Downtown street offenses going unpunished
What’s at the root of the downtown Seattle crime problem? One cause may be that the police aren’t writing tickets for low-level street disorder infractions and the city attorney isn’t prosecuting them.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tova Hornung was walking past Westlake Park downtown this summer when she saw a large group of young people with pit bulls and skateboards, smoking pot. One young man started swinging his skateboard as she passed, threatening another when he wouldn’t share his dope.
Hornung, who lives in Seattle, approached a group of bicycle police officers nearby and asked, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Isn’t there a law?”
“No,” she said she was told by the officers. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Hornung wrote to Mayor Mike McGinn, explaining what she’d witnessed and asking him to enact laws that would allow the police to move along bad actors who she said were “taking over downtown.”
The mayor wrote back that his Center City Initiative sought to “help officers connect persons in need on the street with human services and housing providers.” The email didn’t mention that the city does have incivility laws that prohibit people from blocking the sidewalk and drinking and urinating in public.
The three laws are civil infractions for which the police can write tickets. After three tickets go unpaid or the offender doesn’t show up for court, the police can forward the case to the city attorney with a request to file a misdemeanor criminal charge of failure to respond.
But over the past four years, City Attorney Pete Holmes has filed only two failure-to-respond charges against chronic street offenders, and the number of tickets written by police for incivility has plummeted. Public-drinking citations fell from 2,262 in 2007 under Holmes’ predecessor, Tom Carr, to 271 this year, through July.
McGinn — in a long-running feud with Holmes about a variety of issues, including the handling of a settlement with the Department of Justice over excessive use of force within the Police Department — blames Holmes for the downtown crime issue as well.
“I think what has been going on, quite bluntly, our officers are not going to write tickets if there’s no ultimate consequence for writing the ticket. That’s just not a good use of their time,” McGinn said when asked what direction he gives police about law enforcement downtown.
Holmes said that before the issue took a political turn, police asked him to file charges in just two failure-to-respond cases this year, and that his attorneys prosecuted both.
“If they’re saying there’s no point in writing tickets, that Pete Holmes doesn’t prosecute, that’s simply untrue,” he said. He also noted that police can make arrests on the spot for crimes such as assault and drug dealing.
Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel said the drop in citations has several causes, including more patrol officers on the street giving more warnings and getting offenders to stop the problem behavior. But he said lack of prosecution is a factor, as well as lack of clear direction from city leaders.
The chief said police are not just standing around downtown.
“We are enforcing the law,” he said.
Seeking a balance
At the heart of the issue is an approach seemingly shared by McGinn and Holmes to steer offenders toward social services rather than haul them all to jail.
McGinn often points to his Center City Initiative and its social-service model for intervening with problem offenders downtown, saying enforcement-only approaches to downtown street disorder in the past had failed.
He cited the City Council’s effort early in his administration to enact an aggressive panhandling ordinance, and said that he had rejected the suggestion then that police needed to “hand out more tickets to people who are poor.”
Holmes also said he doesn’t want to repeat the expensive cycle of arrest, incarceration and prosecution that in the past released offenders back onto the streets within days and did little to change behavior.
Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the Public Defender Association, said the goal of the Center City Initiative is to offer a continuum of services targeted to an individual, including housing, drug treatment and mental-health care, but also arrest when that’s appropriate.
She cautioned that, a year in, the initiative is still only a conversation and hasn’t yet produced any policy recommendations or programs.
Other advocates for the poor and homeless say that the strategy of providing social services to those willing to accept them depends on having services to provide.
According to city budget figures, the federal government has cut about $33 million in social-services funding since 2010. City leaders have added back $15 million, less than half the deficit.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we see the consequences on the street,” said Tim Harris, founding director of Real Change. But without adequate funding and with the initiative still taking shape, he said, “we have not yet arrived at that balance between social-service interventions and more traditional police enforcement.”
Tensions at the top
The August shooting of a Metro bus driver by a chronic street criminal with drug and mental-health issues brought the conflict between Holmes and McGinn into sharp relief.
With the mayor under pressure to do something about downtown crime, Pugel forwarded to Holmes a binder with information about 28 offenders who each had ignored three or more citations for drinking or urinating in public or blocking the sidewalk, and asked Holmes to prosecute them.
Holmes returned the binder, saying the police had not documented that alternative approaches to criminal charges — including social-service outreach — had been attempted and had either failed or been refused.
“To meet the high burden of turning civil offenses into criminal offenses, it is important that law enforcement document the chronic nature of the violations, the efforts to gain compliance, and the result of human services or other outreach,” Holmes wrote in returning the case files.
Holmes said, though, that his office is continuing to work with police to gather the supporting evidence needed to bring charges against some of the 28.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess, the former chairman of the Public Safety Committee and a former police officer, said he reviewed the 28 files forwarded by police and agreed with Holmes that the casework was sloppy.
But he also acknowledged that the police and Holmes are not on the same page.
“There’s a lot of frustration among the rank and file over the city attorney and the feeling that he’s too lax and lenient about prosecuting crime,” Burgess said.
Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Rich O’Neill noted that while Holmes hadn’t prosecuted any low-level street disorder cases until this year, he has brought misdemeanor assault charges against three police officers and considered them against a fourth since 2011.
“We write a ticket, and the person crumples it up and throws it in the garbage. There is no consequence,” O’Neill said.
“But the city attorney has shown an aggressive willingness to charge police in minor incidents. The DOJ is critical of minor incidents escalating into use-of-force. If it turns out on video looking bad, we get asked, ‘Why are you stopping this person?’ What’s an officer supposed to do?”
Burgess said the mayor and police chief need to give clear direction to officers about enforcement of low-level street disorder.
“There needs to be clarity about what we’re trying to accomplish. That’s lacking today,” he said.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell said that without a consistent approach to downtown crime and disorderly conduct, behavior won’t change. “Whether we’re making enough arrests or charging enough crimes needs to be resolved. If we’re failing to enforce the laws, they become meaningless. We don’t want that.”
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @