The state Department of Corrections and Seattle police routinely patrol Seattle's major festivals, making dozens of arrests of felons who violate probation.
In the 11 years she has patrolled the Bite of Seattle and the Torchlight Parade, Leslie Mills has learned that free festivals aren’t only popular with couples and families, but also are favorite hangouts for convicted drug dealers, sex offenders and homeless felons on probation.
Mills, a supervisor for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), says Seattle’s major public events often draw felons who are wanted for violating terms of their prison release or who are violating probation merely by being there.
At Seattle’s Torchlight Parade last weekend, Mills and other DOC officers and Seattle police arrested 25 people in connection with outstanding warrants or for committing new crimes.
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“A lot of felony offenders and probationers are opportunists,” said Mills, who supervises the DOC’s Northwest Community Response Unit. “Torchlight and the Bite of Seattle provide opportunities for people to sell drugs, buy drugs and commit crimes. It’s a party where you can get lost because there are tons and tons of people.”
Corrections officers and police who monitor the events question panhandlers or people weaving through the crowd reeking of alcohol, and watch closely for people using drugs. Mills said officers will often approach people and ask for their name. But, she said, most corrections officers recognize DOC clients and know their names and criminal history.
Mills said felons arrested by DOC are taken to jail or briefly detained, then told to check in with their probation officer in the following days.
The effort is part of the DOC’s Neighborhood Corrections Initiative program. The program, created in 1997, is a way for Seattle police and DOC to monitor felons assigned to community custody, Washington state’s version of probation and parole.
Corrections officers arrested 92 offenders on probation at events this month — 22 at Torchlight and 70 at the Bite of Seattle. Seattle police arrested 28 people at the same two events for various offenses, according to DOC statistics.
The program has been so successful that the number of corrections officers assigned to patrol the Torchlight Parade and the Bite of Seattle has gone from just Mills to nearly a dozen in the past 11 years.
In an effort to keep parolees away from potential trouble, DOC staff will often ask felons who have recently been arrested for using drugs or alcohol or who have a history of violent crime to avoid festivals. Some are even ordered to sign an agreement that they won’t attend the Bite or Torchlight, said Neighborhood Corrections Officer Christina Lacy.
“A lot of offenders go down there to deal, use [drugs] and a lot of our offenders are gang-affiliated and they know gangs they are at war with are there and they go to start some trouble,” Lacy said. “We’re trying to keep them safe and out of trouble from getting a new charge.”
Corrections officers also staff the Mardi Gras festivities in Pioneer Square and the New Year’s Eve celebration at the Space Needle. Out of the four events, Mardi Gras is the most challenging, Mills said.
“Mardi Gras is where we have the most drinking, drug dealing and violence,” Mills said. “People want to come downtown and want to get high, and our offenders take advantage of that.”
Seattle police Capt. Steve Brown, who oversees the department’s West Precinct, calls the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative officers a “force multiplier” at festivals.
“There are opportunities for problems to erupt with that client base. This is a high-risk group, we put eyes on them and watch them closely,” Brown said. “If they’re not going to contribute to that event positively, we want them out of there.”
At public events, DOC officers work closely with Seattle police officers and are in regular contact with police commanders supervising coverage of the event, Mills said. This year, DOC officers were paired with Seattle police gang officers at the Bite of Seattle, watching for felons dressed in gang colors stirring up trouble, Mills said.
At the Bite of Seattle, a team of DOC officers swarmed two groups of men dressed in gang colors outside the Center House. As the rival groups slowly passed one another, one man in the group spotted the DOC officers and told the people with him to “keep walking,” Mills said.
“None of them were eating, none of them were buying any food, none of them were listening to music or participating in any of the events,” Mills said of the two groups. “We believe our presence deterred things from going on.”
Seattle police gang unit Lt. Ron Wilson said Neighborhood Corrections Initiative officers are a tremendous help at large events because corrections staff can question, detain and arrest people for violating the terms of their probation — something police officers can’t do.
“They have an ability to identify people they know firsthand to be under probation and have the ability to talk to and contact people,” Wilson said. “People who are on probation and parole are subject for review [only] by people from the Department of Corrections.”
Felon Bobby Joe Simpson, 50, said he attended Saturday’s Torchlight Parade. He didn’t encounter any DOC officers, he said.
“I go every year,” Simpson said Wednesday morning after he was picked up by Neighborhood Corrections officers for violating terms of his release by being in an area known as a site for drug-dealing and being in possession of dirty heroin needles. Simpson, who admits he is addicted to heroin, said he never worries about DOC staff being at the festival.
“The only time I worry about that is when I do something wrong,” said Simpson, who has 19 convictions for crimes including drug possession, selling fake drugs and forgery.
Simpson was among a group of nine felons assigned to a DOC work crew Wednesday morning for violating terms of their release. Several offenders detained during Torchlight and told to report Wednesday for work crew didn’t show up, Mills said.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org