City attorney Pete Holmes was first elected in 2009 as a reformer. A bankruptcy attorney who advocated for marijuana legalization and was one of the original members of the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board (OPARB), the body that reviewed disciplinary decisions in police misconduct cases, he challenged then-incumbent Tom Carr from the left, assailing Carr for cracking down on minor crimes like pot possession and waging war against bars and clubs while letting DUI and domestic violence cases molder. Now, Holmes’ challenger, Scott Lindsay, is ripping some pages from the city attorney’s own playbook, accusing him of allowing domestic violence cases to founder, ignoring crimes committed by homeless people and people with substance use disorders, and failing to implement criminal justice reform.
I sat down with Holmes last month to discuss his record, Lindsay’s accusations, and issues ranging from health care to homeless RV residents to downtown disorder.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Your opponent, Scott Lindsay, has accused you of deprioritizing domestic violence cases in your eight years in office, pointing to stats that show a steady decline in the number of cases filed. How do you respond to this allegation?
Pete Holmes [PH]: That is simply, unequivocally wrong. And it’s unfortunate because, without getting defensive, it is quite easy for someone smart like Scott to take the stats out of context and give them a spin that is at best misleading and at worst, intentionally creates a completely false impression that is, in fact, diametrically opposed to what my policies are and what the performance has been. In truth, domestic violence referrals from SPD, as well as [case] filings, have been cyclical. They have gone up and down over the last 10 years.
What happens immediately in every case is that advocates reach out to the victim and assess whether or not a case needs to be filed. Sometimes the victim doesn’t want it to happen. What’s best for the victim is always assessed early in a case. Frankly, we’re making better decisions [on which cases to file.] A referral to the county for prosecution as a felony case, instead of filing as a misdemeanor, will show up as a decline. That’s really what a really good domestic violence section does, is to do triage. We don’t have the resources to file every case, nor would you want to.
If there is a follow-up investigation required for a misdemeanor, there are next to no resources available for that. In fact, for years, SPD had no detective support whatsoever for any misdemeanor domestic violence referrals. So, in other words, whatever the patrol officer got that evening on response is all we have. Today, as we speak, we have one [full-time] detective at SPD that’s handing an average of about 1,500 cases. And this is not a criticism of SPD. They’re managing resource problems in the same way that we are. They do have a team that’s dedicated to felony domestic violence investigations. If it’s a felony, they get full backup support, and we have to get in line and wait. So that’s why our triage is even more important. This is something that I have talked about with every police chief since chief [John] Diaz: ‘Please make sure that this stays on your radar. We need misdemeanor support.’
“I know that the one thing even council members with whom I have had strong disagreements over the years, and there have been many will, tell you is that even when they’ve disagreed with Pete, they have never feared that Pete is going to somehow rat them out or put them in a false light.”
ECB: And nothing has improved since Diaz?
PH: Well, it comes and goes. The domestic violence unit under Captain Deanna Nollette is hugely supportive. It’s not a criticism. I recognize that we’re all struggling to get the job done, and we’re always using triage. That’s true with SPD as well as our office.
That’s the other thing that’s so disappointing when Scott pulls these stats and does not give the full story. This shouldn’t be a finger-pointing exercise. When you go public with stats like this, it’s not unlike if you leak an early draft of an ordinance. [Lindsay released an early version of city council member Mike O’Brien’s legislation creating protections for people living in their vehicles.] That’s not a good way to encourage collaboration.
ECB: Since you brought it up, what do you think was the impact of Scott leaking the RV legislation?
PH: That’s a great question for you to ask the council members. I know that the one thing even council members with whom I have had strong disagreements over the years, and there have been many will, tell you is that even when they’ve disagreed with Pete, they have never feared that Pete is going to somehow rat them out or put them in a false light. Because all these things have a lengthy, deliberative fact-gathering process, and arriving at the best policy is not waking up one morning and saying, ‘We should have an ordinance that says this.’ It’s going, ‘This is a problem. How should we address this?’ And you go through a lot of iterations. I don’t want to get in [O’Brien’s] head and say whether he felt pressured to get it out, but I don’t see how it was avoidable, frankly. And that’s why you shouldn’t do attention-grabbing stunts like that, especially if you’re going to be an ethical lawyer. That is precisely the wrong way to have a mature debate about a lightning-rod issue. If you want to throw red meat, if you want play on people’s fears and prejudices and anger, that’s Page 1 in Donald Trump’s playbook, and it only lends itself to poor, poor policy making.
ECB: What do you think of the legislation itself, which proposes opening dozens of small lots for people living in their vehicles and granting amnesty from parking tickets and fines for people living in their vehicles who agree to participate in a program?
PH: I’m not going to comment on that, except to say that under Scott’s tenure, the executive tried the approach of having these car camps, these designated parking spots, and I think the results speak for themselves on that. [The city abandoned the “safe lot” and “safe zone” program after concluding that the “safe lots” cost too much and the unmonitored “safe zones” resulted in too many public safety risks]. It doesn’t mean the problem went away. There are litter and human waste issues. The allegations of criminality at least have to be investigated. But when you ask people, ‘What would you like to do?’ that’s when usually people start to be quiet and say, ‘Well, seriously—is the tow truck driver going to tow away the camper that’s got a family in it?’ Perhaps there are some really hardened tow truck drivers who will do that, but are you comfortable with that if you’re in the position of authority and authorizing that?
“If you want to throw red meat, if you want play on people’s fears and prejudices and anger, that’s Page 1 in Donald Trump’s playbook, and it only lends itself to poor, poor policy making.”
So, a, the problem hasn’t gone away. B, the only thing you can do is to attempt to address it. And c, when you criticize early efforts in that way, especially in this office, it is so wrong-headed. It should be self-evident, but if you are simply walking into a room of people who are angry about homelessness for whatever reason—maybe they feel genuine distress about the plight of the homeless, maybe they just don’t like the blight of their city, whatever their reason, they’re angry about it—having a shouting match is just not going to lend itself to really good decision-making.
ECB: Your opponent talks a lot about how he came up with the idea for Navigation Teams [groups of police and social service providers who offer services before sweeping homeless encampments] when he worked at the mayor’s office. Do you think the teams are an improvement on the way the city used to do encampment sweeps?
PH: To an extent. I certainly have been impressed by the officers and the teams that include social service providers. That has been a much better response than the status quo, which was: Send out a cop to make an arrest. They are now actually engaged in bona fide problem-solving. I think it’s the right approach. But the big question is, are there sufficient resources for the Navigation Team to refer people to, and that’s always going to be the question.
There is also an issue about how the resources of the executive compare to the resources of the city attorney. If you’re running for this office, you need to make sure that you correct any misimpressions about just what it is you can do. You can promise that you’ll cure rain in Seattle. It does beg the question, how are you going to do that? It seems like [Lindsay] really got ahead of himself and doubled down when he said [to the Seattle Times editorial board] that he was the only person in the mayor’s office working on homelessness. That’s not true on its face, and it ignores that the mayor is the executive who appoints all the department heads—like human services, like SDOT, like the chief of police. All of those are subject to mayoral direction and that includes spending of resources the actual general fund. So the city attorney, in that case, is very much in a supportive role.
I think the city attorney’s role is also to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Point Person for the Mayor [Lindsay], if you’re going to use prison labor to clean up an unauthorized encampment, that is a nonstarter from a liability perspective. I would like to think that you have enough just social justice chops in your body to understand that that’s a stupid thing to do—a heartless thing to do—but if you don’t, here’s the legal analysis. If one of these guys gets pricked by a used needle without the proper equipment by a used needle we are on the hook. So if you don’t understand common sense, here’s a legal analysis for you.’ That’s what the city attorney does.
ECB: What do you think of the merits of the lawsuit against Initiative 27, which would ban supervised consumption sites throughout King County?
PH: I can’t get into [the merits] because I’m looking at a response right now to the initiative. But it’s completely wrongheaded policy, and it’s an example of what I’m talking about. What’s disappointing about my race is that Scott is effectively playing into that same angry narrative. He is going after the people who want to just call a cop and ‘clean up these people, clean that tent, send these people packing on their way. What do you mean you’re going to allow people to shoot up? Are you crazy?’ And these are people that have done zero research, have probably next to no public health qualifications, and it is emblematic of how we backslide.
We do, at best, an ineffective job of trying to get policy headed in the right direction—that is, a public health approach to a public health problem. I think Scott is playing into that, and that is so disingenuous. It’s so cynical. That approach is simply going to mean that, well, the pendulum may just swing back the other way, which is, call the cops. Maybe we’ll renew the debate over whether we should have a municipal jail, because there are consequences to every policy decision you make. So if we decide we’re going to go back to a law enforcement approach, a criminal justice approach, to a public health problem, then you’re going to overtax the criminal justice system. You may find us having a difficult time maintaining the reforms under the federal consent decree when you start asking cops to go deal with addicts. That approach has failed. We can’t have backsliding right now, and the thing that’s going to make us most susceptible to backsliding right now is pandering.
“I think the city attorney’s role is also to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Point Person for the Mayor [Lindsay], if you’re going to use prison labor to clean up an unauthorized encampment, that is a nonstarter from a liability perspective.”
ECB: Are the existing therapeutic courts sufficient to deal with all the people coming into the criminal justice system needing help with mental illness and addiction?
PH: Anything that is resource-oriented is insufficient. I can tell you, we simply don’t have enough resources. The criminal justice system is a bad place to deliver public health services. That said, there aren’t enough resources that we actually can refer people to and say instead of going to jail, I’m going to refer you to counseling or inpatient treatment or whatever. We can only do that now if we invoke the involuntary commitment act, where you’ve actually got someone who is not competent to stand trial and is a danger to themselves or others.
The preference would be that we upstream all these things and avoid the criminality in the first place. That’s the problem. Say you’ve got someone who’s not a criminal, who’s an addict, or you’ve got someone who’s mentally ill, and then we try to say, ‘Well, we’re going to force you to get that treatment.’ We obviously need to do that when that’s the only option we have, and we need more resources to do that, but where I struggle and where the policy debate needs more calm discussion is, how are we going to allocate more policy resources upstream? Every time you say, ‘We’re going to call the cops and make an arrest,’ that’s some money that can’t go upstream. The pie ain’t getting any bigger.
“We can’t have backsliding right now, and the thing that’s going to make us most susceptible to backsliding right now is pandering.”
ECB: What would you consider to be upstream of even programs like [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, the pre-filing diversion program for low-level offenders] or arrest?
PH: It would be wonderful if we had universal health care, but if we were able to do as much as we can to compensate for the lack of universal health care, that alone would be a huge public safety advance.
ECB: Would you support a program along the lines of Healthy San Francisco, which provides health care to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid but also can’t afford or access insurance?
PH: Again, it begs the resources question. It’s going to cost money. Obviously, it makes sense to me, because it’s going to get you the better solution, but I can just sit here and hear the counter-arguments—that, ‘Oh, it’s Freeattle all over again. You’re going to offer these services and attract more people.’ That’s going to be the debate, and it’s going to be so unhelpful. The role of the city attorney is to make it more likely that that debate is going to happen and happen in a productive way, and I would support having that debate.
Read my pre-primary interview with Holmes, where we discussed even more issues, including encampment cleanups and the role of the Community Police Commission in police reform, here.
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