Category: race

PubliCola Questions: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy

Credit: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy campaign website

By Erica C. Barnett

When public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy decided to run for city attorney in May, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, one fueled by her frustration that there were no candidates in the race who believed that the current criminal legal system is not just flawed but broken.

Thomas-Kennedy didn’t expect to end up with more votes than incumbent Pete Holmes, or that she’d be facing off against Ann Davison, a three-time candidate who joined the Republican Party during the Trump administration and whose spotty record as an attorney dried up around 2010. Davison ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket, led by far-right conspiracy theorist and gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, in 2020, after running for Seattle City Council the previous year with a platform that included plans to confine unhoused people in large warehouses.

Now, the unabashed abolitionist—Thomas-Kennedy argues that we can eliminate the need for police and prisons by “developing programs and support systems for our communities to decrease the need for police”— is in the spotlight. Critics, including some former elected officials and the Seattle Times’ ill-informed editorial board, have created a cartoon version of the candidate, claiming she wants to unlock jail doors and end all criminal prosecutions. Cable news, social media, and—again—the Seattle Times’ ill-informed editorial board have also shown an almost pathological obsession with tweets Thomas-Kennedy posted during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, turning them into endless #content while soft-pedaling Davison’s hard-right views and her lack of qualifications.

The tweets, which cheered property destruction and violence against cops, look bad when taken out of the larger context in which they were posted (the 2020 protests against police violence; Twitter) and splashed across cable-news websites and Facebook feeds; if they were someone’s campaign platform, they would be disqualifying. But they aren’t a political platform; they’re tweets —tweets expressing a growing mainstream consensus in the summer of 2020 that the criminal justice system was beyond repair.

Nonetheless, the tweets seem to be all anybody wants to talk about. That’s a shame, because Thomas-Kennedy’s plan for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is far more nuanced and thoughtful than the hysterical headlines suggest. Those who say they disagree with her ideas should be willing to actually listen to what they are.

PubliCola sat down with Thomas-Kennedy last week. We talked briefly about the tweets before jumping into her plans for the city attorney’s office, what it means to stop prosecuting misdemeanors, and how she would defend legislation that she personally finds abhorrent.

PubliCola: Can you tell me a bit about where your mind was at when you were posting on Twitter in June 2020? I know was a time of really heightened emotions.

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: I was outraged. People went out to protest racist policing and the Seattle Police Department responded with a level of retaliation that I was not expecting, including tear-gassing the neighborhood I live in 11 times. And, you know, I had to buy a gas mask for my nine-year-old daughter. And, yeah, I was really upset, and I feel like I had every right to be. They’re not private citizens, they’re out here as a group, making these decisions that affect other people—that kill people. I remember the guy that called into the city council meeting saying, “My infant was foaming at the mouth from tear gas,” and it kept happening. So that’s kind of where my head was.

PC: What has the fallout been like for you in the campaign and how has it impacted your ability to focus on the issues in your race?

NTK: Initially, we were just like, “This is dumb.” Like, let’s not give any heat to this. But it’s just being pushed so heavily now that I have had to address it in the media, which to me is just an utter waste of time. Because my opponent is so deeply unqualified for this role and doesn’t understand what the job is. And my platform is backed by evidence, by stuff that’s happened in other places that have shown to be effective. We’re all, I think, pretty aware of the fact that mass incarceration is a failed social experiment. And we are not the safest country in the world even though we lock up the most people.

“At the end of the day, the job is to be the defender for the city of Seattle. And so if there are elected officials that make these crappy laws, I don’t really get to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.'”

I’m here to make things better. And if people have to hate me for it, then I’m fine with that. And  the unfortunate thing about the tweets is that it gave [Davison’s supporters] something to distract with. I think that’s the worst part, because I do think that my knowledge, my plan is very tight. I’m specific about what I’m going to do. I know what needs to happen, and it’s really hard to speak back to that. I mean, my opponent really doesn’t talk in specifics, ever.

PC: If you win, what are your top priorities for your first weeks and months in office? Do you plan to shake things up at the office itself?

NTK: I’m going to leave the civil division largely as it is. I do think Pete was doing a great job in the civil division defending the JumpStart tax and [prosecuting] the lawsuits against Monsanto over polluting the Duwamish. I would like to call in a couple progressive, more aggressive lawyers over there. But I don’t intend to make huge changes over there because it is working.

In the criminal division, I’m going to come in with my policies laid out: This is how they’re going to be implemented, this is how we’re going to do things from now on. There’s a huge backlog of cases, which is I think a great opportunity to really turn the corner with how we’re doing things, prosecution-wise.

I anticipate having maybe one or two more attorneys making the direct decisions about which cases to file, because my policy on filing is going to be much more nuanced. It’s not just going to be like a prosecute-or-not type situation. And then also, what can we do to make sure [unnecessary prosecutions aren’t] happening again moving forward? Because, you know, putting somebody to jail for sleeping under an awning doesn’t make them less likely to need to sleep under an awning.

PC: Are you concerned that there’s going to be a brain drain, either on the civil or the side? A lot of people who have worked for Pete for a long time are leaving, because they have concerns if you win, and they have concerns if Ann wins.

NTK: On the civil side, I think that’s a much bigger danger, just because there is a lot of institutional knowledge there. So one of the responsibilities that I will have going in, if I get elected, is to start talking to people in the civil division and letting them know that I want the work that they’re doing to continue and to see if they will stay under me.

In the criminal division, I’m not so concerned about that because there is no shortage of lawyers that want to do things the way that I am proposing. And because it is pretty different than what they’re doing now, I do anticipate a lot of people leaving. But there’s a lot of lawyers in this town that have reached out to me that would want to work in that division.

PC: If you have a mayor and potentially a city council who are proposing and passing laws that you personally consider abhorrent, are you going to be able to defend those laws, or would you feel the need to farm that work out to private attorneys?

NTK: I think that the city attorney has to work with the council and the mayor to craft defensible legislation and defensible policy. So that would be the role of the city attorney—not necessarily directing where policy should go or how it should go, but really making it as defensible as possible.

PC: What if someone living in their car sued to strike down the law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours and you had to defend that law. How would you go about doing that?

NTK: Unfortunately, I think that’s part of the job. I was a public defender, and I did not agree with everything that my clients were accusing doing, yet I was their defense attorney. I don’t see it as any different than that. At the end of the day, the job is to be the defender for the city of Seattle. And so if there are elected officials that make these crappy laws, I don’t really get to say, “I don’t want to do that.”

“The goal is to end misdemeanor prosecution. Do I think that I can get there in four years? I don’t know. I don’t know if it can happen in eight, 12 years. But that is the goal, because ultimately what we know is a lot of the prosecutions don’t result in actual repair or safety.”

I do think that a bigger issue is implementation. So when it comes to the criminal realm, it’s not like a prosecutor files every time a law is broken. We know that only some people are criminalized. There is a recognition within the criminal system that it would be impossible to prosecute every single person for everything. So I would have to probably defend the legitimacy of the law, but if it’s a criminal matter, that doesn’t mean it has to be enforced.

PC: On the flip side, the city attorney can push an agenda from within their limited scope, and they can help the mayor and the council draft laws that reflect the city’s values. What kind of legislation would you be excited to work on and defend?

NTK: I’m really excited to defend the JumpStart tax and fair housing—all of our tenant protections. I’m really excited about that, which why I think the developers are really angry at me. Any sort of progressive revenue would be the thing that I would be most excited about, along with anything related to climate change. I think those two things are really intertwined in a lot of ways, because climate change is here, and we’re going to need revenue to deal with and to survive this crisis.

PC: How would you approach criminal prosecutions against people accused of misdemeanors? Is your plan to stop prosecuting certain laws on day one, and how realistic is that, given how slow the city has been to fund things like alternatives to arrest and prosecution?

NTK: The goal is to end misdemeanor prosecution. Do I think that I can get there in four years? I don’t know. I don’t know if it can happen in eight, 12 years. But that is the goal, because ultimately what we know is a lot of the prosecutions don’t result in actual repair or safety. I mean, prostitution—I’m never, ever going to prosecute that. Drug possession—not gonna prosecute that either. But for most things, it’s going to take a really nuanced approach to see what is really going on. Sometimes people think of criminal cases as if they’re really this very straightforward thing, and it never, ever is. And so that’s why I’m really hesitant to say that there are specific crimes that I wouldn’t prosecute, because there’s always going to be some weird fact pattern out there. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy”

Lambert Removed from Leadership Roles After Racist Mailer; Tried to Get Issaquah Voters Removed from Her District

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council voted today to remove Kathy Lambert, the East King County Republican facing a difficult reelection battle this year, from all of her leadership roles on council committees.

Earlier this month, as first reported on Twitter by PubliCola, Lambert sent a mailer to voters portraying her opponent, Sarah Perry, as a “socialist…anti-police puppet” being manipulated by the likes of Bernie Sanders, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Vice President Kamala Harris, and her South King County council colleague Girmay Zahilay. The message to white voters—if you elect Perry over Lambert, scary Black and brown leftists (and one Jew) will impose their agenda on your communities—was barely subtext.

The motion, sponsored by council chair Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, said that Lambert’s mailer had “adversely impacted the ability of the council to conduct its business efficiently and effectively.” A related ordinance eliminated the health and human services committee, which Lambert chaired, and combined its duties with that of the law and justice committee, chaired by Zahilay.

“People know Seattle’s not going in the right direction, and they don’t want this to spread to their communities. … I don’t believe that one insensitive item should take away a person’s reputation.”—King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert

In a statement after the vote, Balducci said Lambert’s “mailer and subsequent statements have undermined our ability to work with each other, our staff’s confidence in us as leaders, and our reputation and relationships with outside organizations and agencies. Based on those impacts, it was imperative that we take concrete action quickly.”

Before the vote, the council’s Employment and Administration Committee, which includes all nine council members, held a lengthy executive session to discuss a “Personnel Matter related to Council’s Policies and Procedures Against Harassment and Discrimination. Balducci confirmed in her statement that the council is considering an investigation into whether Lambert’s mailer violated the council’s anti-harassment policy.

Both the motion and the ordinance passed unanimously, but not before Lambert gave a self-pitying, unapologetic speech that minimized the harm the mailer had caused and accused her colleagues of ulterior motives.

The council’s decision to remove her from leadership roles, Lambert said, was “clearly not about race, but about political opportunity to damage my reelection campaign.” Calling the mailer merely “one lapse in judgment” in decades on the council, Lambert accused her colleagues of trying to push “Seattle-centric ideas” by empowering Zahilay to oversee health and human services as part of his committee.

“The people in this county are worried about public safety, crime and response times due to political decisions, people are smart. They see the data and the needs. People know Seattle’s not going in the right direction, and they don’t want this to spread to their communities.”

“I am not going to allow one poorly depicted picture to find who I am,” Lambert said. After the vote, she added, “I don’t believe, as I said earlier, that one insensitive item should take away a person’s reputation, and I hope that for everybody who’s in politics, that you do understand what’s going on.”

Of course, what happens to a politician’s reputation as the result of their own actions is largely out of their control; voters will decide in November whether to reelect a conservative Republican who opposes harm reduction, has floated conspiracy theories about “shredded ballots,” supports anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centers,” and has expressed anti-labor and pro-Trump views, and also sent out a racist mailer. Lambert was on her heels long before the latest controversy, for one simple reason: Her district is changing, as more people move to Issaquah and dilute the power of the white, conservative, rural areas that reliably vote for Republicans.

In late September, Lambert wrote a letter to the chair of the King County Districting Committee, which is in charge of redrawing the lines for county council districts every 10 years in response to demographic shifts, asking that the city of Issaquah be removed from her district, and that the commission shift her district’s boundaries to include more of the rural Sammamish Valley. She added that if the commission needed to move more voters out of her district, they could take some of Redmond as well. Continue reading “Lambert Removed from Leadership Roles After Racist Mailer; Tried to Get Issaquah Voters Removed from Her District”

Judge Strikes Homelessness Charter Amendment from Ballot; King County Equity Now Gets New City Contract

1. Late Friday afternoon, King County Superior Court Judge Christine Shaffer struck Charter Amendment 29, the “Compassion Seattle” homelessness initiative, from the November ballot, agreeing with opponents of the measure that it went beyond the scope of the initiative process. Specifically, Shaffer said, the amendment attempted to overrule the city of Seattle’s authority to determine its own homelessness and land-use policies—authority granted to local jurisdictions by the state legislature that cannot, she said, be overturned by an initiative at the local level.

The amendment, if adopted, would require the city council to spend a minimum of 12 percent of its general fund revenues on homelessness, dictating further that in the first year, that money would have to pay for 2,000 new units of “emergency housing” (shelter). It would also change local land use and zoning laws by requiring the city to waive code requirements, regulations, and fees to “urgently site” the projects it would mandate.

The groups that sued to remove the proposal from the ballot, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU of Washington, argued that the voters of Seattle lack the authority to overturn these sort of legislative decisions, and that the amendment would effectively undo the agreement the city and county made to create the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Judge Shaffer agreed.

“There’s a direct effort in Charter Amendment 29 to control the city’s budgetary authority and that is not disputed in this record, any more than the efforts to control zoning and land use is disputed,” Shaffer said. “These are measures specifically required by Charter Amendment 29, and they both are outside the scope of a proper initiative in a way that is not even close. There are so many prior Supreme Court cases on both those topics.”

In arguing for the amendment, Compassion Seattle’s attorney Tom Ahearne said the court should let the proposal move forward and give opponents a chance to challenge it if and when it’s adopted. “When thousands of voters have signed a petition, opponents should not be able to hold the people’s measure hostage, merely because it opposes the policy or raises questions about the measure’s validity,” he said. “Instead of rushing to suppress the vote, this court should allow citizens to consider this charter amendment in November, and if citizens adopt it, allow the plaintiffs’ claims to be fully litigated and resolved through the trial court and appellate process.”

Judge Shaffer said she personally liked the solutions proposed in the amendment, and might vote for it if it was on the ballot. “But as judge,” she continued, “it cannot stand, and I am required to strike it from the ballot.”

“Judge Shaffer’s ruling affirms well-established limits to the local initiative process and recognizes the importance of the proper functioning of our democratic systems,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said in a statement. “We are pleased that CA 29 will not stand as an impediment to solutions that meaningfully address our housing crisis and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep, and food.”

In a statement issued after the ruling, the Compassion Seattle campaign said that while they were “gratified that Judge Shaffer said that she would have voted for Charter Amendment 29 if given that option, we strongly disagree with her ruling today denying Seattle voters the opportunity to have their voices heard on the number one issue facing our city.” Because an appeal could not play out before the November election, the campaign continued, “We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney. In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

2. Last month, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) announced that 33 community organizations would share the $10.4 million set aside to invest in “community safety capacity building,” one of many simultaneous efforts to support non-law enforcement approaches to public safety sparked by last summer’s protests.

One of the groups that will receive funds is King County Equity Now (KCEN), the coalition-turned-nonprofit that led the push for a city-wide participatory budgeting program—and, when the council supported their plan, took the reins of the Black Brilliance Research Project, intended to lay the foundations for public-safety-focused participatory budgeting in Seattle. KCEN’s brief tenure as a city sub-contractor ended ignominiously when the project’s head researchers left the organization because of alleged financial mismanagement, as well as alleged mistreatment of queer researchers and researchers born outside Seattle. The group lost their city subcontract, and the research project finished weeks later without KCEN.

But after several months out of the spotlight, KCEN is making its quiet return to the world of city contracting. With the new grant, KCEN says it will partner with “incredible local Black-led housing service providers, like First Place Schools [a charter school provider] and Monica’s Place,” a housing development in the Central District, to conduct another research project. KCEN initially asked for $789,391; however, HSD capped grants at $585,410 because of the volume of applications. The group will have a new fiscal sponsor—Parents for Student Success, a nonprofit cofounded by King County Equity Now board chair Dawn Mason.

This second project will include “an inventory of Black community resources, hubs, places to tap in, needs, current and potential Black partnerships, current policies successes, failures, and gaps to address anti-gentrification and spatial community toward building holistic support,” according to KCEN’s response to the city’s request for proposals. The core question that would guide KCEN’s proposed research—”what does community safety and wellness look like for you in place?”—is nearly identical to the central question of the Black Brilliance Research Project. The results of the research, they wrote in their proposal, would help them and their partners create “scalable, replicable anti-gentrification models.”

The organization asked for funds to pay existing staff, to hire more people to work on the new research project, and to pay for consultants, office space, and supplies.

Since the organization’s unwilling exit from the Black Brilliance Research Project, KCEN has focused on anti-gentrification projects; the group is an offshoot of the Africatown Community Land Trust, which focuses largely on land acquisition in the Central District.

During the Black Brilliance Research Project, measuring the success of multiple wide-ranging research teams became a key challenge for KCEN. In their latest grant application, KCEN says they will track their project’s success by assessing the number and “effectiveness” of their community meetings and workshops, the “thoroughness” of their partnerships and the “quality and reach of community-led research,” among other metrics.

Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters

1. The two hotels that the city belatedly rented out to serve as shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in service for a little over three months of their ten-month contracts with the city. In that time, they have moved a total of 15 people into some form of permanent housing, according to the city’s Human Services Department—about 6 percent of the 230 people the city planned to cycle through around 200 hotel rooms over the life of the contracts, primarily through rapid rehousing rent subsidies.

According to a spokesman for the Human Services Department, 13 people have moved into permanent housing from the 139-room Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by LIHI on a $3.1 million contract; 10 of those received rapid rehousing subsidies. Two people have moved out of the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club on a $3.1 million contract, into permanent housing .

In the context of homelessness, “permanent housing” refers to the type of housing, not the length of a subsidy; rapid rehousing subsidies, for example, can last up to 12 months, but the market-rate apartments they help pay for are called “permanent” to differentiate them from transitional housing or shelter. Permanent housing can include everything from long-term supportive housing to moving in with relatives.

Both shelters include rapid-rehousing programs, which the city is funding through separate 10-month contracts. Chief Seattle Club runs its own rapid rehousing program at the hotel, at a cost of just over $800,000, and LIHI is working with Catholic Community Services, which has a $7 million contract.

“We anticipate the number of rapid rehousing enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”—Human Services Department spokesman

According to the HSD spokesman, “Chief Seattle Club case managers are working with participants to identify the best housing solution. … As with any brand new shelter, it takes time for the program to ramp up, clients to stabilize, and for people to find housing solutions that work best for them. This is why the program was designed for 10 months to allow time for individuals to connect with the best resources–whether it is rapid rehousing, diversion, or the permanent housing solutions coming online. We saw this play out at the Navigation Center when it opened. We anticipate the number of RRH enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”

When the city started intensifying encampment sweeps earlier this year, it used COVID vulnerability criteria to move people from encampments into the Executive Pacific Hotel. This has resulted in a population that faces more barriers to housing than the unsheltered population as whole, and thus less likely to succeed in rapid rehousing, which requires participants to earn enough income to afford a market-rate apartment within a few months to a year.

As a last resort, the OPA assembled a 13-person panel for a blind study. None of the panelists heard the n-word after listening to the recording for the first time, and only five heard the slur after investigators revealed the allegations against Zimmer.

LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola last month that “the majority” of people living at the hotel “are not candidates for rapid rehousing.” The Chief Seattle Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. Neither an outside audio expert nor a 13-person panel could conclusively tell Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability whether an officer called a man the n-word during a 2020 DUI arrest.

The OPA’s investigation into whether Seattle Police Officer Jacob Zimmer used the racial slur hinged on a single, hard-to-discern word captured on Zimmer’s body-worn video during the arrest. According to the original OPA complaint, Zimmer commented that the man was a “tall-ass n—-r.” Continue reading “Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters”

Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding

By Paul Kiefer

As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in King County jails subsides, a new report by the King County Auditor’s Office has highlighted an array of other concerns about safety and racial disparities in the county’s two adult detention facilities. Among the reasons for concern: Black and Indigenous women in King County jails spend more time in restrictive custody than the average for all female prisoners, and the death rate for inmates exceeds the national average.

The report, which auditor Kymber Waltmunson and her staff presented to the county council on Tuesday, recommended that the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention take steps to suicide-proof cells, expand psychiatric care for inmates, reduce the number of inmates per cell, and limit opportunities for jail staff to discriminate against Black and Indigenous inmates through housing assignments and behavioral sanctions, among other suggestions.

Inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody.

On some fronts, the auditor’s report showed signs of improvement at King County jails. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several county departments—including courts and the county prosecutor’s office—have collaborated to reduce the county’s day-to-day inmate population by tightening the criteria for detention.

The results are clear: in 2020, the county’s average daily inmate population fell from roughly 1,900 at the start of the year to roughly 1,300 by the year’s end. At the larger, higher-security jail in downtown Seattle, the declining inmate population allowed jail administrators to distribute the remaining inmates across now-empty cells.

According to the auditor, reducing the number of inmates sharing a cell spurred a dramatic drop in the number of fights and assaults in the downtown jail: While the facility’s population fell by 47 percent in 2020, violent incidents fell by roughly 63 percent.

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.

At the lower-security Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, the reduction in violence was less pronounced, and smaller than the decrease in the jail’s population. That facility, which holds fewer inmates than the downtown jail, holds fewer inmates and rarely places two people in the same cell—a practice known as “double-bunking.” As a result, and because of the types of inmates held in Kent, the facility sees far less violence in a typical year than the jail in downtown Seattle.

But Brooke Leary, the Law Enforcement Audit Manager for the county auditor’s office, cautioned the council that the decline in violence—including fights, attacks on inmates and attacks on staff—could reverse if the county abandons its pandemic-era efforts to reduce the inmate population, or if the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DADJ) follows through on King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to close down a floor of the downtown jail by 2022.

In their report, the county’s auditing team recommended that jail administrators work with prosecutors and courts to ensure that the inmate population continues to fall to avoid a future increase in “double-bunking” and an associated uptick in violence.

In his response to the recommendations, DADJ Director (and former Seattle police chief) John Diaz rebuffed the auditor’s suggestion that his department should prioritize providing each inmate their own cell. Continue reading “Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding”

What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle

The Priorities for City Investments Identified by the Black Brilliance Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

After six months and a trio of lengthy reports to the Seattle City Council, the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) has come to an end. The two researchers who led the project, Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe, appeared before the council last Friday for their final presentation, which gave a few glimpses at what lies ahead: An ambitious effort to put a city-wide participatory budgeting process into motion by August.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate city spending proposals. When the council first embraced the idea last fall, the idea was that it would go hand-in-hand with divestment from policing and reinvestment in community-based public safety. The preliminary research would create a working definition of “community safety” and a blueprint for the participatory budgeting process itself, and Seattle residents would get the opportunity to suggest public safety investments—things like emergency housing for domestic violence victims and youth mentorship programs—for which they could vote later in the budget cycle.

Last fall, the council allocated $30 million to pay for participatory budgeting and the winning project proposals themselves; if successful, it will be among the largest participatory budgeting projects in the United States.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

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.

By March 16, council staff and the research leads—with some input from the city budget office and mayoral staff—are supposed to have hammered out the details of a spending plan for the participatory budgeting process. The money for that process will come out of the $30 million, and the final BBRP report also suggested setting aside 20 percent of the available funds to cover unexpected expenses. Whatever remains once the process comes to an end will be available to fund winning project proposals.

The proposed overhead would be significant: In addition to paying for promotional materials, translation, and software development, the researchers’ final report also outlined a plan to pay as many as 37 staffers to collect and review project proposals and encourage residents to participate, among other tasks.

Those new staffers would include the seven members of the “steering committee,” which Glaze and Severe said will create the rules for participatory budgeting, as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” and up to five full- or part-time city employees.

According to the BBRP proposal, seats on the steering committee would be year-long, and most members would receive a salary similar to a City of Seattle Strategic Advisor 2, in the range of $100,000 per year, based on a current listing for a strategic advisor position with the Office of Civil Rights, because of their roles as project managers.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

To choose the members of the steering committee, Glaze and Severe outlined a complex process in which a group of decision-makers will allot points to applicants based on their lived experiences; people with disabilities, Duwamish tribal members, trans or non-binary people, and Black women are among the groups who would receive points because the researchers have determined that their experience is vital to the success of the committee. Who the decision-makers would be, and how they will be chosen, is still unclear. After allocating points to applicants, the group of decision-makers would choose ten applicants from a pool of those who receive high enough scores at random, according to Glaze, to form a “jury” that would then choose the members of the steering committee from the remaining high-scoring applicants.

 

According to the BBRP’s report, applications for the positions will open in March. Excluding the city employees who will provide support for the process, the BBRP’s outline for a participatory budgeting process would require a staff nearly as large as Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

Once formed, the steering committee is supposed to create job descriptions for the full-time work group members. Members of the “accountability work group,” for instance, would “monitor and receive feedback” about the decisions made by the steering committee; a second group, called the “lived experience work group,” would “ensure the participatory budgeting process is aligned with the lived experiences of community members.” Continue reading “What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle”

Five Months In, a Closer Look at Seattle’s $3 Million Community Safety Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council central staff and representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN) joined forces during Monday’s council meeting to provide a progress update on the Black Brilliance Research Project, a city-funded effort by nine community organizations to distill the public safety and community development priorities of marginalized communities in Seattle, particularly Black communities. The research is supposed to be the first step toward a citywide participatory budgeting process, which will shape how the city spends nearly $30 million the council set aside for investments in community safety projects in the 2021 city budget.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose office oversees the $3 million contract that funds the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP), prefaced the presentation by drawing a line between the project and the upcoming participatory budgeting process. “This is not a presentation about the participatory budgeting process,” she said, preempting any discussion of the project’s ultimate goal.

After months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.

KCEN has spent the last five months advertising the BBRP as the vital first step toward “true community safety”: Its product, they maintain, will be a set of problems and priorities that Seattle’s public safety budget should address. To reach that end, KCEN has spearheaded a research process that has involved paying more than 100 community-based researchers to conduct surveys and interviews, produce photography projects, and host podcasts that address themes of public safety and community health. (The organizations that make up the BBRP are subcontractors to the nonprofit Freedom Project Washington, which is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the project.)

But after months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.

The Black Brilliance Research Project began last September, guided by the Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment that KCEN co-produced with the Decriminalize Seattle coalition in the wake of last summer’s protests against police violence and calls to defund the Seattle Police Department. The Blueprint specified that the research would focus on defining “what health and safety actually means, including (but not limited to) alternatives to policing”; it also outlined an ambitious plan to spend roughly $1.2 million to cover the immediate needs of research participants, including transportation and childcare, as well as direct cash assistance. According to the Blueprint, the research project’s final product would be a “road map for how to engage in an accessible and equity-centered” participatory budgeting process by 2021.

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

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

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

The city contract that supports the research, as well as the ordinance appropriating money for the project, set broad deliverables for the BBRP. Aside from a work plan, a community needs assessment, and three data-driven presentations before the council, the contract asks KCEN to produce a “community participatory budget process” focused on public safety and a road map to repeat that process in the future.

Based on Monday’s presentation, as well as the 1,045-page research report that KCEN released last Friday, most of the researchers’ work has gone into interviews, focus groups and surveys—some to assess barriers to civic engagement, some about policing and the criminal justice system, some about mental health, housing and education, and others that posed open-ended questions about public safety.

In a presentation to the city council, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze distilled those suggestions into the same high-level priorities for public safety spending that KCEN has identified in presentations and reports since September

In the work plan they submitted to the council in November, KCEN wrote that all of the research would seek to answer three questions: “What creates true community safety, what creates true community health, [and] what do we need for our communities to thrive?”

While the qualitative data they’ve gathered can be a valuable guide when weighing budget priorities, the data collection itself has some holes: Elderly people, as well as Latinx and Asian American communities, are noticeably underrepresented among the 4,000 people who have participated in the research so far. Additionally, while KCEN has translated its online surveys into more than a dozen languages, the BBRP’s research teams only include one Spanish-speaking member, one Chinese-speaking member, one member who speaks Amharic and Oromo, and no members who speak Vietnamese, Khmer, or Tagalog. (The primary non-English language spoken by researchers, by far, is Somali.)

The researchers’ expanding collection of qualitative data includes hundreds of suggestions for city investments in public safety or community well-being. Some, like investments in arts education for young people, are relatively broad. Others, like the suggestion of a city program to transform vacant buildings into affordable housing, are more specific.

Continue reading “Five Months In, a Closer Look at Seattle’s $3 Million Community Safety Research Project”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened

1. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city would repair, rather than replace, the damaged West Seattle Bridge, she made an offhand comment that could have major implications for Sound Transit’s light rail project if it turns into policy: The new light rail bridge connecting downtown to West Seattle, she said, should include crossings for pedestrians and cyclists as well as light rail itself. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said.

Sound Transit is facing a revenue shortfall of $8 billion to $12 billion over the life of the Sound Transit 3 program due to the COVID-fueled economic downturn. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation Staff “informed us of the mayor’s idea prior to her announcement but there were not any substantive discussions” about how the bridge would need to be revamped to accommodate other, non-light rail modes and how much additional time and cost such changes would add to the project.

Sound Transit is scheduled to publish the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in mid-2021; that document will only include the light-rail-only options that the agency has considered so far, “consistent with the ST3 plan,” Cunningham said. During their conversations with the mayor’s office, “Sound Transit staff noted that the voter-approved ST3 plan only authorizes construction of a light rail bridge. Changing that plan to a multi-modal crossing would require additional funding from alternative sources as well as additional planning time” to accommodate things like supplementary design work and additional environmental review.

The steep grades required for an elevated rail line across the Duwamish River crossing could be an issue for people walking, biking, or rolling as well. Any changes to the current plan would likely require review and action by the Sound Transit board, Cunningham said.

2. In a promotional email sent on Tuesday, Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan wrote that his new podcast could become “an effective tool to push back against the progressive march to socialism.” The first episode of Hold the Line with Mike Solan (rhymes if you say it with a Southern accent!) appeared on YouTube the same day; the featured guest was Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council.

Solan opened his debut appearance with a call for unity, then pivoted to denounce a legislative proposal by city council member Lisa Herbold as a “preposterous” attempt to “legalize most crime.” (The legislation he was referring to would not “legalize most crime”; it would create new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder). But, Solan added, he’s open to bringing Herbold on the podcast to “talk it out.”

After a jarring transition involving a clip from the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, Solan introduced Beach, a close ally of retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best who made periodic appearances at protests on Capitol Hill this summer.

Beach, a lifelong Seattleite, told Solan she “grew up hating police.” Her nephew was beaten bloody more than a decade ago; in 2000, two SPD officers pointed guns at her 5-year-old daughter while responding to an erroneous call from a white college student about a stolen car. Solan interrupted her as she told this story to explain why officers might point guns at children during “high risk felony stop[s],” but Beach forged ahead. “I’ve never had a positive experience,” she said. “Nothing positive?” he asked, sounding hurt.

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

During an hour-long conversation, Solan occasionally ventured toward self-reflection, at one point noting that his hunger as a rookie patrol officer for “action” and car chases in  the Rainier Valley was immature. But he also repeatedly minimized the significance of race in policing: he expressed discomfort with the “social justice term ‘white privilege'” because of his hard-working two-parent upbringing; he dismissed racial profiling by police as the consequence of inexperienced cops with “bad intuition”; and he lamented the public’s tendency to focus on “about 30 cases a year” in which police kill unarmed Black people when “most people killed by police are white.” When Solan commented that “there are racist cops, but there are racist plumbers and racist teachers,” Beach intervened. “But plumbers and teachers don’t carry weapons,” she said.

3. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin—whose press conferences often feature stark reminders about COVID morbidity and phrases like “unprecedented death and devastation”—said Friday that even if the health department gets access to a vaccine, it may have to lay off the workers who would administer it to low-income and homeless people around the county. Continue reading “Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened”

Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters

Seattle Police officers impound a Car Brigade vehicle on Capitol Hill on October 3

By Paul Kiefer

Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver – who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges – had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from attacks.

That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits and intersections.

After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”

“SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”

To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department. According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”

That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone—which SPD had also seized—the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a yellow cab,” he said.

The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.

Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans, but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson and other crimes.

Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles, and potentially face felony charges, in order to protect protesters.

SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.

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The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.

Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters – that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said. Continue reading “Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters”