On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council adopted a new law empowering City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people who use drugs in public, or who are caught with illegal drugs other than cannabis, on a 6-3 vote, with every council member except Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant, and Tammy Morales voting “yes.” The new law makes public drug use and simple possession gross misdemeanors for the first time in Seattle history.
An earlier version of the bill, which would have incorporated a new state drug criminalization law into the city’s municipal code, died on a 5-4 vote after Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a former city prosecutor, changed his mind in response to public testimony and Davison’s decision to unilaterally end a local therapeutic court called community court. The state law is as the “Blake fix” because it re-criminalized drug possession and public use after the state supreme court overturned an existing law that made public drug use and simple possession a felony.
The new version of the bill is significantly longer, but substantively similar, to the previous legislation. The new bill is significantly wordier, largely because it now includes more than 30 nonbinding “whereas” clauses stating the city’s intent to, among other things: Strongly recommend that police consider diversion before making arrests; avoid “repeating the mistakes of the past”; and review the impact of the legislation in the future.
The bill targets only people who use drugs in public, Councilmember Tammy Morales noted, targeting users who are poor or homeless while ignoring all the drug use that takes place behind closed doors. “If we wanted to address drug addiction, we would not be focused only on those who use it in the streets where we can see their suffering.”
It also contains new provisions saying police will, in the future, adopt policies governing when and how to divert people instead of arresting them, along with a section saying police “may” consider whether a person using drugs is harming others or just themselves when deciding whether to make an arrest.
Finally, the bill contains some reporting requirements and sets up a new committee to evaluate how the law is going in the future.
Proponents of the bill, with the exception of its original sponsor Sara Nelson, made a lot of all these nonbinding suggestions and reporting requirements. (Nelson wanted to eliminate the evaluation committee as well as a nonbinding recommendation that the police use officers who have received crisis training, who make up more than half the department, to respond to public drug use, saying both proposals infringed on the authority of Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Mayor Bruce Harrell. After other council members noted that Harrell’s office approved both provisions, a majority of the council voted down both of Nelson’s amendments.)
“This does not create new [police] authority. It seeks to limit it in a way that does not exist under state law,” one of the bill’s two sponsors, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, said. “This is a commitment to not repeat the errors of the past.”
Lewis, who co-sponsored the legislation with Herbold, said the bill was not intended to be “the magic solution that fixes the situation that we are facing,” but added that it “gives additional guidance and [a] focus on public health best practices that are alternatives to incarceration and entering the criminal legal system.”
Opponents of the bill pointed out that not only is that “guidance” nonbinding, the legislation comes with no additional funding to implement diversion or treatment; instead, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, it offers a “hollow promise” of alternatives to arrest. Under the council’s regular process, the legislation would have been on the agenda for next week, coinciding with Harrell’s 2024 budget proposal, which will reveal how much, if any, funding Harrell will propose for expanding diversion programs such as LEAD, which is already oversubscribed for this year.
“So while the emphasis is on pre-arrest diversion and not arrest, we are not actually able to follow through with that without assurances that [these strategies] will be in the budget,” Mosqueda said.
Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, also noted that Harrell’s “plan to invest $27 million toward facilities, treatments, and services to address the opioid crisis” is not actually a new $27 million investment. Instead, that number includes $7 million in unspent capital grants that will fund a new DESC overdose recovery site on Third Ave., as PubliCola exclusively reported last month, among other investments, plus an average of about $1 million a year from statewide settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors, spread over the next 18 years.
Additionally, Harrell can’t actually commit that future money (whose value will depreciate with inflation over time), because the city allocates funding annually through the budget, so the money could go to other purposes or end up absorbed into the general fund in future budgets.
Councilmember Tammy Morales—whose challenger in this year’s election, Tanya Woo, held a rally with Chinatown/International District residents outside City Hall to highlight Morales’ opposition to the bill—said the legislation was “ineffective… unnecessary, and dare I say, performative.” The bill targets only people who use drugs in public, Morales noted, targeting users who are poor or homeless while ignoring all the drug use that takes place behind closed doors.
“If we wanted to address drug addiction, we would not be focused only on those who use it in the streets where we can see their suffering. We would be standing up real alternative for everyone,” like medication-assisted treatment, counseling, social supports, residential treatment, and walk-in clinics, Morales said.
The bill mentions many of these things—identifying “treatment” as a preferred approach, for example, in ten different places—but does nothing to make it happen. Instead, it doubles down on a law enforcement-based approach to a public health crisis.
The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee approved legislation on Tuesday that will empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for public drug use and simple possession. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda cast the lone “no” vote, saying the council should be “focusing how on how we get people into public health services, not how we double down and recreate a punitive system … to prosecute more people.” Committee chair Lisa Herbold, along with Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Sara Nelson, and Alex Pedersen, voted yes.
The legislation now heads to the full council, which will take it up on September 26—or sooner, if Herbold and council president Debora Juarez decide to amend council rules to push it through faster.
Substantively, the bill is more or less the same as a version the council narrowly rejected, with Lewis casting the deciding vote, in June; that is, it criminalizes public drug use and simple drug possession at the local level, mostly aligning the city’s law with state legislation that made public drug use and simple possession gross misdemeanors earlier this year. (Unlike state law, the city bill exempts cannabis.)
The newest version, which includes pages of new “whereas” clauses describing the fentanyl addiction crisis and stipulating that the city does not want another drug war, says police should show a preference for diversion to treatment and other programs when deciding whether to book people for drug use or possession. The new reference to diversion mirrors the new state law, which says that police are “encouraged to offer a referral” to treatment or diversion programs “in lieu of arrest.”
Proponents of the bill, including Lewis, called this new clause a substantive change that helped transform the bill into a “balanced” piece of legislation. “What we’re really focusing on here is how to take full advantage of our provider community and the resources that they bring to to the forefront to facilitate warm handoffs from law enforcement” into programs like LEAD (Let Everyone Advance With Dignity), a successful pre-arrest diversion program, Lewis said. The state law adopted earlier this year also encourages LEAD referrals, mentioning the program by name 36 times.
“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD. If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda
For those who end up arrested under the new law, Lewis said, the legislation also provides the option of pre-trial diversion, in which the city attorney’s office would decline to file charges if a person agreed to go through one of several programs offered through Davison’s office. “If they complete that referral, then they decline the the case,” Lewis said during a recent episode of the Seattle Channel’s “Seattle Inside/Out.”. “They won’t pursue it. Incredibly effective program. Twice as many people who go through pre-file diversion do not re-offend as people who go to jail. Very important statistic.”
While this may be true, as PubliCola has reported, the city’s pre-trial diversion programs are targeted toward young adults and people who are generally high-functioning; they are specifically inappropriate for the chronically homeless and profoundly addicted people the drug legislation is meant to target.
An amendment by Sara Nelson removed language requiring officers “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest consider diversion” before arresting someone under the law. That amendment, which passed 3-2 (with Mosqueda and Herbold voting “no”) effectively means that it will be up to officers to decide whether to direct people to diversion based on unidentified criteria. The bill says that the mayor plans to issue an executive order stating that diversion is the city’s “standard approach.”
Some councilmembers appeared reassured by this rhetoric, as well as apparent closed-door commitments from Harrell’s office to find money for diversion programs, which are chronically underfunded. But as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted at Tuesday’s meeting, the bill itself commits no new funding to any of the city’s existing diversion programs, which are already stretched thin. This means that the council is putting great faith in Harrell’s budget, which won’t be released until late September. Historically, the mayor’s budget has underfunded diversion programs like LEAD, leading the council to add funding to keep existing programs going.
“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD,” Mosqueda noted. “If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”
Additionally, Mosqueda noted, the city faces a budget shortfall, starting in 2025, of more than $200 million a year. “Everyone should have that front and center,” she said.
Without new funding, the primary impact of this recommendation could be that existing diversion programs, such as LEAD, start getting new referrals primarily from police, instead of the community-based referrals that now make up the bulk of their work. For most of its existence, LEAD stood for “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”; last year, the group changed its name to reflect the shift in its priorities. Reverting to the old model would mean, “effectively, that the only entry point to LEAD is by a police officer,” Mosqueda said.
The committee also voted 3-2 for another amendment from Nelson that water down the second purportedly substantive change to the legislation, which originally would have required officers to use their discretion and judgment to “determine whether the individual, through their actions and conduct, presents a threat of harm to others” before making an arrest.” Nelson’s amendment changes “will” to “may,” making the use of discretion itself discretionary.
The change won’t have much practical impact, since the original version of the bill already defined “harm to others” so broadly it included any “street disorder” witnessed by “businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.”
But it does codify the notion that police officers get “confused,” as Nelson put it, “in the moment [about] … what we are expecting them to do,” and that requiring them to use their judgment before arresting drug users will make it harder for them to do their jobs (and, presumably, drive them away). “There are practical concerns for officers and prosecutors … includ[ing] time burdens and confusion for the prosecution of criminal cases to time burdens and confusion for officers that are trying to enforce our laws,” Nelson said. Given recentrevelations about the way officers behave behind closed doors, one could reasonably argue that officers need more oversight and guidance from the city, not less.
Earlier in the meeting, Mosqueda proposed tightening the definition of “harm to others” to include only physical harm, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. That amendment failed, after Nelson said that someone “being exposed to fentanyl” should be enough to justify an arrest. During public comment, Rev. Harriett Walden, a member of the Community Police Commission, said she “had a fentanyl exposure and almost died.” According to numerous studies, fentanyl vapor contains almost no trace of the drug, and does not pose any physical risk to people who aren’t smoking it.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center, which operates shelters, housing, and mobile crisis response teams, will operate a new opiate overdose response center, serving up to 20 people a day, inside its Morrison Hotel building on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle. DESC director Daniel Malone says the new facility will share the second floor of the Morrison, which housed the agency’s congregate shelter prior to COVID, with an expansion of DESC’s existing outpatient behavioral health clinic and serve people looking for services and a place to physically recover immediately after an overdose.
Currently, if someone overdoses in Seattle and emergency medical services (EMS) responds, they generally face two options: Go to the hospital in an ambulance, or walk away. A post-overdose stabilization site would create a third option where people could rest, receive IV fluids or medication to get them through the early stages of withdrawal, and initiate treatment for opioid use disorder. Patients could also access DESC’s outpatient behavioral health clinic, which connects patients with psychiatric care, counseling, and case management.
Methadone—an opiate that effectively replaces more harmful drugs like heroin and fentanyl, allowing people to resume normal lives—remains one of the most highly regulated drugs in the nation; patients typically have to show up in a physical location to take a single dose at a specific time every day, although lawmakers temporarily loosened those restrictions during COVID. Buprenorphine, which works by partially occupying the brain’s opiate receptors, is more widely accessible, and a new injectable form of the drug, trademarked Sublocade, lasts a month.
“It’s extremely important to us to make sure that we won’t have that kind of chaotic and disruptive activity happening on the sidewalk in front of the building, and part of our plan is to really enhance our capacity to have a much stronger presence to help ensure that the environment is calm and conducive to people coming and going safely.”—DESC Director Daniel Malone
“Methadone introduces a set of additional regulatory complications that the other medicines don’t have, but methadone would be an important tool in the toolbox,” Malone said.
Between January and July of this year, according to data from the King County Department of Public Health, emergency medical services responded to 2,546 nonfatal overdoses in Seattle, out of 4,918 countywide. Both fatal and nonfatal overdoses have increased steadily over the past five years, as fentanyl—a powerful opioid first developed as a pain medication in the 1960s—has worked its way into the street drug supply.
Funding for the new facility would come from the city of Seattle, King County, private grants, and the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute (ADAI). In July, the King County Council approved spending $2 million in unspent CLFR (federal COVID) funds to help renovate the second floor of the Morrison to accommodate the expanded outpatient center and the opiate recovery site.
The city of Seattle is expected to provide another $2 million for construction, out of $7 million in unspent federal funding that Mayor Bruce Harrell announced as part of his plan to “invest $27 million toward facilities, treatments, and services to address the opioid crisis.” As we’ve reported, the $27 million is actually $7 million in unspent federal grants for capital projects, plus a little over $1 million a year from state settlements with opiate manufacturers and distributors. That million dollars could could help fund the day-to-day operations of the new overdose recovery site over the next two decades, but it won’t be enough to keep the new site open full-time, Malone said.
“If there’s not enough money to [operate] 24/7, then some version where it’s only open certain hours may have to be implemented,” Malone said. Overdoses happen at all hours, so having only a part-time facility “would seriously limit the ability of this facility to meet all the community’s needs over the course of the day.”
Harrell expressed support for a post-overdose recovery center back in April, when he signed an executive order expressing the city’s commitment to site and “explore funding for” a new facility “where EMS can bring people after non-fatal overdoses to recover, get stabilized on medications, and access resources.” However, his office would not comment on the plan to open the site on Third Avenue, and would not confirm that DESC was the intended recipient of the funds Harrell announced last month. “There is [a request for proposals], and no decisions have been made,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “It is a competitive process, and we expect DESC will apply.”
King County just approved spending $2.2 million in unspent federal COVID relief dollars to help renovate the site, which used to house DESC’s congregate shelter, last month.
The Morrison Hotel, which also includes 190 permanent supportive housing units, is located directly across from the King County Courthouse. The sidewalk around the building’s Third Avenue entrance is often occupied by people who are unhoused, have untreated behavioral health conditions, or are actively using and selling drugs, making the building a target of frequent complaints and a perennial subject for conservative local media such as KOMO News, which infamously blamed DESC for crime on Third Ave. in its followup to the agitprop film “Seattle Is Dying.”
In addition to funds for the overdose site itself, King County approved $200,000 for a “client engagement team” that will “manage client presence and prevent conflicts on Third Avenue in front of DESC’s renovated facility,” according to a King County Council memo.
“It’s extremely important to us to make sure that we won’t have that kind of chaotic and disruptive activity happening on the sidewalk in front of the building, and part of our plan is to really enhance our capacity to have a much stronger presence to help ensure that the environment is calm and conducive to people coming and going safely,” Malone said. The new staff will “be present not just inside, but in the immediate external sidewalk area… to connect with people who are out there and deal with anything that may be happening that is contributing to an undesirable environment.”
Judges and other courthouse officials have complained for years about safety issues around the courthouse, which also borders City Hall Park—a compact greenspace that recently reopened after a lengthy closure. King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi, who has repeatedly raised alarms about the safety of jurors and courthouse staff, told PubliCola he hopes the opioid recovery center will have a positive impact on the street scene around the courthouse.
“Although it is difficult to predict what impact an opioid recovery center will have on the courthouse area, the Court commends Mayor Harrell, the City of Seattle, and King County for taking critical steps to address this significant public health crisis,” Oishi said. “It is our hope that responding to the opioid crisis will enhance public safety in the courthouse area.”
The Seattle City Council narrowly rejected Councilmember Andrew Lewis’ proposal to fast-track a bill empowering City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for drug possession and public use, voting to allow the bill to go through the regular committee process. The impact of the vote is that the council will take up the bill after they return from the regular August recess, allowing council staff the time to draft amendments and analyze the latest version of the legislation.
Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen introduced the first version of the drug criminalization bill last April, after the state adopted legislation making drug possession and public drug use a gross misdemeanor. Initially, Lewis voted against the legislation, citing Davison’s unilateral decision to abandon Seattle Community Court, but he has since become one of the bill’s most vocal advocates, arguing that the work of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s fentanyl task force will produce policy and legal alternatives to the traditional arrest-and-prosecution system.
While the bill says diversion and other options are the “preferred” alternatives to arrest, it does not require diversion or lay out the kind of circumstances in which diversion would be appropriate. Instead, it directs SPD to develop “guidance on diversion” as part of policies that will “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations.”
The latest version of the bill includes 13 additional “whereas” clauses, along with eight new findings about the state of the drug crisis in Seattle. It also adds a new section to the Seattle Municipal Code stating that, in the future, police will adopt policies governing arrests for drug possession and public drug use, and that those policies will state that alternatives like diversion and treatment “are the preferred approach” when police make arrests under the new law.
At a committee meeting to discuss the drug criminalization bill Monday afternoon, council members discussed several issues with the legislation that PubliCola pointed out two weeks ago.
First, while the bill says diversion and other options are the “preferred” alternatives to arrest, it does not require diversion, provide funding for alternatives to arrest, or provide examples of circumstances in which diversion would be appropriate. Instead, it directs SPD to develop “guidance on diversion” as part of policies that will “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations.”
Beyond this, the ordinance delegates to individual officers the authority to decide whether a person poses a threat, based on “the totality of the circumstances and the officer’s training and experience,” which is essentially the current system, augmented by some new training on what constitutes a drug-specific threat.
“The standard mirrors the practical thought process that officers ordinarily apply in the field when deciding whether to make an arrest, and it allows for it encourages officers to exercise discretion,” mayoral advisor Andrew Myerberg told the council. If a person is only a “threat to self,” the bill says officers should “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives,” but leaves that decision, too, up to individual officers.
“The fundamental goal of this ordinance and executives overall approach to the synthetic opioid crisis is to increase the proportion of individuals suffering from addiction who seek and accept treatment services,” Myerberg said.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda pointed out the obvious: The mayor’s office has not proposed funding for addiction, treatment, or diversion programs. “It seems important that the resources be sufficiently invested into the alternative strategies so that people are not being given a false promise that there will be a diversion strategy [but] we don’t have those resources,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “And where will that funding come from?”
The law does not address private use of illegal drugs inside people’s homes.
Second, while Harrell has stated (and mainstream media outlets have inaccurately reported) that the bill includes $27 million for treatment and other alternatives to arrest, the bill never mentions money or spending priorities. In fact, as council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda noted repeatedly on Monday, the “new” $27 million is a combination of $7 million in grant funding the city didn’t spend in previous years, plus $1 million a year from two state settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. Harrell has indicated he wants to use the money to stand up and staff the proposed opioid response center he announced in April. That would leave no additional funding for programs like LEAD, REACH, and We Deliver Care, to which Myerberg said police could direct people who break the new law.
“When I’m talking to officers in the field about this [harm to others] concept, I guess there is a concern that it is an additional layer of complexity and standard that would be put on [officers. Personally I believe that the council should have incorporated state law, and then if some council members and others wanted to add policy or funding, they could have done that shortly after adopting the ordinance.”—Councilmember Alex Pedersen
At Monday’s meeting, Pedersen and Nelson raised concerns that the bill would create ambiguity and introduce new challenges for police officers that would make it harder for them to do their jobs.
“When I’m talking to officers in the field about this [harm to others] concept, I guess there is a concern that it is an additional layer of complexity and standard that would be put on” officers, Pedersen said. “Personally, I believe that the council should have incorporated state law into our Seattle Municipal Code and then if some council members and others wanted to add policy or funding, they could have done that shortly after adopting the ordinance.”
Myerberg said the legislation isn’t “asking [officers] to reinvent the wheel.” While it is Harrell’s “intent” to steer people toward diversion and treatment, officers will still get to make the calls they consider appropriate in all cases, including arrest if they believe it’s necessary to prevent harm or get someone to go into treatment or crisis care. “[Harrell is] asking them to do what they already do,” Myerberg said. “The executive remains clear that such a decision will be within the discretion of the officer. It will be fact-specific and individual-dependent.”
In late July, the Seattle Police Officers Guild “applauded” the new legislation, saying it would help “restor[e] public safety to the city.” This suggests that, at the very least, SPOG —which has a history of opposing substantive police reforms—does not expect the bill to cause major disruptions to officers’ usual way of doing business.
Including a preference for diversion in the police manual could lead to incremental change. But without significantly more funding, it’s unlikely to result in different outcomes, either for people using drugs in public or the general public witnessing public drug use.
Myerberg noted Harrell’s personal commitment to encouraging alternatives to arrest and prosecution, which stem partly from his direct experience as a Black man growing up in Seattle during the drug war. But intent is not the same thing as law; mayors come and go, and their lasting impact isn’t meaning well, but pushing through tangible, legally binding changes that last longer than a single administration.
For months now, the city of Burien has been locked in a stalemate over how to address a group of unsheltered people who remain in the city after repeated sweeps.
The latest plan: A potential contract with Kirkland mortgage broker Kristine Moreland, who offers private sweeps, at a cost of $515 per “camper,” or about $20,000 for a “40 person sweep,” through a new nonprofit called The More We Love, incorporated under the name The More Wee Love on April 10.
Moreland is a longtime volunteer at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a religious charity that offers shelter, housing, and a Christian treatment program, and used to run a small nonprofit called the MORELove Project, which was dissolved in 2019. In interviews and public comments, Moreland has argued that homelessness is a drug problem, not a housing problem. This view is in conflict with a more widely accepted approach called “housing first,” which holds that people can’t achieve lasting recovery if their basic needs aren’t met.
Burien officials have been debating how to deal with encampment residents since March, when the council and King County Library System voted to evict a group of people living in tents outside the building that houses Burien City Hall and the local library branch. Ever since, the city has swept this group of several dozen unsheltered people from place to place; in June, King County offered the city a million dollars, a shelter location, and 35 Pallet shelters, but a four-member council majority voted to reject that offer in July, arguing it was a bad deal for the city.
Meanwhile, the same council majority has spent the better part of the summer proposing sites that are unavailable or uninhabitable—like a contaminated Port of Seattle property located right at the end of a SeaTac Airport runway.
On August 21, the council plans to take up a new proposal to criminalize unsheltered homelessness in the city, modeled on Bellevue’s near-total “camping ban.”
Last week, the council—at the request of Mayor Sofia Aragon—directed City Manager Adolfo Bailon to “explore a contract with Kristine Moreland” for homeless services, “given what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes.”
According to people who work with Burien’s homeless population, Moreland started showing up at encampments in April, shortly after the initial sweep at City Hall. By the next month, Moreland was pitching herself to Burien leaders as a more effective alternative to longstanding nonprofit groups like Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD) and REACH, which she described in an email to City Manager Adolfo Bailon and the council as “struggling” and “not…successful.”
“As you may know,” Moreland wrote to Bailon in May, “we have been monitoring the encampment downtown and have been working with a number of individuals living there to provide essential services such as food, shelter, and healthcare. While we have been successful in our efforts, we have also noticed that other resources have been struggling to address the needs of the encampment and its residents.”
“Our organization has worked with other local governments and non-profit organizations to provide compassionate and respectful assistance to those in need,” Moreland continued, “and we believe that we can help the city do the same.”
A majority of the council was apparently impressed by Moreland’s pitch. Last week, the council—at the request of Mayor Sofia Aragon—directed City Manager Adolfo Bailon to “explore a contract with Kristine Moreland” for homeless services, “given what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes.”
What outcomes was Aragon referring to? According to Bailon, who singled out Moreland’s group during a presentation on Burien’s homelessness efforts last week, Moreland got a group of unsheltered people to move on from a piece of vacant land near Burien Town Square, and then performed a similar feat when an encampment popped up outside a nearby Grocery Outlet, clearing around 20 tents from the property and “identifying housing for multiple people” at the site.
Moreland declined to speak to PubliCola, and did not respond to a list of detailed questions about her work. Speaking to conservative commentator Jason Rantz on August 11, said The More We Love had “successfully removed 27 people” from the site by guiding them into “truthful, real, intentional services”—like detox and treatment—and getting “real organizations in there that can do the real work and understand how to actually help these humans.”
It’s unclear how many people Moreland has actually referred to detox, treatment, or housing. But here are some facts. For people with little or no income, getting into detox and treatment can take weeks or months. King County offers only two detox facilities for people who can’t pay for private detox, including the 33-bed Recovery Place center in Seattle, so competition is high. Even after longer-term treatment, relapse is extremely common, especially for people who have nowhere to live; sober housing is an option for some, but beds are rare, and most facilities immediately evict people when they relapse.
Comparing her work favorably to longstanding nonprofits like the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Moreland told Rantz it was high time for the government to stop spending resources on people experiencing homelessness and let “the private sector step up”—including her own group, which she called one of “the most effective organizations I’ve seen yet.”
Aragon did not respond to a request for an interview. Bailon referred PubliCola’s questions to a spokesperson for the city, who said they had “no update to share on the nature or scope of any potential contract at this time as the directive was just issued this week during the City Council’s meeting.” The spokesperson then directed the rest of our questions to Moreland.
After one sweep, REACH case manager Stephanie Tidholm said, Moreland said she had housed 14 people, but Tidholm saw many of them in the relocated encampment a couple of weeks later. “We keep a spreadsheet of all our clients in Burien, and there is no way she housed 14 people.”
Moreland has told interviewers that her father struggled with addiction and was often homeless, an experience that has shaped her approach to people living unsheltered and struggling with addiction. “Nobody wants to be living in this hell, but the fact of the matter is it’s drug addiction, and that drags you down to the depths of despair,” Moreland recently told FOX 13 News. “So, it’s our job to lift them up and out of that.”
Talking to KIRO News before the Grocery Outlet sweep last last week, Moreland said she had already moved several people from the site into shelter or housing, and had “beds” available for at least another six people who remained at the location. “[We] do an intake at the beginning when they come into our care, Moreland explained. “Once we’ve done the intake, [and] we understand their full story, from there, we can connect them to services, and sometimes that looks like sending them home to their families. It just depends on what the greater story is.”
Jeff Rakow, the owner of the Grocery Outlet property, confirmed that he hired Moreland to remove the encampment, and called her work at the site “remarkable.”
“In response to widespread drug use and unsafe conditions for the unhoused and the community, coupled with the absence of urgent government action, we engaged The More We Love to connect those living in the encampment with human services,” getting people into “detox, shelter, back with family, or other solutions best suited to their individual needs.”
But people familiar with the homeless population in Burien say they continue to see the same people month after month, including people who have accepted Moreland’s housing and shelter offers and ended right back where they started. In one case, according to encampment volunteer Charles Schaefer, an encampment resident “told [volunteers] she transported him down to [a place in] Lacey,” about 50 miles south of Burien. Schaefer was head of the Burien Planning Commission until June, when the council majority ousted him for telling unsheltered people about a city-owned lot where they had a legal right to sleep.
The Lacey site was neither housing nor shelter, Schaefer said; “it was a detox or treatment facility, and that wasn’t what he was looking for or led to believe. So he took three buses to get back to Burien from down there,” Schaefer said. “He was lured with some offer that did not materialize.” PubliCola was unable to connect directly with this individual, but heard about his experience from Schaefer and two other sources.
In other cases, sources familiar with the homeless population in Burien say, Moreland’s clients received hotel beds for a few nights, then ended up back on the streets in Burien when the money for their rooms ran out. After an earlier sweep, REACH case manager Stephanie Tidholm said, Moreland claimed she had housed 14 people, but Tidholm saw many of them in the relocated encampment a couple of weeks later. “We keep a spreadsheet of all our clients in Burien, and there is no way she housed 14 people.”
During the recent Grocery Outlet sweep, longtime clients contacted Tidholm to tell her Moreland was offering housing and detox services to people who agreed to leave the site. “Nobody she was with knew where they were going,” Tidholm said. “Somebody told me they weren’t allowed to go [with her] because they weren’t going to do detox. They thought they had to leave no matter what.”
A video posted by Discovery Institute staffer Jonathan Choe, who was fired by KOMO News for promoting a rally held by the insurrectionist group the Proud Boys, features a seemingly impaired woman describing how grateful she is for Moreland’s work to secure “the hotel we’re going into.”
According to Tidholm and others familiar with the encampment, Moreland moved as many as 12 encampment residents to a hotel in Renton owned by the company REBLX. Although REBLX has partnered with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and LEAD to provide rooms for their clients in the past, the company is not itself a service or shelter provider. Proposals to turn the whole 116-room hotel into a shelter for Burien residents fell flat, in part, because Renton law effectively prohibits new shelters in the city.
Already, according to sources familiar with the situation, REBLX has kicked out one of the former encampment residents Moreland placed there for violating the hotel’s code of conduct, which applies to anyone staying in its rooms. REBLX did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the sweep, Tidholm said she has only managed to reconnect with clients who didn’t go to Renton; the others, she said, “are now gone.”
The size of any potential contract between Moreland and the city of Burien remains unclear. A sample budget sent to council members by one of Moreland’s allies, Dan Mathews (of the commercial real estate company Kidder Mathews) suggested that King County could use the $1 million it proposed spending on shelter in Burien, plus additional funds the city could save by “redirecting resources away from current less effective solutions for the unhoused” to hire Moreland at an annual cost of $1.8 million.
In his pitch to Burien officials, Mathews credited Moreland with leading the team that swept a notorious Seattle encampment called the Jungle in 2016; building the city’s first “mobile shower truck”; and providing “outreach services for SPD Seattle’s Navigation team,” which removed encampments during the Jenny Durkan administration. The first two items appear to refer to Moreland’s work as a volunteer with UGM, which provided outreach before the city swept the Jungle. The city has not responded to questions about whether Moreland ever provided “services” for the Navigation Team, but the team itself was made up entirely of city employees. Mathews did not respond to a request for an interview.
Two incidents in Moreland’s past could raise concerns for the city as it considers signing a contract for her services. The first is her arrest for DUI last August, when Kirkland police pulled Moreland over for allegedly driving 52 mph in a 35 mph zone. (In an incident in 2021, an officer who pulled Moreland over for speeding said she drove “past my vehicle fast enough that it shook” and acted “inconvenienced” by the stop.)
When Moreland rolled down the window, according to the police report, her “eyes were watery and her speech was slurred,” and the “odor of intoxicants was emanating” from her breath. Moreland failed a field sobriety test and blew 0.133 on a blood alcohol breath test—significantly above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Subsequent tests showed she had a blood alcohol level between 0.11 and 0.13 percent.
Between 2014 and 2016, according to the charges, Moreland facilitated “short-term, high-cost loans” with an unlicensed lender for at least four home buyers, then turned around and refinanced the loans through the company that employed her as a mortgage broker, pocketing the commission.
The court initially suspended Moreland’s license for 90 days. Instead of accepting the penalty, she contested the charges, arguing that the breath test was inadmissible. Her case is now on hold pending the results of an unrelated lawsuit challenging the alcohol testing method used by agencies across the state. In that case, lawyers for a man arrested for a DUI argued that because the state’s standard testing equipment truncates test results after the second decimal instead of rounding them up or down, it could indicate that a driver was more intoxicated than they actually were, resulting in unfair charges.
A drunk driving charge is not, in itself, disqualifying for a job working with people who are actively using drugs and alcohol; in fact, many drug and alcohol counselors get into the work because of their own personal experiences with addiction and recovery. Given the zero-tolerance views Moreland has expressed about drug and alcohol use among homeless people, though, her own recent alcohol-related arrest and decision to fight the charges instead of taking responsibility seem inconsistent with the kind of policies she advocates for others.
Another incident that could be relevant to the council’s contract deliberations took place in 2020, when the state Department of Financial Institutions found Moreland had violated the state Consumer Lending Act while working for the licensed mortgage company Caliber Home Loans. The charges included engaging in unfair or deceptive practices, aiding and abetting violations of of the law, and making false statements to the department, among other violations.
Between 2014 and 2016, according to the charges, Moreland facilitated “short-term, high-cost loans” with an unlicensed lender for at least four home buyers, then turned around and refinanced the loans through Caliber, pocketing the commission. Later, according to DFI documents, Moreland failed to report on her license renewal application that she was under investigation for violating state law, which is itself another violation.
Moreland could have lost her license over the charges or been permanently barred from practice. Instead, the department agreed to a consent order in 2021 in which Moreland would pay a $15,000 investigation fee, plus another $14,000 to fund financial literacy and education programs. State records indicate that the department put her on a $500-a-month payment plan for her $24,000 unpaid balance the following year; a spokesperson for DFI said Moreland still owes the state $18,500, and has paid $10,750 so far. “Ms. Moreland has missed periodic payments and payments have been modified to $50 per month,” the spokesperson said.
Many people who spoke to PubliCola for this story noted that no matter what approach a service provider takes with their clients, access to shelter and housing is dictated by the availability of shelter and housing—and currently, there isn’t enough of either. According to every estimate of King County’s homeless population, there are thousands more unsheltered people than shelter beds—perhaps tens of thousands.
Housing is even harder to come by, especially for people living in encampments. Under federal rules, service providers have virtually no ability to allocate housing themselves; instead, applications go through a process called Coordinated Entry that prioritizes people based on need. Private entities that don’t participate in the official housing system like Union Gospel Mission, can house people directly, but the housing they offer often comes with high barriers to entry, including drug testing, work requirements, and even dress codes for women.
If Burien’s elected officials aren’t aware of the fact that that sweeps don’t actually address homelessness it seems like Burien’s business owners are. As Schaefer, the former planning commissioner, notes, every time an encampment gets swept, business owners fill the vacant property with rocks. “I think the businesses know it’s not going to be permanent and the homeless folks are going to show back up at some point.” If most people were actually accessing untapped shelter and housing resources through private groups like Moreland’s, why would there be any need to keep them from coming back?
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to reintroduce a local drug criminalization ordinance has been widely described as a “plan to combat opioid addiction” that would—as the Seattle Times put it—”[c]ommit $27 million toward enhanced treatment facilities, new addiction services and improved overdose response.”
But this characterization is misleading. For one thing, the $27 million includes no new funding. For another, that total includes both one-time spending and a small annual allocation from last year’s state opioid settlement that will trickle in over the next 18 years.
Of the $27 million, $7 million consists of leftover federal Community Development Block Grant funding that the city did not spend in previous years—a one-time allocation that Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen said will provide “capital funding to prepare existing facilities to provide care and treatment services for substance use disorders.”
Of the $27 million, $7 million consists of leftover federal funding that the city did not spend in previous years. The rest is the total amount the city estimates it will receive from the statewide opioid settlement over the next 18 years—a little over $1 million a year each year, on average, through 2032.
The rest, $20 million, is the total amount the city estimates it will receive from the statewide opioid lawsuit settlement over the next 18 years—a little over $1 million a year each year, on average, through 2032. That’s less than seven-hundredths of one percent of the city’s general-fund budget, and about three-tenths of one percent of the Seattle Police Department’s budget.
Housen said the $1.1 million a year will go toward “programs addressing addiction and improving our treatment and service provision systems.”
Those are surely worthy goals (spending on any kind of treatment or social service is almost certainly better than further criminalizing addiction), but they do not amount to the “enhanced treatment facilities, new addiction services and improved overdose response” Harrell announced his plan would pay for. Nor is the opioid settlement funding new; we’ve been reporting on what it will mean for Seattle, and how the state has directed cities to spend the money, since last year.
So what does the bill actually do? Exactly what an earlier version of the bill, which the council rejected 5-4, would have done: Empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for simple drug possession or for using drugs, except alcohol and marijuana, in public. The substantive portion of the bill, which comes after nearly six pages of nonbinding whereas clauses and statements of fact, is identical to the previous proposal.
In addition, and less substantively, the bill directs the Seattle Police Department to adopt policies governing arrests under the new law, and says that these future policies must “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred 2 response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations,” including situations that threaten any person’s safety.
Harrell’s task force on addiction, which includes subgroups that are discussion diversion, treatment, and the role of the municipal court, continues to meet. According to Housen, the groups are focusing on “court systems, arrest and pretrial diversion, and treatment programs” and “are tasked with advancing efforts to improve connections between systems, map and identify gaps in diversion programs, and strengthen partner coordination.”
Mayor Bruce Harrell gathered supporters in Westlake Plaza Wednesday morning to announce his latest downtown activation plan, officially titled “Downtown Is You.” But the press event was initially sidelined by a group of anti-sweeps protesters holding signs and chanting, “stop the sweeps” and other slogans from a few feet away. After halting his prepared remarks, Harrell hopped down from the stage and attempted to get the protesters to be quiet, but gave up and returned to the stage after several responded that they didn’t trust his offer to talk to them in a different venue.
“Westlake Center is a center for civic engagement,” he told the audience. “Unfortunately, that’s not civic engagement—that’s just yelling.”
“These [unsheltered] folks you see down here, they’re not strangers to me. I grew up on these streets,” Harrell continued. Gesturing toward the group of young activists, he added: “How dare anyone say I’m going to sweep anybody. I don’t see anyone over there I grew up with.”
Under Harrell, the city has dramatically increased the speed and frequency of encampment removals.
The seven-point downtown plan Harrell announced Wednesday does not directly address encampments. However, it does envision a downtown occupied by shoppers, sports fans, and residents of new high-rise apartment towers along a section of Third Avenue between Stewart and Union Streets, where drug users and unsheltered people frequently congregate. The proposed upzone includes the block that includes a McDonald’s and a check cashing outlet as well as the block anchored by Ross Dress for Less.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, mayoral advisor (and soon-to-be deputy mayor) Tim Burgess said “several” developments in the area were “ready to go” once a proposed upzone goes through. The proposal would increase the maximum height for new buildings from 170 feet to 440 (460 if new developments include child care or education facilities) on about five blocks that are adjacent to a area where 450-foot-high buildings are already allowed. The city’s land use database does not include any active permits for these blocks.
On Tuesday, Burgess said the proposed rezone reflects “a recognition that we need to make some dramatic changes in order to shift what’s been several decades now of problematic street uses and disorder.”
Harrell’s plan also includes legislation to allow a broader mix of uses on the ground floor of buildings (apartments or conference spaces instead of retail, for example) and throughout buildings themselves, in the form of “vertical residential neighborhoods within buildings” that allow residents to access everything they need, from child care to retail stores to pickleball courts, inside their buildings.
The idea is a nod to the fact that—Harrell’s back-to-work order and admonishments notwithstanding—many people have continued to work at least partly from home, leaving significant vacancies in downtown office buildings. “I don’t think this is a philosophical shift away from retail” serving downtown office workers, McIntyre said Tuesday. “It’s embracing some flexibility and some new ideas and wanting to encourage a different mix on the ground floor area as the as the city continues to change.”
Another piece of legislation would make a half-block of Pike Street between First and Second Avenues pedestrian-only, connecting Pike Place Market Market to—well, one half-block of downtown directly adjacent to, but not part of, the market. (Asked whether the mayor would consider prohibiting car traffic in Pike Place Market—where pedestrians compete for space on the historic brick streets with exhaust-spewing cars—Office of Economic Development director Markham McIntyre said the city was still “talking to Pike Place Market … to figure out what what that might look like,” but had no immediate plans to get rid of cars in the Market, a change pedestrian advocates have been demanding for decades.
Beyond those concrete legislative proposals, the plan consists mostly of expanded pilot projects (doubling the number of businesses participating in Seattle Restored, a pop-up project that fills empty storefronts), initiatives that are already underway (reopening City Hall Park, “more murals” downtown), and ideas that are still very much in the whiteboard stages. It also incorporates many aspirational ideas that would require significant additional funding, such as completing the downtown streetcar, putting a lid over I-5, and creating a new “arts district” from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square.
And, of course, it assumes a heavier police presence downtown—a mostly unspoken, but bedrock, element of the proposal. “Make Downtown Safe and Welcoming” is actually number one on the plan’s list of seven priorities, starting with arrests of people “distributing and selling illegal drugs” (and, presumably, using them—Harrell mentioned that a bill criminalizing drug possession and public use will likely pass in July). The safety plan also includes a number of initiatives to address addiction that Harrell announced in April, along with a plan to help private property owners remove graffiti—a particular burr under Harrell’s saddle.
Earlier this month, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the police from arresting people for tagging or graffiti, finding that Seattle’s broadly worded law “likely…violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.” On Wednesday, I asked Harrell—who had just expounded on the difference, as he sees it, between “art” and “graffiti” (“One word: It’s unwanted”)—what he would do if the judge overturned the law.
“We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti, so if there’s precise language in the law that is unconstitutional, that is vague, that’s ambiguous, we have to fix it,” Harrell said. “If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”
“This graffiti stuff just drives me nuts,” Harrell added.
Yesterday, following last week’s city council vote rejecting a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the power to prosecute people for drug possession and public use, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the creation of a 24-member “Fentanyl Systems Work Group” tasked with finding and implementing solutions to the opioid overdose crisis. In King County, 462 people have died of overdoses involving opioids this year alone.
In a press conference at city hall on Monday, Harrell said he was committed to passing a new drug possession and public drug use ordinance that would align the Seattle Municipal Code with a statewide “Blake fix” law passed by the legislature in May, which set drug possession and public use as gross misdemeanors.
“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests,” Harrell said. “But we will do that with compassion, to protect people when we have to.” Talking about how the war on drugs harmed his own community, Harrell wiped away tears and briefly stepped away from the podium.
“I believe in my heart, the people that are using drugs, many of them are sick,” Harrell said. “They’re not healthy. We’re not going to go out and fill our jails with sick people.”
The Seattle Police Department is already authorized to arrest people for drug use and possession under the statewide law, although King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion would have to agree to prosecute those cases, which she has said she will not do. Currently, few people are arrested or prosecuted under existing felony drug laws.
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.”
The work group will include municipal judges (including former community court judge Damon Shadid), several city council members, Davison, Police Chief Adrian Diaz, department directors, and representatives from service providers, diversion programs, community groups, and racial justice organizations.
Councilmember Sara Nelson, one of the sponsors of the drug possession bill, was adamant that the council pass a law soon. “I don’t want to see any infringement upon the city attorney’s prosecutorial discretion,” Nelson said after the press conference. “And I don’t want anybody telling the mayor what he’s going to do, what he’s going to direct his officers to do.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding “no” vote last week, has said that in order to vote for a new bill granting the city attorney new authority to prosecute misdemeanor drug crimes, he wants to see a replacement for community court, more funding for prefiling and pre-arrest diversion programs like LEAD, and other “necessary treatment and diversion programs.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing from everybody,” Lewis told PubliCola. “We’ve got two judges who are on this task force. We’ve got the city attorney’s office on this task force. I think that we can work through whatever differences we have to get a plan in place to have a successor therapeutic court.”
Community court has been the primary alternative to Seattle’s mainstream municipal court system since 2020. Though Lewis said he’s committed to finding a replacement for the court, he added that he’s actually more invested in diversion programs that target people before they get arrested in charged, such as LEAD for adults and Community Passageways for youth.
Lisa Daugaard, co-director of Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), which runs the pioneering pre-booking diversion program LEAD, said the debate over adding drug possession and public use to Seattle’s municipal code is something of a distraction, since diversion programs have existed as an option for more than a decade and will continue to.
“Since 2012,” Daugaard said, “we’ve had a framework in Seattle where even when there is legal authority to arrest, book someone into jail, refer them to prosecution, and prosecute them, our local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have very often chosen not to do that, in preference for a pre-booking diversion framework where people get a warm handoff to harm reduction-based care.”
Daugaard says arrests for drug-related offenses in Seattle have plummeted in the past two decades and aren’t likely to increase. “The incidence of stops, searches, and arrests for drug crime fell over a decade from being at the very top of the reasons that people have course of contact with law enforcement to outside the top ten,” she said. “And that was not an accident.”
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.” Participants in drug court, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, must check in frequently, stay sober, and meet other court-mandated requirements in order to have their charges dropped.
“We know that pre-file diversions are probably best for the overwhelming majority of people,” Lewis said. “But there is a small group of people where those interventions have not been successful, and they need a little bit more accountability and a little bit more structure. And that can definitely be provided by a therapeutic court.”
Daugaard says the more critical issue is finding sufficient funds for recovery services for people with substance use disorder, especially those without shelter. Though one selling point of the state’s drug possession bill was supposed to be an increase in funding for services and treatment, Daugaard says what the state actually provided is insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem statewide.
“The population in each region that it can serve is a small fraction of the total number of people who are using drugs in a way that could either be life threatening or problematic for their stability.” Addressing drug use in Seattle will require an injection of local resources beyond what the city has provided so far—something the council will have to grapple with during its annual budget deliberations this coming fall.
Before casting the deciding vote to reject a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison new power to prosecute people for using or possessing drugs, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he was swayed to vote no by Davison’s unilateral decision to stop sending cases to community court, a therapeutic court that allows people accused of specific low-level misdemeanors to access services and life-skills classes in lieu of prosecution.
Davison’s office has argued that community court and its onetime presiding judge, Damon Shadid, have been too lenient on low-level defendants, allowing people to elude charges by attending a single online life-skills class. Some service providers have actually echoed this complaint, arguing that the court does too little to get people into meaningful services like addiction treatment and job assistance programs.
Proponents of community court, including Shadid and the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), say community court graduates were less likely to reoffend (one measure of success) than people who go through mainstream court, and that the court offered a vital alternative to prosecution and incarceration, which clog up court dockets and put more pressure on the understaffed downtown jail.
“Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services,” DPD director Anita Khandelwal said after Davison announced her decision. “Nonetheless, the Seattle City Attorney … seeks to push push people deeper into a criminal legal carceral system that is expensive, deadly, and deeply racially disproportionate.”
Lewis, a former assistant city attorney, has said he will vote for a future version of Davison’s legislation if and when the city comes up with an alternative, or “successor,” to community court that includes access to services like addiction treatment for people who participate. So far, Lewis—who’s up for reelection this year—has outlined no specific plan, timeline, or proposal for what the new court would look like and who would be eligible.
In this context, the debate over Seattle’s now-defunct community court is still highly relevant. If the whole concept is doomed to failure, as Davison has suggested, the solution might be some combination of expanded pre-trial diversion programs and prosecution, which Davison’s office maintains the Seattle Municipal Court is better equipped to handle now that one judge (Shadid) has been “freed up” to hear mainstream cases. If it was a success, as DPD maintains, a new court might look more like community court 4.0, perhaps with more requirements—Davison’s office bristled at Shadid’s elimination of a community-service mandate—and a more punitive prosecute-and-jail track for people who fail to engage after signing up for the program.
The City Attorney’s Perspective
In her letter to the city council announcing the city’s withdrawal from community court, the city attorney’s criminal division chief, Natalie Walton-Anderson, said community court had an extremely low completion rate, with just a 22 percent “graduation” rate among defendants referred to the court. This, the city attorney’s office argued, has led over time to “a huge volume of unresolved and unaccounted for cases”—growing from a handful in August 2020, when the court was launched, to more than 1,500 as of last September.
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for the city attorney said. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
This backlog, Walton-Anderson argued, is the result of people failing to engage in court by showing up for hearings or complying with court requirements, even though “most participants only had to participate in an assessment with a pre-trial service counselor and attend a 90-minute life skills class.”
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for Davison, Marina Yudodik, told PubliCola. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
Community court—which excludes anyone accused of serious misdemeanors, such as stalking, harassment, and motor vehicle offenses—has three tiers for engagement, ranging from a 14-day program that includes the online life-skills class and information about available services to a 45-day program that includes mandatory engagement in services assigned by the court. According to Seattle Municipal Court data, Tier 1 defendants—the lowest level of engagement—account for fewer than half of those who enter community court, and there are about the same number of Tier 3 defendants as Tier 1.
But even among people who do engage with services, Davison’s office argues, the majority only access items to help with their immediate needs, rather than ongoing services like drug treatment or job training. According to community court records, in the court’s first 16 months, 31 participants accessed drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment with suboxone—less than a third of the number referred to treatment services. In contrast, 214 people received bus tickets, 132 got clothing, and 166 accepted food bags.
In addition, the city attorney’s office argues, community court has is open to people who are accused of “significant criminal acts,” and does not screen out people with “serious criminal histories,” including in other states. In her letter, Walton-Anderson gives several examples of cases that her office believes are “inappropriate” for community court, either because they’ve committed more serious crimes in the past or because their specific cases are more serious than their charges indicate.
The letter provides four examples of “inappropriate cases and individuals” that ended up in community court, including one man who had several felony cases pending in King County Superior Court who went on to carjack a vehicle with a child inside; one man who was charged with multiple felonies while in community court but still graduated; and another man who committed multiple misdemeanors and felonies while his cases were pending in community court.
In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the office plans “to dismiss a significant number of cases that were filed prior to January 1, 2022” to clear out the community court docket, and the city attorney’s office has said it plans to send more cases into pre-trial diversion, where appropriate, while routing other cases to mainstream municipal court. In a statement about her decision to stop sending cases to community court, Davison noted that people who participate in pre-filing diversion are less likely to reoffend than those referred to community court.
The city’s existing pre-filing diversion programs are aimed at people under 25, not the older adults who commit a large and growing number of drug-related crimes. Other programs, such as the longstanding program now called Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), serve older adults, including those with significant behavioral health challenges and extensive criminal justice involvement, but LEAD is a pre-booking program separate from the pre-filing programs Walton-Anderson referred to in her letter.
Recently, the CAO did sign new pre-filing diversion contracts with several nonprofit groups, including the Urban League, the LGBTQ+ Center (formerly Gay City), and Unified Outreach, an arts program for at-risk youth that is expanding to serve adults. The city council provided $750,000 for expanding diversion to people 25 and older in 2021, but—after a protracted battle with Davison in 2021—moved the funding from the city attorney’s office to the Human Services Department, which spent more than a year analyzing potential diversion strategies. During this time, the funding sat unspent for “many months,” Davison spokeswoman Yudodik said.
These programs, once they’re up and running, will still be aimed at people who are fairly high-functioning—excluding, for example, those who are in active fentanyl addiction and need more services than a light-touch diversion program can provide.
The Public Defenders’ Perspective
Community court has many defenders, including the attorneys who represent clients accused of low-level misdemeanor crimes.
DPD director Khandelwal recently told PubliCola that “if the CAO opts for traditional prosecution, we expect we’ll see more dismissals. This means that more people will churn through a costly and ineffective system and will be harmed and destabilized in the process.” Data from the city attorney shows that in 2022, municipal court judges dismissed nearly 800 cases out of 5,700 filed by the city attorney’s office.
Advocates for community court have also argued that criminalizing low-level crimes, and jailing people who would have been eligible for community court, will only destabilize defendants with major challenges that contribute to their criminal activity, such as mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
“We have been able to hook people up with housing, with inpatient treatment, with mental health services, with Apple Care [Medicaid] insurance, right there at the court,” Shadid told PubliCola last year. “I just think this way is proven to have more positive effects for our community than putting people in jail, destabilizing them, making them lose their services, and then releasing them back into the community with less connections to services than they had when they entered.”
In her letter, Walton-Anderson provided several examples intended to demonstrate that community court doesn’t work, and that eliminating the court would give the city attorney the ability to prosecute people who cause harm. However, it’s debatable whether the cases she picked as examples would have gone differently if community court did not exist.
For example, the letter describes Ryan, who was accused of theft and property damage. After opting in to community court, he committed a felony by attempting to steal a car that had a child inside. However, both of Ryan’s charges stemmed from arrests in 2021 for which he was booked and quickly released, long before he opted in to community court last year. Both of those cases were dismissed for lack of proof. Ryan has been in jail on the felony charge since last May in lieu of $350,000 bail.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearing.
In another case, William racked up a large number of shoplifting misdemeanors before his 2020 referral to community court. The jail repeatedly released him directly into residential treatment for his substance use disorder, but he left each time before finishing. The reason William’s cases were dismissed, though, was a separate plea deal with the King County prosecutor on a felony case, not his failure to participate in community court or treatment. Additionally, William is on the “high utilizers” list Davison categorically excluded from community court more than a year ago, and has been ineligible for community court since then.
Walton-Anderson’s letter also cites David, a man who was arrested repeatedly for stealing from a store in North Seattle and “graduated” from community court in 2022, “having completed only the 90 minute life skills class to resolve all [nine] cases” from 2020. In fact, according to court records, David had been in a one-year residential treatment program for almost two months and “making great progress,” according to his probation officer, when he graduated from community court—precisely the kind of outcome the city attorney’s office has said it hopes to see. By the time David reoffended last August, he was already ineligible for community court because he, like William, was on Davison’s high-utilizers list.
Advocates for community court also dispute some of the statistics the city attorney uses to claim the court wasn’t working. For example, the office has frequently noted that community court has a low completion level—about 78 percent of people who opt in to the court don’t complete it. However, as Judge Shadid has pointed out, the low “graduation” rate stems from the fact that a high percentage of community court participants fail to appear at initial hearings, often because they are homeless.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearings. The subtitle for the report, which preceded the most recent iteration of community court, was “Declines, Delays, And Dismissals – Why Most Seattle Misdemeanor Cases Never Get Resolved And The Impacts On Public Safety.”
The city attorney’s office has pointed to higher recidivism rates among people who opt in to community court compared to pre-trial diversion programs that have more requirements, like the LGBTQ+ Center’s online Access to Change program for young adults accused of certain domestic violence crimes. However, people who get referred into pretrial diversion are a specific subset of defendants who the city attorney’s office believes are likely to succeed in diversion programs that offer a “light touch”—young people with minimal prior criminal involvement who generally do not face the same challenges as older community court defendants, like chronic homelessness, fentanyl addiction, and severe mental illness. They just aren’t the same group of people.
Community court is gone, for now, and its replacement is now in the city’s hands. Both Lewis and Davison have expressed support for expanded use of pre-trial diversion programs for the higher-functioning people who qualify, and continuing or expanding LEAD, an evidence-based program that provides case management and services to people with high levels of criminal legal involvement.
Even with those programs, both Davison’s office and the municipal court will likely be inundated with new low-level cases, which could lead to larger backlogs and more dismissals. Currently, according to records compiled by municipal court staffers, the court has almost 2,400 cases from 2022 that are still pending, along with nearly 2,000 so far in 2023. Adding cases that would have gone to community court to this pile would only increase the backlog. In 2019, for example, nearly 3,000 cases were filed that would have been eligible for community court, if community court had existed at the time.
Last year, Davison’s office declined fewer than 60 cases using pre-filing diversion programs—a small fraction of the number that will need to be diverted into programs that have limited capacity in order to avoid an even greater backlog. The city—and Lewis in particular—will have to be creative and determined if it wants to avoid the very situation Davison decried during her election campaign.
After a tense, emotional meeting Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted 5-4 to reject legislation proposed by City Attorney Ann Davison that would have empowered Davison to prosecute Seattle residents for simple drug use and possession.
The bill, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, would have incorporated most of a new state law making drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor into the city’s municipal code. The state legislature changed the law this year after the state supreme court overturned the state’s felony drug possession law in a decision called Washington v. Blake.
The swing vote was Andrew Lewis, a former assistant city attorney who represents downtown Seattle and is up for reelection this year. On Tuesday, Lewis said he had planned on voting for the bill, but changed his mind after Davison abruptly and unilaterally announced the city would no longer participate in community court, a therapeutic court that did not require people to plead guilty of a crime to participate.
Lewis’ vote, he said, came down to the fact that he didn’t believe Davison would use the law judiciously after she effectively eliminated the city’s only therapeutic court.
“What it really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. “”This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
“I came out here on the dais today fully prepared to vote for this measure,” Lewis said. “I am not necessarily opposed to incorporating the statute into our [city code], and I was prepared to do this. I think it is generally proper for us to do it. But with the ending of community court, without any additional process, I just can’t do it today.”
On Wednesday, Lewis told PubliCola that what his vote “really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court. “It doesn’t exist now, but maybe we could make a successor court” to community court, he said. “This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
This afternoon, Lewis announced he would propose a path toward passing a version of Davison’s law, after working to develop a “successor court” to community court, develop and fund treatment-based pre-filing diversion, working “to scale and deploy” an evidence-based response to fentanyl use in Seattle, and “finally, after creating those necessary pathways for treatment and diversion, propose legislation making the Seattle Municipal Code consistent with State Law on possession and public use.”
Tensions were high in council chambers on Tuesday, as dozens of public commenters opposed to the law expressed their grievances with the council in general, and Nelson—who owns Fremont Brewing, a brewery and bar, with her husband—in particular.
“We all know that the Seattle Police Department will not be investigating, arresting, and charging anyone who is doing lines of coke in the bathroom of the Fremont Brewery,” Molly Gilbert, head of the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, said. “You are literally a drug dealer!” another commenter quipped.
Others responded to claims that the proposal was not tantamount to a “drug war,” because it would only make drug use and possession a misdemeanor, by telling the council how their own lives were derailed by misdemeanor drug convictions. Liletha Williams, one of the last people to speak, testified that her misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s “destroyed my life.”
“I’m 62 and I don’t have any retirement,” Williams said. “I have to work. I’m sick. I can’t have surgery because I can’t miss work. This is all because of my drug addiction in 1990.”
Moments after listening to this testimony, Nelson said her legislation had nothing in common with the drug war of the 1990s.
“I believe that equating this legislation to the war on drugs is frankly to diminish and minimize the damages and the heinousness of that stain on our history,” Nelson said. “Those were felonies. People were thrown into jail for years on felony charges having to do primarily with cannabis and coke and crack and heroin, etc. We are talking [about creating a] gross misdemeanor to address the most potent and dangerous drug to hit our streets, ever.”
Juarez—who briefly put the meeting into recess after people objected to her proposal to end public comment before everyone had spoken—also described fentanyl as a uniquely deadly and dangerous new drug.
“Let me be clear,” Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
In fact, fentanyl has been legally manufactured and prescribed in the US since the 1960s for long-term pain management and is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, along with many other potentially addictive drugs. (Nor—despite frequent claims to the contrary—can people get high or overdose from secondhand fentanyl vapor, according to the Seattle/King County Department of Public Health.)
“Let me be clear,” Council President Debora Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
So what happens now? As it has since May, the new state law applies in Seattle, meaning that drug use and possession are both illegal. (This is true despite a false claim from Davison that “Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public.”). Seattle Police Department officers retain their existing authority to arrest people under the state law, and King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion retains her existing authority to prosecute people for misdemeanor drug use and possession. And Davison can continue prosecuting misdemeanors related to drug use, such as shoplifting and trespassing—something that has already been keeping her busy in the absence of broad the broad new authority she sought.
In all likelihood, SPD won’t start rounding up fentanyl users on Third Avenue, and Manion won’t start prosecuting people for simple possession, but that would have been the case even if the legislation had passed. Manion, who supported the bill, rarely pursues even felony drug cases, and SPD has been focusing its resources on people higher up the illicit drug food chain—”the dealers and traffickers bringing this poison into our communities,” as Mayor Bruce Harrell put it in a statement after the vote. Harrell, no fan of drug-war policies, has stayed largely silent on the legislation; in his statement, he said it was “unacceptable for people to consume illegal drugs in public spaces,” but also emphasized “new and innovative approaches to ensure those in need receive the treatment they deserve,” such as contingency management.
Lewis’ potential legislation is the wild card. If he re-introduces some version of Davison’s bill—criminalizing drug use but securing promises from her office about diversion and treatment, for example—it could reignite a largely irrelevant debate about arresting and jailing drug users amid an overdose crisis that cries out for evidence-based approaches, not overheated drug-war rhetoric.
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