King County’s juvenile detention center is confining more young people, and keeping them isolated in their cells more often, than at any point since early 2019, a report from the independent team monitoring the county’s compliance with a law restricting the use of solitary confinement at the youth jail concluded.
The team, represented by consultant (and former Seattle Office of Police Accountability director) Kathryn Olson, presented its findings for the first quarter of 2022 to the King County Council’s law and justice committee Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, there were about 42 young people incarcerated at the county’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in Seattle—a dramatic increase since last year, when King County Executive touted an average daily population of just 15 as he announced steps the county was taking toward emptying and closing the youth jail by 2025.
Most—38—of those incarcerated at the youth jail are facing juvenile charges for serious crimes, including robbery, kidnapping, assault, and rape; four are youth facing charges as adults.
At the same time, the CFJC—like the two adult jails—is dramatically understaffed, with about a quarter of juvenile detention officer positions unfilled. The county is offering bonuses of up to $15,000 for guards, and several other positions are vacant, including two nurse positions, according to a government jobs board.
According to the report, this combination of crowding and understaffing has contributed to an uptick in fights between incarcerated kids and assaults on staff; this, in turn, has led to more instances of “restrictive housing”—solitary confinement—which is supposed to be limited to no more than four hours at a time.
In addition to restrictive housing in response to behavioral issues, kids are often being confined in their rooms for hours—in some cases, for the majority of the day—for no reason other than that there aren’t enough staff to monitor them. Records from the county show more than 150 instances in both June and July in which young people were held in their cells for more than 18 hours a day, including the 12 overnight hours allowed for sleep—significantly longer than the four-hour maximum imposed by county law. According to a council staff report, this kind of confinement does “not constitute ‘solitary confinement’ under county code or state law, and therefore is permitted.”
Committee chair Girmay Zahilay said it was “shocking” that locking kids in their rooms because of understaffing doesn’t count as solitary confinement, because “experientially, it’s the same thing…. what are the universe of resources that we need to address this issue [to create] clearly defined plan to get from where we are, which is an alarming situation to where we should be, which is healthy youth?”
Understaffing in youth detention is also impacting detainees’ ability to go to class. According to the report, “youth at CFJC who were recently interviewed complained that due to reoccurring staff shortages, they frequently have missed most classes on a regularly scheduled school day.”
“Until staffing shortages are resolved, until other employment issues that are impacting some of the programming services are resolved… we’re just going to continue to see some of these issues,” Olson said.
1. The City Council’s public safety committee voted 4-1, with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda voting “no,” to approve a package of police recruitment and hiring incentives that will include hiring bonuses of up to $30,000, four new recruitment-related positions (a recruitment manager, two recruiters, and an administrative staffer), and $150,000 to search for a new chief of police.
Sara Nelson, Alex Pedersen, Andrew Lewis, and committee chair Lisa Herbold voted for the legislation, originally proposed by Mayor Bruce Harrell.
According to a staff analysis, the hiring bonuses alone—$7,500 for new recruits and $30,000 for trained officers who transfer from other police departments departments—will cost around $3.8 million over four years, including around $1.5 million in 2022, $289,000 of that for the hiring incentives alone.
Before voting against the plan, Mosqueda noted that studies have consistently found that financial incentives have little impact on recruitment and retention, and have the potential to harm morale among officers working alongside newcomers recruited with large up-front payments. “What they’ve said is what they need is not additional money, but a place to bring people” in crisis, Mosqueda said. “A PR firm for SPD won’t help that. A hiring incentive approach won’t help that. Marketing won’t help that. [And] $150,000 for a police chief search won’t help that.”
The full council will vote on (and likely pass) the legislation next Monday.
2. Tuesday’s meeting also gave the council a look at SPD’s 2022 budget and staffing levels. Although the department lost 109 officers due to “separations” (resignations and retirements) in the first half of the year—significantly more than either SPD or council staff projected—there may actually be more officers on the streets by the end of 2022 than there were in 2021.
That’s because an unusually high number of officers went on extended leave starting immediately after the protests against police violence in summer 2020. Many more officers joined them after the city instituted its vaccine mandate in October 2021. Although these signposts are only indicators—SPD doesn’t provide information about why officers go on leave—the spikes in the chart correspond closely to those two events.
Historically, between 30 and 70 officers (out of a force that numbered close to 1,400) would be on extended leave at any given time; at the end of 2019, for example, 49 officers were on extended leave and unavailable for service. Typically, officers on extended leave are burning up their paid leave before they retire, since they can’t cash it out; after the vaccine mandate went into effect, some officers who did not want to get vaccinated went on leave as well. The numbers don’t include officers who are on administrative leave related to misconduct allegations.
After the city’s vaccine mandate took effect, 181 officers, or 16 percent of the police force, were out on extended leave.
The number of officers on extended grew slightly through the first half of 2020, in the early days of the COVID pandemic—a time when SPD was reluctant to grant leave to first responders. That number exploded in the months that followed the protests, nearly tripling between March and the end of 2020, when 137 officers were out on extended leave—more than 10 percent of the force. The number shrunk slightly, then exploded again, to 181, in the fall of 2021, after the vaccine mandate took effect. During that period, 181 officers, or 16 percent of the entire police force, were out on extended leave.
Since then, the gap has begun to close as some of those officers return to work after long periods off, at least temporarily offsetting losses from officers leaving the force.
A reduction in the number of police officers doesn’t translate to savings on a one-to-one basis, for a couple of reasons: Each officer who leaves SPD gets separation pay, which comes out of the budget, and fewer officers generally translates into more overtime costs. Currently, the city has paid out two-thirds of all the separation pay it budgeted for this year, and that only accounts for officers who left through the end of May. SPD is also spending more than anticipated on overtime, including patrol hours and staffing outside events; currently, the department is on track to go between $2 million and $3 million over its budget for 2022.
The department has been reluctant to scale back staffing at events like Mariners and Seahawks games, where officers direct traffic and provide security. At Tuesday’s meeting, Police Chief Adrian Diaz said SPD has “had to say no to many special events” because of understaffing and the need to dedicate officers to “emphasis patrol” areas like Third and Pine downtown and 12th and Jackson in the International District.
3. The discussion about overtime bled into a conversation about alternatives to policing—an issue Lewis has begun bringing up at nearly every SPD-related briefing. The basic question: After promising for more than two years to transfer some responsibilities, such as responding to low-risk 911 calls, into civilian hands, why has Seattle fallen so far behind other cities like Albuquerque, Denver, and Houston?
SPD, as we’ve reported, has argued that it needs to do a complex risk analysis before relinquishing control over any of the calls it currently handles, and Harrell’s office has generally concurred, laying out a lengthy timeline that could result in a transfer of some call types some time in 2024.
However, in the city’s latest quarterly report to the monitor overseeing the federal consent decree with SPD, the city attorney’s office reported that the city, “in the short term, will explore and execute potential pilot programs for diversified 911 response systems, as well as evaluate whether existing resources can be redeployed or more efficiently deployed on staffing projects like Special Events to increase SPD or alternative response to priority three and four calls in the near term, without engaging in costly expenditures in the face of a prospective budget deficit.”
This marks a change from the city’s previous position that a pilot can only happen after a lengthy data analysis. Lewis, Herbold, and others on the council have argued that SPD is already not responding to low-risk Priority 3 and 4 calls, so it doesn’t take work away from officers to deploy unarmed responders to some of those calls.
A King County inquest jury concluded that Seattle police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew used reasonable force when they shot Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black woman with mental illness, seven times in her apartment in 2017, killing her.
The jury, whose charge was determining whether the two officers acted reasonably and within SPD policy when they shot Lyles, said McNew violated the department’s policy on less-lethal weapons because he was not carrying his Taser at the time of the shooting, but agreed that a Taser would not have been a “a reasonably effective alternative to the deadly force” used against Lyles, who was holding a small paring knife when she was killed.
The jury’s findings followed seven days of presentations and witness interviews, including graphic photos of Lyles’ body and testimony from neighbors and a fire department officer who hurried Lyles’ children past her body and out of the apartment. After a court official finished reading the jury’s conclusions, Lyles’ father, Charles Lyles, shouted at Anderson and McNew, “You killed my daughter! Fuck you!” twice and told them they would have to answer to God before being ordered to leave the room.
The inquest into Lyles’ killing was delayed while King County revamped its process for reviewing shootings by officers, removing the inquiries from the court system and ensuring that families have legal representation. Despite these changes, the structure of an inquest remains rigid: In Lyles’ case, the six-person jury was charged with answering more than 120 yes/no questions, such as “at the time Officer Anderson or Officer McNew fired his handgun at Ms. Lyles, did it appear that a reasonably effective alternative to the use of deadly force existed?” to determine whether the officers violated the laws and Seattle Police Department policies that were in place at the time. On most questions, the jury was unanimous.
After the ruling, the attorney for Lyles’ family, Karen Koehler, said in a statement that the family “does not blame the jury” for finding that SPD followed its policies, because “SPD’s policies practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a paring knife.”
Officers knew that Lyles had a history of mental illness when they responded to her 911 call reporting a burglary in her apartment; just two weeks earlier, she made a similar 911 call and, after officers arrived and began taking her statement, suddenly started acting erratically and making statements that indicated she was in a mental health crisis, saying the officers were “devils” and “members of the KKK,” according to court records. She also pulled out a large pair of scissors.
In the six months prior to her death, Lyles had also called police more than 20 times, often to report domestic violence and assault by the man who fathered two of her four children. When McNew and Anderson arrived at her sweltering apartment, Lyles was wearing a long, heavy black coat—a fact that neither officer registered as a sign she might be experiencing a mental health crisis, according to testimony.
“During the 7 days of the inquest proceeding a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler said. “the message is clear: if a person is in a mental health crisis and has any type of sharp edged instrument, tool or weapon – do not expect them to survive if 911 is called in Seattle. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four children with three at home, called the police for help, went into mental crisis and was shot dead. The findings of the inquest are nothing for the SPD to be proud about.”
The Seattle Community Police Commission, one of three police accountability bodies at the city, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” by the findings and the additional trauma the process created for her family, adding that they still support the revamped inquest process. “Police officers should be equipped with the right training and tools to deescalate and prioritize life” when they know a person is in crisis, the CPC said. “Despite Lyles’ small statute, neither of those things happened in this case.”
In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell called Lyles’ killing “a tragic event that rightfully shook our community” and pointed to the need for more “reforms and improvements” within the police department. “I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions – not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary. Could we have ensured officer safety and saved a life? How can we improve training and adopt practices that reflect a commitment to ensuring lethal force is used only when absolutely necessary?” Harrell said.
King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said yesterday that his office would review the jury’s findings and decide whether to charge either of the officers with a crime.
A spokesman for City Attorney Ann Davison said, “We hope the completion of this inquest and the findings of the inquest jury provide some semblance of closure to the family, officers, and the community. We thank the jury for their time, attention, and service.”
Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: A “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)
In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, SPD officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the state Department Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state—emphasis in the original.
Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out—details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.
For instance: Nearly every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address—usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the city had swept his encampment at least four times—most recently in April, when they threw away the cell phone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court.
“They throw people away.”—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH
Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not reoffended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.
“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up… and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”
In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street level-drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.
Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years). But his offenses fall under another category city and county officials have also vowed to target: Organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over a several weeks.
Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court—a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.
Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.
“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”
Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander]—people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion said that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.
” In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal
While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,” Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.” Continue reading “How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse”→
The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.
PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.
Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.
Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.
In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution.
In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”
Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.
DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”
Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”
In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”
As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.
Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”
“Ann Davison Needs Your Help!” screams the headline above an blog post imploring readers to contact Davison and King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal to support banning so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from Seattle Community Court. The link for Davison is her generic city email address; the link for Khandelwal goes to a listing for her direct phone line, effectively encouraging Davison’s supporters to harass a county employee with no control over Seattle’s community court.
“[T]he Seattle Community Court has already failed regarding these criminals, because if the program was working as intended those serial offenders wouldn’t exist, and Davison’s initiative wouldn’t be necessary,” the blog post says. (All bolds in original).
This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Deputy City Attorney Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, who heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.”
As we reported last week, Davison’s office sent a letter to all seven Seattle Municipal Court judges asking them to overrule the community court judge, Damon Shadid, who has been negotiating with Davison’s office over her demand to exclude people from community court who meet her “high utilizers” criteria. Community court is the municipal court’s therapeutic, less-punitive option for people accused of certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors.
Davison’s high-utilizers list (like similar lists Lindsay has made over the years, including the “high impact offenders” list that was the basis of KOMO News’ “Seattle Is Dying” video) is made up largely of people who are homeless and those who’ve been through court-ordered evaluations to determine their competency to stand trial. Or, as Change Washington puts it, people who are “not interested in living honest lives like the rest of us even when offered a helping hand to accomplish it.”
This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood public officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, the former head of the libertarian Washington Policy Center who now heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.” (That proposal would have allowed defendants to say they committed a crime, such as shoplifting, to meet a basic human need as part of their defense; it would not have “legalized” any crimes.) Project 42’s latest corporate filing indicates the group had revenues of more than $500,000 last year.
Change Washington’s post on community court lists all seven municipal court judges’ names along with a warning: “We won’t forget their names when they’re up for reelection. The time of judges flying under the radar with regards to criminal coddling and degrading the City’s public safety is coming to an end.”
It’s possible that conservative groups will recruit challengers for municipal court judges—the entire court is up for reelection, and has a history of liberal-conservative swings—but historically, most Seattle Municipal Court elections go uncontested and largely unnoticed amid higher-profile campaigns in Congressional election years.
2. Earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson said both Mayor Bruce Harrell and Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell had given her the “thumbs up” to propose a bill that would lift restrictions on $4.5 million of the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget, allowing SPD to spend the full amount, or any portion of it, on financial incentives to recruit new officers. Because we hadn’t heard anything about either Harrell explicitly supporting Nelson’s contentious proposal, we reached out to the mayor’s office to hear their version of the story.
According to a Harrell spokesman, Jamie Housen, both Harrells’ conversations with Nelson about hiring incentives took place “before this ordinance was even contemplated. Councilmember Nelson informed the mayor of her plan to sponsor a resolution in support of staffing bonuses, generally. The mayor let her know she was welcome to put it forward and that doing so would not create an issue with the Mayor’s Office,” Housen said.
“Similarly, when Councilmember Nelson asked to discuss police recruiting with Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell, the Senior Deputy Mayor encouraged her to explore potential solutions to SPD staffing challenges from the legislative level, which might include incentive pay or relocation costs as potential options.”
Herbold, who chairs the public safety committee, has proposed releasing $650,000 of the restricted money to pay for relocation expenses for officers moving to Seattle from out of town and to hire a professional recruiter for SPD.
City Attorney Ann Davison sent a letter to the entire Seattle Municipal Court on Wednesday asking the court to give her the ability to deny “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—a group of about 120 people who have had 12 or more referrals from the Seattle Police Department to the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) in the past five years—access to community court, a therapeutic court in which defendants define their own goals, such as reduction of substance use, and participate in mandatory community service. The change would effectively make prior criminal history a factor in determining someone’s eligibility for community court.
Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors are automatically eligible for community court, which allows defendants to access services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. Crimes like theft, pedestrian interference, and resisting arrest are eligible offenses; more serious misdemeanor offenses like reckless driving, harassment, and DUI are not.
For weeks, Davison’s office has been negotiating with Municipal Court Judge Judge Damon Shadid, who presides over community court, over how to treat this group of defendants. As of Wednesday, according to Davison’s letter, those discussions “have come to an impasse.” In her letter, Davison asks the judges to overrule Shadid and allow the city attorney to deny access to community court for people the city attorney categorizes as high utilizers, and to “clarify how many chances individuals get to have their cases referred to Community Court.” Currently, defendants can go through community court a maximum of four times.
In a statement responding to Davison’s letter on Thursday, the municipal court said community court was ”
founded to address the root causes behind low-level criminal activity while reducing the harm of pretrial incarceration” and “designed with the Washington State Pretrial Reform Task Force Final Recommendations report and The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2020 report front and center.” (Links in original.) The court said it was still evaluating Davison’s proposal and “will continue to work with her office and the Department of Public Defense to identify how to move forward together and create a prioritized plan for people whose needs and issues are not being addressed, and have not been addressed historically, by our criminal justice system.”
“The letter mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings (and I have been in attendance at these meetings). The letter causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal
Davison released her letter in a press release at 8:00 Wednesday night after PubliCola obtained a copy and sent her office a list of questions about it Wednesday afternoon.
“Unfortunately, in the Community Court Steering Committee meeting last Friday, Judge Shadid insisted that he would not agree to exclude those meeting the High Utilizer criteria from Community Court and would potentially refuse to oversee Community Court if his fellow judges agreed to the changes that I have requested,” Davison’s letter to the Municipal Court judges said. “At this juncture, I am formally requesting that the full Seattle Municipal Court consider this important modification of the 2019 Community Court agreement.”
That agreement, signed by then-city attorney Pete Holmes, lays out a process for the city attorney’s office to refer defendants to community court and describes the court’s less punitive approach to misdemeanor crime. “Simply stated, this version of Community Court (with its ‘release-first model,’ voluntary referrals to services, and limited accountability mechanisms) is the wrong place for those committing repeat, high-impact criminal activity,” Davison’s letter says.
King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) director Anita Khandelwal says Davison’s letter “mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings,” which Khandelwal has attended, and “causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”
Judge Shadid, Khandelwal said, did not “insist on anything,” as Davison’s letter claims. Instead, she said, he suggested postponing any major changes to community court until July, to “allow for us to work collaboratively to develop a plan for people on the list, because the only plan that the City Attorney’s Office seemed to be putting forward involved incarceration (including overriding jail booking criteria) and traditional prosecution.”
Importantly, the 2019 agreement removed a requirement that defendants plead guilty before getting access to community court—a requirement for other alternatives to the mainstream court system, such as King County Drug Court. According to the community court rules and procedures, “An individual should not have to choose between their Constitutional rights to a trial and having the ability to access services that will help them exit the criminal justice system. Therefore, a person doesn’t have to give up trial rights to participate and gain benefits from Seattle Community Court.”
Khandelwal says community court is designed to avoid the harmful outcomes that are common in the mainstream court system, which often leads to a cycle of incarceration and disproportionately impacts people of color, unsheltered people, and people with a history of being declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.
In fact, a DPD analysis found that the people on Davison’s “high utilizer” list are overwhelmingly people who fit into one or more of those three categories. Nearly six in ten have “indications of housing instability,” such as giving 77 South Washington—the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square—as their address. More than half (51 percent) have been through a court-ordered evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial. And 40 percent were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), higher than the proportion of BIPOC Seattle residents.
“Prior criminal legal system involvement is often a result of racially biased policing, which is only perpetuated or deepened by prosecution,” Khandelwal said. “DPD worked hard with the court and CAO to develop a court that did not look at criminal history to avoid perpetuating that bias.”
“Our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.”—City Attorney’s Office spokesman
According to a spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, the 2019 agreement “removes [the city attorney’s] prosecutorial discretion to consider prior criminal history. Because community court is a release-first model, individuals with a history of repeat criminal activity are able to immediately return to their criminal behavior without consequence. Ultimately, as this agreement is written, we have no discretion to screen out any candidates that fit the high utilizer criteria without being in violation” of the agreement.
“Without modification to this agreement, many individuals meeting the high utilizer criteria are required to be repeatedly routed through Community Court despite little to no change in their criminal activity,” Derrick said. In general, he added, “our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.” Continue reading “City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court”→
1. An email signed by then city attorney-elect Ann Davison calling the Seattle City Council sexist for proposing new reporting requirements for the City Attorney’s Office was originally written not by city attorney Ann Davison but by her male deputy, Scott Lindsay, emails obtained through a records request show.
Davison’s office sent the email to council members and the press in response to a council bill that would have required the office to inform the council before making any changes to, or eliminating, diversion programs that allow people accused of misdemeanors to avoid criminal charges, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs.
“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. The hearing on the bill is at 9:30am,” the email from Lindsay to Davison explains. “The concept in this email (I was planning a letter but now think email is better) is to roll up your key messages (collaboration and listening, centering victim voices, transparency and problem-solving) into one strong intro piece that also highlights your focus on real public safety problems … I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”
“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”—Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, in an email to City Attorney Ann Davison
The email explicitly accused the council (which is made up of six women and three men) of targeting Davison because she is a woman. After describing the “unique barriers to women in the legal profession,” the email suggests the council was applying a “double standard” based on Davison’s sex—one that sent a troubling message to “our daughters who may one day seek elected office.” (The line about daughters was not in Lindsay’s original email.)
“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office. Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor,” Pete Holmes, the email says.
City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold responded earnestly to the email, noting that the council passed similar reporting requirements while Davison’s predecessor, Pete Holmes, was in office. “I’m sorry that the reporting bill has been received in this spirit. I do not believe it was the sponsors’ intent, nor was it mine in voting in favor of the bill,” Herbold wrote.
The council ultimately passed the bill, but changed the language; instead of requiring Davison’s office to let the council know before making changes to existing diversion programs, it requires the city attorney’s office to inform the council within 90 days after the changes are made. The legislation also required the office to report back once a quarter on changes to pre-booking diversion programs.
2. An audit of accidents and other safety incidents at King County Metro found that the agency fails to investigate the vast majority of incidents, leading to data gaps and negatively impacting the transit agency’s ability to train drivers and prevent dangerous incidents in the future.
City Attorney Ann Davison’s office announced Davison will decline to prosecute nearly 2,000 misdemeanor cases referred by the Seattle Police Department as part of an effort to eliminate what she has described as a 5,000-case backlog left over by her predecessor, Pete Holmes. “In order to maintain close-in-time filing for present day cases, some cases from the backlog will be declined, including those involving: Property Destruction, Theft, Criminal Trespass, and Non-DUI Traffic,” the announcement from Davison’s office says.
A spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, said the cases are, on average, 334 days old, “making them very difficult—and in some cases impossible—to prosecute.”
The city attorney’s office will prioritize the remaining cases according to the severity of the charges: “Crimes against persons” such as domestic violence and sexual assault, followed by misdemeanors involving firearms, DUIs, people who meet the criteria of the office’s “high utilizer initiative,” which identified 118 people with 12 or more misdemeanor referrals, and anyone with three or more cases in the backlog. The city has repeatedly announced initiatives to target so-called “prolific offenders” for enhanced prosecution, raising concerns from public defenders who argue that punitive approaches do not lead to rehabilitation or long-term public safety.
Earlier this year, Davison announced she would speed up filing decisions on misdemeanor cases, saying that “the best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department.” On the campaign trail in 2020, Davison vowed to aggressively prosecute misdemeanors, accusing her opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, of wanting to legalize crime. On her campaign website, Davison said Thomas-Kennedy believed that “if we stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes … such an approach would magically make crime disappear.”
Davison’s criminal division director, Natalie Walton-Anderson, struck a markedly different tone in her statement about the decision to decline almost half the cases that make up the backlog. “Simply filing every case would not resolve the backlog,” she said. “[T]he court system cannot handle an influx of cases of this magnitude all at once.”
Derrick, Davison’s spokesman, said the office doesn’t “anticipate that another mass decline will be necessary to clear the backlog by the end of the year”; he added that the decision to decline low-level misdemeanor cases only applies to the backlog, not future cases.
According to today’s announcement, the criminal division of Davison’s office is now “fully staffed.” However, the office plans to ask the city council for extra mid-year funding to hire more staff to address the backlog. The office is scheduled to present their approach to addressing the backlog to the council’s public safety committee next Tuesday.
A month has passed since the Seattle Police Department moved its mobile precinct to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle, scattering an open-air market for drugs and stolen merchandise that had recently been the scene of two murders.
SPD has maintained a presence at the intersection since then as part of a push to crack down on crime downtown called Operation New Day, mostly making arrests for shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes. Unlike a similar crackdown in the Little Saigon neighborhood in February, there have been few felony arrests in the long-troubled area. Meanwhile, the social services that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said would follow the sweep at Third and Pine are still on hold.
Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell says that the relative scarcity of felony arrests doesn’t tell the full story. “Felonies take a while—you’ve got to build those cases,” she said. Unlike at 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, where federal law enforcement began investigating a similar illicit market and a pattern of EBT fraud long before SPD cleared the intersection, Harrell said the sweep of Third and Pine was a direct response to the shootings on February 27 and March 2 that killed 52-year-old Reno Maiava and 15-year-old Michael Del Bianco, respectively. SPD later arrested suspects in both shootings, though neither arrest took place on Third; officers tracked Maiava’s killer to a Tukwila motel, while Del Bianco’s killer turned himself in at SPD’s West Precinct.
Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said.
Harrell added that while SPD is still working with federal partners to make drug arrests in the area, the investigations require patience. “We’re not trying to get the low-level dealers,” she said. “We’re trying to get the folks who are a little further up the food chain, and you can’t put that on a calendar.”
Judges have already released many of the people arrested at both Third and Pine and 12th and Jackson; one man released by a King County Superior Court judge after his arrest in Little Saigon reappeared along Third, where SPD officers arrested him again for drug possession and carrying a gun illegally. According to Harrell, the repeat arrests have frustrated some prosecutors. “What I’m hearing from prosecutors is that they’re making their best cases and their strongest recommendations” to judges, she said, “and sometimes they’re feeling unheard.”
According to US Attorney Nick Brown, finding a “high-level” drug dealer at an intersection like Third and Pine—or at any of the encampments in greater downtown that SPD has swept in the past two months—is unlikely. Most of the dealers whose crimes could rise to the federal level, he says, “are, in fact, not Washingtonians. … Most of the people we identify as significant in those cases are not even in Seattle; many are in Mexico or California. Those that are here only come for a short period of time.” Brown’s office has the discretion to decide which cases rise to the federal level; the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the vast majority of felony cases. So far, Brown’s office has taken four cases from the crackdowns in Little Saigon and along Third Ave.
In the view of some skeptics of the operation, most of the behavior drawing negative attention at Third and Pine doesn’t rise to the felony level. “Most of what people complain about aren’t felonies,” said Kevin Toth, a social worker with the King County Department of Public Defense. “Drug dealing, sure. Robberies, shootings, also, yes. But most of the atmosphere down there is the result of lawful behaviors or misdemeanors at worst.”
Meanwhile, the operation at Third and Pine has re-opened the direct line between police officers and the Public Defender Association-run program LEAD, the city’s primary diversion option for people who commit crimes related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. LEAD’s early model relied on referrals from arresting officers—so-called “arrest diversions”—but in the past two years, the program shifted focus, relying instead on community groups, business organizations, outreach workers and prosecutors to refer clients for diversion. Community referrals don’t create an arrest record—one reason the program began shifting away from arrest diversions to begin with.
However, according to LEAD project director Tara Moss, that trend is reversing. “We’re now seeing the current mayor’s office and SPD leadership break the logjam and start sending LEAD referrals again” after a two-year pause on arrest referrals, she said. In 2021, LEAD received one arrest diversions; this year, the program has received eight arrest diversions. Moss also noted that while the program currently has some “capacity issues” as a result of a new wave of referrals, she anticipates that LEAD will be able to take on more clients later this year.
Since officers haven’t done arrest diversions in years, Harrell said, SPD is currently retraining officers on how to engage with LEAD and introducing officers hired in the past two years to the program for the first time.
SPD did not arrest everyone at the open-air market on Third and Pine; some scattered to nearby corners, to Pioneer Square, or to other parts of the city. V, an organizer with the drug user solidarity group DUST, says that dispersing people—many of them unhoused—across the city by sweeping corners like Third and Pine can create tension in the places where those people land. “[It] puts a strain on the homeless people in each neighborhood because the service providers there have limited capacity,” they said. Newcomers can trigger conflicts, V added, that can escalate into violence.
The weeks following SPD’s clearance of Third and Pine have not been peaceful. Eighteen people were shot or stabbed in the past month or so, most of them in or near encampments; in response to some of those shootings, the city cleared encampments in Chinatown, Little Saigon, and the University District. But Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said. In Ballard, for instance—the site of two shootings, one of them fatal, in the past month—the deputy mayor said that a pattern of gun violence long predates the crackdowns in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear”→