After Watering Down Language About Diversion, Committee Moves Drug Criminalization Bill Forward

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee approved legislation on Tuesday that will empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for public drug use and simple possession. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda cast the lone “no” vote, saying the council should be “focusing how on how we get people into public health services, not how we double down and recreate a punitive system … to prosecute more people.” Committee chair Lisa Herbold, along with Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Sara Nelson, and Alex Pedersen, voted yes.

The legislation now heads to the full council, which will take it up on September 26—or sooner, if Herbold and council president Debora Juarez decide to amend council rules to push it through faster.

Substantively, the bill is more or less the same as a version the council narrowly rejected, with Lewis casting the deciding vote, in June; that is, it criminalizes public drug use and simple drug possession at the local level, mostly aligning the city’s law with state legislation that made public drug use and simple possession gross misdemeanors earlier this year. (Unlike state law, the city bill exempts cannabis.)

The newest version, which includes pages of new “whereas” clauses describing the fentanyl addiction crisis and stipulating that the city does not want another drug war, says police should show a preference for diversion to treatment and other programs when deciding whether to book people for drug use or possession. The new reference to diversion mirrors the new state law, which says that police are “encouraged to offer a referral” to treatment or  diversion programs “in lieu of arrest.”

Proponents of the bill, including Lewis, called this new clause a substantive change that helped transform the bill into a “balanced” piece of legislation. “What we’re really focusing on here is how to take full advantage of our provider community and the resources that they bring to to the forefront to facilitate warm handoffs from law enforcement” into programs like LEAD (Let Everyone Advance With Dignity), a successful pre-arrest diversion program, Lewis said. The state law adopted earlier this year also encourages LEAD referrals, mentioning the program by name 36 times.

“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD. If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

For those who end up arrested under the new law, Lewis said, the legislation also provides the option of pre-trial diversion, in which the city attorney’s office would decline to file charges if a person agreed to go through one of several programs offered through Davison’s office. “If they complete that referral, then they decline the the case,” Lewis said during a recent episode of the Seattle Channel’s “Seattle Inside/Out.”. “They won’t pursue it. Incredibly effective program. Twice as many people who go through pre-file diversion do not re-offend as people who go to jail. Very important statistic.”

While this may be true, as PubliCola has reported, the city’s pre-trial diversion programs are targeted toward young adults and people who are generally high-functioning; they are specifically inappropriate for the chronically homeless and profoundly addicted people the drug legislation is meant to target.

An amendment by Sara Nelson removed language requiring officers “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest consider diversion” before arresting someone under the law. That amendment, which passed 3-2 (with Mosqueda and Herbold voting “no”) effectively means that it will be up to officers to decide whether to direct people to diversion based on unidentified criteria. The bill says that the mayor plans to issue an executive order stating that diversion is the city’s “standard approach.”

Some councilmembers appeared reassured by this rhetoric, as well as apparent closed-door commitments from Harrell’s office to find money for diversion programs, which are chronically underfunded. But as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted at Tuesday’s meeting, the bill itself commits no new funding to any of the city’s existing diversion programs, which are already stretched thin. This means that the council is putting great faith in Harrell’s budget, which won’t be released until late September. Historically, the mayor’s budget has underfunded diversion programs like LEAD, leading the council to add funding to keep existing programs going.

“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD,” Mosqueda noted. “If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”

Additionally, Mosqueda noted, the city faces a budget shortfall, starting in 2025, of more than $200 million a year. “Everyone should have that front and center,” she said.

Without new funding, the primary impact of this recommendation could be that existing diversion programs, such as LEAD, start getting new referrals primarily from police, instead of the community-based referrals that now make up the bulk of their work. For most of its existence, LEAD stood for “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”; last year, the group changed its name to reflect the shift in its priorities. Reverting to the old model would mean, “effectively, that the only entry point to LEAD is by a police officer,” Mosqueda said.

The committee also voted 3-2 for another amendment from Nelson that water down the second purportedly substantive change to the legislation, which originally would have required officers to use their discretion and judgment to “determine whether the individual, through their actions and conduct, presents a threat of harm to others” before making an arrest.” Nelson’s amendment changes “will” to “may,” making the use of discretion itself discretionary.

The change won’t have much practical impact, since the original version of the bill already defined “harm to others” so broadly it included any “street disorder” witnessed by “businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.”

But it does codify the notion that police officers get “confused,” as Nelson put it, “in the moment [about] … what we are expecting them to do,” and that requiring them to use their judgment before arresting drug users will make it harder for them to do their jobs (and, presumably, drive them away). “There are practical concerns for officers and prosecutors … includ[ing] time burdens and confusion for the prosecution of criminal cases to time burdens and confusion for officers that are trying to enforce our laws,” Nelson said. Given recent revelations about the way officers behave behind closed doors, one could reasonably argue that officers need more oversight and guidance from the city, not less.

Earlier in the meeting, Mosqueda proposed tightening the definition of “harm to others” to include only physical harm, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. That amendment failed, after Nelson said that someone “being exposed to fentanyl” should be enough to justify an arrest. During public comment, Rev. Harriett Walden, a member of the Community Police Commission, said she “had a fentanyl exposure and almost died.” According to numerous studies, fentanyl vapor contains almost no trace of the drug, and does not pose any physical risk to people who aren’t smoking it.

Community Court Is Dead. What Comes Next?

Source: City attorney’s office 2022 4th-quarter report

By Erica C. Barnett

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.

Source: City attorney’s office letter, May 26, 2023

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.

Moving Beyond Possession and Public Use: Let’s Be the City That Makes Real Progress on the Drug Crisis

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson; City Attorney Ann Davison

By Lisa Daugaard

Seattle can continue to lead the country toward a productive approach to substance use and related problems. This is true no matter what happens when the City Council votes next week on a proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen and supported by City Attorney Ann Davison, creating gross misdemeanors under the Seattle Municipal Code for drug possession and public drug use.

If the ordinance is defeated, its proponents are still correct that we need far more urgency in responding to the drug crisis playing out throughout the city. If it passes, its opponents are still correct that the answer to drug-related problems does not generally lie in jailing and prosecuting people for substance use. Whatever happens next week, the work before us is the same: Take the field-leading models our community has devised to foster recovery for people who are most marginalized and exposed to the legal system, and secure the resources needed for those models to have their full impact.

When responding to problematic drug use, we cannot be satisfied with engagement for its own sake. As necessary as overdose prevention and reversal and preventing disease transmission are, they are not sufficient. We have to tackle how people are living, not just prevent deaths.

As a community, we have long known and broadly agreed on what can work well to respond to individuals who use substances in a problematic way: engagement without judgment; pre-booking diversion and pre-arrest referrals to intensive case management; well-designed low barrier interim and permanent housing options for those who are living unsheltered, as well as long-term case management for people whose use is related to complex trauma and lack of other support systems.

These approaches have been branded under names such as LEAD, Housing First, JustCARE, and harm reduction, but they all share elements of evidence-based, well-researched, trauma-informed care strategies and behavior change theory. Indeed, experts in our midst have quietly been teaching other communities how to implement these approaches, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.

Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way

What we have never done is bring these approaches to scale. Despite a unanimous City Council resolution in 2019 committing Seattle to make LEAD diversion resources available in all appropriate cases, current funding limits require turning down the majority of appropriate referrals. Nor have we complemented this approach with the housing and income supports many people need to make real breakthroughs. CoLEAD and the JustCARE model, funded by temporary COVID relief dollars, began to fill that gap over the last few years, but their future is uncertain as federal relief funding recedes.

It is absolutely true that, all other things being equal, court cases and criminal charges tend to impede recovery, for complex reasons including stigma, collateral consequences, the challenge of making it to court, and the difficulty of making even well-intentioned lawyers into trauma-informed practitioners. Jail and the inherent trauma it represents, including lack of physical autonomy for people who have often been physically abused, almost always impedes recovery. These should not be the primary strategy or the first resort in our response to problematic drug use. Those objecting to the new proposed ordinance are right to raise these issues.

Yet Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way. We made enormous progress as a community, and developed a consensus approach to these issues, while there was still a valid felony drug possession law in place across the state that was fully available to local officers. Police and prosecutor discretion—and the support of city and county public officials and law enforcement leaders—meant that, while the authority to jail and prosecute existed, it was rarely used.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has prioritized action on conditions downtown and in the Chinatown/International District, oversees the Seattle Police Department, and has gone out of his way to make clear that he has no intention of arresting, jail or referring drug users for prosecution. And the authors of the new proposed ordinance making drug possession and public use a local crime were not even proposing criminalizing simple drug possession in Seattle until Governor Jay Inslee pressured the legislature to pass a law creating these crimes statewide. It’s regrettable that lawmakers removed the option of local choice, which would have resulted in de facto legalization of possession and private use in Seattle and King County. But it’s worth recalling that, before Inslee’s choice drove us down this road, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen, to their credit, were championing only a very narrow role for the legal system.

We can use best practices with or without the proposed law. In six months, for example, it will be far more important whether the multi-partner Third Avenue Project is still going on—and the 400-plus people who use drugs, live unsheltered, and are having a problematic impact in the Third Avenue corridor received supportive housing and intensive case management— than whether there is formal jurisdiction for the City Attorney to prosecute these two, of many, offenses that people who use substances often commit.

Drug possession and public use are now gross misdemeanors across the state—including in Seattle. Nothing local officials can do now can formally decriminalize either. It’s evident that some local leaders feel that taking an enforcement role completely off the table sends a message that serious drug issues are unimportant or low priority, and it’s also evident that other local officials cannot stomach any steps that formally invoke the prospect of criminal system consequences for what are fundamentally health and wellness issues.

It’s important to recognize that defeating the ordinance would not in itself represent a progressive approach to drug issues. Let’s fight hardest for what will matter most: whether we actually mobilize the community-based care approach that most people in Seattle support, go and get our people, demand the housing and income support that people need to recover, and provide the wrap-around care without which there is nearly zero chance for stabilization and healing. As it stands, regardless of whether this ordinance passes, we aren’t close to scaling the plan we need—even though we know exactly what it is.

Lisa Daugaard is the Co-Executive Director for Purpose Dignity Action (PDA) (formerly the Public Defender Association), a longtime drug policy reform organization that provides project management for local LEAD diversion initiatives, technical support for other jurisdictions implementing pre-booking diversion models, and partners on the JustCARE and Third Avenue Project initiatives.

Proposal to Make Public Drug Use a Misdemeanor Unlikely to Have Much Visible Impact

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson; City Attorney Ann Davison

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, along with City Attorney Ann Davison, proposed legislation on Thursday that would make public consumption of illegal drugs, other than cannabis, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

The legislation comes in the context of the state legislature’s failure to address drug possession in the session that ended Sunday. In 2021, the state supreme court issued a called State v. Blake, which decriminalized simple drug possession—previously a felony. In response, lawmakers passed a temporary law that made possession a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, giving themselves until July of this year to come up with a permanent replacement. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to call a special session on the issue next month.

Meanwhile, cities around the state are already proposing their own local laws criminalizing drug possession that would go in effect if the legislature fails to take action by July.

The proposal in Seattle does not directly address drug possession. Instead, it focuses on the kind of visible, public use that grabs headlines—people smoking meth or fentanyl on park benches, in doorways, and on public transit. At a press conference announcing the legislation on Thursday, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen all framed public drug use as a public safety issue and suggested that their legislation would send a signal to drug users that they could no longer use in public spaces.

“Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”—City Attorney Ann Davison

“Our buses are unhealthy to use. Our transit centers feel unsafe to wait in, and people walking down the street feel afraid,” Davison said. “Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”

Nelson said the “economic revitalization of downtown” depended on “giv[ing] our officers a tool to interrupt” public drug consumption. Workers “are afraid to ride public transit to work or walk to their office past people smoking fentanyl on the street,” she said. “Meanwhile, summer’s around the corner, and parents want to be able to take their part their kids to the park without people doing drugs right in front of them.”

Despite all the tough talk, the legislation—if it passes—is unlikely to have much of an impact on public drug use downtown or elsewhere. (Notably, although all of its supporters focused on mitigating harm to children, the legislation is silent on private drug use by parents or caregivers, which causes far more harm to actual children than walking past a stranger smoking fentanyl in the park).

For one thing, as Davison acknowledged, the Seattle Police Department doesn’t have enough officers to enforce the drug laws that are already on the books, including laws against dealing and trafficking. For another, the downtown jail isn’t booking people on low-level misdemeanors, and won’t be starting any time soon—just last month, the county moved 100 people from the downtown jail in because of understaffing.

“I recognize that [SPD is] down 30 percent of their force, and we need to make sure that they’ve got adequate staffing levels to be able to improve the public safety of people and businesses across the city,” Nelson said. “What I’m worried about right now is getting the basics right, and making explicit that we don’t allow the public use of illegal drugs.”

As she did during Harrell’s executive order announcement, Nelson distinguished between “deadly” illegal drugs and alcohol, supporting Harrell’s proposal to legalize “sip and strolls” events where people participating in downtown events can consume alcohol on sidewalks and other public spaces. Prior to the pandemic, alcohol use killed 140,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC, and alcohol consumption as well as binge drinking has only increased since then.

Davison said she hoped to work with “our diversion partners to get people into treatment. … The goal is always recovery—to disrupt antisocial behavior, to encourage people into treatment, and to make our streets parks and buses safer.”

The city’s primary pre-filing diversion program, LEAD, is not primarily focused on putting people in treatment as an alternative to jail; instead, it provides intensive case management based on a person’s needs, with a focus on harm reduction.

The co-director of the organization that runs LEAD, Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), said Thursday that the legislation “could be far worse, as we can see from the bill that was passed by the Democratically controlled Senate.” That bill made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, with a treatment alternative that carried harsh penalties for “failure to comply” with mandatory treatment.

“Aside from using the criminal system for what are fundamentally health issues, this legislation doesn’t inflict any additional problems or harm,” Daugaard said.

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment. Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

In a statement, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said she would “not consider a local Blake decision fix or any local drug laws” until the legislature has had a chance to meet in special session and come up with a fix. … I remain committed to Seattle’s approach, as outlined as recently as last week in Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Executive Order, to work to ensure people struggling with addiction get the treatment they need.”

As we reported earlier this month, Harrell’s executive order includes support for a new pilot contingency management program that will provide incentives for drug users who abstain from their drug of choice; it also expands the fire department’s Health One program to include a new overdose response unit.

In a statement, Harrell said that although “[i]t is never acceptable for people to smoke fentanyl or consume illegal drugs on Seattle sidewalks and public spaces… it is essential that we advance evidence-based policies, programs, and services that help those in need get the treatment they deserve–and continue focusing on arrests of those dealing or taking advantage of people in crisis, both of which are critical to restoring feelings of safety downtown and for all Seattle neighbors.”

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment,” Harrell continued. “Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”

Council Budget Chair Decries Colleagues’ “Misinformation”; Co-LEAD Program May Shift to State Highway Encampments

1. After voting against the 2023-2024 city budget yesterday, City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen issued lengthy statements explaining their rationale. In general, both argued that the council should have approved Mayor Bruce Harrell’s budget without significant changes, and should not have eliminated 80 of the 240 vacant police positions for which SPD would otherwise receive funding year after year.

The council funded Harrell’s entire police hiring plan, including large financial incentives for new and transferring officers, and moved parking enforcement officers back to SPD, another top priority for Harrell and the police department.

Still, Nelson and Pedersen described the budget (which Harrell praised) as an affront that will endanger resident and drive qualified police applicants away “With SPD down about 30% of its deployable force and fatal shootings up 35% since 2020, these are far from normal times, and we need to change the narrative that contributed to their staffing shortage,” Nelson said.

Those numbers require some context: There were 36 fatal shootings in Seattle in the first ten months of 2022, compared to 24 for the same period in 2020—at 33 percent increase. But those disturbing numbers of part of a national trend that is actually worse in rural (and Republican) areas, making it a stretch to suggest that shootings are up because of police staffing problems. Similarly, it’s far-fetched to suggest that a largely symbolic (and fairly obscure) council vote to stop funding some long-vacant positions is driving potential job applicants away.

“At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to the overheated rhetoric from Nelson and Pedersen, telling PubliCola: “At best, Nelson and Pedersen are exhibiting sheer incompetence, but unfortunately it appears it’s a wilfull attempt to spread misinformation to prop up their individual political goals. They are being dishonest and actively harmful.”

Although Nelson was just elected to her citywide position last year, Pedersen (who represents Northeast Seattle’s District 4) is up for reelection in 2023. One candidate has already announced, and PubliCola has heard about at least one more potential opponent—an urbanist who will challenge Pedersen from the pro-housing left.

2. One program that did not receive full funding from the council this year—the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD program, which provides case management and hotel-based shelter to people experiencing homelessness—may end up having to shift their focus away from Seattle neighborhoods to encampments near state highways, PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said.

That’s because without $5.3 million in annual city funding to keep the program going, the PDA may end up moving Co-LEAD to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has access to state funds to address encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, such as embankments and overpasses.

“[Focusing on state highways] will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods and the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

The PDA made a similar change to its JustCARE program, which previously focused on large encampments inside the city of Seattle, earlier this year. The program moves encampment residents to hotels and enrolls them in intensive case management, enabling the Washington State Department of Transportation to remove encampments in state rights-of-way—a top goal of Gov. Jay Inslee during the last legislative session—without simply displacing them.

“I think the most likely solution is that more of Co-LEAD may shift over to RHA, if indeed RHA is successful in advocating for the state to double down on the approach that we and other partners have brought to the state transportation right-of-way work,” Daugaard said. “But that will take us further away from the focus on public safety in Seattle neighborhoods… [and] the public safety concepts that both the Harrell Administration and the City Council have strongly espoused.”

JustCARE and Co-LEAD both emerged during the pandemic, with support from emergency federal funding, to address the proliferation of large, sometimes dangerous encampments in places like City Hall Park in Pioneer Square. The council’s budget does provide funding for LEAD, the PDA’s original diversion program, which provides case management to people involved in the criminal legal system, such as homeless people facing charges for misdemeanor crimes.

Council Budget “Balancing Package” Cuts Vacant SPD Positions, Restores Human Service Worker Raises

The city council’s budget “balancing package” still leaves a large gap the city will have to address in the future, possibly through new progressive taxes that have not yet been identified.

By Erica C. Barnett

Twelve days after a late-breaking revenue forecast punched new holes in the city of Seattle’s biennial budget, city council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda released a two-year “balancing package” that amends Mayor Bruce Harrell’s October budget proposal by eliminating proposed new programs and initiatives, allowing revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax to fund programs that would not ordinarily qualify for  JumpStart spending, and reducing the number of vacant police positions the city will continue to hold open next year from 200 to 120.

Mosqueda’s plan would eliminate proposed new funding for Shotspotter (or another gunshot detection system); reduce the proposed increase in police recruiting efforts; reduce the amount of new funding SPD will receive for new guns and ammunition; and reduce the amount of new spending on SPD’s Develop Our People leadership academy, a management training program for sergeants.

Harrell’s budget assumes that the 120 vacant positions Mosqueda’s proposal leaves untouched won’t be filled, and “reinvests” those on-paper savings back into other police programs. Mosqueda’s budget proposal doesn’t touch this “reinvestment” and still funds the vast majority of Harrell’s police hiring and recruitment plan, which still includes large bonuses for new recruits and enough money to hire a net 30 new officers over the next two years—an ambitious plan that would represent a rapid reversal of police hiring trends over the last several years.

At Monday’s initial council meeting to discuss the proposal, Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department. “I see in the [budget] proviso that it takes away the police department’s flexibility to use savings to address overtime needs, despite the fact that they have a severe staffing shortage,” Pedersen said.

Mosqueda anticipated the objection that eliminating funding for positions that will never be filled amounts to a “cut” in the police department. “We are not touching the 120 [police positions] and we are not touching the hiring plan,” Mosqueda told PubliCola Sunday. But “we know we are never going to fill [the remaining 80], so we are going to put those dollars back into the general fund.”

Councilmember Alex Pedersen said any proposal to cut vacant positions from SPD’s budget amounted to “revisiting the debate in 2020 and 2021” about “defunding” the police department.

Then, Mosqueda said, she looked at the items Harrell proposed funding with the money from the remaining 120 positions, and asked “what is above and beyond on that list. It was things like [the gunshot detection system] Shotspotter— gone. They wanted a PR firm that was in charge of the [police] recruiting plan. That’s gone. They wanted a website redesign investment. That’s gone. Anything that was not essential for the policy that was passed—gone.” 

Eliminating Shotspotter, SPD’s marketing plan, and a new $1.2 million-a-year anti-graffiti program would save about $3 million a year. Cutting and delaying capital projects funded by the city’s Real Estate Excise Tax, which stands to take a $64 million hit over the next three years, would save millions more. Another source of unanticipated funding—about $5 million a year—will come from the money the city planned to spend expanding an existing shelter in SoDo, a project King County Executive Dow Constantine abandoned earlier this year.

And then, of course, there is the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council originally earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses. Harrell’s budget would have empowered the mayor to use JumpStart for non-JumpStart purposes in perpetuity, by overturning a law, passed just last year, that only allows JumpStart spending for general government purposes if the city’s general fund falls below $1.5 billion.

Although Mosqueda’s budget provides a two-year exemption to this rule, she says she’s confident the council won’t have to do the same thing after 2024,, because by then a revamped progressive revenue task force will have come up with new funding sources to make the annual budget less susceptible to economic downturns.

The balancing package also shifts some funds around so that JumpStart will mostly go to its intended purposes; for example, instead of using the payroll tax to 14 new city employees to staff Sound Transit’s light rail expansion plan, as Harrell proposed, Mosqueda’s proposal would use money from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, funded mostly with vehicle license fees, to pay for those positions.

Although Mosqueda made some concessions on JumpStart, her budget also funds full inflationary wage increases for human service workers, rather than the sub-inflationary 4 percent increase Harrell proposed. Harrell’s plan would have required the council to overturn a 2019 law requiring cost of living adjustments that keep up with inflation; as Harrell, then council president, said in a speech supporting the measure at the time, the point of the law was to ensure that wages keep up with inflation during “hard times,” not just when things are going well.

The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed. This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”

PubliCola has heard that Councilmember Sara Nelson plans to resurrect Harrell’s original proposal to open up JumpStart spending permanently, including legislation originally sent down by Harrell’s office that would pin the threshold for JumpStart to go to non-JumpStart purposes to the rate of inflation, rather than a fixed $1.5 billion amount.

The balancing package also keeps the city’s parking enforcement officers at the Seattle Department of Transportation, rather than transferring them back to the Seattle Police Department, as Harrell proposed, and sets up a process for determining where parking enforcement will ultimately live at the city by next April.

“We’re asking them for a little bit of time to take the temperature down, have a conversation, and ask them what they need,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “And then we’ll figure out which department has that structure. Is it SPD? Is it [the Community Safety and Communications Center? Is it a totally different department?” This plan, like Mosqueda’s proposal to stop funding 80 vacant police positions that cannot be filled, could end up a target for disingenuous accusations that the council is “defunding the police.”

The new budget proposal also includes funding to hire up to 90 parking enforcement officers and pay for supplies and new uniforms for the parking enforcement unit, which had to cut costs when the city moved parking enforcement to SDOT. The move increased administrative costs for the department by about $5 million due to a quirk in how  way general fund spending is allocated on administration; Mosqueda said neither SDOT nor then-mayor Jenny Durkan were honest with the council about the extra costs.

Other highlights of the balancing package, which the council will discuss in detail over the coming week:

• Instead of funding the mayor’s “Seattle Jobs Center,” which Harrell described in his first State of the City address as a portal “connecting workers and employers to new opportunities, workforce development, and apprenticeships,” the balancing proposal would use JumpStart revenues to fund the MLK Labor Council’s existing online “hiring hall,” while requesting a report from the city’s Office of Economic Development on what a city-run jobs site would look like.

Looking at Harrell’s budget proposal, which does not include any new details about the jobs center, “we were like, ‘what’s the plan here? What’s this going to look like? Have you consulted with labor partners?'” Mosqueda said. “And there wasn’t a lot of there there.”

• The proposal eliminates cash spending on large projects that would be funded by the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) and proposes funding them instead with long-term debt, which increases the cost of projects but allows the city to fund them over time, rather than paying for entire big-ticket items up front. These include the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium, at Seattle Center, in collaboration with Seattle Public Schools, and the purchase of a building on the downtown waterfront for a new, 10,000-square-foot tribal interpretive center for the Muckleshoot Tribe.

• The balancing package would preserve most of the funding Harrell’s budget added for the new Unified Care Team, a group of city staffers from several departments that cleans up around and removes encampments. As we reported, Harrell’s budget adds 61 permanent positions to this team, the majority of them in the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Parks Department—the two departments primarily responsible for encampment sweeps.

However, the package would take most of the funding Harrell proposed spending to expand the HOPE Team, a group of city staffers that does outreach at encampments, and reallocate that money to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to pay for contracted outreach providers, such as REACH. The plan would still add one new “system navigator” to the UCT, so that there will be one outreach worker for each of five areas of the city where the UCT will operate. The proposal also outlines clear, distinct roles for the city’s own system navigators and KCRHA’s outreach teams.

The formal request poses a list of 23 questions and sub-questions about “emphasis patrols” and the city attorney’s “high utilizers” list, such as “Does SPD have a theory of change for emphasis patrols?” and “How much has the City spent on jail beds for those arrested via emphasis patrols on the high utilizers list?

• As we reported on Monday, the regional homelessness authority approached the council in October, five months after submitting its annual budget request, to ask for more than $9 million in new funding to pay for ongoing programs that were originally funded with one-time federal dollars during the COVID pandemic. The balancing package provides $3.9 million—the sane amount KCRHA said it needs to continue federally funded rapid rehousing programs—and says KCRHA will use $5.4 million from its own 2022 “underspend” to fund these programs.

• The proposal includes $4 million in 2023 alone for the LEAD and CoLEAD programs, which provide case management, services, and, in the case of CoLEAD, hotel-based lodging for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, including people experiencing homelessness. The Public Defender Association, which runs both programs, has said it will need to make dramatic cuts to either or both in the absence of full funding for both. Harrell’s budget provided just $2.5 million over two years for CoLEAD, stipulating that the money was supposed to be spent moving CoLEAD clients from hotels into tiny house villages; the balancing package increases the city’s total contribution to both programs but says the PDA must come up with “other ongoing funding sources” after next year. Continue reading “Council Budget “Balancing Package” Cuts Vacant SPD Positions, Restores Human Service Worker Raises”

How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse

Photo of downtown Seattle Target exterior
The downtown Seattle Target where, according to police and prosecutors, a homeless man stole dozens of bottles of liquor in less than a month, resulting in a felony charge for “organized retail theft”

By Erica C. Barnett

Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: A “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)

In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, SPD officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the state Department Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state—emphasis in the original.

Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And  there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out—details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.

For instance: Nearly  every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address—usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the city had swept his encampment at least four times—most recently in April, when they threw away the cell phone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court. 

“They throw people away.”—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH

Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not reoffended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.

“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up… and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”

In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street level-drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.

Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years). But his offenses fall under another category city and county officials have also vowed to target: Organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over a several weeks.

Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court—a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.

Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.

“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”

Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander]—people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion said that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.

” In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,”  Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.” Continue reading “How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse”

City Attorney Pete Holmes Will Seek Fourth Term

By Erica C. Barnett

City attorney Pete Holmes is running for reelection, he told PubliCola Monday, in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the federal consent decree, the state of downtown Seattle, and last year’s historic protests. If he’s reelected, Holmes said, he will have served alongside six mayors, about 30 council members, and “six or seven police chiefs,” and “we’ll be negotiating my third or fourth police contract.” Coming out of the pandemic, he said, “I can’t think of a time that it’s been more necessary to have steady and strong leadership.” If Holmes didn’t run again, in other words, who would take his place? Scott Lindsay?

That’s a scenario that makes many Seattle progressives shudder, and why you can expect to see most of them supporting him this year. (State attorney Bob Ferguson is an early endorser).

Holmes, who was first elected in 2009, has been an easy conservative punching bag, beginning in his first term, when he dismissed all pending marijuana cases and campaigned for Initiative 502, which legalized and regulated marijuana statewide. More recently, Seattle’s right-wing pundits have excoriated him for declining to prosecute some low-level misdemeanors, including property damage during protests and so-called “survival” crimes, saying he’s part of the permissive culture that lets “prolific offenders” run roughshod over the city.

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But Holmes has frustrated some progressives, too, by seeking to end federal oversight of the police department,  continuing to promote court-based solutions to public health problems such as addiction and mental illness, and what some see as his failure to aggressively pursue supervised drug consumption sites, which a King County task force recommended five years ago.

Holmes defended his record on police accountability, saying that the city has made impressive progress toward compliance with the consent decree, even if the exact path toward freedom from federal oversight remains unclear. “The final word [on the consent decree] is, does Judge Robart agree that we have gotten there? I think the good news is that he has recognized that we’ve achieved an amazing amount.” But, he added, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what happened this summer, and the new [court] monitor [Antonio Oftelie] has got a plan that will hopefully address it this year.”

PubliCola asked Holmes about his approach to people who commit misdemeanor crimes (the only kind the city prosecutes) that are rooted in poverty, addiction or mental illness. Last year, Holmes helped reboot the city’s community court, which provides alternatives to conviction or jail for people convicted of certain low-level crimes. Given that diversion alternatives already exist, though, why put people through the criminal legal system at all? Continue reading “City Attorney Pete Holmes Will Seek Fourth Term”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.


Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.


Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.


Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”


Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.


Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Ending the Navigation Team Isn’t As Easy As Just Cutting their Budget

By Erica C. Barnett

Tomorrow, the Seattle city council will take its most definitive action yet to eliminate the Navigation Team—a group of police, litter removal workers, and outreach staff that removes encampments from public places—by voting on a mid-year package of budget cuts that eliminates funding for the program. But the ultimate fate of the team will lie with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have the final say over departmental spending.

The two votes attempt to cut the team, which costs the city around $8.4 million a year, using two different types of budget actions. The first vote would prohibit SPD from spending money allocating 14 of its officers to the Navigation Team, using a spending restriction called a proviso to remove police from the team. The second would cut funding for the rest of the team, which includes staffers from the Human Services and Parks departments, and direct the mayor to reallocate that funding to contractors that do outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness, such as the nonprofit group REACH. REACH was originally part of the Navigation Team, but stopped participating alongside police as the team shifted its emphasis to encampment removals.

“The Navigation Team exists for the purpose of forcing people to move without giving them somewhere better to go,” Alison Eisinger, the longtime director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said after last week’s vote.Shelters and tiny house villages were routinely full before the pandemic, when the team performed multiple sweeps every week, and since then, the city has added fewer than 100 new shelter beds.

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“The number one thing that determines whether or not somebody who is homeless and without shelter gets off the streets is whether or not there is an accessible, appropriate, available better alternative—and the person who can connect them to that alternative is a person who has some kind of trust relationship with them,” Eisinger said.

Although the team was originally envisioned as collaboration between police and human service providers that would combine the stick of enforcement with the carrot of shelter and services—the “navigation” part of the equation—its role shifted under Mayor Jenny Durkan, and in recent years it has focused primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments from parks and other public spaces, a type of action that does not require any prior notice or offer of services or a better place to go.

Durkan has resisted every effort to cut the Navigation Team, which has nearly doubled in size since it was created in 2017. In 2018, Durkan even characterized a move by the council efforts to merely slow down the expansion of the team as a devastating “cut.”

Given that history, council members and advocates are worried that Durkan will simply ignore their budget directives. Although the budget proviso says SPD can’t spend the money it had allocated this year for the Navigation Team, it acknowledges that any effort to lay off the officers on the team will create labor issues—a problem Paul wrote about in detail on Friday.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed.”—Human Services Director Jason Johnson

Additionally, the chief could ignore the council’s directive to reassign the 14 officers and look for savings elsewhere in the department, or move the officers off the Navigation Team without actually cutting the size of the police force. Hammering out those issues could delay any cuts to the sworn portion of the team.

A bigger barrier for those hoping to eliminate the Navigation Team is that unless the council uses a proviso to explicitly restrict spending, city law does not require the mayor to obey the council’s budget directives. Historically, this hasn’t been a problem, because the council and mayor have had an understanding that, with some exceptions, the mayor will spend the budget in the manner the council directs. But Durkan has repeatedly ignored the council’s directions when she has disagreed with them, leaving open the possibility that she will do so with the Navigation Team as well.

For example, Durkan recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and has refused to approve an expansion of the LEAD program that could have temporarily housed dozens of people and provided them with case management and a path out of the criminal justice system. The open warfare between the mayor and council could well lead to a situation where the council issues a forceful directive to defund the Navigation Team—and the mayor shrugs.

“There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”—City Council member Tammy Morales

REACH director Chloe Gale, who testified before last week’s vote that the Navigation Team “conduct[s] expedient, politically motivated transactions that result in continuous displacement and trauma,” says Durkan “has a lot of opportunities to not implement this, and she also can set things up to fail by not having responses where you need to have responses in the community.”

In a scathing letter to the council last week, HSD director Jason Johnson suggested that without the Navigation Team—specifically, the four “field coordinators” from HSD and Parks— the city would be unable to respond to the more than 16,000 calls for service it receives about encampments each year.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed,” Johnson wrote. “The Council’s actions effectively returns the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments. This model was a failure, demonstrated by the proliferation of large, unsafe and unhealthy encampments that spread across Seattle.”

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the amendment to defund the Navigation Team, countered last week that the council has heard from outreach workers that litter pickup and removing tents that are blocking entire sidewalks “is really important, but they would like someone else to be doing it so they can focus on outreach and engagement.” Eisinger adds: “There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”

Eliminating the Navigation Team would not prevent the police from removing encampments without prior notice—a fact Gale says still needs to be addressed, whatever happens to the official team. Police are still authorized to remove encampments that constitute “obstructions” with little or no notice, and will retain the ability to do so even if the Navigation Team goes away. Police were taught to “define an obstruction or hazard [as] all right-of-way and every piece of park property,” Gale says—a definition that has allowed the Navigation Team, as well as regular SPD officers, to remove encampments without any notice or offers of shelter or services.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda says Johnson is wrong when he says the council has no plan to respond to encampments without the Navigation Team. “There is a plan, and it’s not just a plan it’s a program that’s already in place,” she says. “We have partners like REACH and LEAD who are already doing this work and are already showing better outcomes at getting folks into housing options and shelter options. It’s a matter of directing funding out of the Navigation Team and into REACH and LEAD and other organizations that have already built trust” with people experiencing homelessness, she says.

Johnson’s letter explicitly calls out REACH, specifically, as a “data-less model” that “cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success” as the Navigation Team. “This is another example of a budgeting process that is untethered from operational impact, designed to achieve a near-sighted and expedite political outcome— with little regard to City employees or the people the Navigation Team serves.”

Eisinger counters that existing providers could be very effective if they were actually funded sufficiently, empowered, and provided access to shelter and housing options. (Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to many of the enhanced shelter beds that people prefer, including the entire Navigation Center). “I think what’s going on now is a much longer, larger, long-overdue conversation about where to prioritize public dollars,” Eisinger says.Eight point four million dollars a year could go a log way towards increasing quality, culturally appropriate, community-based, non-congregate, accessible shelter and affordable housing.