Today is the deadline for cities and counties across the state to sign on as participants in the state’s $518 million settlement with the nation’s three largest opioid distributors, and it now appears all but certain that enough jurisdictions will sign agreements that the state will be able to keep the funds. As we reported earlier this week, the settlement—the result of a case Attorney General Bob Ferguson brought against the big pill distributors for their role in fueling opiate addiction—won’t be finalized unless all of Washington’s counties, and most of its cities, agree to participate.
The settlement will be split evenly between the state and local jurisdictions, with cities and counties receiving payouts worth a total of up to $203 million over the next 17 years based on a calculation that considers three factors—the number of deaths from opioid overdoses, the prevalence of opioid use disorder, and the quantity of opioids shipped to each jurisdiction—equally. Cities and counties have to spend the money on treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and other programs designed to reduce the harm of opiate addiction.
At a meeting of the Burien City Council this past Monday, council members expressed disappointment in both the size of the city’s allocation and the fact that cities won’t be able to receive their funds in a lump sum, which would provide more spending flexibility.
Some cities have been disappointed by the amount they’re set to receive. Burien, where there several dozen overdoses (from all causes) in 2021, stands to receive around $55,000 from the settlement, paid out in chunks of $2,700 per year after a first-year lump sum of around $5,400.
According to Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Brionna Aho, the distribution of funds was “negotiated by the local governments. The state was not a party to those negotiations and had no part in deciding how much each city or county would receive.”
At a meeting of the Burien City Council this past Monday, council members expressed disappointment in both the size of the city’s allocation and the fact that cities won’t be able to receive their funds in a lump sum, which would provide more spending flexibility.
“I do know that this is not much allocation to our city, and honestly I was disappointed that there was not more information shared from the Attorney General’s Office,” Councilmember Jimmy Matta said at the meeting. “At the same time, I know that the attorney general [fulfilled] his obligation as the attorney for the state.” Council members suggested that they might use the money to buy more doses of the opioid-reversal drug Narcan, or pool it with other jurisdictions to get more bang for the buck.
According to Burien City Manager Adolfo Bailon, there was never any question that the city would sign on to the settlement. “I think they were just interested in learning how the money can be distributed in a different way,” Bailon told PubliCola.
“We’re just grateful that something’s being done,” he added. “I am sure that we can put it to use some way or another.”
Other cities in King County will receive larger or smaller amounts based the formulas in a memorandum of understanding between the cities. Issaquah, for example, will receive about $380,000; Kent, around $1.1 million; and Seattle a little over $12 million. The smallest payout in King County will go to the city of Newcastle, which will receive a total of around $6,700. King County, which directly funds treatment and other services, will receive just over $28 million.
1. Cities and counties around the state stand to lose more than $500 million in funds for treatment, overdose prevention, diversion, and education on opioid misuse in a settlement between the state attorney general’s office and the three largest opioid distributors earlier this year, if holdout cities fail to sign on to the settlement by this Friday.
The settlement, which resulted from a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in 2021, will only be distributed to cities and counties if at least 116 of the 125 eligible jurisdictions, including all 39 Washington counties, sign a form agreeing to participate in the settlement. As of last Friday, 100 jurisdictions had signed on, including all but five counties—Adams, Kitsap, Pierce, Skagit, and Snohomish.
Cities in the Puget Sound region that have not agreed to participate in the settlement yet include Auburn, Burien, Everett, Mercer Island, Renton, and Tacoma. According to a letter the head of the AG’s Complex Litigation Division sent to local officials last week, cities can choose to hand their settlement money over to a regional body for distribution, send it to their county, or spend it themselves according to a list of approved uses.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for additional information late last week.
2. The city just moved one step closer to setting up an alternative for some calls that are currently dispatched through the 911 system, when Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and the city council signed a “term sheet” laying out formal steps toward standing up a comprehensive response system for calls that do not require a police response. These calls could include “person down” calls, wellness checks, and low-priority “administrative calls” that currently go largely unanswered.
Among other longer-term commitments, the agreement—signed by Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell and Esther Handy, the council’s central staff director—says the city will establish a work group to develop a pilot program by next January that can be implemented in 2023, a year before Harrell’s office has said they’ll be ready to propose and start implementing a more comprehensive plan to use alternative responders for some non-emergency calls. The term sheet requires the mayor and council to come up with “basic costing information” by October 14 so the council can consider the plan during its fall budget deliberations.
As PubliCola reported in July, the council already passed a supplemental amendment to this year’s budget identifying $1.2 million in funding for a civilian response pilot, using the money from former mayor Jenny Durkan’s since-abandoned “Triage One” proposal. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime proponent of Eugene, OR’s CAHOOTS alternative-responder model, estimated that it would cost a little under a million dollars to fund a three-person pilot program for one year.
1. Last month, we reported on the Seattle Public Library’s directive telling staff not to carry or use Narcan, or naloxone—a nasal spray that can restore breathing in people overdosing on opioids—because of potential liability issues.
The state’s Good Samaritan law exempts people who provide emergency care from civil liability, but a library spokeswoman said City Attorney Ann Davison’s office advised the library that library staffers were “likely” not covered by the law. King County Public Libraries, which operates outside Seattle, also bars staff from using Narcan.
Public libraries are among the only indoor places where people experiencing homelessness can go during the day without being expected to make a purchase or explain why they’re there. They’ve also been the location for dozens of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in recent years. According to data provided by the King County Department of Public Health, there have been at least 42 likely overdoses in or outside public libraries in King County since 2019, including 16 inside library branches. Since 2017, at least eight people have died of drug-related causes at libraries in King County, half of them in Seattle, including at least four involving opiates like heroin and fentanyl.
Bans on using Narcan force library staffers to call 911 and wait for emergency responders to arrive, adding several potentially fatal minutes to the time an overdosing person is unconscious and not receiving oxygen to their brain.
A review of recent fire department reports for overdoses at Seattle Public Library branches shows that it takes emergency responders between three and five minutes to arrive on the scene of an overdose and start administering aid. These reports also show that on at least one occasion, back in April, someone at the downtown Seattle library revived a patron with Narcan, the drug library staffers were formally barred from using just three months later.
The ban on using Narcan is based on the belief that library staffers, unlike other Washington state residents, are not protected under the state’s Good Samaritan laws when they administer aid. By that standard, library staffers shouldn’t be able to offer first aid to patrons experiencing minor medical emergencies, or attempt to assist people experiencing heat stroke when they come to the library to cool off in the summer. And yet they manage to do both. Why are overdoses categorically different?
2. Greg Spotts, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation, submitted detailed answers this week to a list of questions from the city council’s transportation committee about his goals for his first year, plan to get Vision Zero back on track, and ideas about how to create a more equitable transportation system. Spotts’ responses t check off a lot of boxes for people who support urbanism and alternatives to driving alone.
For example, in response to a question about creating “connected safe spaces for people to move throughout the city” without a car, Spotts noted that in many cases, “pressure to preserve just a few curbside parking spaces stands in the way of conveying cyclists safely across a busy intersection. Too many of our bike and pedestrian routes have discontinuities that render the route significantly less safe, useful and attractive than it could have been.” In 2019, former mayor Jenny Durkan killed plans to build a protected bike lane along a dangerous stretch of 35th Ave. NE after neighborhood and business groups argued that removing a few curbside parking spaces would devastate businesses in Wedgwood and Ravenna.
However, Spotts also hedged a bit when talking about commitments to new bike infrastructure, responding to a question about whether he would support creating new protected bike lanes as part of road resurfacing projects with an artful dodge. “I fully intend to support projects and routes as called for in the Council-approved Bicycle Master Plan; and will be engaging with staff, subject matter experts, and community as these projects are developed and constructed,” he wrote. As the Urbanist has reported, the city is currently working to integrate all its transportation related “master plans” into a single mega-plan, a move that some advocates worry could further reduce the city’s commitments to nonmotorized transportation.
He also ducked questions about whether parking enforcement officers belong at SDOT and if he would commit to removing the large concrete “eco-blocks” that business owners place illegally in the public right-of-way to keep people living in oversize vehicles from having a place to park. (Councilmember Sara Nelson, whose own business, Fremont Brewing, continues to flagrantly violate this law, is not on the transportation committee).
Previous SDOT directors learned the hard way that specific commitments can be tough to implement if they conflict with what their boss, the mayor, wants—which is probably why, when asked about equity in transportation investments, Spotts said only that Seattle’s most deadly streets for cyclists and pedestrians, Rainier Ave. S and Aurora Ave. N., “can potentially be reenvisioned to meet community needs.” Harrell has made it clear that his top transportation priorities include maintaining and repairing basic infrastructure like streets and bridges, not big-reach projects like protected bike paths connecting every part of the city.
Seattle will hear more from Spotts next month, when the transportation committee considers his nomination again after the council returns from summer recess.
On Tuesday, the city council’s finance committee approved several pieces of legislation from Mayor Bruce Harrell aimed at improving access to the cannabis industry for Black Seattle residents and other people “disproportionately harmed by the federal War on Drugs,” including “social equity licenses” intended to reduce barriers to entry for people historically excluded from the legal pot industry, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
The new licenses would go to businesses with owners who have lived in “disproportionately impacted” areas or who have been previously convicted, or have family members who were convicted, of a drug-related crime.
The city can’t create new state cannabis licenses, which are distributed (and limited) by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, but they can set standards and fees for cannabis businesses operating in the city. The new local licenses would work in tandem with forthcoming LCB rules that will give priority to cannabis license applicants who have been convicted of cannabis-related crimes in the past; Seattle is expected to gain two new cannabis licenses after the LCB issues its decision.
The council also passed legislation that would require new licensees who buy existing cannabis businesses to retain existing workers for at least 90 days and to preferentially hire former employees for at least six months.
The biggest debate on Tuesday involved several amendments to a third bill that, among other intention-setting provisions, mandates a future “cannabis needs assessment” to “provide demographic information about workers currently employed in Seattle’s cannabis industry; determine the highest training needs of those workers wishing to advance in the cannabis industry and become owners; and include recommendations about whether and how to fund such training,” according to a memo from council central staff.
The legislation also proposes an advisory committee made up of “workers, industry members, and community members impacted by the federal War on Drugs” to review that assessment and recommend future policies to the council.
Initially, Mosqueda named UFCW’s training program in an amendment describing “the type of organization that should conduct the Cannabis Needs Assessment,” but a later version of that amendment, which passed Wednesday over opposition from Nelson and Pedersen, said the assessment should be conducted by an unspecified nonprofit “with expertise in the roles and functions of jobs within the cannabis industry.”
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson voted against the bill, arguing that it was designed to hand the contract for the needs assessment to the United Food and Commercial Workers 3000 (formerly Local 21) which has lobbied the council heavily on this issue. “I’maskingforanhonestandtransparentneedsassessmenttobeconducted, notonethat stacksthe deck foraparticularinterest [group],” Nelson said.
Initially, Mosqueda named UFCW’s training program in an amendment describing “the type of organization that should conduct the Cannabis Needs Assessment,” but a later version of that amendment, which passed Wednesday over opposition from Nelson and Pedersen, said the assessment should be conducted by an unspecified nonprofit “with expertise in the roles and functions of jobs within the cannabis industry.” The needs assessment and the work of the task force could lead to future proposals, such as training requirements for workers in cannabis sales, production, and processing jobs.
Originally, UFCW suggested a new “cannabis equity tax” that the union estimated would raise $5 million a year, primarily for “workforce development and training.” Earlier this year, a representative from UFCW told PubliCola that they hoped to win the contract to do this training work, which would include medical training for budtenders who are “operating as de facto pharmacists.”
The UFCW-backed proposal, which Mosqueda’s committee discussed extensively earlier this year, would have been more prescriptive about hiring, requiring all cannabis businesses to make a “good-faith effort” to ensure that half their workers currently lived in distressed ZIP codes and requiring that at least 10 percent of employees at each business had a past cannabis-related arrest or conviction, or have an immediate family member who met that criteria. That plan was never part of a formal proposal, but it did inform the ongoing debate about what the city should do to promote equity in cannabis.
Although the suite of bills from Harrell’s office represented a dramatic step-down from those proposals, representatives from the existing cannabis industry expressed concerns in a letter to committee members last week. Among them: What happens if a company that processes cannabis into one kind of product sells its license to a different kind of processor, but has to retain all its employees for six months under the new law? “Regulation that impacts hiring must respect the individual who is needed and qualified for a job, and not a one-size-fits-all approach,” the Washington Cannabusiness Association wrote.
The Seattle Public Library has advised library staff not to carry or use naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug sold under the brand name Narcan. As a matter of policy, the library does not stock Narcan or train workers to use it.
In an email to library staff last week, a representative from the union that represents most library employees, AFSCME 2083, wrote that “the City has been very clear that they believe Good Samaritan protections do not apply to public employees administering Narcan. In light of that liability concern, we have now been informed that any employees who administer Narcan on duty may be subject to discipline, unless they are explicitly directed to do so.”
“While these employer directives are in effect—in particular the new directive NOT to administer Narcan—Local 2083 cannot support member administration of Narcan on the job,” the email continued.
The union, which did not respond to a request for comment, sent the email to its members after an unidentified library staffer informed their boss that they were bringing Narcan to work. The drug, most commonly administered as a nasal spray, temporarily reverses the effects of an opiate overdose by blocking the effects of the opiate and causing an overdose victim to start breathing again.
“[The city attorney’s] legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.”—Seattle Public Library spokeswoman
Washington State’s original Good Samaritan law, adopted in 1975 and amended several times since, says that “Any person, including but not limited to a volunteer provider of emergency or medical services, who without compensation or the expectation of compensation renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency … shall not be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission in the rendering of such emergency care.”
A separate law adopted in 2015 created a “standing order” allowing “any person or entity” to obtain a prescription for opiate reversal medication, such as Narcan, and use it for overdose reversal without threat of criminal or civil liability for administering overdose-reversal drugs or for any outcome that happen as as result.
A spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Library, Elisa Murray, said the library asked the City Attorney’s Office if library workers would be protected by the Good Samaritan laws. “Their legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.” Murray said the initial advice came from former city attorney Pete Holmes’ office and was subsequently confirmed by the office of current City Attorney Ann Davison.
“Bringing medicine to the workplace with the intent to administer it while working is outside of a staff member’s assigned work duties and against the Library’s direction related to Narcan,” Murray continued. The library has no plans to train staffers to use Narcan or stock the drug at library branches, “based on the Seattle Fire Department’s medical support expertise and response times.” In other words, it’s up to the Fire Department, which—like the police department—is facing staffing shortages, to respond to overdose calls on time.
The library gave a similar explanation for its decision not to stock naloxone back in 2020, when then-mayor Jenny Durkan handed out hundreds of naloxone kits to local businesses and schools in response to an uptick in overdoses from fentanyl, an opiate that is many times more potent than heroin. On Tuesday, the King County Council declared fentanyl a public health crisis. Last year, the county medical examiner confirmed that nearly 400 overdose deaths involved fentanyl; so far this year, the number of confirmed fentanyl deaths is 272. Overall, opiates have been implicated in nearly 450 deaths this year.
The Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school and trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators in how to administer the drug.
As public agencies go, SPL is in some ways an outlier. Staff at other public agencies in Seattle carry naloxone, as do other public libraries around the country, including Everett’s public library system.
For example, the Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school, according to SPS prevention and intervention manager Lisa Davidson. The district also trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators—along with anyone else who wants training—in overdose response. Most schools have multiple “designated trained responders,” according to Davidson, and district policy allows individual employees to get their own prescriptions for naloxone and use it as long as they’ve been trained to do so.
The school district’s policy also notes that under the state’s “standing order” law, “a person who possesses, stores, distributes, or administers an opioid overdose reversal medication is not subject to criminal or civil liability or disciplinary action if they acted in good faith and with reasonable care.”
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”→
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”→
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.”
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”→
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.
“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.”