Category: The C Is for Crank

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamber Poll Asks Leading Questions, Gets Predictable Answers

By Erica C. Barnett

The head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Rachel Smith, expressed optimism during a press briefing to roll out the Chamber’s latest poll, which concludes that a supermajority of Seattle residents “actively” considered moving last year and that only one in four people would feel safe going downtown after dark. “This data shows us that the voters know what’s going on in our community, they understand it, they have complex reactions to it, and fundamentally, they want action… and I think that’s good news for the kind of leadership that they need,” Smith said.

The editorial board of the Seattle Times didn’t take long to read between the lines, publishing an editorial that called the poll a “cold-water shock” that should prompt the City Council to take a hardline approach to crime and homelessness. The Times piece paid particular attention to a poll question about encampment sweeps, gloating that “[e]ven 55% of the dozens of self-identified Socialists in the poll said the ‘stop all sweeps’ idea is wrong.”

As with all polls, though, how you ask the question matters. The Chamber’s question about encampments was particularly misleading, creating a false choice between an option that does not currently exist in the city of Seattle—offering appropriate housing or shelter, along with health care, treatment, and other services that meet the needs of people living outdoors, and only then asking them to move—and the most extreme “no sweeps under any circumstances” option. Would you rather “provide outreach and offer shelter and services to individuals before closing encampments,” or do you agree that “no individual should be moved unless they agree to alternative shelter or housing”? Given that false choice between two options that no one in city government has proposed, it’s little wonder that both socialists and self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly picked the former.

The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

Similarly, the poll set up a question about police spending in terms that pitted an option most voters would consider reasonable—hiring better-trained police while implementing “alternative policing and sentencing programs”—with one many people would consider an extreme approach: Decriminalizing all nonviolent misdemeanors and eliminating police. Not surprisingly, just 23 percent of respondents said the city should legalize misdemeanors and get rid of the cops.

So what can such a poll tell us? Questions about whether the city is on the right track or the wrong track, whether people have considered moving somewhere else, and whether people trust the city council perennially receive responses suggesting that everything is worse than ever, and that the city council, which has far less power in Seattle’s political system than people generally assume, is to blame. (Having covered such polls for the better part of 20 years, I can’t recall a single example of a business group releasing a poll showing that voters think things are going great and that they trust the council more than they would a random guy on the street).

In a sense, surveys like this one serve as early indicators of how people will feel about (or whether they will vote for) policies that business groups support, like increased police funding, crackdowns on homelessness, and tax breaks. They are less useful, however, at predicting things like how many people actually will leave Seattle (Republicans perennially say they plan to leave, and yet here they still are) and whether people are, individually, happier living here than they would be somewhere else. The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.

And because many questions are designed in a way that produces maximal results for certain outcomes, it can be hard to tease out what voters are actually “saying.” When 61 percent of voters identify homelessness as the issue that they are “most concerned or frustrated about,” that response almost certainly includes people who actively work against encampment sweeps as well as those who are annoyed at the sight of tents on the freeway.

Questions about “crime and public safety,” similarly, look different from the perspective of someone living in a neighborhood deeply impacted by gun violence and the owner of a $2 million house in Laurelhurst who hears about what’s happening in the “inner city” from their local TV fearmonger.

And, as always, there are internal contradictions: Most people agree that the city to spend more money on all sorts of things, including behavioral health care and homelessness solutions, but also overwhelmingly oppose more taxes to pay for all that new spending uamid a $150 million deficit.

The poll did include one somewhat surprising result: Most people, including homeowners, say they support “more housing” not just along commercial streets but in their own neighborhoods. There’s a caveat for that one, though, too: The Chamber only asked about duplexes and triplexes, not apartments; had they asked homeowners whether they would welcome a three-story apartment building next door, they might have gotten a much different response.

Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch

Graph showing Sound Transit's farebox recovery targets for light rail

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit is running out of excuses for preserving its punitive fare enforcement policy.

Under current Sound Transit rules, anyone caught riding a Sound Transit bus or train without proof of payment can be fined up to $124, which can lead to ruined credit and criminal charges if a person fails to pay. Although the agency has suspended enforcement of these rules since the beginning of the pandemic, Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued since well before the pandemic began that the main problem plaguing Sound Transit’s budget isn’t unrealistic financial planning (Sound Transit relies far more heavily than most transit agencies on revenue from fares) but something much simpler: Its riders are selfish.

In a presentation titled “Need for a Comprehensive Fares Strategy” during Sound Transit’s board meeting last week, Rogoff framed the agency’s approach fare enforcement as primarily a budget problem, rather than an issue of equity and access. (Several local media outlets, including the Seattle Times, did Rogoff a favor by dutifully amplifying this spin.) Riders, Rogoff argued have become increasingly brazen about taking the train without paying the $3 fare, putting the financial solvency of the agency at risk. The agency now estimates that between 10 and 30 percent of riders are “fare evaders.”

Riders on Sound Transit trains are expected to “tap” their fare cards, known as ORCA cards, when they enter fare-paid zones; the light rail system has no physical turnstiles. In response to escalating criticism of racial disparities in enforcement, Sound Transit has replaced its “fare enforcement officers” with “fare ambassadors,” a group of unarmed, vest-wearing workers who issue warnings, but not tickets, to riders who haven’t paid; they also offer reduced-fare cards to riders who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $27,000 a year. At last week’s board meeting, the agency issued its latest fare enforcement proposal, which would give non-paying riders up to four warnings before imposing the $124 penalty.

According to a Sound Transit spokesperson, the fare ambassador program cost $2.7 million, including $1.9 million for 24 fare ambassadors and two supervisors. The rest goes toward marketing for low-income ORCA passes, uniforms, training, and handout materials, among other costs.

For years, transit advocates have argued that fare enforcement policies are excessively punitive and unfairly target low-income people and people of color. King County Metro, the region’s other large transit agency, responded to these complaints in 2018 by auditing the system. When that audit confirmed that fare enforcement disproportionately harmed low-income riders and riders of color, the agency responded by reducing fines, creating new fine-resolution options, and removing penalties that could destroy a person’s credit or land them in court.

Sound Transit’s response to similar complaints, in contrast, has been to spend years processing the issue and proposing incremental changes, like allowing riders two warnings per year instead of one, while continuing to insist that the real problem is “fare evasion” that prevents Sound Transit from reaching its ambitious farebox recovery goal.

“Put simply,” Rogoff said last week, “our fare collection system relies overwhelmingly on an honor system. And our increasingly acute problem is that our riders aren’t honoring the system.” Because fare ambassadors spend “even more time with each passenger” than fare enforcement officers, Rogoff said, they’re only able to check 2 percent of riders for compliance. Sound Transit needs to “at least double” that rate, Rogoff continued, “because when you’ve got a situation when you have a 98 percent chance of [not being asked to show proof of payment] it just lends itself to further noncompliance. We need to get back to a place where our passengers are honoring the honor system that we’re using.”

As an example, Rogoff said he had recently been at a Mariners game and observed, to his growing horror, people who had no problem paying “80, $100 for tickets to a Mariners game, buying beers at $13 a pop, and then at the end of the game all descending on to our Stadium Station and almost no one was tapping on or buying tickets. It was troubling, and it’s something we need to rectify.”
Graph showing Sound Transit Fare recovery assumptions

Rogoff’s anecdote was designed to be noncontroversial: Who wouldn’t agree that people who can afford hundreds of dollars for sports tickets and beer should cough up $3 for the train? It also neatly sidestepped advocates’ consistent, clearly expressed problem with Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy, which is that the supposedly “neutral” process overwhelmingly targets Black and brown riders—not affluent, mostly white baseball fans.

When board member Claudia Balducci asked Rogoff whether a less punitive approach to fare enforcement might lead people to see Sound Transit as a less intimidating, more welcoming transit system, Rogoff offered a brief, rambling answer about immigration enforcement before returning to his complaints about passenger behavior.

“Forty percent of the people that the fare ambassadors are encountering are refusing to even identify themselves,” he said. “You need to monitor that see how we can improve on it. Because you can’t have a first, second, third, fourth or fifth warning if we don’t know who you are. And 40 percent of the folks won’t even cooperate at that level. That’s going to make this a very, very tough slog.” Continue reading “Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch”

Disdainful of Transparency to the End, Durkan Administration Deletes Critical Public Information Resource

By Erica C. Barnett

Last summer, the city’s public-facing employee directory—a vital resource that enabled members of the public to access contact information for city employees as well as information about city departments’ Byzantine bureaucracy—vanished suddenly from the city’s website. The directory was the only place where members of the public could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city.

Asked what happened to the directory last summer, the Durkan Administration office cited unspecified technical issues and assured PubliCola that it would be back before the end of the year.

“I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City,” the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer said in a statement released by Durkan’s office last summer. “This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution.”

That, supposedly, was the plan. Instead, in a decision typical of Durkan’s disdain for transparency and access to public information, the administration quietly decided to kill the directory on its way out the door. According to an update posted on the city’s website in mid-December, the city’s Office of Human Resources, headed by Durkan appointee Bobby Humes, issued a “decision” at some point late in 2021 that “the directory would no longer be maintained.”

According to Loter, the HR department’s “decision is to not maintain the directory and to rely on departmental contact information, which is also posted at that location as well as on many departmental web sites.” PubliCola has requested a copy of this decision.

The erasure of the public-facing city directory is a blow to transparency and access to public information. It’s hardly surprising that a mayor infamous for her disappearing text messages would also be responsible for eliminating this link to basic information about city government in her final months, but it’s disheartening nonetheless.

From now on, anyone who wants to contact a city employee by email or phone will have to take their chances on a limited number of official gatekeepers or file a public disclosure request for the information—a process that can take months.

We’ve reached out to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office for comment on the previous administration’s decision to disappear the directory.

In the meantime, PubliCola has requested a current copy of the directory. If the city won’t post it, we will.

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

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At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?


Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

“In This House,” Seattle Votes for the Status Quo

Bruce Harrell campaign sign with extra sign reading "MODERATE."

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, less than 18 months after nationwide protests against police violence prompted Seattle leaders to consider new approaches to public safety, Seattle voters endorsed a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, electing a slate of candidates who promised to hire more cops, crack down on crimes associated with poverty and addiction, and remove more unsheltered people from public spaces, with “consequences” for those who refuse to go.

Longtime former city council member Bruce Harrell will be mayor;  longtime city council aide-turned-“take back Seattle” brewery owner Sara Nelson will replace Lorena González on the city council, and Republican (and three-time candidate) Ann Davison will be city attorney.

The new regime is a significant win for the business and political leaders who have been shouting for the past year and a half that Seattle Is Dying because the city’s mushy progressivism has gone too far. What’s ironic about that view is that “the left”—that is, people on Twitter who have the unique ability to send mainstream pundits into fits of derangement—has essentially no power in Seattle city government.

Yes, there are a few more progressive faces on the council than there were a dozen years ago. But that doesn’t mean they’ve had much luck changing city policy (and on many issues, the council is still sharply divided). Under Seattle’s form of government, the mayor controls almost every city department and has the authority to ignore or reverse the council’s policy and spending directives, meaning that even if the council were to tell the mayor to, say, cut the police department by 50 percent, the mayor could and probably would just ignore them—as Seattle’s current moderate mayor, Jenny Durkan, has done with policy after policy. If the council’s progressive bloc could spend money or establish policy by fiat, you would see a whole lot more hotel-based shelters, public restrooms, and handwashing sinks around the city.

Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created.

For the past several years—the period when centrist pundits claim that Seattle was controlled by a far-left progressive bloc—the city has stayed the course on any number of policies that previously failed to address the city’s problems—pouring money into downtown Seattle at the expense of other neighborhoods, offering huge hiring bonuses to new police officers, and ramping up encampment sweeps to pre-pandemic levels. (Prior to the current administration, encampment residents generally got 72 hours’ notice before a sweep.)  Progress on Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, has not only stalled but reversed, with more people killed by traffic violence last year than in any year since 2006. Exclusionary zoning laws continue to prohibit new housing except in tiny strips of land along major arterial roads. And overdose deaths have increased dramatically, an outcome that could have been mitigated by opening the supervised consumption site King County recommended in 2016, and which Durkan has consistently (and successfully) opposed.

The claim that Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, and Ann Davison represent a set of “fresh new faces” with “new ideas” may be the most confusing piece of conventional wisdom being pushed by Seattle’s pundit class. Harrell served on the council for 12 years before stepping down at the end of 2019. His homelessness policy, a copy-and-paste of the failed Compassion Seattle charter amendment, was drafted by 12-year council veteran Tim Burgess. And Nelson’s old boss, Richard Conlin, was a 16-year incumbent.

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As mayor, Harrell’s campaign promises sound pretty much the same as Durkan’s when she came into office: More, better, reformed police, lots of new shelter beds, and a “pragmatic” approach to the city’s basic issues, like transportation. (Cycling advocates have considered Durkan particularly hostile to their requests for safer infrastructure; at a recent campaign forum, Harrell made a point of mocking bikes as a viable transportation option.) Durkan never did build all 1,000 tiny houses she promised to complete by the end of her first year, and the police department is so far from “reform” that it remains under a federal consent decree, after Durkan and outgoing city attorney Pete Holmes prematurely tried to terminate the agreement in 2020. At the beginning of her term, Durkan vowed to apply a compassionate but tough approach to the city’s most pressing issues. Now that her four years are up, Harrell is proposing more of the same.

Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.

Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created. For people who are well represented by the current status quo, it can feel like oppression to listen to how people talk about you and your political allies in an online space that you chose to enter. But look around: Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.

Davison, admittedly, is a special case—one Seattle’s center left may soon regret supporting as gleefully as they backed moderates Nelson and Harrell. On election night, several Davison supporters at Harrell’s party referred to her, somewhat apologetically, as “Republican-Lite,” but there’s little question about the views she has expressed in public. When Davison ran against city council incumbent Debora Juarez (one of those moderate council members the pundits who scream about the “far-left council” never mention) in 2019, she proposed fixing homelessness by rounding up unsheltered people and busing them to warehouses on the outskirts of the city, where they would somehow be kept alive for less than $1,500 a year. A year later, she declared herself a proud Republican and ran for lieutenant governor on the Donald Trump/Loren Culp ticket. Her plans for that office were even easier to fit on an index card: If elected, she said, she would abolish the office.

Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue.

And there is considerable overlap between Harrell’s supporters and Davison’s (they even share some of the same consultants). On election night, after Harrell made his celebratory speech, a number of people from Harrell’s party piled into their cars and headed over to Davison’s celebration party. One was former Ed Murray public safety advisor (and Davison endorser, Chris Gregoire’s son-in-law) Scott Lindsay, who could hold a high-ranking position in the Davison city attorney’s office. Although most of the work of the office is in the civil division, Davison has said her top priority would be prosecuting misdemeanors—a radical reversal of the policies Holmes has put in place over the past 12 years, and a retreat into the zero-tolerance, broken-windows approach Lindsay has advocated.

Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue. “In this house,” Seattle votes for the status quo.

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other US Transit Agencies Stiff Riders on Restroom Access. Sound Transit Should Defy the Trend.

An earlier version of this graphic, from 2019, touted 18 future stations; the two non-Sound Transit stations (in gray, and added to Sound Transit’s own facilities here) are at the ferry terminal in Mukilteo and at the Tacoma Dome.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit’s current plan for public restrooms at its light-rail stations calls for a grand total of 14 agency-operated restrooms between Lynnwood and Tacoma Community College more than 50 miles away—a sparse distribution that will leave many riders, including those in Seattle and most of the Eastside, with little or no restroom access.

The restrooms, when they open, will be for customers only, and may require riders to ask a security guard to unlock the restroom for them. Currently, the only public restrooms Sound Transit provides in the city of Seattle are at Union Station (upstairs from the Chinatown/International District station, and only open until 5pm) and Northgate (accessible only by requesting access from a security guard.)

Lack of access to restrooms impacts everyone using transit, but the problem is particularly acute for people with travel patterns that don’t mirror traditional home-work-home commutes, including but hardly limited to: People with disabilities that require regular restroom access; women, who tend to use transit for household errands that require many individual stops; students; people experiencing homelessness; low-income people and others who use transit to access services; and anyone who wants to rely on transit for more than a few hours at a time, in a city where restrooms for the general public are already few and far between.

Additionally, requiring riders to seek permission to relieve themselves from security guards is a barrier to anyone who doesn’t speak English or prefers to avoid encounters with law enforcement.

On Thursday, Sound Transit staff justified the sparse restroom distribution by noting that only a few locations met the criteria the agency established—a circular argument that makes it seem as if Sound Transit has no authority over its own rules. To merit a restroom, a station must be the served by at least five transit routes, have at least 10,000 boardings a day, and be at least 20 minutes away from the nearest station with a restroom by train. This standard assumes that many people—those whose final destination isn’t a station with a restroom—will plan extra time into their day to ride the train to a station with a restroom, use it, and then board another train to go on to their destination.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue and much of the Eastside on the King County Council, pointed out on Thursday that “when you apply these criteria, you end up with an entire section of our system that has truly no restroom access, which I don’t think we were going for.” Board chair Kent Keel, a member of the University Place city council, added, “When I look down at Pierce County as well, there’s none. I see the gray one at the Tacoma Dome—one of two restrooms provided by other public agencies Sound Transit has included on its own list—but that’s been there forever.”

Public-transit restrooms, which are ubiquitous in other countries, are relatively rare in the United States. Sound Transit staffers noted Thursday that they had looked at nine other “peer” transit agencies, including New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles, and all offered very limited restroom access, within fare-paid zones and at major transit hubs; all require passengers to seek out a staffer to unlock the restrooms for them. To people from countries where using transit is the norm, depriving riders of such a basic amenity smacks of barbarism; in 2015, he UK Guardian described the lack of public restrooms in US transit systems as a sign that we lack “urban civilization.”

Historically, Sound Transit has rarely chosen to blaze trails when it comes to passenger access, comfort, or accessibility. For years, the agency mostly ignored complaints about its punitive fare enforcement policies, which can lead to crushing fines and even criminal charges, and continues to maintain that it must crack down on “fare evaders” because otherwise, everyone might decide to ride for free

In the case of restrooms, though, there’s still plenty of time to revamp existing policy. Instead of making restrooms rare and inaccessible, Sound Transit could decide, today, to make restroom access part of its commitment to customer service, by providing restrooms not just at far-flung transit hubs but throughout the system. Doing so would not only improve passenger comfort; it would also send a message that all kinds of people are welcome to use the system at all times of day, to go anywhere they want—whether it’s commuting straight from home to work or exploring the region from Bellevue to Ballard to Federal Way, with no particular destination in mind. Isn’t that also what transit is for?

Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes

This post was originally published at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, a 35-year-old man who had been released from jail less than one week earlier attacked a county employee in a women’s restroom at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The assailant, a Level 1 sex offender with a history of attacking women, is homeless and told detectives he had smoked “homemade meth” immediately before the attack. A police report filed after the incident indicates the attacker may suffer from mental illness.

The particulars of this case might lead a reasonable person to conclude that people who commit sex offenses need closer monitoring once they’re released from custody, along with access to housing and mental health care to prevent them from reoffending once they’re released.

Instead, the assault became a symbol for conservative officials, who suggested “solutions” that included sweeping dozens of homeless people from a nearby encampment and directing women to change the way they behave in public.

In a message that went out to all courthouse employees, the county suggested that employees who might be vulnerable to sexual assault could avoid being attacked by following a list of “tips… to enhance your personal safety and avoid potential trouble” while downtown.

The “personal safety tips” will be familiar to many women, who are often told that we must restrict our movements and remain hypervigilant in order to prevent our own sexual assault: Leave all personal belongings behind when you leave your car, or “if you must carry a purse,” hug it close to your torso; wear flat shoes and loose clothing that will allow you to run; don’t walk outside and take a security escort if it’s dark out; use underground tunnels to completely “avoid surface streets” downtown; huddle near buildings while waiting for crossing signals so no one can sneak up from behind; don’t use headphones or look at your phone; and avoid “shortcuts,” including “parks, parking lots, garages and alleyways.”

Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.

I don’t remember the first time I was told to never walk to my car alone, to stay home at night, to keep my back against the wall, or to keep a key lodged firmly between my middle and index fingers in case I need to stab an assailant in the eye. I just know that I internalized the lesson that I can prevent my own sexual assault, and its corollary: If I’m assaulted, it’s because I did something “wrong.” I wore my purse on my shoulder, instead of clutching it to my chest with both arms. I listened to music instead of my surroundings. I didn’t identify every potential exit route. My female body was the problem, and I failed to follow all the restrictions imposed on its movements.

It’s a comforting idea, especially if you’re a policy maker who wants to shift blame from systems to individuals. If we can make women “safe” from assault by convincing them to move through the world in a certain way, there’s no need to address the larger question of why some men feel entitled to women’s bodies, or why the punishment for sexual offenses is, too often, incarcerating men and releasing them with no support system in place to prevent them from offending again. If we can identify the problem as “homeless people” rather than “homelessness,” the solution becomes much simpler: Make the people go somewhere else. Problem solved. Continue reading “Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes”

The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle

Image via

By Erica C. Barnett

In November, Seattle voters will (almost certainly) vote on whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, an initiative that would require the city to divert public funds to add 2,000 new shelter beds while keeping parks and streets “clear of encampments,” according to the text of the amendment. The campaign is called Compassion Seattle, a name that suggests that by passing the initiative, voters will be supporting a compassionate approach to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness across the city.

In reality, the measure is an unfunded mandate that would force the city to create 2,000 new shelter “units” (beds) at the lowest possible cost, by diverting money from other city functions into a new fund aimed at moving unsheltered people out of places where they are visible and into places where they can’t be seen—”clearing” parks for housed people to use while spending the usual pittance to house, treat, and serve people with complicated needs.

Because initiative supporters are claiming that the measure will finally fix homelessness in Seattle, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what the charter amendment actually says and what supporters claim it would do. Here’s a cheat sheet to help inform your vote this fall.

Claim 1: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to build housing and provide needed services, including addiction treatment and mental health care, for thousands of unsheltered Seattle residents.

Compassion Seattle leader Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said during a recent forum that the amendment “mandates…  that we invest in treatment, mental health and emergency housing and the set of services that we know are important to bringing people inside.”

This claim is simply false.

In fact, Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate any city spending on treatment, mental health care, or any specific “set of services.” Instead, it says the city “shall help fund low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services” in conjunction with King County—something the city already does through its annual budget and will continue to do as a major funder of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

Claim 2: We don’t need additional funding to fix homelessness; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Not only does Charter Amendment 29 fail to prescribe any specific solutions, it provides no new funding to address homelessness. Instead, it requires the city to set aside 12 percent of its existing general fund, which works out to a reallocation of about $18 million a year based on recent budgets, to support “the human services and homeless programs and services of the City.”

That’s right—all of the human services programs the city runs, which include youth and community safety programs, programs to combat domestic violence, services for elderly and disabled people, child care programs, funding for the Nurse Family Partnership, and, starting this year, a new division that will take over some functions of the police department. So if you hear an initiative supporter saying it will add another $18 million to homelessness programs, tell them it doesn’t—it creates a generic “human services” fund that can be spent for any human services purpose.

And even if every penny of the reallocated $18 million went to homelessness, it would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nonetheless, initiative proponents continue to claim that $18 million would be enough to pay for comprehensive care, including individual housing and shelter.

DSA director Jon Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise.

Claim 3: Compassion Seattle will fund hotels and evidence-based, high-quality services throughout the city.

DSA director Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise, because JustCARE isn’t cheap—certainly not cheap enough to provide hotel rooms, case management, and comprehensive wraparound services on a budget of $18 million a year.

Do the math: At $50,000 a person (the amount JustCARE supporters say the program would cost “at scale“), annual funding of $18 million would be enough to serve an additional 360 people. The initiative claims it will get 2,000 people off the streets in the first year alone. There’s simply no way supporters can justify the promises they’re making about the quality of care their budget-adjusting measure will pay for.

Claim 4: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to finally invest in real housing solutions for unsheltered people.

Supporters, including several mayoral candidates, have said they’re backing the initiative because it represents a new commitment to housing, forcing the city to provide individual shelter rooms and permanent supportive housing to people living outdoors. Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell, for example, told the Seattle Times she considers the measure “the consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” because it would require “interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing.”

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

This is a common misinterpretation of what Charter Amendment 29 would do. The amendment includes a lot of words about providing appropriate services and permanent, individualized housing options, but that language is aspirational (“it is City policy to…”); it doesn’t implement any actual policy. In fact, much of what’s in the amendment is already city policy, including a section stipulating that the city supports housing and services that are “tailored to individual needs and cultural differences.” (For example, HSD already has policies in place committing the department to provide culturally responsive services to diverse populations.) Saying that something is city policy and mandating spending on specific solutions are very different things.

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live. City and regional leaders have known for many years that the old shelter-first model is an ineffective way to get people housed, which is why “housing first” is now considered a best practice. And the proposal doesn’t mandate spending on services beyond what the city is already doing. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle”