The criminal legal system resembles a complex machine, with interlocking gears and wheels that must be perfectly aligned to produce the desired outcome. It includes politics, policy and public perception.
Whether justice is done looks a lot different to someone who feels ground up in those gears, fears for their safety, pays for ruined property or believes their race makes them a law enforcement target.
In the continuing aftermath of 2020’s pandemic and the reckoning that followed the George Floyd murder, public safety in Seattle appears disjointed and uncoordinated.
On Nov. 12, this editorial page called for then Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell to convene a public-safety summit to chart a new course and resolve the many contradictions and inconsistencies among law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, advocates and residents. Just days before he took office Jan. 1, Harrell demurred, suggesting residents are united in wanting a responsive, compassionate police department. But the intervening weeks have demonstrated crime and violence in the city persist at troubling levels.
Today, we repeat the call for a robust, transparent discussion to thoroughly examine issues that threaten progressive policing, impede community well-being and sow public cynicism.
A place to start the conversation could be with incarceration.
Earlier this month, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office took the unusual step of highlighting what happened with more than half of 16 people arrested for drug and gun charges as part of “Operation New Day” police interventions in Little Saigon and downtown Seattle. They were released by judges at their first court appearance despite the objection of prosecutors. Another three people were released after posting bonds that were about 10% what prosecutors had sought.
Incarceration should be a last resort. Studies have shown that locking people up for even a few days can set back housing and employment, and erode mental health. But the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office was right to bring attention to these judicial decisions. The community deserves an open forum where judges, who are elected and accountable to voters, can explain their decision-making process, legal constraints and moral bearings.
At the beginning of the pandemic, certain misdemeanor crimes were not booked in the downtown King County Detention Facility to lower the number of inmates and avoid disease spread. The average daily population in the jail dropped from 1,900 to 1,300.
To coordinate the change, city departments formed a work group to re-imagine the use of jail facilities. In documents provided to the editorial board under a public-records request, SPD officials reported that the booking restrictions “impacted SPD’s ability to keep the community safe from lower level but chronic offenders. Officers need an option to restore public order, maintain community safety, and hold people accountable for their actions that impact the safety of a vibrant, livable, first-class city. The current jail booking restrictions have made a significant impact on the SPD’s ability to do so, and we believe have made the communities we serve more vulnerable to the crime and disorder activities of highly active chronic offenders.”
In King County’s 2021-2022 biennial budget, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed and the County Council agreed that even after the pandemic has lifted, the number of people in jail should remain low. Units of the King County Correctional Facility were slated to permanently close.
Whether that policy will continue in the county’s next biennial budget, to be voted on this November, remains to be seen.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger disconnect between my close friends and Twitter feed and insider activists, versus, in my case, Democratic voters on the issue of public safety,” King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove told the editorial board, referencing his recent reelection campaign. “What I heard time and time again from Democratic voters was a frustration with low-level property crimes. I think people are pissed, and I think my party, the Democratic Party, needs to recognize this.”
Even if offenders are increasingly incarcerated, what happens when they are released?
The One Table regional community conversation about homelessness convened by elected leaders throughout the county in 2018 determined that the criminal legal system was one of the root causes of homelessness. Federal housing regulations exclude people with certain criminal history from public housing, and it is often difficult to rent with a criminal record, even with vouchers.
To reduce recidivism and improve conditions for those released from jail, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in 2019 four pilot projects that arose from the city’s High Barrier Individuals Working Group, which focused on chronic offenders.
The projects included building a new treatment center in a former wing of the downtown jail for people leaving the facility who need support, and connecting former inmates with services and case management upon release. None of the programs have been implemented. The treatment center is on hold; the City Council redirected funds for the three other projects.
Besides jail policy, city government seems twisted in knots over police staffing.
The Seattle Police Department lost more than 325 officers from 2020 to November 2021, dropping available patrol staff to the lowest levels since the 1980s, when the city’s population was one-half of what it is today.
Last October, in one of her last actions as mayor, Durkan signed a civil emergency order that called for bonuses and incentives for cops. The City Council canceled the order at the end of December, but unbeknown to either the council or the new mayor, the department continued offering incentives. Five new officers joined the force in January before the error was found and the bonuses stopped.
Hiring police shouldn’t be this controversial or convoluted. The city of Tacoma is implementing recruitment incentives. Bellevue has incentives. So does the King County Sheriff’s Office. In 2019, the Seattle City Council voted 7-1 to authorize hiring bonuses, when the department was only down about 40 cops.
Councilmember Sara Nelson is the latest Seattle policymaker to take on this issue. She proposed a resolution on Wednesday to implement police-hiring incentives. It’s unclear whether she’ll find the four other necessary votes.
“When you start to look at pay and incentives, and just the ability to have people feel valued in the job, that is one of the struggles we have experienced in the last couple of years,” said interim Chief Adrian Diaz at a council briefing on Monday.
The questions are foundational: What kind of police department do we want? How many officers should we employ, and how should we hire and train them? What role do we want for the jail? How can we ensure people leave detention in better shape than when they arrived? What diversion programs make sense?
Policing is arguably the most important government service. To deliver it fairly and effectively, those involved in the criminal legal system must openly debate their differences and find better ways to coordinate — with community input.
It’s time for a public-safety summit.