Seattle council, stakeholders discuss downtown crime
A Seattle City Council committee on Wednesday took testimony on downtown public safety and the effectiveness to date of the Center City Initiative.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County Sheriff John Urquhart said Tuesday that his wife is too concerned about downtown Seattle crime to come to the County Courthouse to meet him after work. They used to walk up Third Avenue to Benaroya Hall or catch a bus to Pacific Place and watch a movie, he said.
“This is the wife of a sheriff of King County who’s afraid. This is not good,” Urquhart said to the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
The sheriff’s observations came late in a hearing on the progress and results being made in Mayor Mike McGinn’s Center City Initiative created last year to address downtown crime and street disorder.
Committee Chairman Bruce Harrell wanted an update on the initiative, how it was measuring the problem and how the city can most effectively “move the needle” on the chronic problems downtown, which include open-air drug dealing, public drinking and urination.
“We know we don’t want to criminalize poverty and homelessness. On the other hand, we want effective policing,” Harrell said.
The nearly 20 Center City stakeholders who participated in the hearing, including Police Chief Jim Pugel, City Attorney Pete Holmes, community leaders and social-service advocates, agreed that the city could not arrest its way out of the problem but suggested that additional police officers in the downtown corridor, more housing and treatment for the mentally ill and addicted all were needed.
They also asked for time to let the collaborative approach to the problem work.
“I don’t want anyone to think Center City stands for social services first and enforcement second,” said Lisa Daugaard, a stakeholder and deputy director of The Defender Association. “It’s a conversation so far. It’s not policy. We’re just making some operating agreements.”
Harrell said he was concerned by the dramatic drop in charges filed by the City Attorney’s Office for low-level street infractions, including liquor violations, sitting or lying on sidewalks and public urination.
Holmes took heat from police in the wake of the downtown shooting of a bus driver because he has prosecuted only two criminal cases involving chronic low-level offenders over the past four years. In contrast, his predecessor Tom Carr prosecuted as many as 957 in one year of what’s called “failure to respond” cases, a criminal charge that can be filed when an offender doesn’t show up for court or pay the fine on three low-level street disorder infractions.
Holmes said that in the past, a cycle of arrests, prosecutions and incarceration did little to change the behavior of offenders whose underlying conditions were not addressed and who were likely to reoffend.
But Holmes said criminal conduct should be addressed “directly, swiftly and appropriately.”
Pugel said that downtown was much healthier now than 20 years ago when retailers were abandoning the city and Pioneer Square and Belltown were in decline.
But he added, “There is definitely concern about crime and public disorder.” Pugel noted that there are fewer officers on the force now than in 2010 — 504 compared with 540 — because of retirements and city budget cuts.
Leslie Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said that while the city can’t arrest itself out of the problem, it also can’t social-work itself out of it or ignore its way out. She noted that nationally, there is an underfunded safety net for the poor, adding to the number of people without housing or access to treatment services.
Jon Scholes, vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association, called for additional police officers and treatment services. “Today we have more employees, more visitors, more families living downtown and in many of the beats, more crime,” Scholes said.
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes
Information in this article, originally published Sept. 4, 2013, was corrected Sept. 5, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to civil cases filed by the City Attorney’s Office. Low-level street disorder tickets are written by police and filed with the Seattle Municipal Court.