Category: Drugs

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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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.

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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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”

Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down

1. Prior to her State of the City remarks earlier this week, Mayor Jenny Durkan made a hot-mic comment deriding Council President (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González; the comment came during some apparent technical difficulties immediately before the livestreamed speech.

“Slow down a little bit, please,” Durkan says to someone off camera, apparently referring to her remarks on the screen in front of her. “There’s, like, all sorts of shit gone now,” she continues, laughing. “We’ll just go to the top and I’m going to, like, do the best I can.”

“If it was easy,” Durkan continues, “it’d be Lorena’s rebuttal.”

Durkan then proceeded to deliver a State of the City speech that clocked in at just over six minutes—the shortest, by far, in recent memory.

Per custom, Council President González, who announced she’s running for mayor after Durkan announced late last year that she would not seek a second term, did provide a response to Durkan’s State of the City speech. However, far from criticizing the mayor or her comments,  González actually thanked Durkan and city employees for “working hard to keep our City government running smoothly every day since the pandemic first hit our region a year ago.”

During a Town Hall Seattle forum on women in politics on Wednesday night, Durkan said she decided not to run for a second term, in large part, because if she stayed in the race her opponents would “feel like they have to be oppositional,” even if they agree with her, “because they’re running against me or supporting an opponent.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “that was my job: Doing what was right for the city.”

Despite Durkan’s insistence that running for reelection during a crisis would elevate politics over what’s “right for the city,” campaigning for office while running the city isn’t unprecedented or irresponsible. In fact, it’s a standard part of a mayor’s job description.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess and SoDo Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman have formed a political action committee to support an initiative related to drug use, homelessness, and behavioral health in Seattle. The new PAC, called Seattle Cares, has received an initial $15,000 contribution from the Downtown Seattle Association. Last election cycle, Burgess formed a PAC with the similarly anodyne name People for Seattle, which worked to defeat council members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant and to oppose then-candidate Tammy Morales.

Although the committee has not filed initiative language yet, clues can be found in a poll PubliCola reported on earlier this month, which asked respondents about their support for a ballot measure that would give police additional tools to remove homeless people from public spaces, apparently in combination with some kind of behavioral health and addiction treatment funding.

The poll asked respondents their opinion of a Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure, according to the poll, would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments across Seattle until the city council eliminated the team in last year’s budget.

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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.

It’s unclear where the funds for the measure would come from or what kind of “behavioral health” and addiction services would be offered to people experiencing homelessness. Supporters of encampment sweeps, quoted in media such as KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” series, often tout non-evidence-based approaches such as involuntary treatment for people with addiction. Burgess said Thursday that the official committee filing “was meant to comply with legal requirements but we are still debating and crafting what we might do, if anything.”

3. Speaking of polls, another poll in the field this month—this one funded by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21— asked about a potential city policy that would impose a surcharge on medical marijuana, specifically, to fund training and certification for people who sell cannabis products. The poll framed the new certification program as an opportunity for professional growth and a way of promoting equity among cannabis retailers, and tested a message positioning the surcharge as a way to fund improved service and support for medical marijuana consumers. Continue reading “Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down”

City Attorney Pete Holmes Will Seek Fourth Term

By Erica C. Barnett

City attorney Pete Holmes is running for reelection, he told PubliCola Monday, in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the federal consent decree, the state of downtown Seattle, and last year’s historic protests. If he’s reelected, Holmes said, he will have served alongside six mayors, about 30 council members, and “six or seven police chiefs,” and “we’ll be negotiating my third or fourth police contract.” Coming out of the pandemic, he said, “I can’t think of a time that it’s been more necessary to have steady and strong leadership.” If Holmes didn’t run again, in other words, who would take his place? Scott Lindsay?

That’s a scenario that makes many Seattle progressives shudder, and why you can expect to see most of them supporting him this year. (State attorney Bob Ferguson is an early endorser).

Holmes, who was first elected in 2009, has been an easy conservative punching bag, beginning in his first term, when he dismissed all pending marijuana cases and campaigned for Initiative 502, which legalized and regulated marijuana statewide. More recently, Seattle’s right-wing pundits have excoriated him for declining to prosecute some low-level misdemeanors, including property damage during protests and so-called “survival” crimes, saying he’s part of the permissive culture that lets “prolific offenders” run roughshod over the city.

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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.

But Holmes has frustrated some progressives, too, by seeking to end federal oversight of the police department,  continuing to promote court-based solutions to public health problems such as addiction and mental illness, and what some see as his failure to aggressively pursue supervised drug consumption sites, which a King County task force recommended five years ago.

Holmes defended his record on police accountability, saying that the city has made impressive progress toward compliance with the consent decree, even if the exact path toward freedom from federal oversight remains unclear. “The final word [on the consent decree] is, does Judge Robart agree that we have gotten there? I think the good news is that he has recognized that we’ve achieved an amazing amount.” But, he added, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what happened this summer, and the new [court] monitor [Antonio Oftelie] has got a plan that will hopefully address it this year.”

PubliCola asked Holmes about his approach to people who commit misdemeanor crimes (the only kind the city prosecutes) that are rooted in poverty, addiction or mental illness. Last year, Holmes helped reboot the city’s community court, which provides alternatives to conviction or jail for people convicted of certain low-level crimes. Given that diversion alternatives already exist, though, why put people through the criminal legal system at all? Continue reading “City Attorney Pete Holmes Will Seek Fourth Term”

Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed

It’s an Afternoon Fizz today, in two parts!

1. Scott Lindsay, a former public safety advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray and a contractor for the pro-SPD lobbying group Change Washington, didn’t just appear in the latest piece of KOMO poverty porn, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”—he co-produced it.

Since losing a race for city attorney to incumbent Pete Holmes in 2017, Lindsay has transformed himself into a spokesman for the belief that homelessness is caused by drugs and drug addiction can be fixed by forced treatment and jail. This perspective is popular among many fed up with seeing the aesthetically unpleasing signs of visible suffering, such as the people unwittingly featured without their apparent knowledge or consent in KOMO’s latest “news documentary,” because it suggests an easy, obvious solution that politicians are simply unwilling to adopt. But as experts on homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction (alcohol being the most common street drug), and mental illness have documented for decades, mental illness and addiction are not conditions that respond to even the sternest talking-to.

Lindsay, a star of both “Seattle Is Dying” films and a co-producer of the most recent installment, strides quickly past tents in a segment from “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”

Lindsay, whose on-camera contribution to KOMO’s simplistic narrative is to suggest that jail and mandatory treatment (of what sort, no one ever seems to say) will solve Seattle’s problems with homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and property crime, told PubliCola he was not paid for his work as a co-producer on the 90-minute film. Longtime KOMO employees, however, are reportedly unhappy that the activist received a producing credit for his behind-the-scenes work on a film that was presented as a piece of journalism.

2. As other media have documented (exhaustively—one wonders where all the cameras and helicopters were when larger encampments were removed over the past year, or why protesters haven’t descended on other long-term camps and walled them off with fortresses of junk), Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was swept this morning. The Seattle Times has been covering the removal from the scene, as has Capitol Hill Seattle. 

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One incident that hasn’t been mentioned in the coverage so far is what happened when the city’s Human Services Department tried to set up a resource tent on the periphery of the scene. The usefulness of such outreach methods is questionable—setting up a canopy tent labeled “City of Seattle” in the middle of a protest against the city seems quixotic—but what isn’t in question is why the table is no longer there: According to HSD, protesters threw bricks and eggs at the city employees sitting under the canopy, leading them to make a hasty retreat. (PubliCola has reviewed a photograph of the scene, which show chunks of bricks and multiple broken eggs.) The employees included three social workers known as system navigators who were previously part of the Navigation Team.

3. Those social workers are now part of a new(ish) program called the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team. (Everything’s an “ecosystem” now.) In addition to coordinating outreach efforts that will be done by nonprofit providers, rather than by the city itself, the HOPE team is supposed to help direct unhoused people into shelter, including 300 new hotel units that are supposed to serve as short-term lodging for people moving rapidly from homelessness into either permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing programs. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed”

City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls.  Continue reading “City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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