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Originally published Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 8:28 PM

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City attorney rejects SPD’s bid to crack down on 28 ‘repeat offenders’

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes returned a binder containing 28 names to Police Chief Jim Pugel, saying police had provided inadequate documentation or failed to note some offenders were already in custody.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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In the wake of last week’s shooting of a Metro Transit driver in downtown Seattle, Police Chief Jim Pugel has written a letter to City Attorney Pete Holmes asking that criminal charges be filed against 28 people who had repeatedly failed to respond to civil infractions for drinking in public or sitting or lying on sidewalks.

Pugel wrote the Aug. 14 letter two days after the shooting put Mayor Mike McGinn and police on the defensive regarding habitual street crime in the downtown core. Pugel included a binder identifying 28 offenders who had ignored three or more citations, a problem identified by the Downtown Seattle Association.

On Tuesday, Holmes sent the binder back to Pugel, saying the police department had not documented that alternative approaches to criminal charges — including social services — had failed to address downtown problems under McGinn’s comprehensive Center City Initiative.

“None of the reports you sent me last week follow that model, nor do they contain sufficient information for me to make filing decisions,” Holmes wrote in a letter to Pugel. “Simply identifying three defaulted civil infractions is not the same as explaining the chronic nature of specific people’s uncivil conduct or efforts to either address the underlying human-services problems or stop the behavior short of criminal charges.”

Holmes also noted that one of the 28 people already was in state prison, two have active Seattle court warrants for which they could be immediately arrested and that three others have active warrants from other courts that may be enforceable in Seattle.

Additionally, Holmes wrote that he was “disappointed by the inaccurate and unhelpful statements” sent in an email Friday to the City Council by Capt. Jim Dermody, head of the police department’s West Precinct, which includes downtown.

Holmes disputed Dermody’s claim that Holmes had stopped filing criminal charges for failure to respond, warning the comments could undercut collaboration between his office and the police department.

“I have no blanket policy against filing any misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges, with the sole exception of simple marijuana possession by adults,” Holmes wrote.

A Seattle police spokesman, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, said Tuesday the police department is always willing to work with Holmes to improve public safety and find “creative solutions.”

McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus issued a statement saying, “SPD has identified high-priority individuals with repeat low-level offenses that merit additional steps to support public safety downtown. We look forward to working with SPD, the City Attorney and others in our Center City Initiative work group to decide on next steps.”

Questions after shooting

McGinn and Dermody have faced questions about the level of downtown crime since the Aug. 12 bus shooting, in which the driver was wounded before the gunman was fatally shot by police after he entered another Metro bus.

After the shooting at Third Avenue near Union Street, McGinn and Dermody both said that violent crime downtown was falling.

But a Seattle Times analysis of the past five years of crime in four downtown beats around Westlake Park showed violent crime, including simple assaults, holding steady at about 80 incidents per month with notable spikes the past three summers. The 119 incidents reported in July in that area was a five-year high for a single month.

Just after the shooting, three City Council members issued a letter characterizing the level of crime and disorder downtown as “out of control” and calling on the mayor to acknowledge the problem, arrest and prosecute offenders causing the most harm and give clear and consistent direction to the police.

On Friday, McGinn announced that he was allocating $400,000 to extend through the end of the year summertime police-emphasis patrols in areas of high crime. But the mayor made a point of saying that downtown wasn’t the only neighborhood with problems and that the additional patrols would focus on crime hot spots around the city.

In January 2012, McGinn launched the Center City Initiative after saying the city could not arrest its way out of chronic crime and street-disorder problems from Chinatown International District to Belltown. The initiative brings together law enforcement, social-service providers, city officials, business leaders, prosecutors and others to identify the root causes of the crime problem and seek solutions.

Many of the problems are low-level crimes that don’t show up in the violent-crime statistics, such as drug-dealing, public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling and mentally ill people intimidating visitors, residents and downtown workers.

Roundtable discussions

Jon Scholes, the vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association and a participant in Center City Roundtable discussions (part of the Center City Initiative), said the group identified the city attorney’s pattern of not bringing charges against repeat low-level offenders as one gap in solving the downtown crime problem.

He said that under the previous city attorney, chronic offenders who ignored repeat citations were charged with failure to respond.

But, he said, Holmes has not brought those charges against individuals repeatedly cited by police for bad behavior downtown.

“A majority of the Roundtable participants have identified this as one potential tool the city could employ to address chronic offenders,” Scholes said.

The City Council passed an aggressive-panhandling ordinance in 2010 in response to persistent street crime downtown. McGinn, at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and others, vetoed the bill, saying the city had laws in place to address the problem and that the get-tough approach didn’t reflect the city’s values.

Pugel, in his letter to Holmes, cited Holmes’ decision to take criminal action against a chronic offender, Jeffrey Morin, who had “thumbed his nose” at enforcement efforts. Pugel called it a “good example” of the strategic use of failure to respond to hold an offender accountable.

But Holmes, in his letter to Pugel, said that “agreed-upon strategy” resulted from the SPD working closely with a liaison in his office, as well as the head of the criminal division. In that case, SPD compiled a record of Morin’s chronic civil infractions, efforts to convince him to comply with the law and human-services outreach, Holmes wrote.

Holmes said he remained open to filing charges in cases with similar circumstances.

But, citing Dermody’s email, Holmes added: “Given the Morin case, my prior statements on this issue, discussions my office has had with SPD and Center City Initiative leadership, and discussions I have had directly with Captain Dermody, I am both surprised and dismayed that he would make these statements to City Council members — especially without copying me.”

Holmes told Pugel they needed to address the statements, “which threaten not only the success of the Center City Initiative, but our two departments’ ability to collaborate on critical public-safety challenges.”

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @stevemiletich

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