Tag: City Hall Park

Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park

By Erica C. Barnett

The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.

Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).

More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.

"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."

This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.

Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.

"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."  

"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square

While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.

Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't." Continue reading "Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park"

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

This post was originally published at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack

Seattle - City Hall Park & King County Courthouse 05
Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

1. The King County Council added $248,000 to the county’s budget last week to hire a new recruiter for the King County Sheriff’s office in response to two years of unusually high attrition. The council eliminated the position last year.

In the past two years, the sheriff’s office has seen roughly 15 percent of its sworn officers resign or retire. Fifty deputies have resigned from the department in 2021, setting the county on pace to surpass the 69 deputies who left in 2020. Last year’s attritions marked a 42 percent increase from 2019. “Because these aren’t vacancies we planned for,” council president Claudia Balducci said, the sheriff’s office should be able to restore its ranks while the county considers whether to downsize the office in the future.

The council’s 2021-2022 budget included funding for 41 sworn positions in the sheriff’s office that are currently unfilled, but few qualified candidates have applied for those positions. Of the 351 applicants to entry-level positions in the sheriff’s office since January, only 79 have met basic hiring criteria, including a clean criminal record and bill of health.

But not every member of the council thought that funding the recruiter position should be a priority for the council. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, cautioned his colleagues against dipping into the county’s general fund until the council can look at its budget with fresh eyes after American Rescue Plan Act dollars dry up. “If I looked all around county government looking for one more position we could fund,” he said, “it wouldn’t be this one.” Upthegrove, along with council members Joe McDermott, Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay, voted against funding the position.

In the same meeting, the council also voted to set aside $5.6 million to provide refunds for King County residents who have paid legal financial obligations for drug possession convictions that the Washington State Supreme Court rendered void with the landmark Blake decision in February. The state will reimburse counties for any spending on Blake-related refunds.

2. In response to complaints about public safety at the downtown King County Courthouse—including, most recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself—the city is reportedly planning to remove an encampment in City Hall Park next door. A sweep could happen as early as this week. Although the alleged courthouse assailant has no known connections to the park, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn and other officials have made the connection; in a statement about the attack last week, Dunn called for “the immediate closure of City Hall Park and the danger it poses to our employee[s], residents, and the community.”

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REACH has been doing outreach in the park for the past several weeks, with the goal of moving people from encampments into hotels through JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, case management, and services to people living unsheltered in Pioneer Square and the International District. Last week, the city signed a contract with the JustCARE alliance to fund 89 more JustCARE slots, which the PDA had hoped to use to shelter the people living in the park.

In a statement Sunday, the alliance, which includes the Public Defender Association, the Urban League, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Alliance, among others, said that “many of the people in the park arrived there after being removed from other locations without offers of non-congregate shelter that matched their situation”—a reference to ongoing encampment sweeps by the city. “Those who are rightly upset about conditions in the park should join the many voices opposing shuffling people around the city—that practice contributed significantly to this situation,” the letter says.

“Moving people out of the park to no clear destination will not solve courthouse or neighborhood safety, or address the situation of anyone currently living there,” the letter concludes. “It feels like action—but it actually makes matters worse.”

For years, the city has presented unsheltered people with “offers” of shelter that are less appealing than sleeping outdoors, including beds in congregate shelters that lack the privacy or security of a private room, and dispersing them to other locations when they “refuse” these offers. Sweeping people from City Hall Park will only displace them to new locations—which is how many of them ended up in the park in the first place.

3. One of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s most senior cabinet members, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong, is leaving the city later this month for a new job as Chief Recovery and Resilience Office for Snohomish County.

Durkan, who announced she would not seek reelection in January, is leaving office at the end of this year after a single term. She currently has two deputy mayors, both appointed after their predecessors left for new positions. Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s homelessness division, replaced Shefali Ranganathan, and David Moseley, a former deputy mayor, came out of retirement to replace Casey Sixkiller, who quit to run for mayor. Continue reading “County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack”