davison informed the Seattle Municipal Court today that the city of Seattle will no longer participate in the municipal court’s pioneering community court—a therapeutic court that allows people accused of certain low-level crimes to access services without pleading guilty to a crime. The decision effectively represents the end of community court in Seattle.

“After considerable thought and discussion,” Criminal Division Director Natalie Walton-Anderson wrote in a letter to municipal court judges Friday afternoon, “the City Attorney has decided to end the criminal division’s participation in Community Court. We recognize that Community Court has been part of the Seattle Municipal Court’s practice for many years, and that many will be disappointed by this decision.

“However, I want to assure you that the City Attorney remains committed to the principles behind the original formation of Community Court, and we remain committed to working with court and the Department of Public Defense to mitigate the potential impacts of this decision and to work together to find innovative and effective ways to address the criminal justice issues in our city.”

According to Judge Damon Shadid, who established and oversaw community court, Davison’s office “never negotiated in good faith regarding the changes they wanted in community court. They came with demands and if their demands weren’t met exactly, they continually threatened to pull out of the court.” Shadid spoke to PubliCola in his personal capacity, not in his role as a judge

In a statement, King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal expressed dismay at Davison’s unilateral decision to pull out of community court.

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Our community members are dying from drug overdoses and need access to housing and to community-based services,” Khandelwal said. “Evidence demonstrates that the criminal legal system does not change behavior and that it undermines public safety by destabilizing people’s lives. Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services. Nonetheless, the Seattle City Attorney … seeks to push people deeper into a criminal legal carceral system that is expensive, deadly, and deeply racially disproportionate.”

One issue that came up during internal deliberations over the future of community court was whether defendants should have to do community service as a condition of receiving services through the court. During the pandemic, the court allowed people to take a life skills class in lieu of in-person community service, an option Shadid said proved to be more effective at helping people achieve their goals than requiring them to do manual labor near the courthouse. In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the work requirement was “a central component” of the original community court plan—one that would have had to be restored for the court to continue.

“The city attorney’s office would accept absolutely no compromise when it came to community service, regardless of the information that was provided to them about the efficacy of community service in the courts or just whether or not its right or wrong to force someone to work in order to receive services.”—Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid

In recent months, Shadid said, the city attorney’s main demand was that the court require its participants to complete at least six hours of community service. However, he said, “the city attorney’s office would accept absolutely no compromise when it came to community service, regardless of the information that was provided to them about the efficacy of community service in the courts or just whether or not its right or wrong to force someone to work in order to receive services.”

Davison’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the decision to pull out of community court. In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the city attorney’s office will “shift cases where the defendant is likely to engage with service providers to a pre-filing diversion model.” The letter does not provide any details about this model or how the city attorney will determine which people are “likely to engage with service providers.”

Community court is a therapeutic, rather than punitive, court aimed at people who commit low-level crimes like theft, trespassing, and resisting arrest; people who commit serious misdemeanors, like DUI and domestic violence, are not eligible. Its goal is to address the root causes of people’s criminal activity, such as addiction and homelessness, by enrolling people in case management and services as an alternative to prosecution and jail.

Last year, Davison successfully pushed the court to categorically exclude people on her “high utilizers” list—those accused of more than 12 misdemeanor offenses in the past five years—from community court, arguing that people who commit crimes repeatedly “need meaningful accountability” in the form of prosecution and jail.

The court became an issue in last year’s municipal court elections. Davison-aligned candidates (including one of her own employees, assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins, running against incumbent, and community court champion, Damon Shadid) argued for drastically changing or eliminating community court on the grounds that it was all carrot, no stick. Rose-Akins, along with incumbent Adam Eisenberg, lost to their more progressive opponents, extinguishing conservative hopes that a new court would make community court more punitive or eliminate it altogether.

In the letter to judges, which refers to community court as “Community Court 3.0” because it is the court’s third iteration, Walton-Anderson said the current court has not produced results, pointing to the fact that many people fail to appear in court for their first appearances—a point Rose-Akins made repeatedly in her campaign against Shadid last year. Shadid counters that the failure to appear rate for first appearances is “extraordinarily high” for misdemeanor cases throughout the municipal court system; “the only difference now is that in community court, we could try to connect people to services the day they came into court instead of warehousing them in the jail.”

Like many documents from Davison’s office, the letter uses several extreme, cherry-picked anecdotes about community court participants who went on to commit serious crimes to suggest community court is a soft-on-crime failure, including one involving a five-year-old child.

Earlier this month, Davison supported legislation sponsored by Councilmember Sara Nelson that will, if it passes, empower her office to prosecute people for possessing small amounts of drugs and using drugs in public, a first in the city’s history. (The Nelson bill stems from recent state action to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor. For Seattle to prosecute drug users under the new state law, the city has to pass a local law that incorporates—or goes beyond—the state law, which is what the proposed new law would do.)

According to some estimates, the new anti-drug law could result in up to 800 additional prosecutions per year—cases that, because they’ll be in mainstream court, will require full discovery, adding to existing court delays and further increasing the population of the downtown jail, which is currently sending inmates to jails in South King County in response to dangerous understaffing.

Board Overseeing Federal Homelessness Funds Erupts Into Shouts Over Nomination of Sex Offender

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked a member of its Continuum of Care board to step down after she yelled at a fellow board member who objected to the appointment of a proposed new board member, pointing out that he is a registered sex offender and accusing him of behaving inappropriately toward her in the past.

In an email to KCRHA staff and board members last Thursday, KCRHA chief program officer Peter Lynn said he was formally asking the board co-chair, Shanéé Colston, to resign after she “shouted down committee member Kristina Sawyckyj for identifying that one of the prospective AC nominees was a registered sex offender, which is public information. Ms. Sawyckyj was also shouted down by Chair Colston when she spoke of her experience being inappropriately touched by the nominee.”

The continuum of care board plays an important role in securing homelessness funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It reviews and approves applications for federal funding, oversees annual funding renewal requests and performance metrics for homeless service providers, and creates a prioritization tool to judge funding applications.

During a flurry of overlapping shouts, another board member interjected that she had had “nothing but good experiences with [the nominee]” and told Sawyckvj she should contact the police, which Sawyckvj said she had. Sawyckyj went silent, and eventually left the meeting.

The argument began a little more than 45 minutes into the meeting (viewable on the board’s website, which contains a trigger warning for the meeting), when board member Kristina Sawyckyj objected to the appointment of a man who has been convicted for multiple sex offenses involving teenage girls.

In 2010, when he was 25, he was convicted of harboring a minor, a 13-year-old runaway with whom he had a sexual relationship, according to court records. Two years later, the nominee was charged with raping a minor in a case involving a 15-year-old girl; he ultimately pled guilty to communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, a felony sex crime. In 2018, Seattle police found him living in a tent near the Seattle waterfront with a 17-year-old girl, whose mother picked her up and took her home, according to Seattle court records.

Also on the agenda at the delayed meeting: An update to the charter for the Continuum of Care Board, which the board has proposed amending to specify that all 19 members must have lived experience of homelessness or housing instability.

“[He] is a sex offender, a repeat sex offender, and I have had [a] bad experience with him,” Sawyckyj said, adding that the nominee had “touched me” inappropriately in the past.

At that point, Colston cut her off, yelling, “we don’t do that here” and saying it was against board rules to “out” someone who was convicted of a sex crime. During a flurry of overlapping comments, another board member interjected that she had had “nothing but good experiences with [the nominee]” and told Sawyckvj she should contact the police, which Sawyckvj said she had.

Sawyckyj went silent, then left the meeting, while Colston continued. “I’m telling you that you cannot talk like that in this meeting. I will not have that here!” Colston said. “If anyone wants to talk like that you will be muted and removed from this meeting,” she said. “This is about equity. And everyone—everyone— deserves housing. I don’t care if they’re a sex offender! … This is an inclusive space, and we are equitable to all.”

The new board members were supposed to be confirmed during a special meeting last Friday, but the KCRHA canceled the meeting on Thursday. “This unacceptable behavior by leadership of the CoC Advisory Committee has created a hostile environment for KCRHA staff and committee members,” Lynn wrote in his email. “I will be working with KCRHA leadership and our attorneys to determine the next steps to ensure the safety of all those involved in the [board].

Also on the agenda at the delayed meeting: An update to the charter for the Continuum of Care Board, which the board has proposed amending to specify that all 19 members must have lived experience of homelessness or housing instability. The board, which is required by federal policy, predates the KCRHA. In its pre-KCRHA iterations, the board included elected officials, homeless and human service providers, and government staff, in addition to people with direct experience of homelessness.

Proposal to Make Public Drug Use a Misdemeanor Unlikely to Have Much Visible Impact

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson; City Attorney Ann Davison

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, along with City Attorney Ann Davison, proposed legislation on Thursday that would make public consumption of illegal drugs, other than cannabis, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

The legislation comes in the context of the state legislature’s failure to address drug possession in the session that ended Sunday. In 2021, the state supreme court issued a called State v. Blake, which decriminalized simple drug possession—previously a felony. In response, lawmakers passed a temporary law that made possession a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, giving themselves until July of this year to come up with a permanent replacement. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to call a special session on the issue next month.

Meanwhile, cities around the state are already proposing their own local laws criminalizing drug possession that would go in effect if the legislature fails to take action by July.

The proposal in Seattle does not directly address drug possession. Instead, it focuses on the kind of visible, public use that grabs headlines—people smoking meth or fentanyl on park benches, in doorways, and on public transit. At a press conference announcing the legislation on Thursday, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen all framed public drug use as a public safety issue and suggested that their legislation would send a signal to drug users that they could no longer use in public spaces.

“Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”—City Attorney Ann Davison

“Our buses are unhealthy to use. Our transit centers feel unsafe to wait in, and people walking down the street feel afraid,” Davison said. “Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”

Nelson said the “economic revitalization of downtown” depended on “giv[ing] our officers a tool to interrupt” public drug consumption. Workers “are afraid to ride public transit to work or walk to their office past people smoking fentanyl on the street,” she said. “Meanwhile, summer’s around the corner, and parents want to be able to take their part their kids to the park without people doing drugs right in front of them.”

Despite all the tough talk, the legislation—if it passes—is unlikely to have much of an impact on public drug use downtown or elsewhere. (Notably, although all of its supporters focused on mitigating harm to children, the legislation is silent on private drug use by parents or caregivers, which causes far more harm to actual children than walking past a stranger smoking fentanyl in the park).

For one thing, as Davison acknowledged, the Seattle Police Department doesn’t have enough officers to enforce the drug laws that are already on the books, including laws against dealing and trafficking. For another, the downtown jail isn’t booking people on low-level misdemeanors, and won’t be starting any time soon—just last month, the county moved 100 people from the downtown jail in because of understaffing.

“I recognize that [SPD is] down 30 percent of their force, and we need to make sure that they’ve got adequate staffing levels to be able to improve the public safety of people and businesses across the city,” Nelson said. “What I’m worried about right now is getting the basics right, and making explicit that we don’t allow the public use of illegal drugs.”

As she did during Harrell’s executive order announcement, Nelson distinguished between “deadly” illegal drugs and alcohol, supporting Harrell’s proposal to legalize “sip and strolls” events where people participating in downtown events can consume alcohol on sidewalks and other public spaces. Prior to the pandemic, alcohol use killed 140,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC, and alcohol consumption as well as binge drinking has only increased since then.

Davison said she hoped to work with “our diversion partners to get people into treatment. … The goal is always recovery—to disrupt antisocial behavior, to encourage people into treatment, and to make our streets parks and buses safer.”

The city’s primary pre-filing diversion program, LEAD, is not primarily focused on putting people in treatment as an alternative to jail; instead, it provides intensive case management based on a person’s needs, with a focus on harm reduction.

The co-director of the organization that runs LEAD, Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), said Thursday that the legislation “could be far worse, as we can see from the bill that was passed by the Democratically controlled Senate.” That bill made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, with a treatment alternative that carried harsh penalties for “failure to comply” with mandatory treatment.

“Aside from using the criminal system for what are fundamentally health issues, this legislation doesn’t inflict any additional problems or harm,” Daugaard said.

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment. Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

In a statement, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said she would “not consider a local Blake decision fix or any local drug laws” until the legislature has had a chance to meet in special session and come up with a fix. … I remain committed to Seattle’s approach, as outlined as recently as last week in Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Executive Order, to work to ensure people struggling with addiction get the treatment they need.”

As we reported earlier this month, Harrell’s executive order includes support for a new pilot contingency management program that will provide incentives for drug users who abstain from their drug of choice; it also expands the fire department’s Health One program to include a new overdose response unit.

In a statement, Harrell said that although “[i]t is never acceptable for people to smoke fentanyl or consume illegal drugs on Seattle sidewalks and public spaces… it is essential that we advance evidence-based policies, programs, and services that help those in need get the treatment they deserve–and continue focusing on arrests of those dealing or taking advantage of people in crisis, both of which are critical to restoring feelings of safety downtown and for all Seattle neighbors.”

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment,” Harrell continued. “Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”

“High Utilizers” Report Embraces Jail as Solution to Addiction and Crime

By Erica C. Barnett

When City Attorney Ann Davison announced her “high utilizers initiative” last year, she said it would go beyond previous attempts to punish people who commit misdemeanors by connecting them to case management, treatment, and other services. In reality, according to a report from Davison’s office, the initiative has only managed to temporarily incapacitate some people by locking them in the understaffed downtown jail, a “solution” to crimes like shoplifting and trespassing that does nothing to address the root causes that lead people to use drugs, steal from stores, and act out in public.

The report appears to feature a lot of hard numbers, but a closer look reveals that many are based on assumptions about how individual people would behave—assumptions that would undoubtedly be altered by effective interventions like housing, mental health care, and addiction treatment focused on harm reduction rather than coercion.

According to the report, the high utilizers list included 168 people over the last year—all individuals who have had at least 12 misdemeanor referrals to the city attorney’s office over the prior year, and at least one in the most recent eight months. Of those, 142 were booked into the downtown jail for misdemeanors or warrants, under a special exception to jail rules that have eliminating booking for most misdemeanors. On average, each “high utilizer” served 117 days in jail in jail last year—nearly four months per person.

In January and February 2022, before the high utilizer initiative went into effect,  the average daily population at the downtown jail was 910; for the same period this year, it was 1,220. The increase is the result of a complex mix of factors, but jailing 142 people for low-level misdemeanors is undoubtedly among them.

Because most of the people on the high utilizers list ended up incarcerated, the report notes, they ended up fewer crimes than they had in previous years, averaging 2.7 misdemeanor referrals per year compared to a pre-initiative average of 6.3. This, the report says, is proof the initiative is working: “The principal reason for the significant drop in high utilizer criminal activity was that they were quickly held accountable and booked into jail for their criminal activity,” the report says. “Holding high utilizers accountable for repeat criminal conduct is the game-changer that reduced their impact on the City.”

Already, these numbers are speculative—who can say, for example, whether a “high utilizer” who received housing and case management, rather than blunt-force punishment, would have gone on to commit their own “average” number of misdemeanors? The report veers further into extrapolation and guesswork with an “estimate” that locking people on the list up for misdemeanors has prevented “over 750 criminal police referrals reflecting many thousands of criminal acts.” If this is true (and if “high utilizers” are really superpredators who deserve harsher treatment, including exclusion from community court), the city’s overall misdemeanor rate should have declined appreciably. Yet according to the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 crime report, misdemeanor theft (which includes shoplifting and theft from buildings) went up 5 percent last year.

The report includes “examples of reduced public safety impact” identifying some of the high utilizers by first name and last initial, making them easily identifiable—something PubliCola has not done when writing about the initiative in an effort to avoid re-traumatizing people who may have been targets of negative media attention. It also lists people, by name, who “absconded” from mandatory treatment for their addictions or died during the period covered by the report.

Not surprisingly, the report also concludes that people “failed” to follow through with coercive residential treatment, which has an extremely low success rate, particularly for people with co-occurring mental illness and those experiencing homelessness. Even people who voluntarily enter residential treatment for opiate use disorder are likely to leave against medical advice, and the vast majority of people who enter traditional residential treatment relapse—facts that ought to argue in favor of different solutions, rather than more of the same.

According to Davison’s report, though, the problem is that the people on her list just aren’t “ready” to accept the treatment they’re offered.

Image from original high utilizers initiative announcement

“While there were a small handful of success stories, the great majority of times in which out-of-custody addiction treatment services were offered and accepted, the defendant fled within the first 24 hours,” the report says. “At least five high utilizers absconded on more than one occasion when they were given a chance to address their substance use disorders with treatment. … That leads us to the conclusion that most high utilizers are not ready to go direct to out-of-custody, voluntary addiction treatment programs.”

“If individuals stabilize during in-custody time, there is an opportunity to successfully graduate the individual to out-of-custody residential treatment after they had demonstrated active participation,” the report concludes.

King County does offer medication for opiate dependency behind bars—an evidence-based solution that, unfortunately, doesn’t work long-term if a person doesn’t have immediate access to equivalent treatment when they’re released. As we’ve reported, the county’s jail-based treatment programs suffer from the same lack of staffing that has led the ACLU to sue the county over inmates’ lack of access to basic physical and mental health care; jail-based treatment also has the best chance of succeeding if people can immediately access housing and health care when they’re released, something the jail system is poorly equipped to provide.

“Security Levels Are Going to Increase” on Sound Transit Trains, as Agency Struggles to Win Back Riders

By Erica C. Barnett

Hours after Sound Transit’s Technical Advisory Group read the light rail agency the riot act for, among other things, fostering a culture that “appears to discourage decision-making” (read Mike Lindblom’s comprehensive story on the TAG’s critique and recommendations), Sound Transit’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee got an update last week on the agency’s renewed efforts to crack down on people who violate transit rules, including riders who fail to pay their fares.

As longtime PubliCola readers know, Sound Transit has long struggled to balance its fare enforcement policy (which was recently amended to give riders additional warnings and more opportunities to resolve fare violations before receiving a $124 ticket) with its farebox recovery policy, which stipulates that fare revenues should pay for 40 percent of the cost to operate Link Light Rail. (Sound Transit’s other services, such as Sounder express rail and Sound Transit Express buses, have lower farebox recovery targets). The agency has only achieved that 40 percent goal—which is significantly higher than King County Metro’s 25 percent farebox recovery target—in one year, 2017; between 2019 and 2020, the rate plunged from 26 percent to 8 percent, and hit 16 percent—a post-lockdown high—last year.

Security officers “have already started conducting targeted enforcement activities of removing people from trains and stations throughout the system,” Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said, adding that the agency has also begun moving ORCA fare card readers away from station platforms, “especially in our tunnels.”

According to a presentation by Sound Transit staff, the agency’s “fare ambassadors”—neon-vested Sound Transit staff who replaced uniformed fare enforcement officers in 2020—found that 15 percent of the riders they interacted with had not paid their fare. This number is far less than casual estimates by former agency CEO Peter Rogoff, who once lamented that he witnessed “almost no one” paying their fares after a Mariners game, but still twice as high as pre-pandemic nonpayment levels. Sound Transit’s Deputy Director of Passenger Success Sean Dennerlein said at Thursday’s meeting that the agency is still struggling to hire fare ambassadors—currently, there are 17, up from a low of four but still a third less than the number funded—and “we do lose them fairly quickly,” Dennerlein said.

New Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said the agency has initiated a new crackdown on violations of the state law governing transit conduct, which prohibits a wide range of behaviors on transit and at transit stops, from smoking to playing music and “loud behavior.” In January, the board approved four new contracts for private security services totaling up to $250 million over six years; these new contracts, Timm said, would help address “the ongoing challenge of too few available officers on our system.”

Starting this month, Timm continued, “security levels are going to increase.” Security officers “have already started conducting targeted enforcement activities of removing people from trains and stations throughout the system,” Timm said, adding that Sound Transit has also begun moving ORCA fare card readers away from station platforms, “especially in our tunnels,” so that fare ambassadors can check fares before people board trains and so security can “discourage or report unlawful conduct to discourage incidents on trains.”

The new emphasis on security guards represents an apparent reversal of efforts both pre- and mid-pandemic to address concerns about racially biased fare and rule enforcement by reducing the presence of security guards on trains.

Sound Transit’s current fare policy “triggers consideration of a fare increase” if farebox recovery falls below the minimum levels adopted by the board. Currently, Sound Transit’s zone-based adult fares are all over the map, ranging from $2.00 for the isolated Tacoma light rail “T” line to as much as $5.75 for Sounder commuter rail. If nothing changes, according to Thursday’s staff presentation, fares would range from $2.25 up to $4.25 once all the projects from the 2008 Sound Transit 2 ballot measure, which will extend light rail to Redmond and Federal Way, are open.

One option is a flat fare that would apply across the system; this option would eliminate the requirement to “tap off” after getting off a train and would make it feasible, according to Sound Transit staff, to cap fares after a rider has spent a certain amount—something many transit systems across the country, from Portland to New York City, already allow.

Violence Against Unsheltered People Spikes, Social Housing Moves Into Startup Mode

1. People living unsheltered are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from people targeting them specifically because they’re homeless. The Seattle Police Department’s 2022 crime report, released earlier this month, showed a 229 percent increase in hate crimes targeting homeless people (an increase of 16 individual crimes), and an increase of 11 homicides in which the victim was homeless over last year.

During a recent meeting of the council’s public safety committee, City Councilmember Sara Nelson used these numbers to imply that expanding the city’s gun-violence prevention efforts to include older adults may be unnecessary, because an uptick in shootings among people older than 24 “could be because of the increased association with gun violence in encampments” rather than a citywide trend.

According to SPD, about a third of gun homicides with victims older than 24 had a “homelessness nexus,” meaning they most likely involved people experiencing homelessness. However, since the interventions that could help people living unsheltered (housing, behavioral health treatment, and job assistance) are similar to the ones that could help older shooting victims who are housed, it’s unclear why this distinction matters, beyond its usefulness as a pro-sweeps talking point.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Police Chief Adrian Diaz said. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

Overall, the number of shots-fired and shooting incidents that involved people experiencing homelessness increased only slightly from 2021—about 4 percent—but that requires context: In 2021, the number of shootings with a homelessness “nexus” increased by 122 percent, meaning both of the last two years have been especially dangerous for people experiencing homelessness. 

Despite this alarming increase in violence against people living unsheltered, Nelson focused on the danger encampments supposedly pose to children who may attend school or live nearby. “We need to address the safety of the children first,” she said. In reality, however, living outdoors is most dangerous for unsheltered people themselves, who are increasingly targeted by people who “take things into their own hands,” as Seattle Police Chief Diaz put it, lashing out at people living in encampments for being unhoused.

“It’s a good thing that more [homeless] people are coming forward” to report hate crimes, Diaz told PubliCola earlier this month. It also highlights the urgency of efforts to get people inside where they’re safer from both the elements and people who want to target them.

2. Now that Initiative 135, which establishes a public developer to build permanently affordable “social housing” in Seattle, has passed, supporters have switched gears and are working to get the new agency up and running. They’re up against a deadline: Once the election is certified on February 24, they have 18 months of city support, including staffing and office space, to establish a public development authority and come up with an initial funding source that will allow the PDA to start building housing.

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director of Real Change and a leader of the group’s House Our Neighbors! (HON) social-housing campaign, said the group has already discussed initial steps with Councilmember Tammy Morales, including the creation of the agency’s initial board of directors. This board will include seven members appointed by the Seattle Renters’ Commission and six members appointed by the city council, the mayor, and labor and housing representatives. Although HON doesn’t have any official role in the appointments and “we don’t want to overstep,” McCoy said, “it would be cool to have a [Real Change] vendor or someone from the Housing Justice Project,” which advocates for tenants’ rights and provides legal assistance in eviction cases.

Next, the new agency will have to come up with an ongoing funding source to keep itself going, along with a plan to actually pay for social housing, which was not funded by the initiative. State Rep. and former Solid Ground director Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle), who supported the initiative, has proposed a budget proviso that would pay for the agency’s startup costs.

Chopp says the state is considering new funding sources that could pay for social housing in Seattle, including an expansion of the real-estate excise tax to include a new taxing “tier” for property sales above $5 million; that proposal includes a local option that the city could use to fund social housing.

Pointing to a number of mixed-income projects that are already underway thanks to the state’s Home and Hope program, which acquires public properties and develops them into affordable housing and early-learning centers, Chopp said he doesn’t see the new social housing PDA as a competitor to traditional nonprofit housing providers. “The point is, we need more capacity—the speculative real estate market is not solving the problem, and there are plenty of nonprofits who see the value of this,” Chopp said.

McCoy said initiative backers are considering a few potential progressive local taxes to pay for social housing, including one novel option that she says would not conflict with the city’s efforts to create new progressive revenue to fund the city budget amid ongoing annual shortfalls. A new progressive revenue task force is meeting privately once a month to hash out a set of proposals to supplement Jumpstart payroll tax revenues, which the city has used for several years to backfill general-fund shortfalls.

Although McCoy said she couldn’t discuss specifics on the record, any new revenue source (as opposed to expansion of an existing source, like JumpStart) would likely require a separate ballot measure. In theory, the city council could just put a proposed new tax on the ballot—the same way it put a levy to fund improvements at Pike Place Market, which is run by a PDA, on the ballot in 2008—but a more likely scenario is that I-135 backers would have to run another initiative campaign for funding sometime next year.

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.