Category: Crime

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

By Ashley Archibald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know this because I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via King County Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”

Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters

Seattle Police officers impound a Car Brigade vehicle on Capitol Hill on October 3

By Paul Kiefer

Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver – who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges – had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from attacks.

That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits and intersections.

After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”

“SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”

To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department. According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”

That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone—which SPD had also seized—the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a yellow cab,” he said.

The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.

Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans, but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson and other crimes.

Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles, and potentially face felony charges, in order to protect protesters.

SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.

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The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.

Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters – that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said. Continue reading “Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters”

Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime

Screen shot from “Seattle Is Dying”

1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would  “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”

Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”

In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”

Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.

Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”

Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.

Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.

Instead, the mayor responded to the 7-1 vote by reigniting the debate over the council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which Durkan vetoed (unsuccessfully) after the council voted to eliminate the Navigation Team. In a statement Monday night, Durkan characterized the council’s vote as a decision to “restor[e] funding for the Human Services Department to coordinate homelessness outreach” and called the legislation “similar to previously proposed legislation negotiated in August” that would have kept the Navigation Team intact.  Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime”

As Seattle Weighs 911 Options, a Promising Program Shows the Potential, and Limitations, of Community-Based Crisis Response

Reverend Martin Lawson at the scene of a shooting in Pioneer Square on September 20th.

By Paul Kiefer

Just before 7:00 on Sunday night, an argument between two men at the encampment next to the King County Courthouse in Pioneer Square ended in a shooting. The shooter ran away into the night; the wounded man was carried by ambulance to Harborview Medical Center, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

About 30 minutes later, as a police officer was busy taking down the crime scene tape, a man in a black motorcycle helmet appeared from below the Yesler Avenue Bridge. He walked down the row of tents and tarps along the courthouse wall, asking witnesses for details about the shooter and the victim. He couldn’t get answers about the shooter, but longtime park residents said they didn’t recognize the wounded man—he was new to the encampment. Meanwhile, Seattle police officers standing a few yards away were busy searching a stolen car found on the scene for any evidence the shooter may have dumped when he ran.

The man in the motorcycle helmet was Reverend Martin Lawson, the head of the new four-person Critical Incident Response Team organized by Community Passageways, a South Seattle-based nonprofit that has been a center of attention in this year’s citywide conversations about alternatives to policing.

In the past four months, members of the Seattle City Council and the Mayor have regularly pointed to Community Passageways as a model for community-based public safety. The group already holds three city contracts: two for programs that divert young people from the criminal legal system and provide mentorship and counseling (together totaling $845,000) and a third, $300,000 contract for the Critical Incident Response Team, which formally launched three months ago.

As the city weighs its options for non-police 911 response, the Critical Incident Response Team provides a case study in the role community organizations might play in improving emergency responses to violent crime. Among the clearest lessons of that case study, however, are the team’s limitations. Because their model is grounded in community relationships, the Critical Incident Response Team can only work within the boundaries of their community. Introducing the model city-wide would involve replicating the team, not expanding it.

As new as the team may be, Community Passageways founder and CEO Dominique Davis says the program is modeled after work he’s been doing for years. Davis, a former gang member, first began responding to shootings in South Seattle while working as a football coach nearly two decades ago. “I was getting calls from kids I coached, kids I knew from around the neighborhood who would say, ‘coach, come get me—someone just shot at us, my friend just got shot,” Davis said. “So I started doing critical incident response on my own. I would go pick them up, and sometimes I had to take them to the hospital.”

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Davis says that he soon began to run into barriers to his informal crisis response work. “I would show up at the scene of a shooting, and a kid might be laid out in the back seat of a car with a bullet in him, but he wouldn’t want to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to get interrogated by police,” he said. “So I wound up calling prosecutors in the middle of the night, having them connect me to detectives and saying, ‘look, I need to get this kid to the hospital and I can’t convince him to go if you’re going to interrogate him.'” As Davis started reaching agreements with law enforcement, he says he saw an opportunity to formalize the role of community members in responding to violence.

For much of the past decade, Davis’ criminal justice reform work has centered on diversionary programs: He co-founded the program now known as Choose 180, which works to reduce legal penalties for young people facing misdemeanor charges, nearly a decade ago, and he narrowed his focus to serve gang-involved and incarcerated Black youth (ages 15-25) by founding Community Passageways in 2017. Those programs, he says, rely on pre-existing relationships within Seattle’s relatively small Black community.

Deshaun Nabors, an ambassador-in-training for a Community Passageways diversionary program called Deep Dive, echoed Davis. “This is about as community-based as it gets,” he said. “There’s barely ever more than two degrees of separation between any two people—I mean staff and clients. That’s where [Community Passageways’] soul is.” Nabors is a testament to the organization’s reliance on existing relationships: Davis knew Nabors’ uncle, and reached out to him while Nabors awaited sentencing for a robbery in 2019. Nabors entered the Deep Dive program earlier this year.

In many cases, the Critical Incident Response Team relies on the same community relationships to field emergency calls. Lawson said they’ve received emergency calls from the parents of shooting victims and witnesses who have team members’ phone numbers; in other cases, including the fatal shooting in July near Garfield High School that killed 18-year-old Adriel Webb, team members lived close enough to the incidents to hear the gunshots and arrive at the scene within minutes. The team has received about 15 calls a month so far.

“This is about as community-based as it gets,” he said. “There’s barely ever more than two degrees of separation between … staff and clients. That’s where [Community Passageways’] soul is.” —Deshaun Nabors, Community Passageways ambassador-in-training

Lawson, who joined Community Passageways in March after three years directing a prison ministry in North Carolina, said team members have also taken peacekeeping roles at another 20 gatherings—including memorials, rallies, and a multi-day assignment at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone (CHOP)—to de-escalate any conflicts among young people, especially those with gang ties, whom they know through their personal networks.

Lawson said he was on peacekeeping duty at CHOP on June 20th when Marcel Long shot and killed 19-year-old Horace Lorenzo Anderson after a dice game went awry. While he wasn’t able to respond in time to stop that shooting, Lawson said that he and fellow Critical Incident Response Team members rushed to the scene and spotted another several other teenagers—familiar faces—drawing guns to retaliate. “They knew us, we knew them, and we talked them down before anyone else got hurt,” he explained while standing on the corner of 4th and Yesler as witnesses to Sunday night’s shooting started to disperse.

Lawson said he was also present as a peacekeeper at the memorial for Adriel Webb on the night after his killing. Unfortunately, he said, “we’re still so short-staffed, so we decided to leave once it got late.” Not long after the team members left, a still-unidentified gunman shot 19-year-old Jamezz Johnson in the head, killing him.

The unit’s role as crisis responders, Lawson explained, doesn’t look like the job of police—in order to maintain community trust, and particularly the trust of gang-involved youth, it can’t. In fact, Lawson said his team members make a point of not interacting with police when responding to a call or serving as peacekeepers; at the scene of the shooting in Pioneer Square on Sunday, Lawson never came within twenty feet of an officer.

Lawson said the Critical Response Team often interviews witnesses and gathers intelligence after shootings, although they don’t share the intelligence they gather with investigating officers to maintain their network’s trust. Team members’ personal relationships with community members, and particularly with gang-involved community members, have allowed them to keep tabs on the movements of known gunmen and to intervene before gang members can retaliate against their rivals. At least one of the team members is an inactive gang member himself, said Davis; that member maintains a direct line of communication with his gang’s leadership, and Davis claims he used it to stop a retaliatory attack earlier this year. 

But when Lawson arrived at the scene of the Sunday night shooting in Pioneer Square, the limitations of the Critical Incident Response Team’s role as a violence prevention program became clear. After his brief conversations with park residents, Lawson signaled that he didn’t plan to stick around. “When shootings happen in this part of the city, we show up because there’s a possibility that one of the kids we know was involved. Sometimes they come here to sell drugs to the people who live in the park, and if they shoot someone or get shot, we should respond.” Continue reading “As Seattle Weighs 911 Options, a Promising Program Shows the Potential, and Limitations, of Community-Based Crisis Response”

Cuts to SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit Could Undermine DV Investigations, Experts Say

Image by zeraien via Wikimedia Commons.

By Paul Kiefer

As part of the staffing transfers that Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced last Tuesday, the Seattle Police Department is in the process of moving 88 officers to patrol duties, with more transfers to follow. Those reductions include 29 Community Policing Team members, five members of the department’s Intelligence Unit (used to identify crime hot spots and to determine where patrol officers will be deployed), and five members of the department’s Domestic Violence Unit—nearly a quarter of that unit’s staff.

Despite assurances from both Chief Diaz and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the department is working to ensure that the staffing transfers don’t limit the domestic violence unit’s efficiency and capacity, sources both outside SPD and inside the unit itself are raising concerns that the move will undermine domestic violence investigations.

“Of course I’m concerned,” said David Martin, the head of the King County Prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Unit, which works with the SPD unit on felony cases. “It’s hard to imagine this not increasing the caseloads for the remaining detectives, and that can take a toll on the thoroughness or speed of the investigations.” That increase in caseloads would have happened this year even without the staff transfers, he said, given the recent surge in domestic violence cases in the county.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.” – Judy Lin, King County Bar Association

According to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, as of the end of July, the county saw a 17 percent increase in domestic violence felony case filings compared to last year. So far this year, there have been 11 domestic violence homicide incidents in King County, accounting for 15 deaths (which include two murder-suicides and one incident with multiple victims)—twice as many as in all of 2019. Another eight murders were committed by convicted domestic violence offenders; because the victims in those cases weren’t intimate partners of the perpetrators, they aren’t counted as domestic violence homicides.

According to Martin, SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit plays a crucial role not only in investigating domestic violence cases, but in conducting follow-up with offenders, including serving protection orders and removing guns from offenders’ homes. In fact, SPD’s Domestic Violence unit was created specifically to shift those duties away from patrol and into a specialized unit trained specifically in managing domestic violence cases.

The SPD Domestic Violence Unit is also a part of King County’s Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit (RDVFEU)—a collaboration between county and city prosecutors, the sheriff’s office, and the SPD unit; the SPD detectives are responsible for serving protection orders and removing guns from the domestic violence offenders within city limits. The RDVFEU has recovered 30 percent more firearms this year than they had by the same time last year and has seen a 104% increase in Extreme Risk Protection Order filings, which mandate the removal of a firearm from domestic violence offenders.

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Retired judge Anne Levinson, who led the effort to establish the regional firearms unit, is worried that the cuts to SPD’s domestic violence unit will undermine the department’s commitments to their regional partners. “My concerns are both the ability to swiftly and strongly enforce the law and the importance of quickly serving protection orders and removing firearms when those orders are served,” Levinson said. “Both those are put at risk by those cuts.”

An officer who works in SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed the concerns of Martin and Levinson, saying they can’t fathom how their colleagues will be able to process ever-growing caseloads with fewer investigators. The officer said they are especially concerned about the unit’s Elder Crimes division, which will lose two of its three officers. The division is responsible for investigating physical abuse, neglect, or financial abuse involving senior citizens.

Mirroring the broader surge in domestic violence filings, the officer said, the elder abuse unit has also seen their caseloads increase during the past year, which they credit to pandemic-related isolation. “The elder abuse team’s numbers are always increasing,” they explained, “and during the pandemic, there’s less supervision of elders because people don’t want to infect them, so they can be hugely vulnerable to abuse.”

In his press conference last week, Interim Chief Diaz said that increasing the number of patrol officers will enable faster 911 responses;  that distributing patrol duties between a larger number of officers will reduce on-the-job stress and allow those officers more time to build relationships with community members; and that decreasing the number of officers assigned to special units—who Diaz said often work more overtime—will lower the department’s overtime spending.

Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said Durkan supports the transfers because they serve Diaz’s goal to “focus the culture of SPD— including patrol—on community and neighborhood policing” and “lay the groundwork to create a department that is less centered around individual, siloed specialty units and instead can handle a total collection of incidents.”

As for concerns about the ability of SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit to investigate cases, aid in prosecutions, and provide follow-up for victims, the mayor’s office doubled down on last week’s assurance that “SPD will be closely monitoring the data for any potential negative impacts and making data-informed decisions about staffing and allocation of resources.” Nyland added, “If SPD doesn’t have enough officers in patrol to be quickly dispatched to initial incidents of domestic violence, then the subsequent detective work loses much of its purpose.”

But according to Judy Lin, the Senior Managing Attorney for the pro bono family law programs at the King County Bar Association (which deals with domestic violence cases), improving 911 response times to domestic violence incidents does less to ensure the safety of victims than the follow-up work provided by the Domestic Violence Unit.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. What you’re dealing with are survivors who have a relationship with the abuser involving a pattern of coercive control,” Lin said. “Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.”  If the reduced Domestic Violence Unit struggles to keep up with casework, she said, “it is more likely that abusers will not be held accountable… Without [an efficient Domestic Violence Unit] there are so many reasons for survivors to not follow through with the criminal case when they assess the risks of doing so to their safety and that of their children.” 

Lin also added that patrol officers responding to domestic violence incidents can actually make victims less safe. “If survivors reach out to law enforcement who don’t have specialized training, it can increase the risk of harm and lethality,” she said.

And elder abuse cases often don’t involve a 911 call at all, said Nadia Armstrong-Green, a Senior Rights Assistance administrator with Sound Generations, a King County nonprofit that serves older adults and adults with disabilities. “A lot of elder crimes involve some form of financial abuse,” she said, “and I often advise people to get the police involved, but many of our clients are reluctant to do that. Most people don’t see fraud or identity as an emergency.”

According to the Domestic Violence Unit detective, problems may also arise from transferring detectives who haven’t been on patrol in several years without adequately preparing them for their new patrol positions. One of the domestic violence detectives who will be transferred, they say, hasn’t been in the field for nearly a decade. “I’d think [they] would need some kind of modified field training before [they] would be prepared to work as a single officer unit. There have been technological changes, policy changes… a lot has evolved for patrol officers.” Instead, they say, the transfers will receive only about a week of training before they are deployed on patrol on September 16.

The City and County Keep Lists of Cops with Credibility Issues. Many of Them Remain on Patrol.

Image from SPD Detective Franklin Poblocki’s body camera

By Paul Kiefer

In early April, a pair of Seattle Police lieutenants from the West Precinct spotted a man rolling a bike and a garbage can down Main Street in the International District. Large coils of copper wire hung off the bike’s handlebars, and the garbage can was packed with more of the same wire. In their report, the officers noted that the wire appeared to have been torn or quickly cut; the officers concluded that the man had probably stolen it from a nearby construction site. When they stopped the man to question him, he quickly admitted that he had taken the wire from a site near Yesler Terrace. The officers then booked the man into the King County Jail.

By most standards, the arrest was unremarkable. But if one of the officers who arrested the man had been called to testify, her name—Lora Alcantara—would have triggered an alert that could have prompted prosecutors to drop the case.

Alcantara is one of 24 SPD officers on the so-called “Brady Lists” kept by the King County Prosecutor and the City Attorney’s Office. The lists, named after a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling called Brady v. Maryland that required prosecutors to present any evidence that might benefit the defendant, are formally known as Potential Impeachable Disclosure (PID) lists. They include the names of officers with sustained findings of dishonesty, evidence of racial bias, or criminal charges or convictions.

Alcantara was in added to the KCPO’s PID list in 2016 after a Seattle Office of Police Accountability Investigation found her guilty of misconduct for calling a Black driver a “fucking Negro” during a car chase in 2013. [UPDATE] A subsequent OPA investigation found that Alcantara also lied about her interaction with a KIRO-TV news crew she encountered during the chase when debriefing the incident with her supervisor, leaving her with an additional mark on her record for dishonesty. Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole suspended Alcantara for five days without pay for violating the SPD manual’s “prohibitions concerning derogatory language.” 

 

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In practice, those lists limit the ability of officers with a record of misconduct to testify. If a listed officer is the sole witness in a case, both prosecutors’ offices say they are far less likely to file charges, limiting the officers’ abilities to work alone. However, though listed officers are often unable to give testimony—a key responsibility of law enforcement officers, especially those working in patrol operations—salary and assignment data show that the department has continued to give the 24 officers annual raises and has left the vast majority in patrol positions. 

When a prosecutor from either office finds that an officer they subpoenaed to testify in a case is on their Brady list, their offices have to disclose that information (and additional details about the officer’s misconduct record) to either the defense attorney (if the officers are on the list because of a record of dishonesty) or the trial judge. Defense attorneys can use this information to impeach an officer’s testimony, and being on a Brady list “can be a factor in whether a prosecutor chooses to file charges,” Dan Nolte, the communications director for the city attorney’s office, said. “If a Brady List officer is on a case and no other officers can corroborate their account, we’re likely to seek additional evidence confirming the situation before choosing to file.”

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow.

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow. Most of the 75 SPD officers on the lists are no longer employed by the department: some, like 31-year SPD officer Ernest Hall (for whom the OPA found a lengthy record of dishonesty), the department fired outright; others, like former officer Alex Chapackdee (arrested in 2017 on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges) resigned in lieu of termination; and others, like former Detective Ron Smith (charged for shooting a rival biker gang member at a South Dakota bar in 2008), retired from the department.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg says it’s rare for officers who land on the lists to keep their jobs. Still, it is common enough that of the 75 SPD officers who prosecutors have added to their lists over the past 15 years, nearly a third remain employed by the department.

Four active SPD officers are on both lists because of dishonesty. One—Officer Christopher Garrett—landed on the KCPO list 15 years ago after lying about his availability to testify in a drug trial; he was among the first officers to be added to the list. Another, Detective Franklin Poblocki, somewhat famously spent forty minutes waiting outside a Black man’s workplace in the Central District in a rolling chair after the two exchanged barbs over a towed car in 2018. Poblocki told a passerby that he was waiting for an apology but claimed to his coworkers that he had merely been engaged in “community-oriented policing stuff.” In the wake of the incident, the OPA concluded that Poblocki had lied to investigators and now-outgoing SPD Chief Carmen Best demoted him from sergeant to detective for inappropriate behavior that “degraded” the department’s community policing efforts.

At least two current SPD officers on the CAO’s list have criminal charges on their records: Officer Caleb Howard was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2018 after punching a coworker and strangling his 17-year-old son at a backyard barbecue in 2018; 33-year SPD veteran (and one-time officer of the year) Officer Felton Miles was charged with felony harassment after bursting through the door of his ex-wife’s home and threatening to kill her and her boyfriend in 2007. SPD fired Miles, but a Seattle judicial board overturned Miles’ firing in 2008 and ordered the department to reinstate him.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime.

Several on the list are fairly high-ranking. Captain Randal Woolery, for instance, was placed on the CAO’s list in 2019 after an undercover SPD prostitution sting caught him soliciting a sex worker in North Seattle (he has been charged for the incident but not convicted). Seven others on either list hold ranks of sergeant or higher, including Lieutenant Alcantara.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the KCPO and CAO’s lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime. Based on the city’s 2020 wage data, two of those officers—Captains James Dermody and Randal Woolery—will make over $200,000 this year before overtime. Others, like Lieutenant Alcantara, were promoted after the events that landed them on the Brady lists.

Just as notably, though their presence on the lists renders them vulnerable to impeachment as trial witnesses, SPD have left most of the officers on the lists to roles in patrol positions. As patrol officers, they are more likely to interact with the public and make arrests; therefore, the prosecutors are more likely to need their testimony when filing charges against those they arrest. Nolte says the city attorney’s office would rather turn to security camera footage or not file charges than have a case fail because the police witness appeared on their Brady List. KCPO Communications Director Casey McNerthey, however, noted that his office has not yet seen a case dismissed because an arresting officer was on their Brady list — after they disclose that information to the defense council, the court can adjust as necessary.

But that hasn’t stopped the listed officers from making stops and arrests. Detective Poblocki, for instance, has continued to make so-called “Terry Stops“—stopping someone based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that the person is involved in criminal activity—for the past two years as part of the West Precinct’s burglary and theft squad, despite his dubious presence on the KCPO and CAO’s lists. In effect, the prosecutors (and police) have deemed Poblocki not credible enough to give testimony, but credible enough to conduct arrests, carry a gun, and earn a full salary.