1. Tim Ceis, the consultant who received a no-bid, $280,000 city contract to work on issues related to Sound Transit’s Ballard-to-West Seattle light rail alignment earlier this year, received a $30,000 contract extension this month, bringing his total city contract to $310,000.
Ceis’ contract involves meeting with neighborhood advocacy groups and other stakeholders to build “community consensus” around the mayor’s priorities for the light rail extension, strategizing, and advancing Harrell’s views to the Sound Transit board.
At the time, Harrell was pushing a proposal to eliminate a station in the Chinatown International District (CID) neighborhood and replace it with a second Pioneer Square Station across from City Hall, roughly where the King County Administration Building currently stands. King County Executive Dow Constantine has proposed creating a towering new residential neighborhood and new civic center in the area. Sound Transit board adopted this proposal as its preferred alternative in March, but left one potential CID option on the table in response to protests from residents and businesses.
The plan to skip over the CID would add a new light rail station near Lumen Field and an existing Salvation Army shelter, amid a broad swath of land owned by developer Greg Smith. As far back as 2022, Smith’s company Urban Visions had mocked up a proposal to move the planned CID station south into SoDo, suggesting the area could turn into a new destination like Chelsea Market in New York or the food and event center in the revamped Seattle Center Armory.
Documents obtained through records requests show that Ceis, along with the city’s designated liaison to Sound Transit, has met with Smith “to discuss potential partnerships related to the proposed CID south station” on Smith’s property. He has also met with attorney Jack McCullough, who represents the developer that owns the development rights around the proposed second Pioneer Street station.
The newly amended contract says that “due to delayed Sound Transit board action,” Ceis’ work will continue through November. The board spent several weeks this summer debating whether to eliminate a promised station on Denny Way or build it on Westlake as planned; Harrell, who initially seemed to support eliminating the long-planned station on Denny, ultimately got behind a station north of the original proposed site on Westlake that will cause less disruption to Amazon and the South Lake Union developer Vulcan.
Public records show that Ceis communicates regularly with Vulcan, and facilitated a meeting between Harrell and Vulcan VP Ada Healey, who told Ceis that the original plan for a station on Westlake would “put [the city’s] economic engines at risk and “sacrific[e] our downtown neighborhoods.” A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the scope for Ceis’ $250-an-hour contract remains unchanged.
2. There’s a new poll in the field testing positive and negative messages about District 7 City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, along with positive messages about his opponent Bob Kettle—a former Navy officer who received 31.5 percent of the vote to Lewis’ 43.5 percent.
The poll, which only tests positive messages about Kettle, appears to be from the Kettle campaign. For one thing, it mischaracterizes several of Lewis’ key positions in odd ways—saying, for example, that Lewis is “working…to bring rent control to Seattle” (in fact, he voted against a rent control “trigger” law earlier this month). For another, it describes Lewis’ views in a way that no human working on his campaign would be likely to phrase them—like a question that says Lewis “believes we can make progress… if we center the work and meet the moment with the urgency it requires,” or another that talks about “electrify[ing] houses.”
The real meat of the poll—the messages voters should prepare to hear from Kettle as he runs against Lewis from the right—is more or less what you’d expect from a guy with campaign signs all over the top of Magnolia and Queen Anne: Kettle will represent District 7 neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle, crack down on “open drug use and dealing from Downtown to our neighborhoods,” and “clean up our public spaces” by removing encampments now that “we’ve finally built-up enough shelter space to offer housing to everyone.”
Quick fact check on that last point: There are currently around 6,000 shelter and transitional housing beds in all of King County—a fraction of what’s needed to serve a homeless population that could be as high as 48,000. Even under the most conservative estimates, we have not “built up enough shelter space,” much less housing, “for everyone.”
3. A potential site for a Pallet shelter in Burien could be disqualified because of extreme noise levels from nearby SeaTac Airport. The property—an empty lot next to the Boulevard Park branch of the King County Library—sits inside a “35 decibel reduction zone,” in which all “living and working areas” must be soundproofed to reduce inside noise by 35 decibels.
Pallet shelters, which are thin-walled temporary structures ventilated to the outdoors, can’t be soundproofed—a fact the Port of Seattle brought up in rejecting a proposal from the city to site the shelter inside the Port’s Northeast Redevelopment Area (NERA). In both locations, the average noise level is between 60 and 70 decibels, a level SeaTac Airport’s director of environment and sustainability said was “not conducive to residential purposes, especially when it is highly unlikely that any temporary housing structures (let alone permanent structures) could be modified to attain the City of Burien’s stringent noise mitigation code.”
A spokesperson for the city of Burien did not immediately respond to questions about noise levels at the potential shelter location and how the site, which has been vacant for many years, first came to the attention of the city.
A task force convened by Mayor Bruce Harrell to come up with proposals to address illegal drug use in public spaces has been meeting for several weeks to discuss how Seattle’s court system can address a potential influx of cases from the City Attorney Ann Davison’s office. This summer, the council is expected to pass a new law empowering Davison’s office to prosecute people who use drugs in public by aligning Seattle’s municipal code with a new state law making public drug use or simple possession a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony.
The city council rejected the proposal last month; Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding vote, plans to bring the measure back this summer and vote for it, a switch he says he feels comfortable making now that the task force’s work is underway. Only one of three sub-groups had met as of last week: The one focused on how the court will respond to a potential influx of new drug cases.
After just a couple of meetings, there appears to be broad consensus (with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment) in favor of expanding the Vital program, which provides intensive services to people with behavioral health issues, including addiction, and LEAD, a program run by Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association, or PDA) that offers services and case management to people before they are arrested.
Even Davison, who unilaterally withdrew the city from community court earlier this year—ending a program that allowed some people to avoid charges by participating in short-term programs—is reportedly open to expanding programs that divert drug users away from jail.
The idea, according to Councilmember Andrew Lewis, is to focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep things as far away from the court as possible,” since the court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.
The task force includes representatives from Davison’s office, the PDA, Seattle Municipal Court, and—since last week—the King County Department of Public Defense, which was excluded from Harrell’s initial list.
The group, according to Lewis, generally agrees the city should focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep [cases] as far away from the court as possible,” since Seattle Municipal Court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.
“This conversation is really laying bare that a lot of policy discussions are based on assumptions that aren’t true,” Lewis said. “It really did call out that we could arrest everyone downtown for smoking fentanyl and the King County Jail wouldn’t be able to book them—so where does that leave us?”
The exception to this consensus, according to multiple sources, is City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has expressed support for a new local misdemeanor drug court that would push people into long-term treatment instead of diversion or services based on harm reduction, such as medication assisted treatment and focused case management. Nelson—who has objected to funding PDA-run programs in the past—supports an abstinence-only approach to addiction and has argued that programs that provide methadone and suboxone to opiate addicts are “not aimed at long-term recovery.”
King County has a special drug court for people facing felony drug-related charges; defendants who opt in must go through a rigorous, abstinence-based program that includes mandatory treatment, frequent drug testing, and regular court appearances. The program is high-risk and high-reward: If a defendant completes the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, the charges are dropped. If they don’t, the judge can find them guilty and sentence them for their original felony, which could mean a long jail sentence.
For misdemeanors, the reward at the end of the process would be comparatively minuscule—the dismissal of low-level charges that don’t usually lead to jail sentences in the first place. It’s unclear how many, if any, misdemeanor defendants would opt in to such a court; currently, every drug court in Washington state is focused on felony-level offenses.
The group Harrell announced last month includes two other task forces, in addition to the one focused on the courts, that will discuss treatment and enforcement.
Lewis said that now that the work groups are meeting to discuss the best way to respond to public drug use, the legislation making public use a gross misdemeanor in Seattle is “almost a Macguffin”—a device that gets the plot going, but isn’t particularly significant in itself.
PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard agrees with that assessment. In an op/ed for PubliCola last month, she said the city’s primary focus should be on investing in evidence-based approaches to drug use and homelessness, regardless of whether the council gives Davison the authority to prosecute drug users.
Yesterday, following last week’s city council vote rejecting a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the power to prosecute people for drug possession and public use, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the creation of a 24-member “Fentanyl Systems Work Group” tasked with finding and implementing solutions to the opioid overdose crisis. In King County, 462 people have died of overdoses involving opioids this year alone.
In a press conference at city hall on Monday, Harrell said he was committed to passing a new drug possession and public drug use ordinance that would align the Seattle Municipal Code with a statewide “Blake fix” law passed by the legislature in May, which set drug possession and public use as gross misdemeanors.
“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests,” Harrell said. “But we will do that with compassion, to protect people when we have to.” Talking about how the war on drugs harmed his own community, Harrell wiped away tears and briefly stepped away from the podium.
“I believe in my heart, the people that are using drugs, many of them are sick,” Harrell said. “They’re not healthy. We’re not going to go out and fill our jails with sick people.”
The Seattle Police Department is already authorized to arrest people for drug use and possession under the statewide law, although King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion would have to agree to prosecute those cases, which she has said she will not do. Currently, few people are arrested or prosecuted under existing felony drug laws.
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.”
The work group will include municipal judges (including former community court judge Damon Shadid), several city council members, Davison, Police Chief Adrian Diaz, department directors, and representatives from service providers, diversion programs, community groups, and racial justice organizations.
Councilmember Sara Nelson, one of the sponsors of the drug possession bill, was adamant that the council pass a law soon. “I don’t want to see any infringement upon the city attorney’s prosecutorial discretion,” Nelson said after the press conference. “And I don’t want anybody telling the mayor what he’s going to do, what he’s going to direct his officers to do.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding “no” vote last week, has said that in order to vote for a new bill granting the city attorney new authority to prosecute misdemeanor drug crimes, he wants to see a replacement for community court, more funding for prefiling and pre-arrest diversion programs like LEAD, and other “necessary treatment and diversion programs.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing from everybody,” Lewis told PubliCola. “We’ve got two judges who are on this task force. We’ve got the city attorney’s office on this task force. I think that we can work through whatever differences we have to get a plan in place to have a successor therapeutic court.”
Community court has been the primary alternative to Seattle’s mainstream municipal court system since 2020. Though Lewis said he’s committed to finding a replacement for the court, he added that he’s actually more invested in diversion programs that target people before they get arrested in charged, such as LEAD for adults and Community Passageways for youth.
Lisa Daugaard, co-director of Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), which runs the pioneering pre-booking diversion program LEAD, said the debate over adding drug possession and public use to Seattle’s municipal code is something of a distraction, since diversion programs have existed as an option for more than a decade and will continue to.
“Since 2012,” Daugaard said, “we’ve had a framework in Seattle where even when there is legal authority to arrest, book someone into jail, refer them to prosecution, and prosecute them, our local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have very often chosen not to do that, in preference for a pre-booking diversion framework where people get a warm handoff to harm reduction-based care.”
Daugaard says arrests for drug-related offenses in Seattle have plummeted in the past two decades and aren’t likely to increase. “The incidence of stops, searches, and arrests for drug crime fell over a decade from being at the very top of the reasons that people have course of contact with law enforcement to outside the top ten,” she said. “And that was not an accident.”
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.” Participants in drug court, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, must check in frequently, stay sober, and meet other court-mandated requirements in order to have their charges dropped.
“We know that pre-file diversions are probably best for the overwhelming majority of people,” Lewis said. “But there is a small group of people where those interventions have not been successful, and they need a little bit more accountability and a little bit more structure. And that can definitely be provided by a therapeutic court.”
Daugaard says the more critical issue is finding sufficient funds for recovery services for people with substance use disorder, especially those without shelter. Though one selling point of the state’s drug possession bill was supposed to be an increase in funding for services and treatment, Daugaard says what the state actually provided is insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem statewide.
“The population in each region that it can serve is a small fraction of the total number of people who are using drugs in a way that could either be life threatening or problematic for their stability.” Addressing drug use in Seattle will require an injection of local resources beyond what the city has provided so far—something the council will have to grapple with during its annual budget deliberations this coming fall.
Before casting the deciding vote to reject a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison new power to prosecute people for using or possessing drugs, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he was swayed to vote no by Davison’s unilateral decision to stop sending cases to community court, a therapeutic court that allows people accused of specific low-level misdemeanors to access services and life-skills classes in lieu of prosecution.
Davison’s office has argued that community court and its onetime presiding judge, Damon Shadid, have been too lenient on low-level defendants, allowing people to elude charges by attending a single online life-skills class. Some service providers have actually echoed this complaint, arguing that the court does too little to get people into meaningful services like addiction treatment and job assistance programs.
Proponents of community court, including Shadid and the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), say community court graduates were less likely to reoffend (one measure of success) than people who go through mainstream court, and that the court offered a vital alternative to prosecution and incarceration, which clog up court dockets and put more pressure on the understaffed downtown jail.
“Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services,” DPD director Anita Khandelwal said after Davison announced her decision. “Nonetheless, the Seattle City Attorney … seeks to push push people deeper into a criminal legal carceral system that is expensive, deadly, and deeply racially disproportionate.”
Lewis, a former assistant city attorney, has said he will vote for a future version of Davison’s legislation if and when the city comes up with an alternative, or “successor,” to community court that includes access to services like addiction treatment for people who participate. So far, Lewis—who’s up for reelection this year—has outlined no specific plan, timeline, or proposal for what the new court would look like and who would be eligible.
In this context, the debate over Seattle’s now-defunct community court is still highly relevant. If the whole concept is doomed to failure, as Davison has suggested, the solution might be some combination of expanded pre-trial diversion programs and prosecution, which Davison’s office maintains the Seattle Municipal Court is better equipped to handle now that one judge (Shadid) has been “freed up” to hear mainstream cases. If it was a success, as DPD maintains, a new court might look more like community court 4.0, perhaps with more requirements—Davison’s office bristled at Shadid’s elimination of a community-service mandate—and a more punitive prosecute-and-jail track for people who fail to engage after signing up for the program.
The City Attorney’s Perspective
In her letter to the city council announcing the city’s withdrawal from community court, the city attorney’s criminal division chief, Natalie Walton-Anderson, said community court had an extremely low completion rate, with just a 22 percent “graduation” rate among defendants referred to the court. This, the city attorney’s office argued, has led over time to “a huge volume of unresolved and unaccounted for cases”—growing from a handful in August 2020, when the court was launched, to more than 1,500 as of last September.
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for the city attorney said. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
This backlog, Walton-Anderson argued, is the result of people failing to engage in court by showing up for hearings or complying with court requirements, even though “most participants only had to participate in an assessment with a pre-trial service counselor and attend a 90-minute life skills class.”
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for Davison, Marina Yudodik, told PubliCola. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
Community court—which excludes anyone accused of serious misdemeanors, such as stalking, harassment, and motor vehicle offenses—has three tiers for engagement, ranging from a 14-day program that includes the online life-skills class and information about available services to a 45-day program that includes mandatory engagement in services assigned by the court. According to Seattle Municipal Court data, Tier 1 defendants—the lowest level of engagement—account for fewer than half of those who enter community court, and there are about the same number of Tier 3 defendants as Tier 1.
But even among people who do engage with services, Davison’s office argues, the majority only access items to help with their immediate needs, rather than ongoing services like drug treatment or job training. According to community court records, in the court’s first 16 months, 31 participants accessed drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment with suboxone—less than a third of the number referred to treatment services. In contrast, 214 people received bus tickets, 132 got clothing, and 166 accepted food bags.
In addition, the city attorney’s office argues, community court has is open to people who are accused of “significant criminal acts,” and does not screen out people with “serious criminal histories,” including in other states. In her letter, Walton-Anderson gives several examples of cases that her office believes are “inappropriate” for community court, either because they’ve committed more serious crimes in the past or because their specific cases are more serious than their charges indicate.
The letter provides four examples of “inappropriate cases and individuals” that ended up in community court, including one man who had several felony cases pending in King County Superior Court who went on to carjack a vehicle with a child inside; one man who was charged with multiple felonies while in community court but still graduated; and another man who committed multiple misdemeanors and felonies while his cases were pending in community court.
In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the office plans “to dismiss a significant number of cases that were filed prior to January 1, 2022” to clear out the community court docket, and the city attorney’s office has said it plans to send more cases into pre-trial diversion, where appropriate, while routing other cases to mainstream municipal court. In a statement about her decision to stop sending cases to community court, Davison noted that people who participate in pre-filing diversion are less likely to reoffend than those referred to community court.
The city’s existing pre-filing diversion programs are aimed at people under 25, not the older adults who commit a large and growing number of drug-related crimes. Other programs, such as the longstanding program now called Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), serve older adults, including those with significant behavioral health challenges and extensive criminal justice involvement, but LEAD is a pre-booking program separate from the pre-filing programs Walton-Anderson referred to in her letter.
Recently, the CAO did sign new pre-filing diversion contracts with several nonprofit groups, including the Urban League, the LGBTQ+ Center (formerly Gay City), and Unified Outreach, an arts program for at-risk youth that is expanding to serve adults. The city council provided $750,000 for expanding diversion to people 25 and older in 2021, but—after a protracted battle with Davison in 2021—moved the funding from the city attorney’s office to the Human Services Department, which spent more than a year analyzing potential diversion strategies. During this time, the funding sat unspent for “many months,” Davison spokeswoman Yudodik said.
These programs, once they’re up and running, will still be aimed at people who are fairly high-functioning—excluding, for example, those who are in active fentanyl addiction and need more services than a light-touch diversion program can provide.
The Public Defenders’ Perspective
Community court has many defenders, including the attorneys who represent clients accused of low-level misdemeanor crimes.
DPD director Khandelwal recently told PubliCola that “if the CAO opts for traditional prosecution, we expect we’ll see more dismissals. This means that more people will churn through a costly and ineffective system and will be harmed and destabilized in the process.” Data from the city attorney shows that in 2022, municipal court judges dismissed nearly 800 cases out of 5,700 filed by the city attorney’s office.
Advocates for community court have also argued that criminalizing low-level crimes, and jailing people who would have been eligible for community court, will only destabilize defendants with major challenges that contribute to their criminal activity, such as mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
“We have been able to hook people up with housing, with inpatient treatment, with mental health services, with Apple Care [Medicaid] insurance, right there at the court,” Shadid told PubliCola last year. “I just think this way is proven to have more positive effects for our community than putting people in jail, destabilizing them, making them lose their services, and then releasing them back into the community with less connections to services than they had when they entered.”
In her letter, Walton-Anderson provided several examples intended to demonstrate that community court doesn’t work, and that eliminating the court would give the city attorney the ability to prosecute people who cause harm. However, it’s debatable whether the cases she picked as examples would have gone differently if community court did not exist.
For example, the letter describes Ryan, who was accused of theft and property damage. After opting in to community court, he committed a felony by attempting to steal a car that had a child inside. However, both of Ryan’s charges stemmed from arrests in 2021 for which he was booked and quickly released, long before he opted in to community court last year. Both of those cases were dismissed for lack of proof. Ryan has been in jail on the felony charge since last May in lieu of $350,000 bail.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearing.
In another case, William racked up a large number of shoplifting misdemeanors before his 2020 referral to community court. The jail repeatedly released him directly into residential treatment for his substance use disorder, but he left each time before finishing. The reason William’s cases were dismissed, though, was a separate plea deal with the King County prosecutor on a felony case, not his failure to participate in community court or treatment. Additionally, William is on the “high utilizers” list Davison categorically excluded from community court more than a year ago, and has been ineligible for community court since then.
Walton-Anderson’s letter also cites David, a man who was arrested repeatedly for stealing from a store in North Seattle and “graduated” from community court in 2022, “having completed only the 90 minute life skills class to resolve all [nine] cases” from 2020. In fact, according to court records, David had been in a one-year residential treatment program for almost two months and “making great progress,” according to his probation officer, when he graduated from community court—precisely the kind of outcome the city attorney’s office has said it hopes to see. By the time David reoffended last August, he was already ineligible for community court because he, like William, was on Davison’s high-utilizers list.
Advocates for community court also dispute some of the statistics the city attorney uses to claim the court wasn’t working. For example, the office has frequently noted that community court has a low completion level—about 78 percent of people who opt in to the court don’t complete it. However, as Judge Shadid has pointed out, the low “graduation” rate stems from the fact that a high percentage of community court participants fail to appear at initial hearings, often because they are homeless.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearings. The subtitle for the report, which preceded the most recent iteration of community court, was “Declines, Delays, And Dismissals – Why Most Seattle Misdemeanor Cases Never Get Resolved And The Impacts On Public Safety.”
The city attorney’s office has pointed to higher recidivism rates among people who opt in to community court compared to pre-trial diversion programs that have more requirements, like the LGBTQ+ Center’s online Access to Change program for young adults accused of certain domestic violence crimes. However, people who get referred into pretrial diversion are a specific subset of defendants who the city attorney’s office believes are likely to succeed in diversion programs that offer a “light touch”—young people with minimal prior criminal involvement who generally do not face the same challenges as older community court defendants, like chronic homelessness, fentanyl addiction, and severe mental illness. They just aren’t the same group of people.
Community court is gone, for now, and its replacement is now in the city’s hands. Both Lewis and Davison have expressed support for expanded use of pre-trial diversion programs for the higher-functioning people who qualify, and continuing or expanding LEAD, an evidence-based program that provides case management and services to people with high levels of criminal legal involvement.
Even with those programs, both Davison’s office and the municipal court will likely be inundated with new low-level cases, which could lead to larger backlogs and more dismissals. Currently, according to records compiled by municipal court staffers, the court has almost 2,400 cases from 2022 that are still pending, along with nearly 2,000 so far in 2023. Adding cases that would have gone to community court to this pile would only increase the backlog. In 2019, for example, nearly 3,000 cases were filed that would have been eligible for community court, if community court had existed at the time.
Last year, Davison’s office declined fewer than 60 cases using pre-filing diversion programs—a small fraction of the number that will need to be diverted into programs that have limited capacity in order to avoid an even greater backlog. The city—and Lewis in particular—will have to be creative and determined if it wants to avoid the very situation Davison decried during her election campaign.
After a tense, emotional meeting Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted 5-4 to reject legislation proposed by City Attorney Ann Davison that would have empowered Davison to prosecute Seattle residents for simple drug use and possession.
The bill, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, would have incorporated most of a new state law making drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor into the city’s municipal code. The state legislature changed the law this year after the state supreme court overturned the state’s felony drug possession law in a decision called Washington v. Blake.
The swing vote was Andrew Lewis, a former assistant city attorney who represents downtown Seattle and is up for reelection this year. On Tuesday, Lewis said he had planned on voting for the bill, but changed his mind after Davison abruptly and unilaterally announced the city would no longer participate in community court, a therapeutic court that did not require people to plead guilty of a crime to participate.
Lewis’ vote, he said, came down to the fact that he didn’t believe Davison would use the law judiciously after she effectively eliminated the city’s only therapeutic court.
“What it really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. “”This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
“I came out here on the dais today fully prepared to vote for this measure,” Lewis said. “I am not necessarily opposed to incorporating the statute into our [city code], and I was prepared to do this. I think it is generally proper for us to do it. But with the ending of community court, without any additional process, I just can’t do it today.”
On Wednesday, Lewis told PubliCola that what his vote “really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court. “It doesn’t exist now, but maybe we could make a successor court” to community court, he said. “This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
This afternoon, Lewis announced he would propose a path toward passing a version of Davison’s law, after working to develop a “successor court” to community court, develop and fund treatment-based pre-filing diversion, working “to scale and deploy” an evidence-based response to fentanyl use in Seattle, and “finally, after creating those necessary pathways for treatment and diversion, propose legislation making the Seattle Municipal Code consistent with State Law on possession and public use.”
Tensions were high in council chambers on Tuesday, as dozens of public commenters opposed to the law expressed their grievances with the council in general, and Nelson—who owns Fremont Brewing, a brewery and bar, with her husband—in particular.
“We all know that the Seattle Police Department will not be investigating, arresting, and charging anyone who is doing lines of coke in the bathroom of the Fremont Brewery,” Molly Gilbert, head of the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, said. “You are literally a drug dealer!” another commenter quipped.
Others responded to claims that the proposal was not tantamount to a “drug war,” because it would only make drug use and possession a misdemeanor, by telling the council how their own lives were derailed by misdemeanor drug convictions. Liletha Williams, one of the last people to speak, testified that her misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s “destroyed my life.”
“I’m 62 and I don’t have any retirement,” Williams said. “I have to work. I’m sick. I can’t have surgery because I can’t miss work. This is all because of my drug addiction in 1990.”
Moments after listening to this testimony, Nelson said her legislation had nothing in common with the drug war of the 1990s.
“I believe that equating this legislation to the war on drugs is frankly to diminish and minimize the damages and the heinousness of that stain on our history,” Nelson said. “Those were felonies. People were thrown into jail for years on felony charges having to do primarily with cannabis and coke and crack and heroin, etc. We are talking [about creating a] gross misdemeanor to address the most potent and dangerous drug to hit our streets, ever.”
Juarez—who briefly put the meeting into recess after people objected to her proposal to end public comment before everyone had spoken—also described fentanyl as a uniquely deadly and dangerous new drug.
“Let me be clear,” Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
In fact, fentanyl has been legally manufactured and prescribed in the US since the 1960s for long-term pain management and is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, along with many other potentially addictive drugs. (Nor—despite frequent claims to the contrary—can people get high or overdose from secondhand fentanyl vapor, according to the Seattle/King County Department of Public Health.)
“Let me be clear,” Council President Debora Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
So what happens now? As it has since May, the new state law applies in Seattle, meaning that drug use and possession are both illegal. (This is true despite a false claim from Davison that “Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public.”). Seattle Police Department officers retain their existing authority to arrest people under the state law, and King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion retains her existing authority to prosecute people for misdemeanor drug use and possession. And Davison can continue prosecuting misdemeanors related to drug use, such as shoplifting and trespassing—something that has already been keeping her busy in the absence of broad the broad new authority she sought.
In all likelihood, SPD won’t start rounding up fentanyl users on Third Avenue, and Manion won’t start prosecuting people for simple possession, but that would have been the case even if the legislation had passed. Manion, who supported the bill, rarely pursues even felony drug cases, and SPD has been focusing its resources on people higher up the illicit drug food chain—”the dealers and traffickers bringing this poison into our communities,” as Mayor Bruce Harrell put it in a statement after the vote. Harrell, no fan of drug-war policies, has stayed largely silent on the legislation; in his statement, he said it was “unacceptable for people to consume illegal drugs in public spaces,” but also emphasized “new and innovative approaches to ensure those in need receive the treatment they deserve,” such as contingency management.
Lewis’ potential legislation is the wild card. If he re-introduces some version of Davison’s bill—criminalizing drug use but securing promises from her office about diversion and treatment, for example—it could reignite a largely irrelevant debate about arresting and jailing drug users amid an overdose crisis that cries out for evidence-based approaches, not overheated drug-war rhetoric.
1. As of last week, the Seattle City Council seemed likely to vote at least 5-4 in favor of legislation, proposed by City Attorney Ann Davison and sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, to criminalize simple drug possession and public use at the city level. The state legislature, responding to a state supreme court decision overturning the state’s previous felony law, made drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor earlier this year; the local proposal would incorporate parts of that law into the city’s municipal code.
However, after Davison abruptly withdrew the city from Seattle’s community court—a therapeutic court that accepts people accused of most misdemeanors without requiring them to plead guilty of a crime—council members who were leaning toward a “yes” vote have reportedly been reconsidering their positions. If Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, and Lisa Herbold all vote “no,” all it will take is one more council member—either Andrew Lewis or Dan Strauss, both up for reelection this year—to doom the bill.
Lewis declined to comment on Monday, and Strauss did not respond to a text message last week. However, Strauss proposed an amendment on Monday that would add a “whereas” clause the bill pointing out that the state law mentions diversion, treatment, and services as alternatives to booking and prosecution, suggesting that he may believe the new law meaningfully encourages these alternatives.
If Strauss supports the bill, the decision would come down to Lewis. Although Lewis told the Seattle Times he supports prosecuting people for public drug use, that was before Davison withdrew the city from community court. In light of that decision, Lewis may want to avoid handing more authority to a separately elected official who has demonstrated she will act unilaterally to penalize low-level crimes. During Monday’s council briefing, Lewis criticized Davison’s decision, saying it was “concerning that the decision to pull out and disrupt that program has been made without a well-thought–out plan on what replaces it.”
The criminalization bill skipped past the usual committee hearing, so tomorrow’s 2 pm full council meeting will be the first time the council discusses the legislation publicly, and the first and last opportunity for the public to address the council directly before the vote.
2. Former King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, who announced their resignation last month, will reportedly receive a public contract to work on an unspecified project for the agency for up to three months after their last day on June 16. Sources close to Dones and the agency were tight-lipped about the details, but the deal is said to be a kind of payment in lieu of severance because Dones decided to resign rather than forcing the agency to fire them, which was starting to look more and more likely in the weeks leading up to Dones’ resignation.
Dones has been a divisive figure, winning praise for their big-picture vision and efforts to include people with direct experience in decisions that impact them directly, along with criticism for neglecting ground-level details, like building relationships with existing service providers and paying contractors on time.
It’s unclear exactly where the money for Dones’ potential contract would come from, and whether it would require them to be physically present at KCRHA headquarters at the same time that an interim director, Helen Howell, is working to establish a new course for the agency. A representative for King County declined to comment on the details of the potential contract, and a representative for Harrell did not respond to an email, a phone call, or a text message seeking comment.
A lot has been written—including here on PubliCola—about the coming mass exodus from the Seattle City Council. Five council members—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Alex Pedersen, and Debora Juarez— have either said they will not run for reelection this year or that they will run for a different office. At least four, and probably five, council seats will be filled by new people next year; depending on how things shake out, the most senior council member could have just four years’ experience.
Amid that churn, two freshman council members—Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis, whose districts encompass southeast Seattle and downtown, respectively—have said want to stay on the job. (Dan Strauss, who represents northwest Seattle, has not announced his intentions yet.)
In conversations with PubliCola, both cited unfinished business, a need for continuity in the legislative branch, and a sense of optimism about the future among their reasons for running again despite a working environment that has been chaotic, toxic, and full of unexpected challenges—including the COVID pandemic, a racial reckoning whose promise is largely unfulfilled, and a mainstream backlash against people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
“None of us expected the kind of term we had… and it takes a toll,” Morales said. “There were definitely times when I was like, ‘What the hell? This was not what I expected.’ It’s stressful and I don’t begrudge any of my colleagues for wanting to find a different way to give back to the community.”
That said, Morales added, “given that I represent a district that has historically been ignored, I don’t want to lose momentum.”
When Morales ran for her seat four years ago, she focused on issues like preventing economic displacement and ending encampment sweeps. Four years later, she says she’s still focused on those issues, but with a deeper understanding of how the city’s policies promote gentrification and make long-term solutions to Seattle’s housing crisis a complex challenge. “I’m especially interested in seeing through the comprehensive plan”—a planning document that guides housing, parks, jobs, and transportation in Seattle—”and really trying to change the way we manage growth in the city … so we’re not just rubber-stamping a perpetuation of the existing strategy,” Morales said.
“We know that transit corridors have high rates of pollution associated with them, at least the way we have allowed them to be built. Now we’re saying, ‘put a lot of poor people there and let’s use them a as buffer between homeowners and the road.'”
For example, Morales said, one major reason for the housing shortage is the city’s decades-old “urban village” strategy, which concentrates dense housing along busy, polluted arterial roads while locking up most of the city’s residential land for suburban-style single-family houses. Next year, the city will adopt a new comprehensive plan that will guide development for the next 20 years, and some of the options under consideration would concentrate development along “transit corridors”—those same busy, polluted arterials.
Morales wants to work to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“We know that transit corridors have high rates of pollution associated with them,” Morales said, “at least the way we have allowed them to be built,” with buses and cars competing for space along fast-moving arterials like Rainier Ave. S. “Now we’re saying, ‘put a lot of poor people there and let’s use them a as buffer between homeowners and the road.'”
Morales, who has a background in urban planning, emerged as a vocal advocate for pedestrian safety during her term, a time when almost half the fatal crashes in the entire city of Seattle occurred in her district. For decades, the city has failed to meaningfully address traffic violence along most of Rainier Ave. S., with the exception of the gentrified Columbia City neighborhood, where a controversial road-narrowing project successfully calmed a section of the road where crashes were once frequent.
Morales has been critical of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s uninspiring traffic-calming efforts, like lowering the speed limit on arterials by five miles an hour and posting signs encouraging drivers to slow down.
“We need to design roads differently so that people slow down” while also enforcing traffic laws in places where people continue to speed—for example, with automated traffic cameras that result in warnings, then fines, Morales said. “I drive down Rainier and I see people blow past me in the bus lane, the turn lane—that is a problem. But we’re not going to solve it with a public education campaign.”
If she’s reelected, Morales said she plans to focus on building generational wealth for Seattle residents of color through programs like community land trusts, which enable low-income people to buy homes, programs that help potential homebuyers qualify for loans, and a pilot program, which she’s introducing this spring, to give developers incentives to work with small, community-based groups to build 35 small affordable housing project throughout the city.
In addition to securing public funds for public parks, beach restoration, sidewalks, and other “quote-unquote back to basics things,” Morales says her office has “really increased the explicit discussion of racial equity” on the council. “When I first got here and I was talking so much about racial equity, I feel like I got a lot of pats on the head,” she said. “Because of the team that I’ve built and the work [we’ve done[ on behalf of District 2, I think other council member are talking more about the need to center racial equity and acknowledging the ways that the South End has been left out.”
Lewis, like Morales, said he’s motivated to run again by the desire to complete work that he started in his first term, particularly when it comes to alternatives to police response. For more than two years, the city has been debating whether and how to establish a program that would send unarmed civilian responders to some non-emergency calls, with little progress; last year, Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to move forward with a small pilot program while his office and the police department continue to analyze 911 call data.
During his confirmation hearing last month, then-interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz estimated that over the next two years, the police department would gain a net total of about 18 officers, assuming the rate at which officers leave the department continues to decline. “We have to have leaders who are willing to soberly acknowledge that even that 982 number may unfortunately be an optimistic one,” Lewis said. “We have a civic consensus that we need more police, but where that conversation never goes is that it may be necessary, but it’s not in and of itself sufficient.”
While Lewis noted that Harrell has been far more willing to work with the council, in general, than his predecessor, Jenny Durkan, the time could eventually come to “call the question” on civilian responders by amending the city charter to create a new department dedicated to certain kinds of non-emergency calls.
“We have this really difficult and intractable public safety challenge that comes down to the fact that—very, very stubbornly—we haven’t been doing the things that we need to do as a modern American city to keep people safe,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what it is about our local politics that holds us back from making similar progress that other cities have,” like Denver and Albuquerque, which both set up alternative response programs in 2020, during nationwide calls to reduce reliance on police for many types of emergencies.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a moderate Democrat, is “not too dissimilar from the folks who tend to be mayor in the city of Seattle, but … they have a very mature (alternative response) system while we are still screwing around on this,” Lewis said.
“To the extent that things are more collegial now, the council didn’t really change all that much but the mayor did. Maybe that is a clue to where the preponderance of the problem was.”
Lewis currently heads up the council’s homelessness committee, and has advocated for more spending on tiny house villages, in particular, throughout his term. If he gets a second term, he says he’d like to serve on the council’s transportation committee in addition to working on homelessness and police accountability.
“My district has quite a few bridges that need work done,” including the high bridge to Magnolia, Lewis said. “I think bridges are going to be a dominant infrastructure issue over the next decade, because we are going to see more bridge failures.” Part of the problem, he added, is that “there’s been a lot of instability” at the Seattle Department of Transportation, which has had five directors since 2018.
“Despite the fact that we’ve come up with a lot of resources that we’ve directed toward bridges as a council, SDOT hasn’t taken that money and actually done anything to help those bridges. A lot of that money gets reshuffled for other priorities or put on hold.” Urbanists, meanwhile, often understandably advocate for other priorities, like safe bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects, instead of road infrastructure that primarily serves cars. Continue reading “They Want to Stay: Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis on Why They’re Running for Reelection”→
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority released the agency’s 2023 budget this week along with a long-awaited five-year plan that agency director Marc Dones said will put the region on a path toward sheltering, then housing, tens of thousands of people over the next several years. But some elements of the road map remain unclear, including how the authority plans to fund its ambitious plans.
The budget KCHRA presented to its implementation and governing boards this week (and which the governing board approved unanimously on Thursday) adds up to $253 million. Much of that total, however, consists of pass-through funds, such as $28 million for the Housing and Essential Needs assistance program for people with disabilities, one-time federal COVID relief funding, and leftover money from this year’s budget.
The budget also includes more than $49 million in grants from the state to resolve encampments in state-owned highway rights-of-way, plus $1.2 million the Seattle City Council added to its KCRHA budget contribution this year to move encampment outreach from the city’s HOPE team to the homelessness authority.
The primary funding sources for the KCHRA are the city of Seattle and King County, which both declined to fund most of the KCRHA’s big budget requests this year. To add services, the authority has turned to funds that comes with strings attached—like the $49 million state contribution for highway cleanup, or a $5 million donation from downtown businesses for cleaning up encampments downtown.
“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”—KCRHA implementation board member John Chelminiak
This year’s legislative session could offer new revenue sources—this week, Gov. Jay Inslee said he would seek voter approval to spend $4 billion to build or preserve about 10,000 affordable housing units statewide—but the outcome of such a vote is far from certain, and it’s unclear how much of that funding would end up going toward homelessness in King County.
“There’s really not a lot of discretion in our budget, because we’re funded by Seattle and King County,” implementation board member (and former Bellevue councilmember) John Chelminiak said Wednesday. “And they’re basically telling us, as you would expect them to, how to spend the money that they’re allocating to us. So how are we going to get to a place where we actually have a revenue stream that we can use in our way that we want to use it that implements that five year plan and that vision?”
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell raised similar questions at the agency’s governing board meeting the following day. (The implementation board, made up of stakeholders and people with lived experience of homelessness from around the region, is responsible for making decisions that the governing board, which includes elected officials, is supposed to adopt.) The agency’s ambitious five-year plan, Harrell noted, is “going to come with a price tag, and … we’re going to have to have that conversation” about new sources of funding.
The KCRHA plans to release the full details of that plan between now and January, when each board will meet again. A PowerPoint presentation about the plan focused on seven broad goals (among them: “dramatically reducing unsheltered homelessness,” ending homelessness among families, youth, and young adults, and restructuring the homeless service system) but contained few details about how the KCRHA plans to achieve them.
One area of ongoing debate is how much effort the agency should focus on getting people into shelter (“temporary housing”) versus permanent housing. While the Housing Command Center, spearheaded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is focused on moving people living unsheltered downtown into permanently housing quickly, the KCRHA now estimates that temporary housing will make up about 43 percent of the region’s need over the next five years.
The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.
At Wednesday’s implementation board meeting, Chelminiak said that unless the authority can show it’s reducing the number of people on the streets, “I don’t think anyone is going to give us any money to spend.” But Sara Rankin, a Seattle University professor and longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness, said it was more important to offer people meaningful, lasting places to go than “prioritize expediency and the fastest, cheapest ways of moving people out of sight without any long-term sense of what’s going to happen to them.”
The need for both housing and temporary shelter, according to the KCRHA, has grown dramatically. According to the five-year plan presentation‚ 62,000 people in King County were homeless at some point in 2022—a 50 percent increase from an estimated 40,000 who were homeless at some point last year. According to a KCRHA spokeswoman, the 62,000 figure is “the number that the state Department of Commerce is using for the housing modeling that they’re doing for the state and for King County.”
PubliCola has reached out to Commerce for more information and we should have an update Monday.
The KCRHA now estimates it will need to find temporary shelter for 23,000 people a year, along with 48,000 permanent housing units, and that the gap between the existing system and the current need amounts to about 19,000 temporary beds and more than 45,000 permanent homes.
1. Members of the city council’s public safety committee, which voted unanimously to appoint interim police chief Adrian Diaz to the permanent police chief position on Tuesday, were mostly effusive about Diaz’ performance at the final public hearing on his appointment, praising him for his efforts to recruit new officers, reinstate the community service officer program, and work collaboratively with the council. Council members did have a few pointed questions, though, about Diaz’ commitment to replacing police with civilian responders.
Like many other cities across the country, Seattle committed to creating new community-based alternatives to traditional policing amid protests against police violence in 2020; since then, other cities have moved forward with new strategies while Seattle has bogged down in process.
“Around the same time that members of this council were talking about creating a third public safety department and civilian alternatives to police, Albuquerque also started their journey. The difference between them and us is that we have two years of resolutions, workgroups, promises, talking, [and] misrepresentations [from the previous administration].”—Councilmember Andrew Lewis
“Around the same time that members of this council were talking about creating a third public safety department and civilian alternatives to police, Albuquerque also started their journey,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. Albuquerque, Lewis noted, has a similar budget to Seattle’s and has also seen its police department shrink from around 1,400 to fewer than 1,000 officers.
“The difference between them and us is that we have two years of resolutions, workgroups, promises, talking, [and] misrepresentations” from the previous mayoral administration, while Albuquerque stood up its new public safety department in 2021 and has diverted thousands of calls from the police department.
As we’ve reported, SPD is still in the middle of a lengthy risk analysis that is supposed to determine which kind of 911 calls are safe enough for a civilian response. That process is expected to stretch into 2024. Meanwhile, according to SPD’s latest hiring projections, the department will only grow by 18 fully trained officers in the next two years.
While transferring some low-risk work to trained civilian responders would be one way to free up SPD officers for police work and investigations, another option could be reducing the amount of overtime police burn through directing traffic and providing security for sports events, which added up to more than 91,000 hours through October of this year. Diaz didn’t seem particularly open to this suggestion, either, noting that there is always a risk of violence at large events, such as someone trying to drive through a barricade.
2. Also on Tuesday, the city council voted unanimously to move forward with a plan to exempt many affordable housing projects from the design review process for another year—effectively signing off on the once-controversial view that design review leads to unnecessary delays that makes housing more expensive.
However, one of those “yes” votes, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, voted “no” on a separate package of amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan because they did not include “developer impact fees,” which some cities levy on housing developers to offset the toll new residents create on urban infrastructure like roads and sewers. One reason such fees are controversial is that they imply that new housing has a negative impact on the city, without considering the positive impacts (such as reduced traffic congestion, less sprawl, and more customers for local businesses) of dense, vibrant neighborhoods.
Since the city can’t pass developer impact fees until they’re included in the comprehensive plan, Sawant said, the vote to approve the amendments “means that we need to wait another year to make big developers pay for the impacts they have on our city infrastructure and for the profits they make without paying even this minimum of compensation for the city’s working people.” During the 2020 budget deliberations, Sawant joined her colleague Councilmember Alex Pedersen in seeking $350,000 for a study of impact fees; although Pedersen is generally far to the right of socialist Sawant, a shared opposition to most development frequently puts them on the same side of housing-related issues.
Low-income people and people experiencing homelessness often have to wait weeks or months before getting into residential treatment—a fact that flies in the face of calls to force more people in crisis into treatment under the state’s involuntary treatment law.
3. Pioneer Human Services, which offers treatment to low-income people with substance use disorder, is closing its 50-bed Pioneer Center North facility in Skagit County next month amid an acute regional shortage of residential treatment beds for low-income people and people seeking treatment during or after serving time in jail.
According to agency spokeswoman Nanette Sorich, there were a number of reasons for the “difficult decision,” including the fact that “the building has been operating on a short-term lease and the facility is past its useful life. Additionally, like many behavioral health providers, we have faced significant challenges with staffing and these labor force shortages have become more acute over time,” Sorich said.
The Sedro-Wooley inpatient clinic had 77 beds before the pandemic. Pioneer Human Services will now refer potential clients to its other clinics in Everett and Spokane, Sorich said.
Low-income people and people experiencing homelessness often have to wait weeks or months before getting into residential treatment—a fact that flies in the face of calls to force more people in crisis into treatment under the state’s involuntary treatment law. Since 2018, King County has lost more than 110 residential treatment beds and is now down to 244 beds countywide. A countywide levy, on the ballot next April, would restore the number of residential beds in King County to 2018 levels; the bulk of the $1.25 billion proposal would go toward five new walk-in crisis stabilization centers across the county.
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to restart the mostly moribund Park Ranger program by hiring 26 additional rangers to patrol Seattle’s downtown parks has run into opposition from advocates who have argued that the rangers will be “park cops” deputized to kick homeless people out of public spaces.
But some city council members say the rangers are meant to be a civilian alternative to police, and point to measures the city has taken to ensure that rangers can’t facilitate arrests or exclude people from parks except in extreme situations—specifically, a 2012 policy that restricts park rangers’ authority.
Councilmember (and parks district board chair) Andrew Lewis said that during a recent “ridealong” with one of the city’s two park rangers, “it was made really, really clear to me that they are greatly dissuaded from using their authority to trespass or exclude—their job is to tell people what the rules in a park are, and usually that’s enough.”
On Monday, Lewis will release his own parks district plan, which will include Harrell’s park ranger proposal. “But,” he added, “we want to make sure we put some fetters on what they can do,” in the form of a resolution accompanying the parks district spending plan “acknowledging the current policy and making it clear rangers will not participate in removals of encampments.”
The debate over park rangers is only the latest salvo in a battle over behavior in parks that goes back decades.
Back in 1997, the city adopted a controversial law called the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, which allowed police to ban people from parks for violating local laws—anything from skating too fast to public inebriation to “camping”— could get a person excluded from all parks in one of 12 geographic “exclusion zones.” If a person was caught in any parks in that area during their exclusion period, they would face an escalating series of exclusions; on the third offense, they would be banned from every park in the city. Thousands of people were excluded from parks under the law, usually for minor offenses; during the first year the law was in effect, 53 percent of exclusions were for public inebriation and 22 percent were for sleeping in parks overnight.
Advocates like the ACLU and the Public Defender Association opposed the program, noting that it disproportionately impacted people who were homeless or poor; it also led to some absurd results.
The park ranger program started in 2007, when the city hired six rangers to “rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity,” according to a Seattle Times report. The rangers also had the ability to enforce the exclusion ordinance.
The parks exclusion ordinance remains on the books. However, in 2012, it was superseded by a new “trespass warning” policy. Under that policy, park rangers or police can issue a warning when they see someone violating park rules or a state or local law; if they’re caught violating a law or park rule again, they can be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. People can also be excluded from a park zone—they still exist!—for up to a year for committing a felony or weapons-related violation. In 2015, the PDA wrote a letter to interim parks director Christopher Williams applauded the department for using the law judiciously and asking him to take a similar approach to the ban on smoking cigarettes in parks.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose onetime boss, former councilmember Nick Licata, opposed the original parks exclusion law, said current efforts to paint parks rangers as anti-homeless cops diminishes the hard work of activists who pushed for the 2012 policy change. “Advocates fighting for their clients did something important, with principled persistence, that we couldn’t accomplish legislatively…and it’s lasted for ten years,” Herbold said. “This opposition campaign is devaluing that victory.”
So far, according to the Public Defender Association, the city has abided by its commitment not to indiscriminately trespass people from parks over minor issues. In the last year, according to the parks department, the two parks rangers issued 388 informal verbal warnings, one written warning, one citation for trespass, and two exclusions, both related to people shooting guns at Discovery Park.
The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.
“The City Parks Ranger program was created during a time when we’d achieved an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of criminal penalties for minor parks use issues and for camping,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “Their role is rarely to exclude—and then only for immediate legitimate safety threats—and mainly to be problem-solvers and caretakers. It’s obviously important to watch how an investment like this actually plays out on the ground, but to date, rangers have not catalyzed parks bans or arrests.”
A policy is less binding than a law, and open to interpretation by the mayor and his advisors; Harrell’s top public safety advisor, former Councilmember Tim Burgess, proposed criminalizing “aggressive panhandling” as a councilmember and, more recently, backed an aborted effort to have police use an obscure law governing behavior on buses to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” such as drinking, gambling, and amplified music around a former bus stop at Third and Pine. In other words: The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.
Initially at least, the 28 park rangers would only work in parks downtown, under a 2008 agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that prohibits them from operating elsewhere. According to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, “The initial focus on the park ranger program would be on downtown parks as rangers are hired, additional capacity is built, and the program is scaled up. While expanding beyond downtown is something we would like to consider after the program is reestablished— dependent on bargaining—there are plenty of parks downtown where rangers could provide needed services.”