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We’re Expanding Our Criminal Justice Coverage! But We Need Your Help to Make It Happen.

Editor’s note: Reposting on September 15 because a) It’s my birthday! And b) We are halfway through this month-long fund drive and really appreciate everyone who has contributed so far to help us make this new position happen! But we need some more support, so if you’ve been thinking about donating to PubliCola, now would be a great time. Thanks! – Erica

By Erica C. Barnett

I’m going to keep this one short and sweet: PubliCola has an exciting opportunity to expand our in-depth, feature-length coverage of policing and police accountability, criminal justice, and the courts, thanks to a generous donor who has agreed to MATCH OUR FUNDRAISING this month.

In other words: Every dollar we receive in the form of individual contributions and new monthly subscriptions this month will help us pay a feature writer to go deep on stories that you won’t get in mainstream news outlets. Stories like:

Our ongoing series of in-depth stories about the killing of a young student by a speeding SPD officer;

The story of one man whose life was upended by the city attorney’s crackdown on “organized retail theft”;

Our feature about the city attorney’s decision to end community court, an alternative to mainstream prosecution for low-level offenders;

And our stories about internal issues at SPD, such as this piece about how officers accused of domestic violence generally keep their jobs.

If you want to see more of this coverage by a dedicated reporter whose only job here will be writing in-depth stories about these issues, help us make it happen by making a one-time or sustaining monthly contribution now.

If you’ve been meaning to support PubliCola but haven’t gotten around to it, please do it this month, when your donation will be matched to help us pay for this important coverage.

If you’ve been on the fence, hop off and join your fellow PubliCola readers by supporting the work you read every day.

As we say around here a lot, PubliCola only exists because readers make it exist.

Without your support—and specifically, without additional support when we make an extra push to expand our coverage, as we’re doing now—PubliCola wouldn’t be the thriving, fully independent publication it is today. And that means that many of the stories we cover would simply get ignored.

There’s never been a better time to contribute than right now, as you’re reading this. Just click right here.

Thanks in advance for your support.

“Take Care of Our Own”: SPD Precinct Captain’s Letter Urges Cops To Handle “Minor Misconduct” Internally

South Seattle Police Precinct
Image via City of Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the new acting commander of the city’s south police precinct, Captain Rob Brown, sent a document titled “Captain’s Expectations” to his officers and supervisors, laying out a set of expectations that included an exhortation to “take care of our own” by handling “minor misconduct” internally, rather than reporting it to the Office of Police Accountability. The letter also said officers should view themselves as forces of “good” whose job is to “intervene and stop evil” in the world.

The letter begins with a number of benign directives for supervisors: Set clear expectations, teach officers about policies and procedures, ensure that officers’ uniforms look professional. Then—in what could be interpreted as a suggestion not to report misconduct—Brown says supervisors should address “well-intended error[s]” internally by reviewing potential misconduct and addressing policy violations through internal processes such as training or counseling. “If we don’t do so, then the prescribed discipline will be imposed by our external critics without our say in the matter.”

“Don’t leave to our detractors or our robust systems of accountability to seize upon the error and attempt to dictate the resulting discipline,” Brown continues. “Take care of our own.”

The Office of Police Accountability reviews allegations of misconduct and recommends discipline, if any, to the police chief.

Contacted by PubliCola, Brown said his intent was “absolutely not” to disparage OPA or suggest that supervisors and officers keep information from them.

“Fundamentally, our role in society is to fight evil. Evil is visited upon a family that happens to live in a house that is the random backstop for a gang shooting. Evil is the urge to rob a store at gunpoint to feed an insatiable addiction. Evil is the act of a drunk driver that plows head on into a car driven by a single mom headed home from work.”

“I never actually said OPA, for one thing,” Brown said. “I talked about external critics, and we’re often dealing with external critics that will actively look for and find minor policy violations. If we’re looking at minor misconduct [and addressing it] so they know it’s unacceptable, that keeps OPA from having to be involved in that process because the frontline supervisor has located the issue.” Dealing with minor misconduct internally, Brown added, helps keep OPA from being overloaded with insignificant cases.

The Open Oversight website, which includes a database of OPA complaints, shows that Brown—a former bike officer—has been the subject of 14 complaints since 2015. Most of those were not sustained, generally because an OPA investigator concluded they were unfounded, but they show that Brown has had extensive contact with the office that investigates potential officer misconduct.

On Monday, the Seattle Times reported that a federal judge found evidence that Brown, who is white, stopped and detained a Black delivery driver because of his race. OPA dismissed the racial bias complaint as unfounded, but the judge found evidence that Brown’s treatment of the driver, including the decision to draw his gun, showed signs of racial bias; she also found that a subsequent search of the driver’s trunk by Brown and other officers was illegal.

Brown was given a referral to training for one incident, in 2018, involving his supervisory responsibilities. Two of the incidents were designated “contact log,” which often (but not always) indicates that OPA doesn’t have enough information to investigate, while OPA referred another four incidents for “supervisor action,” or training to address performance issues or minor policy violations.

Later in the document, Brown tells officers that their job “matters more than any other profession to the maintenance of a free society.

“Fundamentally, our role in society is to fight evil,” Brown continues.”Evil is visited upon a family that happens to live in a house that is the random backstop for a gang shooting. Evil is the urge to rob a store at gunpoint to feed an insatiable addiction. Evil is the act of a drunk driver that plows head on into a car driven by a single mom headed home from work. You are here to intervene and stop evil, or at least do the best you can to restore safety and order.”

Asked about his repeated references to “evil”—an extreme and potentially loaded term—Brown said, “When I chose that word, I did not at any point characterize people as evil—I characterized acts as evil. … I did choose those words, ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ because I really wanted to strongly say to the officers how valuable the work they do is. 2020 was really hard, and I wanted to send a very clear message that what these officers are doing out on the streets, it’s very, very important.”

The South Precinct, which includes all of Southeast Seattle, has had a number of high-profile shootings in recent weeks, including an incident in the parking lot of the Rainier Beach Safeway in which five people were shot, and is home to the one of the city’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians and cyclists, Rainier Ave. S.

Read Brown’s full letter, which also says that supervisors should respond to serious calls alongside officers, here.

PubliCola Picks: Alex Hudson for City Council District 3

For the first time in a decade, self-promotional socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant will no longer represent District 3—a swath of central Seattle that includes Eastlake, Capitol Hill, and the Central District.

The newly open seat is an opportunity for voters who deserve a proactive, progressive district representative who listens to constituents’ concerns and gets to work. That candidate is Alex Hudson, and she receives our enthusiastic endorsement for City Council District 3.

PubliCola Picks graphicHudson is the most qualified candidate for any of this year’s open seats, blowing the rest of the field away with her political acumen, policy chops, and deep history of activism in the district.

Hudson has been on our radar for years as a Seattle activist and transportation advocate who consistently scores policy wins and funding for equitable transportation, housing, and neighborhood-level improvements. Nearly a decade ago, as head of the First Hill Neighborhood Association, Hudson—a longtime renter—defied stereotypes about neighborhood activists. Instead of trying to “protect” First Hill by keeping low-income people out, she advocated for hundreds of units of affordable housing at a Sound Transit-owned property on East Madison St., organizing to bring two new homeless shelters to the neighborhood, and leading efforts to secure $80 million in public benefits from the construction of the new downtown Convention Center, just across the freeway from First Hill.

Hudson wants to double the maximum housing density allowed within a half-mile of planned or existing light rail and bus-rapid transit stations, creating room for up to 270,00o new homes while getting rid of the old “urban village” strategy that concentrated dense housing on large, busy arterial streets to preserve homeowners’ exclusive single-family enclaves.

She was been equally effective for five years as Executive Director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which lobbies at the state and local levels for investments in transit, bike, and pedestrian safety and mobility. Last year, for example, TCC helped secure $5.2 billion for transit and multimodal transportation as part of the Move Ahead Washington transportation package—a critical victory at a time when local transit systems are struggling to recover from the pandemic. Under Hudson’s leadership, TCC has also lobbied against both the state ban on “jaywalking” and efforts to make Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies more punitive—policies that disproportionately target people of color and low-income people with fines and penalties.

On a council that will soon feature at least four new faces, Hudson will provide necessary policy expertise, negotiating skills, and a  steadfast voice for progressive policies on transportation, housing, homelessness, and public safety. Unlike other candidates who speak in generalities, Hudson can rattle off a wonky list of specific policies she’s eager to get to work on.

For example, where candidates often pay lip service to the need for more affordable housing, Hudson wants to implement zoning changes that would double the maximum housing density allowed within a half-mile of planned or existing light rail and bus-rapid transit stations, creating room for up to 270,00o new homes while getting rid of the old “urban village” strategy that concentrated dense housing on large, busy arterial streets to preserve homeowners’ exclusive single-family enclaves.

She also wants to increase the amount of funding from the JumpStart tax, which is perpetually being raided for other priorities, that has to go directly to housing; allow the owners of existing buildings (not just new ones) to take advantage of a tax exemption in exchange for providing affordable housing, a plan she estimates would add about 3,000 new affordable homes; and concentrate new affordable housing construction in neighborhoods with high access to opportunity (like South Lake Union and Queen Anne) rather than the lower-income neighborhoods where the city has traditionally placed affordable housing.

Fittingly for a transit wonk, Hudson has a list of immediate, low-cost ideas for improving road safety and access to the city for people who walk, bike, and use transit. For example, she told PubliCola, the city could prioritize simple safety improvements like curb bulbs, spaces between parking and bike lanes, and crosswalks without going through years of public process. Longer term, she wants to complete the stalled downtown streetcar and build a lid over I-5 between Capitol Hill and downtown, among other ambitious transportation and economic development priorities.

We’d love to see her go toe to toe with Mayor Bruce Harrell on his proposal to eliminate a planned Midtown light rail station just across the freeway from First Hill in favor of a “North of Chinatown/International District” station across from City Hall.

We’d love to see Hudson head up the transportation committee, which has been helmed for the last four years by old-school neighborhood NIMBY Alex Pedersen, and sit on the Sound Transit board seat currently occupied by retiring District 5 council member Debora Juarez.

She demonstrated political tenacity when she challenged Mayor Bruce Harrell on his proposal to eliminate a planned Midtown light rail station just across the freeway from First Hill in favor of a “North of Chinatown/International District” station across from City Hall. (First Hill got screwed out of its original station in 2005, with a slow streetcar on Broadway as consolation.)

Challenging the both Mayor Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, the two establishment heavies who orchestrated the decision to move two Sound Transit stations away from the CID and First Hill,  Hudson helped build a coalition that visibly irked Constantine in the board room and forced Harrell and Constantine to keep the popular Fourth Avenue station option on the table. By helping organize the opposition in the middle of her own campaign, Hudson demonstrated how willing she is to challenge the city’s power brokers—and showed off her talent as a grassroots organizer.

Hudson acknowledges that she’ll have a learning curve on other issues, including police funding and public safety (for the record, though, she supports creating a new alternative response team along the lines of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. She also says District 3 would be an ideal location for one of five crisis care centers King County voters approved in April. And—in an issue close to PubliCola’s heart—she said she would take action to remove illegal obstructions from the public right-of-way, including the concrete “eco-blocks” many business owners have placed on public streets to prevent RVs from parking near them.

“The public right-of-way is for everyone, and so we can’t just [let businesses] drop hostile architecture all over the place, and call it good,” Hudson told us earlier this year. “Forklift comes, picks them up and moves them away. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”

For District 3, PubliCola enthusiastically picks Alex Hudson.

The PubliCola editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

Homeless Service Providers, Many Unpaid Since Last Year, Demand Reforms

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs tiny house villages around the region, is one of more than a dozen agencies to sign the letter asking for reforms to KCRHA’s contracting process.

By Erica C. Barnett

More than a dozen homeless service providers have written a letter to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board, as well as agency CEO Marc Dones, asking for action after the agency has failed, for a second year, to sign contracts and pay agencies on time.

The letter, which is signed by the leaders of Solid Ground, YouthCare, the Multiservice Center, and other housing and shelter providers, says the KCRHA needs to undertake “major reforms and changes in procedure … to ensure that our critical human services infrastructure doesn’t break under pressure, and that service agencies can be adequately supported to make progress on our shared goals of ending homelessness in our community.”

Providers also showed up at the KCRHA’s implementation board meeting Wednesday to make it clear that their concerns have not been addressed.

In response to the letter, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said, “we appreciate the thoughtful recommendations from providers and are reviewing how to best integrate their feedback.”

The KCRHA oversees more than 300 contracts totaling more than $110 million. As of May 9, the authority had signed just over 150 of those contracts and paid invoices worth a total of around $15 million, according to Martens. The Seattle Times wrote last week about the contract delays.

In internal emails, the KCRHA has attributed the contract delays, in part, to providers requesting changes to their new, non-negotiable “boilerplate” contracts, as well as a complex new software system called Fluxx that has “bugs”—for example, it doesn’t notify providers when it’s their turn to look at a document they’re working on with KCRHA staff, and deletes users’ work if they have to go back and make a change. Martens said providers can set up notifications through Fluxx, but said the KCRHA is “actively working on stabilizing Fluxx to improve provider experience, and will also be evaluating other potential systems.”

The providers are asking the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.”

The new form contracts reportedly include a reduction in the amount the KCRHA will pay for agency operations, or overhead (from 15 to 10 percent of the overall contract budget) and changes to contract requirements that could impact agencies’ ability to secure funding from other sources to do work that is partly funded by the KCRHA. Update: After publication, Martens contacted us to say this information, which came from a homeless service provider, was incorrect and that the new contracts do not limit indirect costs to 10 percent.

PubliCola has asked KCRHA for a copy of its new boilerplate contract language.

For more than four months, service providers big and small have been using up their reserves, even going into debt, to keep programs going; the Low-Income Housing Institute, for example, has “floated” more than $3 million, while YouthCare, a smaller agency, used up most of its existing $1 million line of credit to pay staffers and keep programs going. The Downtown Emergency Service Center and Compass Housing, which decided last year it would no longer contract with KCRHA to provide emergency shelter during freezing weather, also experienced payment delays.

“Operating reserves exist for emergencies, like responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; they are not there to cushion what should be a straightforward administrative function from KCRHA,” the letter says. “For some small organizations it could result in layoffs, or worse, put them out of business.”

Late payments to service providers are not strictly a KCRHA phenomenon. Before the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system, service providers that contracted with the city’s Human Services Department often operated without contracts for months as well; in May 2021, for example, outreach providers that had already gone unpaid for months declined to sign contracts that included new requirements that were incompatible with their organizational missions.

In their letter, the providers ask the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.” In April, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness called the KCRHA’s timeline for re-procuring its contracts plan “high risk, and said it “should only be initiated once core functions for contracting are solidly in place at KCRHA.”

The letter also requests immediate actions to make sure that providers will get paid in future years, regardless of whether KCRHA has finalized their contracts. For example, they write, “KCRHA should automatically extend all contracts through the first quarter of each year,” replacing these first-quarter contracts with the final contract once it’s signed. In addition, they write, the authority should pay 75 percent of invoices up front, instead of waiting until they’ve gone through a detailed review that one provider said can amount to a type of audit.

For delays that require providers to take on debt to stay in operation, the letter continues, the “KCRHA should compensate providers for these financial losses that are tied to administrative delays.”

In the long run, the providers say, the KCRHA should take on the responsibility for proactively contacting providers to let them know about delays, update the implementation board regularly about contract execution and delays, allow providers to consolidate contracts that are similar or duplicative, such as contracts for the same type of shelter in different locations, and include cost of living pay increases in all contracts,

Despite Community Consensus, a Longtime Burien Encampment Scatters Because There’s Nowhere to Go

Members of the Burien City Council listen to testimony about an encampment just outside City Hall at a meeting in March.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, the last few people who have been living in tents outside Burien’s city hall and downtown library building will pick up stakes and leave. Earlier this month, more than a year after the first tent appeared on the sidewalk on the west side of the building, the city plans to evict the encampment and its residents, who currently have nowhere to go except elsewhere in the city.

In a joint letter sent earlier this month, a group of local leaders including Burien City Manager Adolfo Bailon, Police Chief Ted Boe, Burien Toyota owner Dean Anderson, and the project manager for the LEAD outreach program in Burien, Aaron Burkthaler, asked King County to “access 30 units of the Health Through Housing program to provide a service that can have an immediate positive impact and save lives.” Health Through Housing is a county program that purchases multi-unit buildings, primarily hotels, to shelter and house people living throughout King County; it’s funded by a sales tax the King County Council passed in 2020.

Advocates for people living unsheltered say it’s the first time they can recall people with such different perspectives coming together to work toward a common goal. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before, where we as social workers are aligned so strongly with law enforcement and the city administration,” said Devin Majkut, the program manager for LEAD. “We’re all asking for the same thing, and getting nothing.”

The cluster of about 15 tents has been the subject of intense debate, and growing consternation, over the past few months.

Robin Desimone, who owns the Iris & Peony floral shop across the street from City Hall, says she’s “fed up” with the encampment, where she says she has seen “brazen activities going on,” including fires and drug use, “with no accountability for their actions.” Nonetheless, she said, she wants to see a solution that works for the people at the encampment, because removing the tents will just force people to move elsewhere in the city, including places like the alley behind her business.

“If I wanted to be in the middle of this, I would move my business to downtown Seattle,” Desimone said. “This is a small town and a small street. But behind the scenes, we’ve been trying to find solutions.”

Advocates and case managers say they’re encouraged by the city’s willingness to partner with them to advocate for funding and assistance from the county—and frustrated, along with them, by the county’s unwillingness to put some money and other resources toward the immediate problem posed by the encampment.

In significant ways, Burien has taken a more nuanced approach to its relatively small homeless population than its overwhelmed neighbor to the north. Four years ago, the city council passed a ban on “camping” in public parks, but did not prohibit people from sleeping in other public spaces, a tacit acknowledgement that people have to sleep somewhere. A court ruling called Martin v. Boise prohibits officials from sweeping encampments without offering people another place to go, and while cities like Seattle often elide that rule by providing shelter “offers” that are unappealing or inappropriate, Burien literally doesn’t have enough shelter for everyone living on its streets; hence, the incomplete encampment ban.

The scene outside the building that houses both City Hall and Burien’s King County Library System branch is a tangible result of this compromise: The encampment—which began as a single tent occupied by a hard-to-house couple who had a good relationship with the library—sprouted on a small concrete pad on the west side of the building just a few feet feet from Town Hall Park, where camping is illegal.  Although some neighbors, blaming encampment residents for everything from catalytic converter thefts to broken windows, clamored for a sweep, the police and Burien’s human services department refused, citing the law that allows them to be there.

But when a tent caught on fire last month, sending one encampment resident to the hospital with severe burns, the organization that controls the building—a condo association run jointly by the county library and city government—decided to evict the people living there, prompting a month-long scurry to find them somewhere to go.

Currently, there are no year-round adult shelters in Burien, and the city has no hotels that could be converted into shelter. During a recent city council meeting, City Manager Adolfo Bailon floated the idea of a sanctioned encampment or tiny house village, but said an 80-bed village would set the city back a million dollars.

It’s “unfortunate,” Desimone said. “A properly managed facility would be great and would solve a lot of our problems.” But funding for such a facility would have to come from the county or the KCRHA. “Our city can’t do that huge a lift—we don’t have that big of that economic base, and to be honest, we’re not going to be bringing any new businesses in with the situation as it is now.”

Burien’s general fund is around $35 million, about 2 percent the size of of Seattle’s. The city’s homeless population is also significantly smaller—around 200, at most, according to Burien human services manager Colleen Brandt-Schluter. Majkut says the number may be even lower, more like 75 to 100.

Advocates and case managers say they’re encouraged by the city’s willingness to partner with them to advocate for funding and assistance from the county—and frustrated, along with them, by the county’s unwillingness to put some money and other resources toward the immediate problem posed by the encampment.

Burien City Councilmember Kevin Schilling, who grew up in the city, said unhoused people have always used the library as a place to get warm, read the newspaper, and use the restrooms. What’s new, he said, is the “immediate, recent visibility of [homelessness] around City Hall.”

“This could be a case study about where there are missing links [and] folks are falling through the cracks,” Schilling said. “They’re not being housed, they’re not getting the services they need, and now we’re in the situation where they’ll be moved, but they won’t be moved anywhere [in particular] because we don’t have anywhere for them to go.”

Brandt-Schluter said telling people to go somewhere else will only make it harder for their case managers to find them and provide help with court dates, case plans, IDs, and housing assessments—the prerequisites for unsheltered people to access housing. “‘If not here, then where?’ is really our mantra right now, and we’ll continue to have to move people in and out of doorways, out of parks, out of City Hall, out of wherever, as long as there isn’t permanent supportive housing and shelter with services that folks can go to.”

“‘If not here, then where?’ is really our mantra right now, and we’ll continue to have to move people in and out of doorways, out of parks, out of City Hall, out of wherever, as long as there isn’t permanent supportive housing and shelter with services that folks can go to.”—Burien human services manager Colleen Brandt-Schluter

Not everyone believes it’s Burien’s job to help everyone living at the encampment.

At the recent council meeting, Bailon said he had “heard” that most of the encampment residents “had never lived here before,” and that “they may just return to where they came from, to where they thought was a safe place before relocating from that location to here.”

But Brandt-Schluter, who has met with the encampment residents personally, said almost all of them either “come from Burien or they’ve been in Burien a long time and consider Burien in their home.”

Although some officials and business owners have suggested sending people living unsheltered in Burien to Seattle, where there are more services, “a lot of these folks don’t want to go to Seattle,” Brandt-Schluter said. “They don’t feel safe going into Seattle, they’re afraid to leave their case manager and the people they’ve established relationships with. And there’s this human side of things, too, of trying to match people [with shelter and services] where they can be successful.”

Representatives from the KCRHA and DCHS told PubliCola they weren’t able to come up with any immediate housing or shelter solutions for any of the people living in the encampment. “There’s just nothing that’s been made available for those folks,” Majkut said, adding that LEAD and its outreach partner REACH were able to refer a few especially vulnerable people to shelters in Seattle. “I appreciate that the city leadership in Burien is committed to providing resources for people living unsheltered there, but they need help to do so from the county and the RHA.”

In the absence of some last-minute intervention, the people who have lived outside City Hall over the past several months will most likely scatter throughout Burien and its nearby greenbelts—a temporary resolution that does nothing to address the larger problem of homelessness in Burien. In the longer term, advocates are looking for sites for a future sanctioned encampment or tiny house village, including a former elementary school on the border with White Center where Transform Burien, a nonprofit that runs a food and clothing bank, is now located.

Majkut said two things stand out about the people who’ve been living in the encampment: Many have a history of profound trauma, including domestic violence, and all are eager to move into shelter or housing, “which is really rare. So it’s been particularly hard for our team to have all these folks say ‘I’m ready, let’s do this,’ and we have nothing to offer them.”

Toilet Troubles at Kent Jail, Councilmember Invites Landlord Who’s Suing City to Lead “Housing Provider” Panel

1. Update: DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund says workers were able to adjust the flush limits in the double-bunked unit and people in that unit “remained in place. The toilets can now be flushed several times per minute.”

Earlier this month, as PubliCola exclusively reported, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention relocated 50 people from the downtown Seattle jail to the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent, part of a larger effort to reduce the downtown jail population. The minimum-security inmates are being “double-bunked” in cells that were previously occupied by one person each, with one guard overseeing just over 100 jail residents.

But an unanticipated problem has already swirled to the surface at the MRJC: The toilets, which sit out in the open, are programmed to only flush twice an hour, meaning anything that’s in the toilet after those two flushes has to stay in the toilet until the timer resets. The newly doubled-up jail residents are already complaining about the unsanitary situation in their tight living quarters, according to representatives for the unions that represent jail guards and public defenders.

“Imagine two people being in there—you’ve used your two flushes, and now you have to go to the bathroom, and whatever you do, it has to sit there for an hour. It’s not too pleasant for the two people who have to sit there in that small cell,” said Dennis Folk, head of the King County Corrections Guild. The regulated toilets also eliminate the option of a “courtesy flush,” which can reduce the nastiness of living and sleeping in the same room as your toilet.

DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund said the toilets in some MRJC cells have “flush meter limitations” because of a history of people flooding the cells or deliberately clogging the toilets. “Since the unit in question has not been double-bunked since prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not initially flagged as a concern when the area was repopulated for double-bunked status,” Haglund said Friday, adding that the department would move people to another unit if they couldn’t figure out how to “reconfigure the toilets.”

The commotion over commodes isn’t the only issue with double-bunking people at the MRJC, however. The DAJD has struggled to hire and retain jail guards throughout the system, and the ACLU recently sued the county over conditions at the downtown jail, arguing that the department has violated an agreement from the 1990s known as the Hammer settlement.

Folk says the jail guards’ union has filed a demand to bargain over the decision to move 50 people to the RJC, noting that the 1:104 ratio of guards to inmates is far below the usual “direct supervision” standard of one guard for every residents. Haglund told PubliCola previously that although 1:104 isn’t ideal, the unit will be safe with just one guard because no more than 64 people will be out in the unit’s common area at one time. Folk disagrees, telling PubliCola, “The staffing ratio for this is just not safe.”

2. On Wednesday, City Councilmember Sara Nelson invited a panel of “housing providers”—landlords—to give a presentation in her economic development committee about the hardships they’ve faced as the result of Seattle’s tenant protection laws, including eviction moratoriums, notice requirements for rent increases, and the “fair chance housing” law, which bars landlords from denying people housing based on their criminal history.

The discussion was like a bizarro-world version of Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s frequent panels on renters’ rights, where, instead of tenants describing unfair evictions, landlords complained about nightmare tenants who were almost impossible to get rid of. Nelson is more aligned with landlords than tenants, so it’s not surprising she would push a counternarrative and highlight landlords’ concerns.

But the leader of the panel, MariLyn Yim, was still an unusual choice to lead a city-sponsored panel, because she has sued the city repeatedly, including one lawsuit that is still ongoing, in an effort to roll back tenant protections.

In their first lawsuit, which was unsuccessful, Yim and her husband, Chong Yim, challenged the city’s “first in time” rule, which attempts to reduce discrimination against tenants by requiring landlords to rent to the first tenant who meets basic qualifications.

In the second, they argue that the city’s law barring landlords from asking about prospective tenants’ criminal history (and deciding whether to rent to someone based on that history) violates their constitutional due-process and free-speech rights. “The Yim family could not afford to live in Seattle without the rental income from these properties,” the lawsuit says.

Yim said during her presentation that an “explosion” of new tenant protections has been driving small, “mom and pop” landlords out of the rental market. “I think families are really going to have a tough time as we lose the smaller rentals and there’s also a shift in ownership profile.

Just this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled partly in favor of the Yims and their co-defendants, agreeing that the city has no authority to prohibit landlords from asking about a prospective tenant’s criminal history.

Yim said during her presentation that an “explosion” of new tenant protections has been driving small, “mom and pop” landlords out of the rental market, pointing to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) data showing a “loss” of 11,000 housing units at buildings with fewer than 20 apartments. “I think families are really going to have a tough time as we lose the smaller rentals and there’s also a shift in ownership profile. There’s a lot of those larger properties that are less likely to be owned by local investors or members of the community,” Yim said.

However, that data actually refers to the number of units landlords have registered at the city; according to the report that was the source for Yim’s numbers, registrations with the city could have declined for a number of reasons, including relaxed enforcement by SDCI or the fact that “some landlords neglected or declined to renew their registrations during the pandemic.”

In addition to being a landlord and plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the city, Yim is also a city of Seattle employee, earning $140,000 a year as a civil engineer for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Strauss Burke-Gilman Trail Proposal Revamps Rejected “Leary Alternative”

The “Leary Alternative,” with Councilmember Dan Strauss’ proposed change to an older version of the proposal marked inBu blue.

By Erica C. Barnett

When Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss announced, earlier this month, that he had come up with a plan to break a 29-year deadlock and complete the long-delayed Burke-Gilman Trail through Ballard, the response from local outlets who have covered the battle over the years ranged from mild praise to rapturous enthusiasm.

Seattle Bike Blog said Strauss’ proposed “Leary Alternative,” which would avoid conflicts with the industrial businesses that have stalled the trail’s completion with legal tactics for decades, marked “the biggest development in the Missing Link saga in years,” but noted that it could “spell doom” for a straightforward trail extension along Shilshole, the “missing link” of the trail. On the ecstatic end of the spectrum, the Stranger raved, “By God, Dan Strauss May Have Done It” in a piece touting Strauss’ plan to “satisfy everyone who’s had soooo much to say for the past two [sic] decades.”

Longtime bike advocates, however, noticed something about the plan: It wasn’t new. In fact, the city already painstakingly studied a very similar proposal, also known as the Leary Alternative, in a 2016 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The DEIS evaluated several plans to complete the Missing Link, including the Shilshole route, and concluded that Leary could be less safe for cyclists than the Shilshole option, in part because it included 13 intersections where cars and trucks would have to drive directly across the path.

“A connection on Leary that is built is safer than a connection on Shilshole that is never built.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss

That’s “the most [intersections] of any of the alternative routes and substantially more than any existing portion of the [Burke-Gilman Trail], potentially making it a less desirable route for bicyclists and other trail users,” according to the DEIS—and potentially delaying trail users an average of 15-25 seconds when vehicles periodically block the trail. The Leary Alternative would also require sacrificing sidewalk space along parts of Market St., and could slow down buses on six different King County Metro routes, the report concluded.

Strauss says his plan, which shortens the distance bikes would spend alongside busy Leary Way by several blocks compared to the original Leary option, could be the breakthrough that resolves an apparently intractable conflict. “A connection on Leary that is built is safer than a connection on Shilshole that is never built,” Strauss said. Since the debate over the missing link began, the city completed work on a three-block stretch of path between 24th Ave. NW and the Ballard Locks; if that stretch had been completed in 2004, Strauss said, he wouldn’t have been riding his bike on the street several blocks north and gotten hit by a car.

Strauss also argues that Ballard has changed dramatically since advocates first started pushing for a trail along Shilshole three decades ago. “Ballard has gotten more dense,” he said. “We used to have industrial businesses on Market, Leary, Ballard [Ave. NW] and Shilshole, and in today’s Ballard, Market, Leary, and Ballard are almost exclusively commercial while Shilshole remains almost completely industrial.” The DEIS remarked on this transformation seven years ago, noting that a trail along Market and Leary “would run through [a] busy commercial district, which would provide a different recreational experience”—with more people going in and out of businesses on foot, for example—than the rest of the Burke-Gilman Trail.

“There’s a lot going on, and a lot of opportunities for conflict. Any [Leary Way NW] design would have to be really aggressive in prioritizing the safe movement of people on bikes, people walking, as well as all the other people using the space for other purposes.”—Cascade Bicycle Club policy director Vicky Clarke

“There’s a lot going on, and a lot of opportunities for conflict” along Market and Leary, said Vicky Clarke, the policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club. “Any design would have to be really aggressive in prioritizing the safe movement of people on bikes, people walking, as well as all the other people using the space for other purposes,” like crossing from parking spaces to stores ad waiting for the bus.

The proposed route also includes a large number of utility poles that the trail will have to “wiggle around,” Clarke said. “When you’re designing around a bus stop or utility poles or businesses, it has the potential to erode the user experience, safety, and comfort, so there’s a lot of challenges to designing this route.”

Strauss has asked Mayor Bruce Harrell and Seattle Department of Transportation director Greg Spotts to study his alternative using money set aside to complete the trail. But even if the city decides to end the “missing link” impasse by building a revamped Leary alternative, Clarke notes that “there’s still going to be people biking on Shilshole because it’s the most simple and direct route to connect with the existing Burke-Gilman, so there still need to safety improvements along Shilshole.” Strauss says he agrees, and would start by fixing the variable pavement—which at different points consists of concrete, asphalt, and gravel—and provide better signage for driveways and parking spaces instead of the plastic drums and poorly marked gravel lots that serve those purposes now.

Clarke said the changes to Shilshole will need to go beyond flatter pavement and better signage. For example? Well, she said, “there’s a really good design for a trail.”

SPD Trainer’s Views on LGBTQ+ Rights Spark Controversy; Ex-Reporter Claims Dubious Affiliations to Enter Press Event

1. The Seattle Police Department’s Before the Badge program, a five-week program for police recruits, is supposed to help familiarize new officers with the history of various Seattle communities, including those who’ve been victimized by police. But one Before the Badge trainer’s controversial views on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights have reportedly led at least one program leaders, Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, to leave the program, which also includes trainings on the relationship between the police and Seattle’s LGBTQ+ community.

The trainer, Pastor Harvey Drake of Emerald City Bible Fellowship, said his primary reason for participating in the program “is because I have a deep desire to see the relationships improve between the Black community and law enforcement.”

In the mid-2000s, Drake signed on as a pro-Defense of Marriage Act co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by gay and lesbian couples who wanted to get married. In an op/ed for the Seattle Times defending DOMA, Drake and a co-author argued that that “[C]hanging marriage sends both boys and girls the message that a mom or a dad isn’t necessary,” adding, “No small group has the right to dictate to government, society, children and future generations that marriage has changed.”

Drake told PubliCola he isn’t “anti” LGBTQ+. “I’m pro-original marriage, period; that doesn’t make me anti-anything.”

More recently, Drake co-signed a letter defending a private school in Shoreline that taught children that homosexuality is “unnatural” and “a result of the failure to worship God.” The letter came in response to a Seattle Times story about teachers who said they were pushed out of their jobs for refusing to disavow same-sex relationships; in the letter, Drake and other religious leaders wrote that the school was “simply teaching what societies throughout history have accepted for millennia, that marriage is between a man and a woman. … Without heterosexual marriage, societies would no longer exist.”

Drake told PubliCola he isn’t “anti” LGBTQ+. “I’m pro-original marriage, period; that doesn’t make me anti-anything.”

“I have family members… I’ve had friends who are all in the lifestyle and they’ll tell you I never said a cross word to them,” Drake added.

Cordner, who reportedly left the program because she did not feel comfortable with Harvey’s participation, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the Before the Badge program, individual trainers lead discussion section with new recruits; Drake is one of several trainers who focus on Seattle’s African American community and their fraught history with police.

“We talk about the history and what we can do to change that,” Drake said. “We’re trying to say, listen, we now have an opportunity to correct some of the misunderstandings, and then we talk about some of the responsibility that we need to have as African Americans when we engage with police officers—for example, teaching young people to be respectful … not to be huffy and puffy, but how to cooperate if you get stopped.”

Police Chief Adrian Diaz told PubliCola he was aware of the letter about the school, and said “that is one of the things that I’m talking to [Drake] about. He also has a perspective of his family being targeted as far as police brutality.” Diaz said it’s important to learn about the experiences of Black Rainier Valley residents, “while also making sure he isn’t putting that perspective on our officers, of an anti-LGBTQ stance.”

2. Former TV reporter Jonathan Choe, fired by KOMO-TV last year after encouraging viewers to come to a rally held by the Proud Boys, a seditious white supremacist group that helped lead the January 6 insurrection, has continued to insist he is a “journalist” entitled to attend events open only to members of the media. Choe is currently a “senior fellow”—a position held by Choe and 17 other men—at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that helped launch the career of far-right provocateur and activist Chris Rufo.

Choe showed up at a press conference about the opening of a new mental health crisis center in Kirkland and claimed to be representing several different outlets, according to witnesses, including KIRO Radio, the Mill Creek View, and the Lynnwood Times.

Choe has no previous bylines at either of the two Snohomish County publications, and his only recent affiliation with KIRO consists of appearing as a guest when podcaster  Brandi Kruse was filling in as an on-air host earlier this year. In an email to Constantine’s office, a KIRO news editor confirmed, “Jonathan Choe is not an employee with KIRO Radio, and outside of his association with some of our fill-in hosts, he is not affiliated with our news division.” He did not publish a story or create content for any of the three outlets for which he claimed to be covering the press conference.

Independent media matters, and that includes journalists with conservative views as well as left-leaning publications like the one you’re reading now. But the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group didn’t fire Choe because of his conservative bias; they fired him for behaving unethically, by promoting a white supremacist group that led the attack on the US Capitol.

In fact, the only video Choe produced of the event was branded content for the Discovery Institute.

Although Choe appears to believe that because he was once employed as a journalist, he should be admitted to press events in perpetuity, this is not standard practice. In fact, many journalists go on to work other jobs outside journalism, including for government entities, private companies, and activist groups like the one Choe represents, and forego their status as members of the media as a result.

Independent media matters, and that includes journalists with conservative views as well as left-leaning publications like the one you’re reading now. But the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group didn’t fire Choe because of his conservative bias; they fired him for behaving unethically, by promoting a white supremacist group that led the attack on the US Capitol. In his work for the Discovery Institute, Choe has continued to violate bare-minimum ethical standards.

A widely used code of ethics for journalists in Washington State, for example, notes that journalists are not supposed to invade people’s privacy (in just one recent example, Choe published video and the full name of a child in crisis who he demonized as “deranged”), attack or provoke others (Choe frequently tapes himself taunting and mocking protesters) or engage in dishonestly—for example, by falsely claiming affiliation with a legitimate news outlet.

Defensive Vision Zero “Top to Bottom Review” Recommends More of the Same

graph showing increase in Seattle traffic deaths from 2015-2021By Erica C. Barnett

Last July, incoming Seattle Department of Transportation director Greg Spotts promised a “top-to-bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero program—a set of strategies, adopted in 2015, that are supposed to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Six months later, that review—titled, rather unimaginatively, “SDOT Vision Zero Top to Bottom Review”—is here. The diagnosis: Seattle is doing lots of great stuff, but if it wants to do better, it needs to do even more of the same—but only to the extent that it can, given all the obstacles that are outside the city’s control.

The review, a 37-page report supplemented by a graphics-heavy 22-page “overview,” includes exactly 100 recommendations—a nice round number that suggests padding. And indeed, almost a quarter of the strategies the report suggests are things SDOT is already doing—for example, “[c]ontinue to clarify and measure desired outcomes of educational programs. Many others are vague to the point of abstraction. What does it mean, for example, for a road engineering department to “[b]e willing to reduce vehicle travel speeds and convenience to improve safety,” or to “[b]uild SDOT Senior Team capacity as ambassadors for Vision Zero”? It’s understandable that this review doesn’t include specific project recommendations for specific streets; what’s perplexing is how few of the recommendations involve quantifiable results: Improve how? Build capacity in what sense? Accelerate how much, and by when?

The overview that accompanies the report does is a bit more specific, highlighting five “momentum-building actions” for 2023. This year, the report says, SDOT should phase in more No Turn on Red signs in downtown Seattle “in time for tourist season and the MLB All-Star Game”; add more leading pedestrian intervals—crosswalk signs that switch to “walk” before cars start moving—”where existing signal systems can support” the change; continue working with Sound Transit to improve safety along light rail in Southeast Seattle; address equity concerns about automatic traffic cameras; and change the role and title of SDOT’s chief engineer to include a focus on safety.

All these goals are limited in scope, either explicitly (protecting downtown tourists but not the rest of the city) or by caveats; they also fail to incorporate measurable goals or milestones that might allow Seattle residents to determine, at the end of the year, whether SDOT did what it said it would do. How many new no-right-turn signs is “more”? Who decides how many pedestrianized intersections are possible, and where? How will we know if the city has addressed equity concerns and is ready to move on to installing cameras to stop people from speeding through school zones?

Lowering the speed limit to 25 mph is fairly meaningless if you design roads to function like highways—as anyone who has tried to cross the street on Rainier Ave. South, where traffic lights are frequently more than a quarter-mile apart, can attest.

The report also fails to address safety on the broadest level, emphasizing individual behavior over the systems that enable and encourage dangerous driving. This echoes Seattle’s previous reports on Vision Zero, including a June 2022 presentation that contains many of the same graphics and recommendations as the new “Top To Bottom Review.” The 2022 report, presented just before Spotts arrived in Seattle, was actually more explicit than the new report in calling out road design as a central issue in traffic deaths, but it also suggested drivers just need to act differently: “We need people driving to slow down,” it implored.

Map showing traffic deaths and serious injuries in Seattle

Careless driving does involve individual choice, but being a “safe driver” is much easier in a system that doesn’t encourage going 60 mph in a 25 mph zone. Lowering the speed limit to 25 mph, for that matter, is fairly meaningless if you design roads to function like highways—as anyone who has tried to cross the street on Rainier Ave. South, where traffic lights are frequently more than a quarter-mile apart, can attest. 

To its credit, the report does note that traffic deaths happen most often on big, busy arterial roads, and acknowledges that crashes “often occur as a result of the way our transportation system has been designed.” However, it fails to recommend meaningful, immediate changes that might reverse bad past design decisions, such as narrowing streets and slowing down traffic to make collisions between cars and other road users less frequent and less deadly.

“One safety treatment is to analyze a street and see if reconfiguring lanes could improve safety and keep people and goods moving,” the report says, referring to the once-controversial idea of restriping roads to reduce the number of lanes. But the “safety treatment,” in reality, isn’t “analyzing” and “seeing if” highway-style city roads would benefit from conversion to slower streets; more than 12 years after the city’s first “road diet,” the concept is proven and does not need more study and analysis. We could just do it!

And even the recommendations that gesture at future changes to road design focus on the need to educate drivers on what they’ll lose, presenting a reduction in “convenience” (speed) as a negative result of greater safety. If SDOT is going to make roads safer, the report says, it has to let drivers know about the “expected impacts” to their “travel.” It also says that any changes to streets, such as restriping, must “maintain[…] transit and freight networks.” That could be a problem on dangerous arterials like Rainier Ave. S., which serves as a major transit and freight corridor (and is one of the most deadly streets in the city.) Pitting “convenience” against safety is also a false choice; there’s nothing convenient about shutting down a road because another driver has struck and killed another pedestrian.

Besides focusing on driver behavior, the review often uses old data to reach conclusions that may be less applicable in a post-lockdown world. For example, the report concludes that reducing speed limits on arterial streets to 25 mph is a Vision Zero success story, using data from 2018 and 2019 data to show that “lowering speed limits and increasing sign density alone—without any marketing campaigns, additional enforcement, re-timed signals, or engineering changes to the street—resulted in lower speeds and fewer crashes.” But that date all comes from before the pandemic, when fatalities spiked nationwide as people drove faster on emptier streets, disregarding speed limits and driving impaired more frequently.

City Councilmember Tammy Morales represents Southeast Seattle, where roughly half the traffic deaths in the city occur. Last week, she expressed dismay that the city’s Vision Zero report failed to call for “dramatic or swift action to combat the unprecedented number of collisions, injuries, and fatalities on our streets, particularly in District 2. Changing signal timing and adding leading pedestrian intervals will not change the geometry of our streets, and as a result, will likely not change the behavior of users on these dangerous stretches of roadway. These actions are a start, but we need to fundamentally change our streets to address this crisis.”

The Vision Zero Top To Bottom Review indicates that, at an unspecified point in the future, the department will be releasing a formal Vision Zero Action Plan to implement concrete steps to reduce traffic deaths and injuries. For those impacted directly or indirectly by traffic violence, the time for action was years ago.

PubliCola Picks: “Yes” On Initiative 135

Seattle is facing a historic housing shortage. In 2019, according to one national report, the region had a housing gap of almost 82,000 units, and the problem has gotten worse, not better, since the pandemic began. The lack of housing for people at all income levels has made this a dual crisis: With rents at all-time highs, even people with moderate incomes can barely afford to live in the city, and those at the bottom are suffering most of all. According to a recent study by Challenge Seattle, a business-backed group headed by former Gov. Christine Gregoire, there is a “severe shortage of affordable rental units for lower income households” in Washington state, particularly for those making less than 30 percent of median income—those most likely, in other words, to fall into homelessness.

PubliCola Picks graphicSocial housing—specifically, mixed-income rental housing that would remain permanently affordable and publicly owned—could be a key part of the solution to this multifaceted problem. Initiative 135, on the February 14 ballot, would create a new public development authority— a kind of quasi-governmental organization with the power to build, acquire, and operate housing in Seattle.

People with incomes ranging from 0 to 120 percent of Seattle’s median income would be eligible to rent apartments in these new and repurposed buildings. Renters in social housing wouldn’t get kicked out if their incomes rise; instead, their rents would increase too, though never higher than 30 percent of their income, the widely accepted definition of affordability. Crucially—and in contrast to other types of affordable housing—renters themselves would make up a majority of the new PDA’s governing board, and would also have a say in how their building is run, along with a budget for amenities and events.

This type of mixed-income housing won’t, on its own, fix the city’s housing crisis. What it will do is provide badly needed housing for hundreds of people who have been, or are at risk of being, displaced from Seattle, augmenting other efforts to build government subsidized public and nonprofit housing such as apartments for people exiting homelessness. Many more ambitious initiatives—such as Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent commitment to commit $4 billion to affordable housing and legislation that would allow denser housing across the state—will be necessary to fill the gap. Social housing is a key piece of the puzzle, not the whole solution.

Critics, including the Seattle Times, have claimed the initiative is toothless because it lacks a funding source. This is disingenuous: As supporters of the initiative have pointed out repeatedly, including a revenue source would risk violating the state’s “single-subject rule” for initiatives. Previous public developers, like the Pike Place Market PDA, have been established in exactly the same way I-135’s sponsors, House Our Neighbors!, are proposing: Get the developer going first, identify revenue sources second.

Nor is it true that social housing supporters haven’t thought about how they would pay for it. In fact, they’ve identified numerous potential revenue streams, including federal housing funds, new progressive local taxes, and funding from the state, whose Democratic leadership, including Gov. Jay Inslee, has recently shown a renewed interest in investing in new affordable housing. Longtime State Rep. and housing advocate Frank Chopp, now a senior advisor to the housing nonprofit Solid Ground, has publicly said he would work to secure funding if the measure passes—a strong vote of confidence from someone with a wealth of experience making housing happen.

The measure has also garnered opposition from members the anti-development left, who argue in the King County Voters’ Guide that the measure is a waste of money because it would create mixed-income housing, rather than housing exclusively for homeless or very low-income people. The idea that very poor people should be segregated into apartment buildings that bar tenants with modest incomes (or kick people out if their income rises) has been debated ad nauseam for decades, but the US has broadly abandoned Cabrini-Green-style public housing projects in favor of mixed-income communities where better-off renters help fund the “operations, maintenance, and loan service” for the community by paying higher rents than those making little or nothing.

This element of the plan should give skeptics cause for optimism: Once built, social housing should become a self-sustaining system—one solution, among many that must happen simultaneously, to Seattle’s affordable housing crisis.

PubliCola picks a “Yes” vote on Initiative 135.

The PubliCola editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.