Category: Uncategorized

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”

Police Chief Diaz on Why He Hasn’t Fired Any Officers for Excessive Force

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced his decision to overturn the Office of Police Accountability’s (OPA) findings in one of the most prominent misconduct cases of last summer’s protests. The case centered on the Seattle Police Department’s use of blast balls, tear gas and pepper spray against protesters at the intersection of 11th Ave. and Pine St. on the evening of June 1, 2020, after an officer attempted to yank a pink umbrella out of a protester’s hands.

The chief’s decision to overturn the OPA’s finding of excessive force against Lieutenant John Brooks, who gave the order to use the weapons against protesters, sparked an outcry from police accountability advocates and activist groups. The Community Police Commission, one of Seattle’s trio of police oversight bodies, called Diaz’s decision “detrimental to community trust in SPD and Seattle’s entire police accountability system,” particularly because he offered no detail about how he would hold decision-makers at a “higher level of command authority” responsible in lieu of Brooks.

In a conversation with PubliCola last week, Diaz said he does not want his decision to absolve Brooks of responsibility to overshadow his record as a disciplinarian. Since becoming interim chief in September 2020, Diaz has fired eight officers for misconduct, and two more officers retired to avoid termination; Diaz displays their badges in a wooden box on his desk.

“If there’s an officer-involved shooting and the officer has a history of complaints from years past, we’re going to say, ‘we’ve trained you, we’ve done everything we can for you and you’re still not getting it. That might end up reaching the level of termination.”

Of the ten officers Diaz has fired or would have fired, nearly all violated SPD’s policies prohibiting dishonesty or biased policing; among those officers was Sina Ebinger, who retired in lieu of termination after lying about misusing SPD’s Navigation Team to pick up her trash, as well as a 911 dispatcher who told a Black caller that “all lives matter.

But Diaz has not yet fired any officers for using excessive force, despite the flood of use-of-force complaints stemming from last year’s protests. Diaz told PubliCola that when compared to dishonesty, the disciplinary standards for excessive force are generally less harsh. “A lot of inappropriate use of force cases are incidents in which an officer put hands on a person or did something that didn’t cause an injury, but could still be excessive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the officer was dishonest about it—they documented the incident, and they explained why they thought their actions were appropriate, but their supervisor disagreed.” Continue reading “Police Chief Diaz on Why He Hasn’t Fired Any Officers for Excessive Force”

Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air

Breakdown of Estimated Salary Savings Under Herbold Proposal

By Paul Kiefer

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department salaries came to an end on Tuesday, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a ‘do not pass’ recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

Support PubliCola

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

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

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders. Herbold also proposed offsetting the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budged holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities. Continue reading “Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air”

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

Josh@PubliCola.com

New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain

King County Detention Center, Seattle (Photo: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

When the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in February that the state’s harsh drug possession laws were unconstitutional, most lawmakers, prosecutors and defense attorneys hurried to prepare for the ruling’s vast consequences for the state’s court system and the tens of thousands of people whose convictions for drug possession are now baseless.

Among those impacted by the ruling, State of Washington v. Blake, are immigrants convicted for simple drug possession under Washington’s pre-Blake drug laws. Some are currently facing deportation because of a drug possession conviction; others have already been deported.

Ann Benson, the Directing Attorney of the Washington Defender Association’s Immigration Project, says immigrant rights groups around the state are still trying to tally the number of immigrants who could be impacted by the Blake decision; her office estimates that at least 75 people in Washington Department of Corrections custody fall into that category, in addition to the hundreds of other immigrants with drug possession convictions who aren’t currently incarcerated and those who have already been deported for drug possession.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation,

For those immigrants, the Blake decision has eliminated the federal government’s justification for their deportations, providing a source of hope for those who have been separated from their families during deportation proceedings—and potentially for those who have already been deported.

But a newly passed law that partially re-criminalizes drug possession dampens the implications of Blake for the future of immigration enforcement in Washington.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation, depending on the charge. Because the state supreme court’s ruling nullifies past drug possession convictions, some green card holders with criminal records now have a chance to avoid some of those consequences. Those facing deportation for a drug possession conviction can now file a motion in a county criminal court to vacate their conviction; without a conviction, ICE can’t move forward with their deportation.

Tim Warden-Hertz, the managing attorney with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the pace at which immigration courts respond to Blake will depend on ICE, whose attorneys serve as prosecutors in deportation cases. “ICE has the discretion to be proactive,” he said. “They can move on their own to reopen cases—and, for that matter, to terminate cases.” An ICE spokesperson did not answer PubliCola’s questions, including about whether their attorneys plan to end deportation proceedings unilaterally.

Warden-Hertz added that, thanks to Blake, former green card holders deported for drug possession convictions might be able to return to Washington once a court vacates their conviction. “If we can reopen their cases,” he said, “then the client regains their green card, which means they regain their lawful permanent resident status and should be able to travel back to the United States.” Thus far, he said, his legal team have only identified one client who may be able to reclaim their green card. Continue reading “New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain”

New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule

Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Brewbooks, Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington )

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that voided the state’s existing drug possession laws—a decision known as State of Washington v. Blake—has drawn considerable attention; the ruling requires judges across the state to review and correct the sentences of people charged with drug-related offenses.

But a wave of resentencing hearings unrelated to Blake is also looming on the horizon for courts statewide.

Lawmakers in Olympia have discussed ways to fix excessive sentencing repeatedly over the past decade, with a particular focus on Washington’s three-strikes law, a state statute that imposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”

In early April, state lawmakers passed legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), that requires judges to resentence anyone facing life in prison under Washington’s three-strikes law if one of their “strikes” was a second-degree robbery charge. Such charges generally do not involve a weapon or injuring a victim, in contrast to other “strike” offenses like rape and manslaughter. The law directs judges to base the new sentence on the final “strike” on the defendant’s record.

“They always say wheels of justice turn slow,” said Orlando Ames, one of the nine people charged for a three-strikes violation and released by the state’s clemency board. “But this has been almost a dead stop.”

“Robbery two… was just not like the others, and certainly not not consistent with the initiative’s goal to place behind bars for life any person who had been a persistent, violent and violent offender in the state,” said Sen. Darnielle during an online press conference on Wednesday.

Sen. Darnielle said that her office has identified 114 people across Washington who will be re-sentenced as a result of the new law—just under half of the 277 people currently serving life sentences as a result of the three-strikes law. Carla Lee, who leads the King County Prosecutors’ Office’s sentence review unit, said during Wednesday’s press conference that she’s aware of 29 people in King County who are now eligible for re-sentencing.

Washington voters passed the three-strikes law by initiative in 1993, making the state the first in the nation to adopt such a law. At the time, proponents promised that the new law would dramatically reduce the state’s crime rate. “Everyone knows that the three-strikes initiative passed with overwhelming public support,” said Darnielle. “And many other states followed in our path. But it’s proven itself to be very racially disproportionate, and it demonstrates some of the real inadequacies in our justice system.” More than a third of those sentenced under Washington’s three-strikes law since 1993 have been Black, though the state’s population is less than 5% Black. Of the 114 people eligible for resentencing, 53 are Black. Continue reading “New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule”

As Seattle’s Approach to Public Safety Changes, Annual Police Survey Stays the Same

Results of the 2020 Public Safety Survey

By Paul Kiefer

At Tuesday’s city council public safety committee meeting, Seattle University Crime and Justice Professor Jacqueline Helfgott presented the results of the 2020 Seattle Public Safety Survey, a collaboration between her university and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) conducted annually since 2015. The goal of the survey, Helfgott told PubliCola, is to monitor the public’s perceptions of crime and policing year-by-year, with the goal of shaping SPD’s neighborhood-level response to public safety concerns. The survey results were part of a series of presentations about the city’s efforts to stand up non-police public safety programs.

According to Helfgott, the survey began as a tool for SPD to tailor its neighborhood-level presence; an SPD captain in the North Precinct, for instance, might direct officers patrolling in Ballard to bear in mind residents’ concerns about “aggressive panhandling.”

Responding to a question from Councilmember Lisa Herbold about how the survey related to the city’s plans to shift public safety away from police, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s senior public safety advisor, Julie Kline, told council members that the survey results could “help the city choose how to prioritize non-police public safety investments” that can address Seattle residents’ public safety concerns.

The survey itself primes its participants to view Seattle through the lens of enforcing public order: in one question, the survey presents children skipping school, disrespecting adults and playing loud music as threats to the “social cohesion” of a neighborhood. I

What are those concerns? For the more than 11,000 Seattle residents who responded to the survey, the most common concern was city government itself, followed by “public order crimes,” property crimes, reduced police capacity, and homelessness. With the exception of the outsize frustration with city politics, respondents to the previous six surveys had almost the exact same priorities.

There were some variations by neighborhood. Respondents living north of the ship canal, for instance, perceived homelessness as a more significant public safety threat than residents elsewhere in Seattle, while respondents in Hillman City expressed lower confidence in SPD than residents of any other neighborhood.

Most people who took the survey expressed confidence in SPD; the department’s favorability ratings were highest among Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and older respondents, and lower among white respondents and those younger than 25. White people, particularly white women, were strongly over-represented in the survey. Overall, the survey showed show only a slight decrease in confidence in SPD across all neighborhoods since 2019. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Approach to Public Safety Changes, Annual Police Survey Stays the Same”

In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession

By Paul Kiefer

After a last-minute rush to pass legislation in response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that rendered the existing drug possession laws void, the Washington State legislature passed new legislation on Saturday re-criminalizing low-level drug possession by making it a misdemeanor and requiring local jurisdictions to provide treatment options for drug users. The bill, ESB 5476, directs law enforcement officers to divert people who violate the new law to “assessment, treatment, or other services” for the first two violations; after the second violation, a violator can be referred for prosecution and, potentially, a fine or jail.

After making compromises to pass the bill before the final day of the legislative session on Sunday, many lawmakers are not fully satisfied with the result. But had the legislature not passed a new law regulating drug possession, some lawmakers worried that a patchwork of local policies and enforcement practices would have filled the vacuum.

The decision that precipitated the scramble to adjust Washington’s drug possession laws, called State of Washington v. Blake, ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—violated the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions.

Without new legislation to address the court’s decision, the state can’t enforce any of its existing drug possession laws. But local jurisdictions could have passed new laws if the state legislature had not acted, which could range from de-criminalizing drug possession to classifying intentional possession as a gross misdemeanor—the most severe criminal charge a local jurisdiction can impose.

Support PubliCola

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

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

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

The bill at the center of the legislature’s ongoing push to respond to the Blake decision began as the work of a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), who proposed that the state eliminate all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. In its original form, the bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

But in an effort to pass the bill out of the senate, Democratic lawmakers moved to re-criminalize drug possession to win the votes of some Republicans; when the bill came to a vote on the senate floor, Dhingra voted against it, arguing that it no longer reflected her goal of separating addiction treatment from the criminal justice system. Continue reading “In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession”

Oly Fizz: Wealth Tax Dies, State Could Re-Criminalize Drug Possession, Sound Transit Gets Green Light to Fix Fare Enforcement

1. A proposed 1 percent tax on the wealth of 100 or so very rich Washington state residents is dead for this year. The cause of death: The House Appropriations Committee did not include the wealth tax (HB 1406) on this week’s committee agenda, which means the bill will not move forward. The bill had detractors in both parties and never advanced past the House, where it has languished since early April. The session ends next Sunday, April 25.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the committee was prioritizing bills that have gone through the legislative process. The committee is hearing only four Senate bills this week, including the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and a bill addressing the State v. Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession in Washington state (SB 5476).

Tax reform bills arguably had a better chance of passing this year than any time in recent memory, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses and the pandemic exposing the economic gulf between the very wealthy and everyone else.

While legislators did pass some progressive legislation that had been in the works for years, including the working families tax exemption (HB 1297), and the capital gains tax (included in the budget), the wealth tax stalled.

Tax reform advocates say because the wealth tax is the first legislation of its kind in the nation, it will take some time before legislators start pushing the policy forward. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing about the legislative process,” Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. “If there’s a good idea, there’s no reason not to pass it the first year it’s introduced.” However, Werschkul and other advocates said they think the wealth tax has enough momentum to move faster than previous tax bills.

2. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would re-establish a criminal penalty for drug possession in response to the state supreme court’s landmark ruling in February that effectively decriminalized drug possession.

In that decision, State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—were incompatible with the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions. The court’s decision rendered Washington’s existing drug possession laws toothless, sending lawmakers, prosecutors and attorneys statewide scrambling to adjust to the sudden end of decades of harsh drug policies.

In the legislature, a group of lawmakers saw an opportunity to cement de-criminalization in Washington law by rewriting the state’s drug possession statutes. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue) led the charge in the state senate, drafting a bill that would have removed all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. The bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

As the end of the legislative session approached, senate Democrats rushed to adjust the bill to reach an agreement with some of their Republican counterparts. The resulting amendments, Dhingra wrote in a press release last week, no longer reflected a “treatment-first approach” to drug use. Instead, the revised bill would impose a gross misdemeanor charge for drug possession—making no distinction between a “personal use amount” and larger quantities.

While the re-worked bill would require prosecutors to divert people charged with drug possession to addiction treatment for their first and second violations, it would grant prosecutors leeway to decide whether a person is eligible for treatment after their third violation, re-introducing the possibility of fines or jail time.

Dhingra, still listed as the bill’s sponsor, chose not to vote in support of her bill when it passed the senate last week. “I understand the importance of keeping a statewide policy response moving, and this compromise was the only way to do that,” she wrote in the press release. “Too many lives, especially Black and brown lives, will continue to be shattered by a criminal justice approach to what is fundamentally a public health problem.”

The legislation is now one of two bills written in response to the Blake decision before the House Appropriations Committee. The other, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Woodinville) and Rep. Tara Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island), would make possession of a “personal use amount” of illegal drugs a civil infraction.

3. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation last week (HB 1301) that authorizes Sound Transit to create an “alternate fare enforcement system,” removing what the agency called the primary legal obstacle preventing it from decriminalizing fare nonpayment on buses and trains. Unlike King County Metro, Sound Transit has resisted calls to end its punitive approach to fare enforcement, arguing that a more lenient policy would lead to revenue loss as people realize they can get away with riding for free.

Under existing policy (which Sound Transit is not currently enforcing), people who fail to show proof of payment more than once in a year receive a ticket and $124 fine; if they fail to pay the fine, they can face criminal charges.

Advocates for low-income transit riders have long argued that this policy is too punitive and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color; in 2019; King County Metro revised its own, similar rules to take fare enforcement out of the courts and give riders multiple alternatives to paying fines. Sound Transit said it would like to consider decriminalizing fare enforcement, but its enabling legislation required the fines.

For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

Lived Experience Coalition Says No One Asked Them About Homelessness Initiative, Which Centered Sweeps From the Beginning

By Erica C. Barnett

Proponents of a proposed amendment to the Seattle city charter that would mandate (but not fund) spending on shelter and enshrine encampment sweeps in the city’s constitution have argued repeatedly that the proposal isn’t about sweeps.

In fact, business leaders and homeless service providers who are supporting the initiative argue the proposal—the brainchild of former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess—is designed to spur the city to finally prioritize a crisis that has been growing for more than a decade, by forcing local leaders to spend money on shelter and housing until the problem is solved.

And the plan has some backing from institutional players outside the business community, including housing and shelter providers. Downtown Emergency Center Director Daniel Malone, for example, told PubliCola he thinks the initiative is “a step in the right direction because it acknowledges people need care and support, which seems to be in contrast the view espoused by some that people living outside should be treated punitively.”

But drafts of the measure show that from its inception to the latest incarnation, the plan has been centered on removing encampments, not ensuring that unsheltered people have permanent, stable places to go. (A new version of the measure includes a relatively minor but somewhat perplexing change: The constitutional amendment would sunset at the end of 2027, suggesting perhaps that homelessness will be solved by then.)

PubliCola has reviewed multiple early, unpublished drafts of the measure. They heavily emphasized encampment removals and gave no information about where funding for new shelter or housing would come from. And even the latest version provides no new funding to pay for the thousands of shelter beds it would require, prompting some Seattle leaders, including Seattle City Council president Lorena González, to call the measure an “unfunded mandate.”

Additionally, advocates for people experiencing homelessness, as opposed to providers who arguably stand to benefit from additional city funding for their programs, say they were not consulted on the measure at any point, and have major misgivings about how the proposal will work in practice.

“This is politically motivated to influence the [mayoral] election. That’s why it’s happening right now, and if [advocacy] groups don’t respond to this in a coherent fashion, they’re going to dominate the narrative.”—Tiffany McCoy, lead organizer, Real Change

Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change, told PubliCola it’s “obvious” that the charter amendment—first proposed by former city council member Tim Burgess, who has a history of trying to influence local elections—”is politically motivated to influence the [mayoral] election. That’s why it’s happening right now, and if [advocacy] groups don’t respond to this in a coherent fashion, they’re going to dominate the narrative.”

“They didn’t consult with us, and I believe they did it on purpose. Why consult the people you don’t agree with?”—Lived Experience Coalition member Kirk McClain

Although the charter amendment would require the city to create 2,000 new “emergency or permanent housing” beds in 2022, it provides no additional funds to do so, instead mandating that the city spend a minimum of 12 percent of its general fund budget on human services. “It’s being rolled out as the holy grail, and it’s just not,” McCoy said. “There’s no way to we can do this without more funding.”

Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people who advise the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and are represented on its governing board, told PubliCola that no one from the campaign has ever reached out to them for input or feedback or responded to their requests to weigh in on the proposal. Had they been asked, they say, they would have told Compassion Seattle that homeless people need housing, not vague commitments that will be tough to fulfill without funding.

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“They’ve definitely spoken to the business community, but not to those with lived experience or people on the ground when they came up with this ‘solution,'” LEC member Zaneta Reid said. LEC member LaMont Green added: “If you want substantive expertise, if you want to solve this problem, the most obvious experts are not being asked to come to the table.”

“If you look at this from the 10,000-foot view, what you see here is a group of people that have a lot of money and they think that because they have a lot of money and because they’re successful they can fix this homelessness issue—they can fix us,” said LEC member Kirk McClain, “even though they have absolutely no experience successfully doing this in the past. … They didn’t consult with us, and I believe they did it on purpose. Why consult the people you don’t agree with?”

Lived Experience Coalition members said they don’t support the initiative because it focuses too much on removing encampments and not enough on actually funding and building the housing that would enable people to move inside. Harold Odom, another LEC member who currently lives in a tiny house village, called the charter amendment “an insult, because it says ‘as emergency and permanent housing are available,'” the city must keep public spaces “open and clear.”

“We know there’s not enough permanent housing, and we know there’s not enough emergency housing,” Odom said. “There are many things that need to be done on several fronts. But you don’t know this when you don’t ask people on the street.”

Drafts of the amendment and campaign finance reports show that the campaign was taking advice instead from Seattle political consultant Tim Ceis, whose recent clients include Burgess’s left-baiting People for Seattle PAC (which attempted to smear council candidates by literally equating them with “extremist Kshama Sawant“), perpetually “concerned” former Burgess council aide Alex Pedersen, “Seattle Is Dying” star Scott Lindsay, and CASE, the political arm of the Seattle Chamber.

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