The Metropolitan King County Council’s move on Wednesday should make it safer for people to reach the seat of county government in downtown Seattle.
Now leaders should improve safety in the rest of downtown.
With unusual speed, the council and county administration agreed on a plan to increase security with two deputies regularly stationed on the sketchy block of Third Avenue that the courthouse faces. The Fourth Avenue entrance gets more security, Seattle Police will increase patrols and Metro Transit officers will spend more time in the area.
This is shockingly expensive — at least $600,000 for six months, until a longer-term plan is funded during next year’s budget process.
The county’s quick action, including backstage work with Seattle police, is praiseworthy. It came a week after Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers ordered the closure of the courthouse’s main entrance, after a defense attorney and bus driver were assaulted on the sidewalk. That capped several years of rising criminal activity in the area.
The real problem is far from fixed, however. Now, officials at the county and city must address failures in Seattle’s criminal-justice system that are allowing persistent criminal activity and assaults in areas besides the civic center.
“I’m still waiting for the city’s massive response to the rest of the city,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, which lobbied for years for improved public safety.
“Other than giving us pingpong tables at court (house) park, where is the leadership?” she said. “I just don’t see it — this is another piecemeal solution.”
At the courthouse, officials were spurred to action by threats confronting them, their employees and visitors. They also write budgets for city and county justice systems that are pursuing reforms.
While important and well-intentioned, reform efforts have yet to find the right balance between compassion and accountability. There is little consequence for repeat criminals who are diverted from jail but don’t complete treatment or comply with release terms. Combined with chronic shortages of state mental-health system capacity and the opioid crisis, this has resulted in unacceptable levels of crime in parts of the city. The defense attorney was attacked by a man who cycled through the jail five times the previous month.
Other workers and employers facing safety threats don’t have the public purse and a police force at their disposal, as King County officials do.
Council Chair Rod Dembowski acknowledged this disparity. But he makes a good point about the courthouse needing extraordinary measures.
“It’s the people’s place for justice,” he said. “There’s a unique function that occurs here that justifies some enhanced security. We have people who are compelled here by jury duty, by subpoenas.”
Even so, this raises expectations. Others facing chronic safety issues have seen that local officials can move quickly if necessary. This should make officials more responsive to the plight of constituents in similar situations, and more circumspect when activists demand reduced law enforcement.
Yet the politics are strange. Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine were quiet after assaults prompted the Third Avenue door closure.
Politics was at play also when the county council funded the courthouse deputies. After emotional testimony from workers who were assaulted — and Council member Kathy Lambert relating how an aide resigned after barely avoiding gunfire outside — Council members Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott said they were only supporting the $600,000 spending plan because it included a $200,000 increase in social-services funding, for outreach along with security.
Are political bodies unable to temporarily place two officers, on a block where people are frequently assaulted, without increasing their progressive spending?
Pairing social workers with police makes sense when reaching out to people with mental health, addiction and housing challenges. But the city does that already and just increased funding for social services in that area. Seattle doubled general-fund social-services spending to more than $120 million over the last five years while its police force remains understaffed.
The County Council was right to address courthouse security. But elected leaders should never have let things get so bad, and so many people get hurt, at the courthouse or anywhere else. There is much more work to do to ensure safety throughout the city.