Category: Drugs

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax

1. Bird, a scooter provider that’s already ubiquitous in cities across the country, will soon enter the Seattle market, while Spin and the venture-backed sit-down scooter company Wheels will no longer be seen on Seattle streets. In addition to Bird, Link and Lime will continue as scooter providers in Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation announced the scooter shuffle on its website last week, just weeks after publishing the results of a controversial, nonscientific survey concluding that more scooter riders are injured while riding than previously reported.

The city will also permanently permit a new bikesharing company, Veo, whose low-slung bikes have vestigial pedals but function more like a sit-down scooter, with a throttle that allows riders to propel them while using the pedals as footrests.

Seattle’s relationship with scooters (and bikesharing) has long been ambivalent. In 2020, two and a half years after banning scooters entirely, the city took a baby step forward by issuing permits to three companies for 500 scooters each. Since then, the city has expanded its scooter permits to allow each of three providers to put 2,000 scooters on the streets; Lime, which provides both e-assist bikes and scooters, has a fourth permit for a total of 2,000 bikes and scooters.

According to SDOT’s scoring matrix, Spin narrowly lost out to Bird, Link, and Lime after scoring slightly lower on two measures: Parking (which includes policies the company implemented to make sure people parked correctly and how it responded to improperly parked scooters) and “operations and equity,” which included a number of factors such as how the company responds to complaints and its efforts to place scooters in “equity areas” outside the center city, including southeast and far north Seattle.

According to the city’s scooter data dashboard, Wheels scored particularly poorly compared to other companies, including Spin, at providing equitable access to its scooters.

Veo, which operates like a scooter but is classified as a bicycle, poses what SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson calls “interesting questions” for the city. Unlike traditional scooters, Veo devices are legal on sidewalks; because they aren’t classified as scooters, they also occupy one of just three potential bikeshare permits, which could limit the number of shared e-bikes allowed on city streets in the future, if other companies decide they want to enter the Seattle market.

“The bike/scooter share landscape is very dynamic and has shifted considerably since the bike share program began in 2017,” Bergerson said, and now includes “more companies offering devices which combine some of the features of bikes and some of the features of scooters. … If this market trend continues, it may make sense to consider how to adjust our permits to reflect the changing technology and industry trends.”

2. The Seattle Public Library is ending its contract with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which for more than five years has provided a part-time “community resource specialist” to connect patrons to food, social services, and shelter, and hiring its own social service specialists.

The new hires include an assistant managing librarian at the downtown branch to oversee the work; a new social services librarian who will “work with information staff to maintain current information and contacts, coordinate the Bus Ticket program, and act as a link between our regular information services and our Community Resource Specialists,” according to library spokeswoman Elisa Murray; and two new in-house community resource specialists, including one who will focus on outreach to youth and young people.

“While this new model doesn’t necessarily provide patrons more time with on-site staff, we do think we can maintain more partnerships with this model, which we hope will lead to increased opportunities for patrons to access the supportive services they need,” Murray said.

For years, libraries (including Seattle’s) have debated whether, and to what extent, library staffers should be responsible for connecting patrons not just to library materials, but to social services and resources outside the library’s direct control. By hiring staff to oversee some of this work, SPL is making a more direct investment in the the theory that libraries can and should do both.

3. A new independent expenditure group representing marijuana retailers, called People for Legal Cannabis, just filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, reporting $16,000 in debt to the polling firm EMC Research. The group’s intent: To fight off potential legislation, first reported by David Hyde at KUOW, that would impose an additional sales tax on weed sales in Seattle. If the legislation, currently being floated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, passes, the group could propose a referendum to overturn the law.

According to a presentation first posted on KUOW, which PubliCola obtained independently, the UFCW’s still-nascent proposal would impose a “cannabis equity tax” of 25 cents a gram on flower; $2.00 per half-gram of high-potency concentrates; and a penny per milligram of THC in everything else. The money would fund a paid “cannabis equity commission”; “workforce training” for cannabis workers; and a “cannabis equity fund” that would “prioritize the needs of those most impacted by the War on Drugs,” which locked up millions of Black and brown Americans for possessing and consuming weed. Continue reading “Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement

City Attorney Ann Davison touts "arrests and prosecutions" as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city's latest targeted policing action.
City Attorney Ann Davison touts “arrests and prosecutions” as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city’s latest targeted policing action, Operation New Day.

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department moved a black van known as the “mobile precinct” to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle on Thursday morning, scattering the dozens of people gathered there to buy and sell drugs and stolen merchandise.

While the move came a day after the second fatal shooting at the corner in less than a week, the department had started preparing to clear the intersection weeks earlier—the second phase in a crackdown on crime “hot spots” announced by Mayor Bruce last month. That campaign, called Operation New Day, began two weeks ago, when police cleared a similar site at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in the Little Saigon neighborhood; the mobile precinct van was parked at that intersection until Thursday, when it moved downtown.

On Friday morning, Harrell convened a press conference to tout the first results of Operation New Day, including dozens of arrests. Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz stood beside him, as did City Attorney Ann Davison, King County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Staff Leesa Manion, and two federal law enforcement officials: Nick Brown, the new US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Frank Tarantino, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Seattle office. Leaders from Seattle’s social service providers, who Harrell has promised will eventually become partners in his push to target “hot spots,” were notably absent. No one from the Seattle City Council was at the press conference.

Service providers and non-police responders were a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day

The stretch of Third Ave. between Pine St. and Pike St may be the most persistently troubled block in Seattle. For at least the past three decades, mayoral administrations have attempted to stem crime on the block by increasing the number of police officers in the area. One such effort in 2015, called “the Nine and a Half Block Strategy,” succeeded in reducing the number of drug-related 911 calls in a small area surrounding Westlake Park, though calls increased dramatically in practically every neighborhood within walking distance of the park during the same period. After a shooting during rush hour in January 2020 killed one person and injured seven others, SPD scaled up its presence on the block once again, only to pull back once the COVID-19 pandemic began two months later. Each time, a market for stolen goods and narcotics reappeared on Third and Pine.

Harrell said that he planned to avoid the mistakes of earlier mayors—and to “revitalize” intersections like 12th and Jackson for the long term—in part by relying on outreach workers and service providers, who he believes will be able to direct homeless people living at or near targeted intersections to substance abuse treatment or housing. “We can’t arrest and jail our way out of this,” Diaz added. So far, no social service providers are involved in Operation New Day; the city relied on police alone to clear both 12th and Jackson and Third and Pine, though diversion groups like LEAD already do outreach near Third and Pine.

Before bringing the social service component of the operation online, Harrell said that his office is “doing an inventory of community-based organizations that are recipients of city funds to make sure they’re aligned with our vision.” He did not specify what “doing an inventory” would entail, nor would he specify which organizations they’re considering for the task—or what traits would disqualify an existing service provider from working on Operation New Day.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown and chairs the council’s committee on homelessness, told PubliCola on Wednesday that he sees one clear choice for an outreach provider: JustCARE, a pandemic-era cooperation between several social service providers that provides shelter and wraparound care to people who have previously interacted with the criminal justice system.

“I want to be sure we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, “because we have something that works and works well.” Lewis said he’s willing to be patient as Harrell considers options for incorporating service providers into Operation New Day, although he said he will be concerned if the mayor’s office hasn’t made a decision by the time JustCARE’s contract with the city expires at the end of June.

But non-police responders were largely a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day. Since January 21, SPD arrested 16 people for felonies—especially commercial burglary, illegal gun possession and narcotics offenses—at 12th and Jackson; nine of those people were later released by King County judges after their first court appearance. Some will face federal charges. The US Attorney’s Office has already filed charges against three people arrested in Little Saigon as part of Operation New Day and is reviewing the case of a fourth, a man initially arrested at 12th and Jackson who was released and subsequently re-arrested at Third and Pine. Continue reading “Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement”

Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection

Aftermath of a shooting at 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in October 2021 (Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.

The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.

Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.

Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.

In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.

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Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.

“It is an area that has always had a small  market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.

In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.

“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”

Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.

The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.

When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”

Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”

Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates. Continue reading “Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection”

New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain

King County Detention Center, Seattle (Photo: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

When the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in February that the state’s harsh drug possession laws were unconstitutional, most lawmakers, prosecutors and defense attorneys hurried to prepare for the ruling’s vast consequences for the state’s court system and the tens of thousands of people whose convictions for drug possession are now baseless.

Among those impacted by the ruling, State of Washington v. Blake, are immigrants convicted for simple drug possession under Washington’s pre-Blake drug laws. Some are currently facing deportation because of a drug possession conviction; others have already been deported.

Ann Benson, the Directing Attorney of the Washington Defender Association’s Immigration Project, says immigrant rights groups around the state are still trying to tally the number of immigrants who could be impacted by the Blake decision; her office estimates that at least 75 people in Washington Department of Corrections custody fall into that category, in addition to the hundreds of other immigrants with drug possession convictions who aren’t currently incarcerated and those who have already been deported for drug possession.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation,

For those immigrants, the Blake decision has eliminated the federal government’s justification for their deportations, providing a source of hope for those who have been separated from their families during deportation proceedings—and potentially for those who have already been deported.

But a newly passed law that partially re-criminalizes drug possession dampens the implications of Blake for the future of immigration enforcement in Washington.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation, depending on the charge. Because the state supreme court’s ruling nullifies past drug possession convictions, some green card holders with criminal records now have a chance to avoid some of those consequences. Those facing deportation for a drug possession conviction can now file a motion in a county criminal court to vacate their conviction; without a conviction, ICE can’t move forward with their deportation.

Tim Warden-Hertz, the managing attorney with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the pace at which immigration courts respond to Blake will depend on ICE, whose attorneys serve as prosecutors in deportation cases. “ICE has the discretion to be proactive,” he said. “They can move on their own to reopen cases—and, for that matter, to terminate cases.” An ICE spokesperson did not answer PubliCola’s questions, including about whether their attorneys plan to end deportation proceedings unilaterally.

Warden-Hertz added that, thanks to Blake, former green card holders deported for drug possession convictions might be able to return to Washington once a court vacates their conviction. “If we can reopen their cases,” he said, “then the client regains their green card, which means they regain their lawful permanent resident status and should be able to travel back to the United States.” Thus far, he said, his legal team have only identified one client who may be able to reclaim their green card. Continue reading “New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain”

In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession

By Paul Kiefer

After a last-minute rush to pass legislation in response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that rendered the existing drug possession laws void, the Washington State legislature passed new legislation on Saturday re-criminalizing low-level drug possession by making it a misdemeanor and requiring local jurisdictions to provide treatment options for drug users. The bill, ESB 5476, directs law enforcement officers to divert people who violate the new law to “assessment, treatment, or other services” for the first two violations; after the second violation, a violator can be referred for prosecution and, potentially, a fine or jail.

After making compromises to pass the bill before the final day of the legislative session on Sunday, many lawmakers are not fully satisfied with the result. But had the legislature not passed a new law regulating drug possession, some lawmakers worried that a patchwork of local policies and enforcement practices would have filled the vacuum.

The decision that precipitated the scramble to adjust Washington’s drug possession laws, called State of Washington v. Blake, ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—violated the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions.

Without new legislation to address the court’s decision, the state can’t enforce any of its existing drug possession laws. But local jurisdictions could have passed new laws if the state legislature had not acted, which could range from de-criminalizing drug possession to classifying intentional possession as a gross misdemeanor—the most severe criminal charge a local jurisdiction can impose.

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The bill at the center of the legislature’s ongoing push to respond to the Blake decision began as the work of a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), who proposed that the state eliminate all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. In its original form, the bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

But in an effort to pass the bill out of the senate, Democratic lawmakers moved to re-criminalize drug possession to win the votes of some Republicans; when the bill came to a vote on the senate floor, Dhingra voted against it, arguing that it no longer reflected her goal of separating addiction treatment from the criminal justice system. Continue reading “In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession”

Oly Fizz: Wealth Tax Dies, State Could Re-Criminalize Drug Possession, Sound Transit Gets Green Light to Fix Fare Enforcement

1. A proposed 1 percent tax on the wealth of 100 or so very rich Washington state residents is dead for this year. The cause of death: The House Appropriations Committee did not include the wealth tax (HB 1406) on this week’s committee agenda, which means the bill will not move forward. The bill had detractors in both parties and never advanced past the House, where it has languished since early April. The session ends next Sunday, April 25.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the committee was prioritizing bills that have gone through the legislative process. The committee is hearing only four Senate bills this week, including the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and a bill addressing the State v. Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession in Washington state (SB 5476).

Tax reform bills arguably had a better chance of passing this year than any time in recent memory, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses and the pandemic exposing the economic gulf between the very wealthy and everyone else.

While legislators did pass some progressive legislation that had been in the works for years, including the working families tax exemption (HB 1297), and the capital gains tax (included in the budget), the wealth tax stalled.

Tax reform advocates say because the wealth tax is the first legislation of its kind in the nation, it will take some time before legislators start pushing the policy forward. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing about the legislative process,” Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. “If there’s a good idea, there’s no reason not to pass it the first year it’s introduced.” However, Werschkul and other advocates said they think the wealth tax has enough momentum to move faster than previous tax bills.

2. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would re-establish a criminal penalty for drug possession in response to the state supreme court’s landmark ruling in February that effectively decriminalized drug possession.

In that decision, State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—were incompatible with the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions. The court’s decision rendered Washington’s existing drug possession laws toothless, sending lawmakers, prosecutors and attorneys statewide scrambling to adjust to the sudden end of decades of harsh drug policies.

In the legislature, a group of lawmakers saw an opportunity to cement de-criminalization in Washington law by rewriting the state’s drug possession statutes. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue) led the charge in the state senate, drafting a bill that would have removed all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. The bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

As the end of the legislative session approached, senate Democrats rushed to adjust the bill to reach an agreement with some of their Republican counterparts. The resulting amendments, Dhingra wrote in a press release last week, no longer reflected a “treatment-first approach” to drug use. Instead, the revised bill would impose a gross misdemeanor charge for drug possession—making no distinction between a “personal use amount” and larger quantities.

While the re-worked bill would require prosecutors to divert people charged with drug possession to addiction treatment for their first and second violations, it would grant prosecutors leeway to decide whether a person is eligible for treatment after their third violation, re-introducing the possibility of fines or jail time.

Dhingra, still listed as the bill’s sponsor, chose not to vote in support of her bill when it passed the senate last week. “I understand the importance of keeping a statewide policy response moving, and this compromise was the only way to do that,” she wrote in the press release. “Too many lives, especially Black and brown lives, will continue to be shattered by a criminal justice approach to what is fundamentally a public health problem.”

The legislation is now one of two bills written in response to the Blake decision before the House Appropriations Committee. The other, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Woodinville) and Rep. Tara Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island), would make possession of a “personal use amount” of illegal drugs a civil infraction.

3. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation last week (HB 1301) that authorizes Sound Transit to create an “alternate fare enforcement system,” removing what the agency called the primary legal obstacle preventing it from decriminalizing fare nonpayment on buses and trains. Unlike King County Metro, Sound Transit has resisted calls to end its punitive approach to fare enforcement, arguing that a more lenient policy would lead to revenue loss as people realize they can get away with riding for free.

Under existing policy (which Sound Transit is not currently enforcing), people who fail to show proof of payment more than once in a year receive a ticket and $124 fine; if they fail to pay the fine, they can face criminal charges.

Advocates for low-income transit riders have long argued that this policy is too punitive and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color; in 2019; King County Metro revised its own, similar rules to take fare enforcement out of the courts and give riders multiple alternatives to paying fines. Sound Transit said it would like to consider decriminalizing fare enforcement, but its enabling legislation required the fines.

For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

Lawsuit Challenges State and Counties to Refund Financial Penalties for Drug Charges

Pierce County residents attend a 2019 event to receive legal assistance in reducing their LFO debts (Civil Survival Project)

By Paul Kiefer

A nonprofit representing formerly incarcerated Washington residents is suing the state and its 39 counties in an attempt to address one of the loose ends left by the state supreme court’s landmark opinion in February ruling all simple drug possession charges unconstitutional.

The Seattle-based Civil Survival Project filed the class action lawsuit on Thursday in an effort to stop the state, county superior courts and private contractors from collecting Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) tied to simple drug possession convictions. An LFO is a financial penalty that a court imposes when convicting a person of a crime; the penalty is broken into components, including a fee to cover the costs of filing the criminal case and a fee to cover the collection of a DNA sample.

The lawsuit also asks the state and its counties to provide refunds to those who have already paid court-mandated LFOs at any time since 1971, when the state’s strict liability drug possession law—now unconstitutional—went into effect.

“There may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe [legal financial obligations] towards convictions that are no longer constitutional.”— Prachi Dave, Public Defender Association

Courts and prosecutors statewide are still scrambling to respond to the state supreme court’s decision, known as State of Washington v. Blake, leaving the Civil Survival Project without a clear picture of how many people owe LFOs for simple drug possession convictions.

“We’re estimating there may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe LFOs towards convictions that are no longer constitutional,” said Prachi Dave, one of the attorneys bringing the lawsuit and the policy and advocacy director of the Public Defender Association. “The lawsuit is a first step towards learning more about exactly how many people are impacted, and exactly how many people are owed refunds.”

LFO debt can vary greatly. Before a 2018 change in state law in 2018, every LFO—which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars—carried a 12 percent annual interest rate. Christina Zawadieh, a peer counselor at a social service agency in Everett who joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff to represent those with LFO debts, told PubliCola that she owes more than $3,000 for possession charges in Snohomish County. Even as the interest fees outgrew her original debts, she has continued to send money to the county’s superior court. “I have to do it to avoid having a warrant issued for failure to pay,” she said.

Dave added that there is currently no clear way to determine whether any counties in Washington have continued to collect LFOs after the state supreme court’s decision in February. The King County Superior Sourt has already stopped collecting LFO payments; according to the court’s clerk, the county now returns LFO payments it receives.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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

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

An additional complexity, Dave said, is the checkerboard of regulations governing the private collections agencies that often contract with county courts to collect unpaid LFOs. Unlike the courts themselves,  the collections agencies can garnish the wages of people with unpaid LFOs. Additionally, depending on the county, collections agencies charge between 18 and 100 percent of their original LFO as a “collection fee”—in addition to the interest payments expected by the court. Once the state can ascertain how much money private collections agencies have extracted in the form of collection fees from people with simple drug possession convictions, Dave said that the plaintiffs hope “to ensure that the collections agencies return that money in addition to the LFOs themselves.”

At the moment, the Washington Association of Counties roughly estimates that the Blake decision will require more than $80 million in refunds to people cleared of their drug possession convictions. Counties will also have to carry the estimated costs of re-sentencing current inmates to reflect the state’s updated drug possession laws—roughly $65 million.

Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil

1. The Seattle Public Library spent nearly $40,000 installing slanted steel sculptural grate covers above the grates outside its Ballard library branch to prevent unsheltered people from sleeping there. The grates open onto the parking garage, and are a warmer place to sleep than the nearby concrete sidewalks or the grass in Ballard Commons Park, a nearby park and plaza where homeless people also live.

According to library spokeswoman Laura Gentry, the new grate covers, which consist of steel plates pitched at a steep angle to the ground, are meant to “prevent people from placing items or sleeping on the grate due to the public safety risks involved.

“In particular,” Gentry continued, “the Library sought to prevent two regularly recurring incidents: 1) unsafe items, trash and human waste falling through the grate into the parking structure below and 2) the grate getting completely covered so that air could not flow through it, which creates serious safety hazards. Proper air flow is critical for fire safety, and is especially important during a pandemic.”

The sidewalks around the library, and the nearby park, have been a constant source of complaints by housed neighbors who argue that tents in the park are unsightly and that the people inside them pose a danger to children and others who use the park.

Two years ago, SPL took a similar action to deter people from congregating near the Ballard library, installing a series of bent metal pipes at a cost of $10,000 to serve a similar purpose. (At the time, library communications director Andra Addison said the purpose of the pipes was to address “unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles” in response to neighborhood and patron complaints.)

Both installations are examples of “hostile architecture”—elements, such as the “anti-homeless spikes” some cities install on railings and benches, designed to prevent people from lingering in a space or using it for something other than its intended purpose, such as sleeping. In a 2019 photo essay, the New York Times described hostile architecture as “ways of saying ‘don’t make yourself at home’ in public.”

According to Gentry, “the Library has no additional plans to install similar elements at other libraries.”

2. After nearly an hour of public comment, much of it from residents arguing that needle-exchange programs encourage addiction by providing clean needles to injection drug users (an argument that makes about as much sense as claiming the availability of glassware encourages alcohol abuse), the Federal Way City Council voted Tuesday night to suspend a 10-year-old program that provides overdose-reversal drugs, counseling, and access to treatment in addition to clean needles.

As a needle exchange opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

The resolution, which refers to needle exchanges as “hypodermic needle giveaway programs,” extends a voluntary suspension of the program by King County Public Health give an 11-person committee time to meet and decide whether to allow the program to operate and, if so, under what conditions. “It is our collective belief that handing out needles in parking lots does not further the goal of treatment or helping those they serve,” the resolution says.

Hysteria over the program ramped up, according to reporting in the Federal Way Mirror, after a local woman did a “stakeout” of a needle exchange van operated by the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE). The van responds to people who call the program requesting service. The woman said she requested, and received, 100 needles without turning any in—proving, at least to some residents who oppose the program, that the “exchange” program is really just a needle giveaway.

As an opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

Needle exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and provide health-care workers an opportunity to meet with drug users who may be isolated and lack access to health care and other services. (It is beside the point that, as another anti-needle exchange speaker said last night, that “the thing with AIDS is that AIDS is treatable now, and hep C is curable.”)

Since the 1990s, needle exchanges have been common (and are no long especially controversial) in cities; the programs King County funds in Seattle also offers medical care including vaccinations, hepatitis and HIV testing, and abscess treatment in addition to clean needles and Narcan.

Back in 2016, a countywide task force recommended that the county work quickly to stand up two safe consumption sites for drug users, including one outside Seattle. Nearly five years later, the county and city have made no visible progress toward that goal; banning a longstanding needle exchange program marks a significant step in the opposite direction.

3. Last week, environmental and transit access groups were disappointed by the House’s proposed transportation package. This week, their disappointment continued when the Senate Transportation committee unveiled an even more conservative plan on Tuesday. While the House package dedicated just 25 percent to multimodal projects, the Senate allocates even less to that side of the ledger, with just 1.7 percent of the total going to multimodal projects.

The Senate Transportation committee unveiled its new transportation package, “Forward Washington,” at a work session Tuesday. The Senate’s package will generate $17.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 16 years, most of it coming from gas taxes, a new cap-and-trade program, and electric/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tax, and state bonds.

Transportation accessibility groups and environmental groups say the plan is only a slight improvement over previous packages, like 2015’s roads-heavy “Connecting Washington,” and doesn’t advance the state’s transit infrastructure in a meaningful way

City leaders from around the state showed up to the session to support the package, including the mayor of Issaquah, Mary Lou Pauly; the package includes $500 million to widen SR 18 through the city.

Continue reading “Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil”