Category: South Seattle Emerald

Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

After announcing proposals to shift 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Management, parking enforcement, and the Office of Police Accountability away from the Seattle Police Department Monday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered a fiery broadside against the city council, accusing them of proposing an ill-considered plan to slash police spending without giving any consideration to what comes next. Durkan, up for reelection next year, was in full campaign-speech mode, positioning herself as the lone adult among squalling children.

“Seven out of nine council members committed to cutting the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent without a plan,” Durkan said. “This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” Later, Durkan accused the council of making the “arbitrary” decision to “just cut 50 percent because that’s what people put on a placard.” Police Chief Carmen Best piled on, accusing the council of wanting to eliminate the jobs of half the police department this year.

But is that narrative accurate? And is it fair of the mayor to suggest that the council went to a demonstration and was convinced to cut half the police department by a protest sign? Here are some of the primary factual claims the mayor and police chief made to reporters and the public on Monday morning, and an assessment of their accuracy.

Claim #1: The city council has made “made the arbitrary decision to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent this year in 2020 and 50 percent next year” without any plan or consideration of the impacts such a “blunt cut” would have on the city’s ability to respond to crime and other emergency calls. “The city council decided in the space of hours … that they were going to cut the police department by 50 percent,” Durkan said Monday.

The seven council members who committed to making significant cuts to the police department all made slightly different statements, so it’s difficult to generalize about what each of them, individually, believe.

However, the one thing that was unambiguous during last week’s budget meeting was that in 2020, the council intends to cut not 50 percent of the total police department budget (a scenario Durkan has used to suggest the council would immediately shut down the entire police department as soon as the budget passes in August, since half the money for 2020 has theoretically been spent) but half of the budget that will remain for the last four months of the year, or about $65 million over the $20 million in cuts the mayor’s office has already proposed.

Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda said as much last Wednesday, as has public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold, who also emphasized that she supports cutting the remaining police budget over a four-month period, not all at once.

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Jackie Vaughn, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is working with the council to come up with a detailed plan for replacing some police functions with community-based organizations, said, “This scale-down of police will happen in a phased way, [and] the corresponding scale-up of community-based organizations would happen at the same time,” also “in a phased way, starting this year to prepare us for 2021.”

And council member Dan Strauss, who has said he supports eventual cuts of around 50 percent, called it “a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work and cannot work because they are not ready to [start] today. … The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding [to calls for service] without giving then the time they need to be successful.”

Like Durkan, who noted that her own proposal to cut the department by a total of 5 percent this year came about “in three weeks,” the council plans to come up with a plan to reallocate police dollars on a short timeline, but the cuts themselves will be phased in starting in September.

Moreover, since cuts that will involve actual layoffs will require a separate bargaining process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (and some of the proposed changes will require approval by the court monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the department), it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the biggest changes will be pushed back to the end of the year, possibly beyond. What the council is proposing is an acceleration, not an immediate, wholesale gutting of the department.

Claim #2: Cutting the police department means cutting cops… or perhaps an entire police precinct… or possibly no longer responding to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best have repeatedly made the alarmist claim that a 50 percent reduction to the police department’s budget would require them to “fir[e] half the police department overnight,” as Best put it Monday. At the press conference, Best said she wanted to “thank our officers for continuing to answer calls, running into the face of danger to offer aid, all while hearing a political conversation that half of them aren’t needed.” Best explained that “our budget is almost entirely personnel,” so cutting police would mean cutting an equivalent number of jobs.

The police department’s budget is actually 75 percent personnel; it has also grown tremendously over the years, usually outpacing the growth of the city budget as a whole. As Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight has demonstrated, the lion’s share of this growth has come not from adding officers but from salaries that have ballooned well beyond the average salary in Seattle, even before overtime is factored in. Simply eliminating overtime (such as the $6.3 million officers were paid for guarding the East Precinct like a citadel under siege during recent Hill protests) would reduce the department’s annual budget by more than $30 million.

As for the department being forced to “quit responding to 911 calls,” as Durkan put it, or eliminating the entire Southwest police precinct… Neither activists nor the council have proposed eliminating the 911 system. (Decriminalize Seattle’s plan, for example, calls for phasing in the replacement of 911 operators with civilian dispatchers.) And as Herbold pointed out during the city council briefing on Monday, the mayor and police chief do not have the authority to shut down a police precinct; only the council can make that kind of decision.

Claim #3: The city of Seattle has already taken the steps to “rethink policing” that other cities are just beginning to consider, so there’s no reason to make radical changes.

“We have done so much of what is being called for nationally. We’re already there,” Best said. Durkan said people pointing to Camden, NJ, which dismantled its police force seven years ago, as a model for the future of policing in America have “misunderstood” what happened there. After reassessing a costly and often violent force, Camden did “the things that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in Seattle— deescalation training, outreach, mental health interventions.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked similar calls to disband the police, “all the things that they are [proposing], we have already done,” Durkan said. “The Seattle Police Department’s deescalation training is literally the model for the nation.” Continue reading “Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims”

Homelessness Report Highlights Inequities, Growth In Chronic Homelessness In King County

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.

This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent. 

“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club

The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.

“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.

People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.

People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.

The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)

“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor 

“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”

King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.

This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks,  in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.

The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)

Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”

In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”

After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.

Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.

After CHOP Sweeps, Mayor Durkan Says City Will “Memorialize” Protests, “Reimagine Policing”

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

About 10 hours after Seattle police officers moved in to remove barriers, tents, artwork, and people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan, police chief Carmen Best, and other department heads called a press conference to explain their actions.

There was a lot to unpack. Why did the mayor issue the executive order in the pre-dawn hours, a time when most people living in tents in the area (and most reporters) would be asleep? Will the city prevent protesters from gathering at the East Precinct building in the future, and are they planning to use force? What will happen to the art and community gardens? Why did the city expel members of the media from CHOP, when the press is explicitly allowed to remain in an area after an order to disperse?

Durkan did get into a few specifics. For example, the mayor said the city would consider “memorializing” the protests by creating space for “a new garden, a speakers’ corner, or new art,” and would add a “community room in the East Precinct and things in and around Capitol Hill and the East Precinct.” It’s unclear how a community room could fit into the cramped layout of the East Precinct, leaving aside whether anyone would want to go there.

For the most part, though Durkan’s comments focused on lofty, nonspecific goals, like “statewide reforms,” “generational change,” and “investing in community.” The word “reimagine” appeared no fewer than seven times in Durkan’s 12-minute statement. “I will continue to refocus our energy on the hard but critical work to answer the voices demonstrating and demanding change, to reimagine, with Chief Best, what policing looks like in our city, and to invest in the true health and safety of our communities,” Durkan said.

Best, characteristically, described the CHOP in near-apocalyptic terms. “If you have watched the news footage you have seen how absolutely devastating the damage to this neighborhood is,” she said. Walking around the perimeter of the area, she said, “I was just stunned by the amount of graffiti, garbage, and property destruction.” She described residents and business owners coming out of their homes, like survivors of a natural disaster, to “profusely” thank her officers. “We don’t even know how much trauma” the protests caused to residents and business owners in the area, she said.

Durkan has reportedly been at odds with Chief Best in recent weeks, but there was no sign of division this afternoon. Instead, Durkan effusively praised the police chief and her officers (who Durkan described, in an apparent slip of the tongue, as “troops”), calling her “one of the best leaders in this country on policing” and crediting her “very steady hand” for this morning’s relatively smooth removal of tents, people, and barricades from the CHOP.

Durkan said she was expediting assistance to businesses in the area that experienced property damage or lost revenues, and had already spoken to the city attorney’s office about expediting their tort claims so that they could get financial reimbursement quickly. “I heard very clearly from them the pain of seeing their businesses close, the graffiti on their walls, calling back their employees but not yet able to open,” she said.

Asked whether she bore any responsibility for the two young men who have died in shootings in the area, Durkan declined to answer the question directly, calling the deaths “regretful” and saying that she hoped to meet with the victims’ family members. “We’ll have lots of opportunities to do after-actions on what people could have done at what junctures,” she added.

Best said the police would welcome peaceful protests outside the reopened East Precinct, but “there’s not going be lawlessness.” The police force is under a federal court that bars them from using “less lethal” weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and blast grenades, and the city council passed legislation barring the use of such weapons last month.

Earlier this week, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold wrote a blog post revealing that Best had confirmed that one of the police department’s primary reasons for setting up heavily fortified barricades around the East Precinct was not true. The chief and mayor had previously claimed the FBI had informed them of specific threats to bomb or burn down the East Precinct. In fact, Herbold revealed, what Durkan previously described as “credible threats” were actually “a generalized assessment of threat to ‘police and government structures’ in Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.”

The mayor and police chief have had to walk back a number of false or misleading statements about the protests, including claims that armed guards were forcing people to hand over ID and pay a bribe to enter (not true) and that police used force against protesters because one threw an “incendiary device” (it turned out to be a candle.) This afternoon, Best was not ready to let the threats to the East Precinct go. There were “threats to police precincts and to government facilities,” Best said. “We verified that and that information came from our local special agent in charge at the FBI.” 

The area that used to be CHOP will be closed to anyone who isn’t a resident or business owner for the next 10 days, Best said. According to at least one report on social media, police are requiring people to show identification to enter their own homes or businesses—exactly the scenario police department officials accused protesters of setting up last month.

“You Can’t Fix What’s Fundamentally Broken”: City Council Discusses Defunding Police Department

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

As the Seattle Police Department announced it was removing all “sensitive items” from the East Precinct building on Capitol Hill in anticipation of another long night of protests, the Seattle City Council adopted a number of strongly worded resolutions demanding action earlier this afternoon. Among other actions, the council unanimously signed two letters calling, respectively, for the demilitarization of SPD and for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to withdraw the city’s lawsuit against inquest reforms adopted by King County in 2019.

The first letter, which was initiated by state lawmakers, calls for reducing police funding and redirecting it to “community-based alternatives” that promote public safety. The second, initiated by council member Lisa Herbold, would effectively allow King County continue with inquests (formal, public investigations) into police shootings that have been held up by the city’s lawsuit. At a meeting of the Community Police Commission last week, Mayor Durkan said she was unaware of the lawsuit, which the city filed in February.

The council also plans to consider legislation that will formalize Police Chief Carmen Best’s directive to officers that they should not use “mourning bands” to cover their badge numbers, a reform both Best and Durkan initially and repeatedly said was unnecessary last week, given that officers are required to display their first initials and last names.

In addition to short-term measures to protect peaceful protesters, the council indicated they were ready to start real discussions about defunding the Seattle Police Department—a key demand from demonstrators who began protesting in late May after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

More significant than any of these hastily proposed resolutions, however, were the statements council members made about defunding the police department and reallocating the funds to other purposes, including health care, child-care programs, and community organizations in Black and brown communities that have been overpoliced and underserved by the city.

Council members said they were appalled by the police violence that occurred at the East Precinct over the weekend, including last night after Best and Durkan held a press conference to announce that they would change their tactics to create a less heated situation. In spite of these promises, last night’s police action against protesters was widely described as the most violent yet, with hundreds of officers in body armor and gas masks and National Guard members deploying flash grenades, gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against protesters after a small number of demonstrators threw items at the line of police.

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The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

“We’re now in a situation where, in Seattle, babies are being exposed to tear gas and children are being pepper sprayed in the face. … Children are bearing witness to their parents being pulled from their cars and arrested” for participating in protests, council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said.

In addition to short-term measures to protect peaceful protesters, the council indicated they were ready to start real discussions about defunding the Seattle Police Department—a key demand from demonstrators who began protesting in late May after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“We have an opportunity now to shift and to pivot and to think about what we want our public safety to look like and define who it is we want this public safety model to truly, meaningfully serve,” council president Lorena González said. “I don’t think we’re talking about reform anymore. You can’t fix what is fundamentally broken.”

In practical terms, this will mean the initiation of council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda called an “inquest” into the “black box” of the police budget itself, including how much the city has spent deploying chemical and other weapons indiscriminately against mostly peaceful protesters in a residential neighborhood. “We are not going to pass [the budget] until we, the council have a chance to get a thorough , transparent, public deep dive into the Seattle Police Department’s funding,” Mosqueda said. “I am committed to defunding the police and using most of that money, 50 percent ideally, to invest back into the community.” Mosqueda said she hoped that review would wrap up by July 17.

Mosqueda also joined council member Kshama Sawant in calling for Durkan’s resignation, an idea that Durkan has derided as a “political ploy.” Durkan also suggested this weekend that council members who showed up at the East Precinct protests over the weekend were merely “postur[ing]” for political gain and needed to work to “deescalate, not escalate, the situation.”  Durkan also claimed that the FBI had informed the city about a “credible threat” against police buildings, but her office deferred all followup questions to the FBI, and council member Herbold said this morning that she had been unable to get specific details about these alleged threats.

Although Best has appeared at the protest at least two times, Durkan has not shown up at any protest since she briefly spoke to demonstrators outside city hall last week and was roundly booed.

It remains unclear whether the council’s actions—and there will certainly be more of them as the annual budget process continued—represent a potential shift of power between the executive and legislative branches. Historically, the council has tended to defer to the mayor on major policy and budgeting issues, trimming budgets around the margins and avoiding strong statements that directly condemn the executive. As a coequal branch of government and the body that amends and adopts the city’s budget, the council has significant power, but they have not always opted to use it. The use of force against people protesting specifically against police violence may convince them to do so.

Durkan has resisted calls to defund the police, instead saying that she continues to be committed to “reform.” Asked at last night’s press conference whether she would be open to discussions about dismantling of the police department, as the city council of Minneapolis has proposed, Durkan said that was not necessary in Seattle because the city has already undertaken a reform process as the result of the federal oversight established in 2012, when a federal judge found that the city had engaged in racially biased policing and excessive use of force. Last week, City Attorney Holmes withdrew the city’s request to terminate a sustainment plan for that decree, a step toward asking the judge to lift the decree altogether.

“In the coming weeks, we will have a conversation about … SPD’s budget,” and will rethink spending on new weapons, vehicles, and technology,” Durkan said yesterday. It is becoming increasingly clear, both inside and outside City Hall, that this “conversation” will not be enough.

 

Turning Points and Sticking Points in Seattle’s Protests Against Police Violence

The Community Police Commission met yesterday to discuss the recent actions by Seattle police during protests against police brutality.

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Seattle’s protests against police brutality, which began after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, continued into a sixth night on Wednesday as crowds moved throughout the day from City Hall in downtown Seattle to the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. And while it might seem as though little had changed since the night before, when police officers released tear gas and unloaded pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flash grenades on a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters, several things were materially different.

No, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best, hadn’t budged on their commitment to a version of the protests in which a few “bad people” throw objects at police, forcing them to deploy chemical weapons indiscriminately against large crowds. If anything, the list of projectiles that the police claim have been deployed against them only grew throughout the day and now includes urine, feces, “cans of food” and a fire extinguisher.

No, the mayor and police chief have not backed down from their contention that asking officers to remove “mourning bands” that conceal their badge numbers is something that “can’t happen overnight. Asked about widespread calls to end the practice, Best responded, “we’re not going to do that right today,” but said SPD would come up with some way to make badge numbers visible in due time. During the meeting and throughout the day, Best herself wore a mourning band in the center of her badge, sending what could be seen as a message of solidarity to officers who continue to wear them during the protests.

When Durkan tried to refute complaints that she cried over broken windows downtown, but not about police violence in her own city, saying, “I cry for the generations that have been dispossessed…” longtime CPC member Rev. Harriet Walden cut her off.

And no, they wouldn’t commit to stop using tear gas and other chemical weapons against protesters or to try to focus their attention on the handful of people who are causing trouble. Although Durkan lifted the 9:00 curfew, which was supposed to be in effect every night until Saturday, by tweet at 7:05pm (so much for “don’t believe what you read on social media”), she and Best pointedly refused to commit the city to no longer using these weapons against protesters. At the CPC meeting Wednesday morning, Best said, “At the moment we don’t have another tactic to disperse large crowds when we have people throwing rocks and bottles. …I just don’t have an answer better than what we’ve got at our fingertips.”

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

But there were some indications throughout the day that changes may be on their way, whether Durkan wants them or not. The first came at a morning meeting of the Community Police Commission, which was created to address unconstitutional policing in 2012, when Durkan was repeatedly cut off by commission members and staff when she attempted to use her time to speak in lofty terms about the ways in which the nation—not the city—had failed Black and brown Americans. When Durkan tried to refute complaints that she cried over broken windows downtown, but not about police violence in her own city, saying, “I cry for the generations that have been dispossessed…” longtime CPC member Rev. Harriet Walden cut her off.

“We are here because Mr. Floyd, bless his heart, has made it into heaven by being murdered,” but also to address what is happening in Seattle right now, Rev. Walden said. The protests against police brutality aren’t just about lofty American ideals or generations of institutional racism in America, Walden said; they are also about “how the officers escalated” their tactics against lawful, peaceful protesters, by responding to a few thrown bottles by tear-gassing entire residential neighborhoods and wrestling umbrellas away from demonstrators trying to protect themselves from pepper spray.

Roxana Garcia, a CPC staffer, said the commission has repeatedly pushed for reforms to the way police officers deal with civilians, but that those efforts have “been halted for the last three years by city leadership… So I encourage you all to start voting these folks out.” A few moments later, Garcia got specific. “If I can give you all a name, her name is Mayor Jenny Durkan.”

The second sign that something in the air had shifted came when Durkan agreed to come outside and address the crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality and present her and the chief with a list of demands. Durkan got off on the wrong foot with the crowd right away by drawing a parallel between her own Irish ancestors and that of enslaved Africans, saying, “I know, as mayor, that I have enormous privilege, and that my ancestors came here from Ireland to seek freedom, but that many black Americans’ ancestors came here in shackles.”After a brief speech about the need for systemic change at the national level, Durkan briefly responded to a question about mourning bands and went inside, followed by raucous boos.

Roxana Garcia, a CPC staffer, said the commission has repeatedly pushed for reforms to the way police officers deal with civilians, but that those efforts have “been halted for the last three years by city leadership… So I encourage you all to start voting these folks out.” A few moments later, Garcia got specific. “If I can give you all a name, her name is Mayor Jenny Durkan.”

Moments later, Oliver told the crowd that the mayor hadn’t addressed any of the group’s three demands—defunding police, reinvesting the money into communities, and the release of people arrested during the protests. “In fact, she told us about how her family immigrated to the US while black people came in chains!”

The third possible turning point came late in the afternoon, when city attorney Pete Holmes announced that the city would withdraw its motion to terminate a “sustainment plan” under the federal consent decree that the police department has been under since 2012, a step that would have begun a path toward lifting federal oversight. At the CPC meeting, Durkan insisted that the motion had nothing to do with lifting the consent decree—even accusing an attorney for the commission, David Perez, of lying when he Durkan was “trying to end the consent decree—but by this afternoon, her tone had changed.

In a press release after Holmes announced his decision, Durkan said, “I oppose being released from the Consent Decree at this time,” a position she said she had “discussed with” Holmes before releasing her statement. The city’s reversal, though somewhat technical, is a clear concession to police reform advocates who have disagreed with Durkan’s contention that “Seattle police officers have become a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform,” as she put it when the city filed the motion to lift the sustainment plan last month.

Continue reading “Turning Points and Sticking Points in Seattle’s Protests Against Police Violence”

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Selling Newspapers In a Ghost Town

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It’s the middle of the morning on Friday, March 20, and First Avenue in Pioneer Square is, unsurprisingly, a ghost town. The only people out on the streets are people who have to be there, or with nowhere else to be—a few construction guys in vests, a restaurant staffer, and several people wrapped in blankets, sitting on the sidewalk in front of shuttered storefronts.

But around the corner on South Main St., at the offices of street newspaper and homeless advocacy group Real Change, the scene is still bustling, as vendors file in to collect papers at the walkup counter, use the restroom (one of the few that’s still open downtown), and grab paper bowls of chili from a staffer.

Shelly Cohen, a vendor and Real Change board member who can often be found testifying at city hall against homeless encampment sweeps and human-service budget cuts, is preparing to head out with a new stack of the most recent edition. The cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down.”

Cohen, who sells papers at a PCC store in Bothell Canyon, says his sales are down, but contributions are up, so “my numbers per hour are pretty consistent” so far. “I’m very fortunate that way,” he says. Lately, he’s been displaying the paper upside down—“because the world is upside down right now”—and letting people grab their own papers, and make their own change, from a box underneath his chair.

Real Change director Tim Harris says the paper will keep printing, and the office will stay partially open, until or unless Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order to “shelter in place,” which would close down most nonessential businesses and make one-on-one sales impossible.  In the meantime, Real Change has set up a vendor relief fund, is allowing customers to donate to specific vendors via Venmo, and is preparing to move to online-only publication. The paper is also waiving the usual requirement that vendors buy a certain number of papers to retain the right to sell in a specific spot.

Lisa Sawyer, a vendor who usually sells papers at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street downtown, recently moved to a spot in Greenwood, but sales are way down there, too. She says she’d prefer to be indoors, “taking care of my health and everything, but this is the only way that I could get by. Especially my most of my income is going towards my room that I’m renting right now.” Sawyer has lived outdoors, off and on, for the last seven years; in February, she celebrated one year in her new home.

Like Cohen, Sawyers says some customers are giving more generously, sometimes without asking for a paper in return. “I had a customer that put money in a grocery cart and pushed it [toward me] and said, ‘I don’t need a paper, I’m giving you this to support you. I’ll put it in the cart because I’m practicing my social distance.’ I totally respect that.” Sawyers says she’s been wearing gloves and sanitizing her hands after every sale. “I’m being more cautious, too.”

David, a vendor who preferred to give his first name only, had only sold a handful of papers at his spot on the Ave in the University District on Thursday, and about a dozen the day before that—a huge drop from the 40 or 50 papers per day he usually sells. He says the U District has emptied out—“there’s nothing but homeless people and business owners looking across the street at other business owners.”

The biggest problem David sees right now is that with all the stores and libraries shut down, people have no place to use the restroom. “The University Bookstore is shut down. The library is shut down. Starbucks won’t let you use the restroom.” Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that the Human Services Department and Seattle Public Utilities would soon deploy four mobile hygiene trailers that were funded last year and place portable toilets “at locations across Seattle.” As of Friday, according to mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, SPU was still “working on a detailed plan for locations across the city for each type of facility, budget, and staffing.”

Cohen says the city’s slow rollout of portable toilets (and shelters—so far, the city has promised just 50 new shelter spaces, plus 50 new spots in tiny house villages) shows that, as usual, people experiencing homelessness are simply not a priority for the city. “Where are our port-a-potties? Where are the trailers we fought for and won [in last year’s budget]? That’s what needs to be done, like, now. And it creates work for people [staffing the trailers]. What a concept.”

“At an Impasse”: Arrest Diversion Program Still Lacks Contract, Full 2020 Funding

This piece is an expansion of an item in yesterday’s Morning Crank, which includes additional information and comments from Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard. It originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

When two Seattle bike patrol officers busted Andre Witherspoon for selling drugs, then said they would let him go if he agreed to enroll in a program, Witherspoon initially said no.  “I said, I can’t agree to that—I’m not no snitch,” he said Monday. When the officers explained that the program could get him help with his drug addiction and get him into housing, Witherspoon signed up.

At the time, he said, “I was just thinking, this’ll be my way out. … Later on, I discovered it was a good choice, because the program was very, very helpful.”

The program was LEAD—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—and it has helped hundreds of Seattle residents involved in low-level criminal activity get out of the criminal justice system and into housing, health care, and recovery. Last year, the city council approved (and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed) a city budget that included about $6 million in funding for LEAD—enough to reduce caseloads and expand the program, and $3.5 million more than Durkan proposed in her initial budget.

In January, The C Is for Crank reported that the mayor planned to hold back the additional $3.5 million until consultants from the New York-based firm Bennett Midland could complete an $86,000 evaluation. The goal of that evaluation, according to the mayor’s office, is to “surface best practices,” come up with performance standards, and decide on appropriate caseloads for LEAD. The program has been emulated around the country; its founder, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, just won a MacArthur “genius grant” because of her work on LEAD. Daugaard has said that without a signed contract that guarantees full funding, LEAD will have to start shutting down offices and stop taking on new clients.

“The mayor’s office is asking the LEAD project management team to provide data that only our local government partners have access to. We need the government agencies we partner with here to prioritize this if it’s what the Mayor wants, and we have no ability to compel that.”

Last week, Durkan sent a statement to reporters saying that the city “fully expects to contract to LEAD for $6.2 million in services and has been working for months collaboratively to receive important information such as their budget.”’

However, Daugaard says the mayor’s office and LEAD remain “at an impasse,” and on Monday, former clients, staff, and supporters of the program held a press conference in Rainer Beach to urge the mayor to release the funds. In addition to Witherspoon, the speakers included city council member Kshama Sawant, who said that if the mayor doesn’t sign LEAD’s contract, she will consider proposing a supplemental budget amendment. “I hope the mayor doesn’t bring us to that point,” she added.

Durkan’s chief of staff Stephanie Formas says the city and LEAD are working on a letter of agreement about the contract, and that the contract itself is currently going through internal review by the Human Services Department. The letter of agreement is not standard for HSD contracts. Nor are some of the monthly and quarterly reporting requirements, including a requirement that LEAD provide an update every three months on client recidivism. LEAD says they have no way of providing this information, because the police department and county jail do not share that data.

“The mayor’s office is asking the LEAD project management team to provide data that only our local government partners have access to,” Daugaard says. “We urge them to obtain the data they’re seeking from the city’s own departments. We have requested access to those data for the [LEAD] database Microsoft is helping us build, and have been told that can’t happen. We need the government agencies we partner with here to prioritize this if it’s what the Mayor wants, and we have no ability to compel that.”

LEAD and the mayor’s office also have not reached an agreement on what “recidivism” means. This won’t make or break the current contract negotiations, but it could be an issue in future evaluations of the program, since recidivism is on a list of reporting requirements for LEAD—along with “housing placements,” which remains on the list despite the fact that LEAD is not a homelessness program and serves many non-homeless clients.

At the press conference Monday, Witherspoon said that “the primary reason why many addicts slide or relapse is because of the stress involved in just being sober”—finding stable housing, accessing medical care, and securing a legal source of income. LEAD walked him through all that, he said. They “helped eliminate that stress.”

Involuntary Treatment Bill, Modeled on California Law, to be Resurrected Next Session

Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-28

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

A state senate bill aimed at taking people with severe behavioral health issues off the street and putting them into involuntary treatment is off the table for this year, but its sponsor, Tacoma Republican Steve O’Ban (R-28) says he plans to resurrect it next session, because the problem of untreated mental illness and addiction isn’t going away.

“The reason for this bill is really the parents who have these kids … who devolve into a worse and worse condition and by the nature of their condition, they don’t think they need care,” O’Ban says. Under current law, people can only be detained and put under guardianship if a court determines that they’re incapacitated by a “mental disorder” and pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

O’Ban’s proposal would allow judges in three counties—King, Pierce, and Snohomish—to appoint executors for people who have been involuntarily held for psychiatric evaluation five or more times in a 12-month period under the state Involuntary Treatment Act. That law allows people to be held in psychiatric hospitals (or emergency rooms if no psychiatric beds are available) for up to 180 days if a judge determines that they are incapacitated by mental illness. The proposed new involuntary guardianship, or “executorship,” would last one year unless the executor filed for an extension.

The program is modeled on a similar set of bills that passed in California in 2018 and 2019, which authorized three counties—San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—to create a new “conservatorship” program for people with both severe mental illness and addiction. California state senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who sponsored both bills, says his legislation is intended to address “a very small percentage of homeless people … who are severely debilitated and not capable of accepting voluntary services.”

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services.” – State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28)

Wiener says the new California laws create a “very narrow conservatorship to reach this small population so that we can save their lives. It is incredibly inhumane, and certainly not progressive, to allow people to die on the streets.” He estimates that the legislation would apply to as many as 100 people in San Francisco, but advocates who opposed the bill say the number is probably much smaller.

O’Ban’s bill, in contrast, would initially be limited to 10 people in each county.  Patients placed under executorship would cede most of their legal rights to a “court appointed resource officer,” or CARE officer, including the right to refuse treatment or choose their own medical providers, the right to decide where to live, and the right “to make decisions regarding social aspects of life,” according to a staff analysis of the legislation.

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services,” O’Ban says.

At a hearing on the bill earlier this month, parents whose kids had died on the streets due to lack of housing and treatment testified that if the law had been in place when they were trying to get help for their children, they might still be alive today. Jerri Clark, the founder of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, told the committee that her son, who died last year at the age of 23, “cycled through hospitals that kept him just long enough that he wasn’t dangerous anymore” before releasing him.

“If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars.” – Jen Flory, Western Center on Law and Poverty

But critics of the legislation, including advocates for people with disabilities and people who have struggled with mental illness themselves, say that taking away people’s civil rights is inhumane and doesn’t solve the underlying issues: An acute lack of funding for treatment, housing, and intensive case management.

“We do have concerns that adding another layer of legal process to compel people into care, rather than adding new treatment or housing resources, will mainly restrict civil liberties while not actually getting to the desired outcomes,” the Department of Community and Health Services said in a statement about the bill. “Instead of adding another layer of court involvement, we think a middle of the road approach – focusing on expanding flexible, community-based intensive services and added supportive housing resources – will more effectively meet the needs of this population.”

Laura Van Tosh, a behavioral health care advocate who testified against the bill, says the fact that people are involuntarily committed again and again “points to a problem that has nothing to do with people’s mental health. How can people be committed that many times in one year and nobody has ever talked about why the system didn’t work well enough the first time?” She says the current involuntary commitment system “is like going to a restaurant and getting E. coli over and over again, and never figuring out that you should go to a different restaurant.”

California’s conservatorship law requires treatment and housing to be available before people can be placed under conservatorship, although opponents say cities may meet this requirement by simply putting people in the new program at the front of the line for scarce treatment and services. “San Francisco will not conserve people unless they have somewhere to place them,” Wiener says. “In San Francisco, we’re expanding our mental health bed capacity and our shelter bed capacity, we’re building more supportive housing, but it’s definitely a challenge.”

Similarly, O’Ban’s bill says that a county could only implement the program if there are sufficient resources, including mental health treatment and housing, to serve potential clients. The loopholes will likely be the same, if a version of O’Ban’s bill passes in the future, as those in places like San Francisco. There are always beds in Seattle for some people—the question is who gets priority.

Jen Flory, a policy analyst at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says that by putting people in involuntary treatment and stripping them of their rights, “we’re kind of skipping from A to Z. If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars being brought to psych emergency [wards]. And at the end of this journey, they’re like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with you and we need to force this care on you.’”

David Lord, the public policy director for Disability Rights Washington, says that before the state authorizes counties to appoint guardians for people struggling with mental illness and addiction, they should actually fund the services O’Ban’s bill enumerates, which include supportive community housing, outpatient counseling and treatment, peer support services, and substance use treatment.

“If you provide services, make them available, and do it in a way that is attractive to people, they’re much more likely to accept those services than if you try to force them,” Lord says.

Neither California’s law, nor O’Ban’s proposal, specifically focuses on people experiencing homelessness. But the subtext of both bills is that they will help put people exhibiting visible symptoms of severe mental illness and addiction—shouting, acting out, and behaving in ways that make other people uncomfortable—out of sight.

In our conversation, O’Ban referred to the 100 “prolific offenders” identified in a report by former Seattle City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay as a group that might be eligible for executorships under his proposal. And he acknowledged that while his bill is “not exclusively for those who are homeless, I think many of the people who are eligible would be” homeless.

“I can tell you that there are familiar faces, frequent flyers, people who are well-known to the law enforcement community and in emergency rooms,” O’Ban says. “If you start focusing on that population, by identifying the top 100 who are heavily utilizing all those …. you would save the system literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” And “clean up” downtown streets in the process.