Category: Media

Times Columnist Wants Seattle To Have So Many Cops, They’ll Rush Across Town to Arrest IPhone Thieves

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote that the Seattle Police Department was recently forced to adopt a new policy to keep track of all the calls they’re no longer able to respond to. “It’s called the ‘Z protocol,'” Westneat claimed. “I don’t know why they picked the letter ‘Z.’ Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?”

Westneat’s characterization of the new police policy—as an acknowledgment that police are no longer able to do their jobs— was wrong. In reality, the new “z disposition” (not “protocol,” although that does sound more dystopian) means that more people will have eyes on low-priority calls before the police department decides not to show up. That’s because it replaces an older policy, known as “priority call handling,” that was in place for most days during each of the past three years.

Under that policy, most low-priority calls would never even get to the police department; instead, 911 responders would tell callers to report the incident online or call back later. Now, these low-priority calls get dispatched and screened by a police supervisor, who decides whether they merit a police response and what kind of response is appropriate. For people, like Westneat, who blame slow call response times at least partly on what Westneat calls a “political class hostile to the idea of policing,” this greater police involvement ought to be something to celebrate.

If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to his iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

Prioritizing calls by urgency isn’t some new phenomenon brought on by staffing shortages; it’s a basic part of policing in every city in America. In Seattle, the police have long deprioritized calls that fall into the “Priority 3” and “Priority 4” categories, largely because many of them don’t require an immediate police response.

Priority 4 calls are non-emergency calls that may not require any written report. Priority 3 calls include complaints about illegal parking, fireworks illegal bonfires, and off-leash dogs. Many Priority 3 calls are the kind of situations that tend to resolve themselves; others are crimes that don’t require an immediate response, like package theft and car break-ins. Overall, police response times for these kind of calls have been slow for many years, because the police have more important things to do—like responding to Priority 1 (risk to life or serious injury or crimes in progress) and Priority 2 (altercations or situations that could escalate) calls.

The two examples of “Z-Protocol territory” Westneat describes in his column are good examples of Priority 3 calls—calls the police have always responded to more slowly than higher-priority emergencies. Both involve iPhones whose owners (Westneat and “a guy I know,” respectively) decided to chase down the thieves using the “find my iPhone” function, and were annoyed to learn that police don’t drop whatever they’re doing to rush to the scene of a petty theft.

“Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system,” Westneat complained.

This privileged view of what police are for (“What has this city come to when the cops won’t even show up to arrest a perp I’ve tracked and collared myself?”) is easy to dismiss as a macho version of the Karen complex—the idea that the city should fund cops so lavishly that every low-level complaint would get an instant, in-person response.

But demands to have police respond in person to every emergency and nonemergency also serve as a counternarrative to the idea that not every situation requires or benefits from the presence of uniformed officers with guns. If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to their iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

This has been amply debated. I would argue that the debate has even been settled—there is now broad consensus on the basic principle that not every call requires a police response. “Defund the police”—which never happened—was always about how to fill the gaps, by setting up and funding alternative systems for responding to situations that should never have fallen to police in the first place, like mental health crises.

Westneat called “z disposition” a “white flag” to criminals. In reality, it’s an acknowledgement that police resources, which will always be limited, have to be prioritized. Not everything is an emergency. The police, and political leaders, could do a better job of making this fact clear, by communicating transparently that the police will not show up for every kind of call, and by providing and promoting alternative options for resolving issues that aren’t actual emergencies. In the long run, many calls should be shifted away from police, and handed off to more appropriate responders at the point of dispatch.

Let’s keep Z disposition, though—and reserve it for people who treat 911 like their personal complaint line.

Report Says Hiring Incentives May Not Work; 11 City Appointees Kept Hanging for Lack of Council Quorum

1. The Seattle City Council has discussed introducing a hiring incentive program to help fill critical vacancies in the city’s workforce—a discussion dominated by some council members’ concerns about a staffing shortage at the Seattle Police Department and the end of a short-lived hiring incentive program for police officers and 911 dispatchers earlier this year.

According to a memo from Seattle’s Human Resources Department, however, the city’s staffing shortages extend well beyond SPD, and financial incentives alone may not be enough to address them.

Durkan’s program allowed both SPD and the Community Safety and Communications Center, which handles 911 dispatch, to pay new employees who transferred from other departments up to $25,000, and new recruits up to $10,000. The report found that SPD “did not experience an increase in hiring since implementing a hiring incentive into their process in October 2021,” but that the CSCC did. A separate report about an earlier (and smaller) hiring bonus from 2019 found that about 18 percent of applicants said the hiring bonus was one reason they applied.

The report warns that the 2021 program wasn’t in place long enough to suss out trends—a fact City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has proposed re-instituting the bonuses for police, emphasized during the council’s weekly briefing on Monday. ” I do not believe that hiring numbers are an indication of whether or not that that program was a success, because the SPD hiring process is, at minimum, six months long,” Nelson said.

In an email to her colleagues on Sunday, Nelson said that according to interim police chief Adrian Diaz, the number of new recruits dropped from 17 in January (when the incentives were in place) to just 6 in March. Nelson also wrote that media reports about the expiration of the incentive program “may have caused applicants to apply elsewhere.”

Overall, the report concluded, the main things keeping people away from city employment are structural problems that aren’t fixed by one-time payouts—things like a lack of access to full-time, permanent jobs, limited promotion opportunities, and “uncompetitive wages.”

Across all city departments with staffing shortages, the SDHR report pointed to another structural reason for the shortage of qualified candidates: An outdated job classification system with minimum qualification requirements that frequently have little bearing on whether an applicant can do the job.

2. Last Friday, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales was forced to cancel a committee meeting at the last minute for lack of a three-person quorum—scuttling two scheduled presentations from city departments and sending 11 would-be appointees to the city’s Arts Commission and Community Involvement Commission home without appointments. Of the five members of Morales’ Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights and Culture committee, only one—newcomer Sara Nelson—showed up.

Of course, showing up at a council meeting, only to be turned away, is less of inconvenience in the virtual era.. And the problem of making quorum hasn’t come down to the wire like this since the council changed its rules to bar committees from meeting with fewer than three members (and prohibit non-committee members from counting toward a quorum) at the end of 2019, when now-Mayor Bruce Harrell was council president; committees often canceled because not enough people can attend, but not usually at the last minute.

Still, the situation was embarrassing enough that it led Morales to apologize to the 11 appointees (whose appointments will move forward at Tuesday’s full council meeting without going through Morales’ committee) and implore her colleagues to show up at meetings when they’re supposed to.

“These appointments are an important part of conducting the people’s business, which is what we all signed up to do. Whether it’s high-profile policy work or the more routine work that really keeps the gears of government moving, we have an obligation to show up and do the work,” Morales said. “I do have a lot of appointments in my committee. Some of them are a couple years old, and so I’d like to move through them. And we do have lots of legislation coming through as well. So it’s important that we actually be able to hold these meetings and be able to vote.”

Prior to 2019, there was no quorum requirement for council committee meetings, which sometimes led to an odd spectacle: A single council member proposing legislation, seconding the proposal, and approving the proposal, all over the course of a few seconds.

3. This week’s “Seattle Nice” podcast probes the question: What are the boundaries of “advocacy journalism“? Former KOMO reporter Jonathan Choe was fired last week—not for his on-camera harassment of homeless people or relentless mockery of mutual aid volunteers (who he insists on referring to as “Antifa”), but for live-tweeting a Proud Boys rally and encouraging his viewers to “mingle” with them and learn “more about their cause and mission.” Continue reading “Report Says Hiring Incentives May Not Work; 11 City Appointees Kept Hanging for Lack of Council Quorum”

UW Can Keep Civilians Who Replaced Campus Cops, Choe Show Canceled, Dembowski Bows Out

1. The University of Washington prevailed earlier this month in a labor dispute with the union representing the officers of its campus police department, allowing it to move forward with a plan to the replace armed police officers in its residence halls with new, unarmed “campus safety responders” without going to the bargaining table. The decision by Washington’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) could set the stage for other employers to shift some duties from sworn officers to unarmed civilian responders—a change that some in Seattle’s government see as a possible fix for the city’s shortage of sworn police officers.

After pressure mounted on the school’s administration in the summer of 2020 to reevaluate the role of armed police officers in campus security, UW president Ana Mari Cauce promised to expand the university’s existing civilian responder programs by adding a new team who could respond to non-criminal emergency calls, including welfare checks. Less than a year later, the university also opted to remove armed police patrols from its dorms, replacing them with a combination of in-house social workers and campus safety responders.

The rank-and-file police officers who previously patrolled the dorms objected to the new arrangement, filing an unfair labor practice complaint accusing the university of “skimming” some of their responsibilities to a new team of employees in violation of the university’s contract with their union.

PERC sided with the university, ruling that the decision to use civilians instead of sworn officers to patrol the dorms has a “limited impact” on the police officers themselves—an impact, they wrote, that is outweighed by UW’s “compelling interest” in rethinking how it approaches campus safety. According to the ruling, the change did not require UW to lay off or cut the pay of any police officers, nor did it reduce opportunities for the officers to work overtime. The PERC ruling also noted that UW has only hired four campus safety responders since January, resulting in hardly any change to who responds to emergency calls on campus. Between September of 2021 and the start of this month, sworn UW police officers received 205 dispatches to residence halls; the campus safety responders received only six.

The ruling could be significant in Seattle, where city council members and members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s staff have expressed interest in shifting some responsibilities from sworn police officers to civilian units like the Community Service Officers (CSOs) and parking enforcement officers. Although the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has generally opposed reducing officers’ responsibilities, SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage has increased pressure on elected officials to find ways to allow SPD officers to focus on serious crimes by assigning more responsibilities to civilians.

2. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski quietly bowed out of the race to replace King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg less than two months after he filed for candidacy in early January. Dembowski told PubliCola that he filed to “take a look at the race,” but he did not elaborate about his decision to drop out. The remaining candidates include the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s current chief of staff, Leesa Manion, as well as former deputy prosecuting attorney Stephan Thomas and current Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

3.KOMO TV, which is owned by the national conservative broadcasting conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, fired reporter Jonathan Choe today after Choe posted flattering coverage of a rally by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, to protest the continued detention of those implicated in the January 6 attack on the US capitol.

Choe promoted the rally in a series of tweets that included a montage of protest footage set over a white nationalist anthem known as the “Männerbund,” which includes the lyrics, “In our own towns we’re foreigners now, our names are spat and cursed/ The headline smack of another attack, not the last and not the worst.” That tweet, which Choe later deleted, encouraged readers and KOMO viewers to come down and meet with the Proud Boys, who would stay on hand to “mingle and answer questions if anyone is interested in learning more about their cause and mission.”

In a second tweet, Choe praised the Proud Boys for being polite and allowing him to “record freely on public property without interference. No umbrellas or hands in my face.” The latter was a reference to Choe’s frequent claims that he is targeted by protesters or “antifa”. On his feed, Choe frequently tags Andy Ngo, a Twitter provocateur who has written sympathetically about the Proud Boys and has worked tirelessly to demonize “antifa” (which he characterizes, inaccurately, as an organized, violent group of militants) to his right-wing audience.

PubliCola independently confirmed Choe’s firing. David Neiwert, reporting for DailyKos, received a statement from KOMO saying the station “did not direct or approve Jonathan Choe’s decision to cover this weekend’s rally, nor did his work meet our editorial standards.”

Choe is best known in Seattle for his efforts to confront and elicit reactions from unsheltered people and their advocates, including mutual aid volunteers. His Twitter feed is an avalanche of footage showing people in crisis and commentary condemning homeless people for existing in public, including endless poverty porn-style videos of people living unsheltered.

Although KOMO has an official policy of “objectivity,” Choe’s feed overflows with over-the-top praise for city workers conducting sweeps of homeless encampments. (“GAME OVER,” he tweeted repeatedly during a recent sweep of tents across the street from City Hall). On many occasions, Choe has started on-camera confrontations with volunteers and activists working with unsheltered people, even identifying some to his readers (and tagging Ngo) as “antifa.” (Choe has blocked us on Twitter, along with many other local reporters following this story.)

Sinclair, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” series, expressed no public concerns that Choe’s coverage of homelessness was exploitative and misleading, nor that it put homeless people in danger and violated their right to privacy. For KOMO, advocating for white supremacy appears to have been a bridge too far; posting videos condemning homeless people for existing in public, apparently, was not.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG

The Guardian, March 2015

By Paul Kiefer

The Guardianthe official newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), went out of print a few months into the pandemic. The paper’s disappearance was a sign of an important shift within Seattle’s largest police union, and one that closed a window into the guild’s interior life.

The print-only newspaper, which had a circulation of about 3,000 at its peak, was read mostly by police officers, retired police officers, labor organizers and city hall staffers. When articles from the paper did make it into the public eye, they were generally buoyed by controversy, like a 2011 opinion piece in which an officer called a training course on racial profiling an attack on “American values” and described Seattle’s elected leaders as a “quaint socialist cabal.”

Among SPOG members and retirees, however, The Guardian’s demise was a sign of a strategic and generational shift. The new guild president, Mike Solan, had recently defeated the incumbent, Kevin Stuckey, by promising to aggressively and publicly defend Seattle police officers against criticism from the public and elected city officials. Solan’s dramatic campaign video, featuring footage of riot police clashing with protesters, drew tens of thousands of views. Stuckey’s video, which focused on the guild’s stability and relationships with other unions, drew only a few hundred views.

After his victory, Solan began reshaping the guild’s approach to public relations. A few months after he took office in February 2020, Solan dismissed former SPOG president Rich O’Neill—who had retired from SPD and returned to SPOG to handle contract negotiations and media relations for Stuckey—and quietly shuttered The Guardian. In December of that year, he introduced a replacement: A bombastic monthly podcast called “Hold the Line with Mike Solan“, produced in the style of conservative talk radio shows.

“On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”—Former SPOG President Rich O’Neill

Typically, Solan uses his podcast to criticize the Seattle City Council, who he argues have sacrificed public safety and the well-being of police officers to appease an “activist mob.” The details of this criticism vary. In one 90-minute episode, Solan decried Seattle’s “Homeless Industrial Complex”; in another, he condemned the vaccine mandate for city workers as an ill-advised blow to SPD’s already shrinking ranks. In contrast to The Guardian, few other guild members have appeared on “Hold the Line”; instead, Solan relies on guests from outside the police department, ranging from former mayoral candidate James Donaldson to encampment removal activist Andrea Suarez.

While Solan’s allies pointed to The Guardian’s shrinking readership among younger officers as a reason to replace the paper with a podcast, O’Neill does not believe that younger officers were to blame for the paper’s demise. Instead, he said Solan made the change as “a way to give the president more control over the guild’s voice. On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”

SPOG published the first issue of The Guardian in 1970 as a venue for editorials about the state of SPD and city politics, announcements about deaths and retirements, updates on contract negotiations, and the occasional recipe. Although the guild appointed officers with writing experience to edit the paper, SPOG’s president had the final say on what made it into print. The paper was mostly written by officers themselves.

“It afforded officers a place to get their frustrations out,” Stuckey said. “If there was a training they didn’t like, they could write about it in the paper.” O’Neill said that he tried to strike a balance between allowing officers to air their opinions and avoiding direct criticism of elected officials or SPD command staff. He did, however, make some exceptions: The paper regularly criticized former city attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes did not return a call for comment.

O’Neill viewed The Guardian as a centerpiece of SPOG’s public relations strategy, and an opportunity for transparency. “It made officers more accessible,” he said. “The department has a policy that says you can’t speak to the press without permission, and if you try to talk to the press anonymously, you can get in trouble. But if you wrote something in the union paper, that was considered protected union speech.”

Some former readers outside the guild, however, believe publishing contentious articles actually harmed SPOG’s mission as a union. Continue reading “Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG”

Crosscut’s Opinion Section is Shutting Down. That’s Bad News.

Crosscut logoBy Katie Wilson

At the end of this month, Crosscut Opinion will be no more. Under new leadership, the news site where I’ve been a columnist for over two years is shutting down the section entirely. At some point next year, newsroom staff have been told, it will be replaced with a still undefined “new process of engaging community voices.”

I’m happy to be proved wrong (it’s happened before!), but to me, this looks like a bleak turn in our local media landscape.

The opinion essay is an irreplaceable element of healthy political discourse. Unlike a traditional news story, it does not pretend to represent an unbiased version of reality. It presents a perspective, drags you through an argument, invites you to think critically: Do you agree, or don’t you? Why or why not? Ideally, it’s read by a large number of people of varying beliefs. People discuss it and argue over it. It becomes common property, a tool that empowers readers to better articulate their own positions and orient their actions.

Over the past two years, I’ve received many emails from readers, ranging from adulatory to enraged. Some of my favorites are from people who reached out to say that they found my writing thought-provoking even though they don’t share my politics or my worldview. Good opinion writing makes you pause and ponder even if you disagree.

Crosscut now hopes to “retool” and develop a “new feature” that aims to “bring more community voices into our newsroom and our storytelling,” according to the memo from management. I’m not opposed to media trying new things. But I struggle to imagine a replacement for the good old fashioned opinion essay that fills its function and doesn’t leave a gaping hole in civic life.

Of course, there are ample opportunities these days to share opinions online. There’s Twitter and Facebook, Medium and Substack. But discourse on these platforms is deeply fragmented or reaches only a niche audience. News outlets with a wide reach are pretty much the only actors positioned to transcend the echo chambers. They’re one of few forums in which people with reasoned opinions can pipe up and be heard across an entire city or region. That’s a responsibility.

Having shut down its “traditional” opinion section, Crosscut now hopes to “retool” and develop a “new feature” that aims to “bring more community voices into our newsroom and our storytelling,” according to the memo from management. I’m not opposed to media trying new things. But I struggle to imagine a replacement for the good old fashioned opinion essay that fills its function and doesn’t leave a gaping hole in civic life.

Last week, Erica Barnett wrote that Cascade Public Media “board members have reportedly raised concerns over the years that the opinion page slants left.” If that is what’s behind this decision, then I’m certainly part of the problem, as the section’s most frequent contributor and someone who often writes from a candidly left perspective.

I do know from past conversations with my editor that Crosscut Opinion has consistently welcomed and even sought out more moderate and conservative  voices, with mixed success. Do Seattle’s centrists not have interesting opinions, or do they simply not care to share them in the virtual pages of Crosscut? I don’t know, but squelching all opinions doesn’t seem to me like much of a solution.

Shutting down the whole section only serves to further diminish an already diminished local media landscape. It cements The Seattle Times’ dominance as pretty much the only game in town when it comes to outlets that publish guest opinions and reach a large regional audience. And that publication skews politically conservative, couldn’t care less about political balance, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered about fact-checking, either.

To be clear, I’m not angling for my job back. I know the coincidence strains credulity, but the day I learned of the opinion section’s demise I had just mustered the nerve to inform Crosscut that I had to stop writing. In my columns I sometimes talk about what the left needs to do. Writing is time-consuming, and time spent writing about doing things is time not spent actually doing them. For now, I need to refocus on my primary work running campaigns for the Transit Riders Union.

Good local media is worth fighting for. I’m sure that Crosscut’s new leadership, so keen on “listening to the communities that we serve,” would love to hear from readers about the decision to end the opinion section and the question of what should replace it. Maybe tell them what you think.

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle-based organization advocating for improved public transit and other progressive urban issues. 

Bullying and Marginalizing Media Critics is a Bad Look for a Potential Seattle Mayor

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Friday, Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell headlined a large indoor event at the China Harbor restaurant, where attendees, including Harrell, appear to have violated local COVID protocols by going maskless.

Photos and videos posted on social media, which I tweeted out on Friday night, showed a large crowd milling around the room, sitting around empty tables, and taking large group photos without masks. King County regulations explicitly require people attending indoor events to wear masks at all times except when actively eating or drinking; there is no exception for indoor group photos, sitting down (at tables or otherwise), or standing and talking to smaller groups within a larger event.

The Seattle Times and My Northwest picked up on the story. In a statement to the Times, Harrell struck a defensive tone, saying that he only took his mask off for group photos (in fact, candid photos posted on Facebook show him standing maskless in the crowd) and while eating (one image shows Harrell and former Gov. Gary Locke, both maskless, shaking hands and leaning their heads close together to talk.)

The Times called Harrell Sunday morning, according to their story. At noon that same day, Harrell’s campaign manager and niece, Monisha Harrell, sent the Queen Anne Community Council a last-minute ultimatum: Remove me as moderator of their candidate forum, scheduled for 3:00 that afternoon, or Harrell would walk. The campaign claimed they made this last-minute threat because of PubliCola’s months-old primary-election endorsement for Harrell’s opponent, Lorena González. Because of this endorsement, the campaign claimed, I could not be trusted to run an “impartial” forum.

A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her.

I got the news as I was heading to my office to set up for the event, less than an hour after discussing some last-minute details with one of the organizers. It was disappointing to learn that, after collaborating with the Queen Anne Community Council on the format and questions for the forum since August, I would no longer be able to ask the questions we came up with together. More importantly, it was disrespectful of Harrell to force the community council to make a choice between having me as moderator and holding their long-planned forum at all.

Monisha Harrell claimed the campaign didn’t know I was moderating the event until Sunday, a claim that strains credulity. In fact, the campaign was informed weeks in advance that I would be the moderator, and both my name and photo appeared on all advertising for the event. If the campaign was so disorganized that it didn’t check to see who was moderating, that’s a bad sign; if they made up this claim so that Harrell wouldn’t have to take questions from a particular reporter, that’s worse.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

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

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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.

To take the campaign’s claim at face value for a moment: The idea that a reporter, commentator, or editor can’t be “impartial” if they’ve expressed a political “bias” in the past is patently ridiculous; by this standard, none the local pundits who get called upon to moderate political debates, including Civic Cocktail’s Joni Balter, KOMO-4’s Joel Moreno, and the South Seattle Emerald’s Marcus Harrison Green, would be eligible.

Making this specifically about “endorsements,” rather than opinions about issues and candidates, is a straw argument, since PubliCola is one of only a few local publications that issue endorsements. KIRO Radio, Sinclair-owned KOMO, and FOX 13 all have strong editorial slants, but Harrell will participate in a debate series next week in which all those outlets, plus the Seattle Times, will provide moderators.

Harrell himself is quite familiar with my moderating style, since he’s participated in several forums I’ve moderated in the past, including during this year’s election. I’ve been moderating debates, off and on, for about 20 years. In all that time, I’ve never sprung an unfair “gotcha” on a candidate, and there’s no reason whatsoever for anyone familiar with this work, as Harrell and his campaign are, to speculate publicly that I would.

Let’s say, though, that I had decided to go “rogue” and ask Harrell about the event on Friday. So? A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her. “Mr. Harrell, why did you attend an event that appeared to violate COVID protocols?” is a legitimate question to ask someone who might have to implement COVID protocols and vaccine mandates. It is not “when did you stop beating your wife?” Continue reading “Bullying and Marginalizing Media Critics is a Bad Look for a Potential Seattle Mayor”

Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People

Just a few of the many headlines “Seattle Is Dying” station KOMO News has posted about a single encampment in North Seattle in recent weeks.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sinclair-owned KOMO TV, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment and its followup, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” has posted at least 11 pieces in recent weeks whipping up fear about a homeless encampment on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. The latest, by reporter Kara Kostanich, began: “A drug overdose at a homeless encampment on the property of a local school has parents and neighbors asking when will something be done?”

However, according to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure. And the encampment is not “on the property of a local school”; it’s on school district property next door to Broadview Thomson K-8, separated from the school itself by both a tall fence and a steep hill.

The incident KOMO characterized as a “drug overdose” happened past the bottom of that hill, on the shore of the lake that forms the encampment’s northern boundary. On a recent weekday, the area was quiet and almost bucolic, more like a large recreational campground than a homeless encampment.

According to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” at the center of KOMO’s story occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure.

A man named Tony, who was there when encampment residents found the man, whom I’ll call A, lying unconscious, said several people quickly gave the man Narcan “as a precaution” before paramedics arrived. Narcan works by quickly reversing the effects of opioids, such as fentanyl or heroin, and putting a person into instant, extreme withdrawal.

“I’ve seen people get Narcan and they usually come out swinging,” Tony said. “They’re usually really sick and upset. He didn’t seem anything like that—he just jumped up and took the oxygen mask off and said he was okay. He ended up leaving and going back to his tent. It was definitely not drug-related.”

Two other encampment residents said they didn’t think A used drugs, and said that he had mentioned having infrequent seizures in the past.

But We Heart Seattle leader Andrea Suarez, whose group started as a one-person encampment cleanup effort last year, is convinced what she saw was an overdose, no matter what the people who live at the encampment say. “It certainly looked like a duck smelled, like a duck and was a duck,” Suarez said. “Now, I’m not an expert, but… if I were to give it Vegas odds, I’d say sure that seemed like a classic OD.” Suarez told me she has seen other people overdose at encampments in the past, so it was “it was extremely traumatizing for me to witness the whole process.”

We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property“—Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower

Suarez said she called 911 while “eight people were on top of [A] arguing about whether to give him a fourth dose of Narcan,” and that once paramedics showed up, “everybody took off—they all fled the scene quite quickly and I was still front and center.”

Encampment residents dispute nearly every aspect of Suarez’s account, but agree that she was “front and center”; she stood nearby shooting videos and photos on her phone as paramedics administered to the man, which she posted a couple of hours later on Facebook. Suarez said she took A to her car after he recovered and tried to convince him to go to the hospital, invoking the “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who seek medical assistance for overdoses from criminal prosecution.

Paige, a woman who has lived at the encampment off and on with her boyfriend, Chris, for about a year, said Suarez comes around the encampment frequently offering “help” that consists mostly of offers to bus people to places they used to live or to “some kind of three-month camp [in Oregon] that you have to pay $250 for,” Paige said. “They’re not offering people places to stay.”

Support PubliCola

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

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

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.

Suarez, along with a drug counselor named Kevin Dahlgren who instituted a “tough-love” approach to homelessness in Gresham, Oregon, acknowledges that she has offered encampment residents rides to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a clean-and-sober housing program located in a former jail in Oregon that charges people $250 a month and requires them to do 10 hours of unpaid “community service” work every week. She says she has also offered to take people to Uplift Northwest, a nonprofit labor agency formerly known as the Mlilionair Club.

Paige and Chris said what they really need is a permanent place to stay—somewhere where they can take a shower—”not having a shower makes you feel kind of crazy; it’s no bueno,” Chris said—wash their clothes, and do dishes without having to beg for water and haul it down to their campsite. But the city hasn’t offered services, and the only useful assistance the camp receives is weekly trash pickups—one reason the encampment, unlike others in the city, is neat and tidy. Continue reading “Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People”

Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has long been a hero to the NIMBY crowd. His columns about density and gentrification have created heroes and villains in Seattle’s growth wars: Little old ladies versus greedy developers; “unfettered growth” versus homeowners calling for a little restraint; “some of the biggest zoning changes in our lifetimes” versus bungalows.

In 2015, a Westneat column warned darkly about secret plans to “do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” The column galvanized a rebellion among the city’s slow-growthers that gutted then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, reducing new density to a tiny slice of land on the edges of existing urban villages and ensuring that Seattle’s single-family areas will remain unaffordable enclaves for the foreseeable future.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

So I was surprised to learn recently that while Westneat preaches the gospel of slow growth and “concurrency”—a buzz word for anti-density groups that argue the city shouldn’t accommodate new people until it has built sidewalks, roads, and other infrastructure “concurrent” with population growth—he and his wife own a development company that bulldozed a bungalow in Seattle’s historically Black south end and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment complex. Westneat’s wife developed the property.

Rents at the Rail House apartments, located about a block from the Columbia City light rail station, start at around $1,400 for a studio and go up from there; prospective renters must have three references from previous landlords and a minimum credit score of 650 (until recently 660). Activists for racial equality have called credit requirements a form of modern-day redlining that has no relationship to tenant quality. Westneat said the credit and reference requirements were a response to a city law requiring landlords to accept the first applicant who qualifies; that law was designed to prevent discrimination by landlords.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

Contacted about this seeming contradiction between the views he expresses in his columns and his family’s business, Westneat responded that he’s never had a problem with transit-oriented development; his issue is with places “where growth is overwhelming the infrastructure.”

“I think all transit corridors and the light rail corridors in particular are no-brainers for higher-density development, Westneat told me in an email. “I do have issues with the way Seattle has gentrified so quickly (but who doesn’t?).” Rail House, he continued, “is a classic transit-oriented development, 13 units with no parking. It works because it is right next to Columbia City light rail station, but it might not be appropriate in parts of the city that lack robust transit.”

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs.

You won’t get any argument from me that transit-oriented development is a no-brainer. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool slow-growther would probably agree with this view today, now that battles over transit and development near transit stops have been mostly settled. (Of course, both Westneat and I have been around long enough to recall when transit itself was considered not just a gentrifying factor but one that would promote out-of-control growth in historically single-family areas like Columbia City!)

As an example of his support for appropriate density, Westneat said that he was all for Mike O’Brien’s 2016 legislation that would have “upzoned most of the city to three units.” (In reality, the city projected that the plan would result in fewer than 4,000 new units across the entire city over 20 years).

“I don’t have a longstanding editorial opposition to density or upzoning,” Westneat told me. 

I’d say that’s debatable—the cumulative effect of column after column condemning specific examples of density is an editorial opposition to density, even if those columns are tempered by general statements supporting the idea of density where “appropriate.” By opposing specific examples of density again and again, Westneat’s columns have poured gasoline on the movement against density of all kinds, including modest density (such as row houses and triplexes) in single-family areas.

Continue reading “Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle”

Jessyn Farrell Joins Mayor’s Race; Tim Burgess Advises Seattle Times on Homeless Coverage

1. Former state legislator (and 2017 mayoral candidate) Jessyn Farrell joined the increasingly crowded 2021 mayor’s race last week, announcing her candidacy along with a list of endorsements that includes current city council member Dan Strauss. (Strauss’ colleague, council president Lorena González, is also running for mayor.)

Farrell, who came in fourth last time (after Jenny Durkan, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver), told Fizz this year’s race is taking place in “a completely different political context” than the last one. “The conversation over the last four years has in some ways been a race to the bottom,” she said. “We are never going to be a city that is all about low taxes and low labor standards, so I think we need to think about the competitive edge in a different way, and I think unlocking the conversation about affordable housing and income equality is a way we can retain that edge.”

Specifically, Farrell said, the city needs to invest in “social” (public) housing, alternative homeownership opportunities such as limited-equity coops and community land trusts, and anti-displacement initiatives to rectify the racist housing policies of the past. “We often think of the housing market as this thing that just exists, and it is very much created by government policy, in ways both good and bad,” Farrell said. “There were very good, robust policies put in place in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s that in some ways helped create the economic stability that created the largest middle class that the world ever knew—and it was also deeply racist. We can look at the past to take that same spirit and robust government role and also rectify the injustices.”

Farrell, who led the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition from 2005 to 2008, said that in the coming weeks, she plans to roll out a “complete communities housing initiative” that will be something like a “Sound Transit for housing”—a plan to add to the region’s affordable-housing stock, particularly around the light rail stations that will be opening over the next 10 years.

“There’s been a lot of handwringing about, ‘the suburbs aren’t ready for this,’ and ‘they’re taking actions that are contrary to a regional approach,’ and those things may be true, but we can still take action,” she said. “Bellevue was infamous for fighting mass transit”—true—and yet by building trust and organizing and talking about transportation in a creative way, we were able to get to a place where the city of Bellevue chose light rail as its alternative.”

Support PubliCola

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

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

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

No mayoral frontrunner has expressed an outright commitment to defunding the Seattle police—González, who joined most of her council colleagues in supporting an eventual 50 percent reduction last year, comes the closest—and Farrell is no exception; she said the city needs to “really strengthen our concept of public safety is,” but added that the police serve many functions that can’t be easily or quickly replaced by civilian alternatives.

“There are programs within the police force that work—you don’t want to reduce the domestic violence unit or the work that’s being done to implement the extreme risk protection order program, and even the detective work that’s happening around all of the theft of catalytic converters,” Farrell said. Those are really important functions that you want to fund.”

Fifteen people have filed for mayor so far, but only a handful of those—including Colleen Echohawk, Bruce Harrell, Andrew Grant Houston, and Farrell—have reported significant campaign expenditures or contributions.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess, who’s laying the groundwork for a ballot measure that would reinstate encampment sweeps, serves on a community advisory group for the Seattle Times’ Project Homeless, a group of reporters whose work covering homelessness is underwritten by local foundations, companies, and the University of Washington. The current Project Homeless reporters are Sydney Brownstone and Scott Greenstone.

Since leaving office, Burgess has become a vocal advocate for removing homeless people from public spaces—most notably in the pages of the Seattle Times, which regularly gives him space on its opinion page.

According to the Times’ Senior Vice President Product for Marketing and Public Service, Kati Erwert, the group meets quarterly with “a senior leadership team and the Project Homeless editor,” Molly Harbarger. “In that meeting stories that have been published are reviewed, key themes are discussed and funders and the advisory group provide any suggestions or feedback associated with coverage,” Erwert said, adding that the group does not “directly influence story choice.”

Most members of the advisory board represent the companies and foundations that underwrite the Times’ four-member homelessness team, including the Raikes Foundation, BECU, the Campion Fund, and the Paul G. Allen Foundation. The group also includes a representative from Vulcan Real Estate, Beth McCaw of the Washington Women’s Foundation (no relation to the McCaw Foundation), and McCaw’s husband, game designer Yahn Bernier of Valve Software.

Continue reading “Jessyn Farrell Joins Mayor’s Race; Tim Burgess Advises Seattle Times on Homeless Coverage”

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

Support PubliCola

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

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

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

A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”