It took a fatal shooting to get King County to address safety concerns inside its downtown Seattle courthouse in 1995.
Now safety concerns are outside the front door. Public officials must respond immediately.
Assaults and criminal activity in the area prompted Superior Court Presiding Judge James Rogers on Monday to order the main courthouse entrance on Third Avenue closed. This dramatic move is impractical for the long-term but should expedite efforts to increase security. It also highlights safety and civility problems exacerbated by Seattle’s broken criminal-justice system.
Crime and squalor at the region’s civic square have been a concern for years. There has been some progress, such as cleanups of an adjacent park and regular hosing to clear human waste from sidewalks and vestibules.
But the situation remains flatly unacceptable. Public officials cannot allow courthouse visitors to be randomly assaulted, and they must not wait for a tragedy to act.
“It’s never been this bad — it’s gotten far worse the last two years,” said Rogers, who has been coming to the courthouse for nearly 30 years. “It is not a homeless crisis. It is a drug crisis we see in front of the courthouse.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Police and the county sheriff should immediately increase safety for the thousands of people a day visiting the courthouse, including jurors who face danger when performing their civic duty. It’s the seat of a regional government and county courts serving 2.2 million county residents.
This is a civic failure. Chronic offenders commit crimes outside the courthouse doors, in sight of county law-enforcement officers inside and Seattle Police headquarters a block away.
It highlights the skewed priorities and shortcomings of Seattle’s overly politicized criminal-justice system. The courthouse is facing the same issue as Bartell Drugs, Home Depot and countless other establishments, where the safety of employees and visitors is jeopardized by repeat criminals cycling through the system with little consequence.
Rogers was spurred to act after a defense attorney and a bus driver who came to help were attacked outside the courthouse. The alleged assailant had been booked into jail at least five times since early October, according to KOMO News.
This is yet another argument for justice reforms in Seattle and the state’s urgent need to increase behavioral-health treatment capacity. It also emphasizes the need for improved probation, case management and other services for those supporting addiction with crime, repeatedly hurting others and themselves.
Politics cannot delay these safety improvements. After laws were changed in the early 1990s to allow courthouse metal detectors to keep weapons out, King County tragically delayed the upgrades. It authorized the purchase of metal detectors in 1994, but the project languished until three women, one pregnant, were gunned down outside a courtroom during divorce proceedings. The county immediately installed detectors and others, including Snohomish County, quickly followed suit.
Safety concerns also undermine laudable efforts to increase participation and diversity in juries. Rogers said he’s worked with federal authorities to be sure immigrants feel safe participating and aren’t arrested coming to the courthouse.
That’s pointless, he said, if unchecked crime keeps them away.