A few years ago, when I was a new reporter in Washington, then-state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, came bounding out of his Olympia office to teach a lesson about the politics of the dark side of the moon.
I’d come to ask about a bill that majorities of both political parties seemed to oppose, yet had passed the Senate with sponsors and political momentum from both sides of the aisle. Hunter, who later joined Gov. Jay Inslee’s cabinet, was a critic. The bill’s support, he said, was easy to explain:
“You get the far right and the far left each going around the bend so far,” said Hunter, pointing two fingers around an imaginary sphere, “and somewhere back on the dark side of the moon, they connect.”
Look into that ideological hinterland today, and you can find some liberal legal minds in Seattle stretching to embrace a historically libertarian idea: putting some urban law enforcement in private hands. A few generations down the line from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency brutally busting unions, the notion of not only encouraging, but expecting businesses to hire their own badges has fans in two lefty contenders for Seattle city attorney, an office that prosecutes misdemeanors.
In a July endorsement interview with The Times editorial board, incumbent Pete Holmes, widely criticized for his leniency, and farther-left challenger Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender, spoke up for private-sector policing, at least downtown. Retail businesses, both candidates said, need to seek sources besides police, prosecutors and the public process to deal with theft and hostile customers.
After that interview, the editorial board endorsed another candidate, Ann Davison, for reasons including her belief public safety is a public responsibility.
I asked whether each candidate was concerned that downtown shoplifting cut into stores’ viability. Thomas-Kennedy and Holmes each said those businesses ought to be doing better at policing their own stores, not calling on public law enforcement. That’s just how far left “police abolition” is taking the discourse.
“When I found out that Goodwill wants to prosecute every theft by an unsheltered person who stole socks, or a person who stole a coat in the winter, I stopped giving my things to Goodwill,” Thomas-Kennedy said, “because I don’t think that they should be outsourcing their security and externalizing all of those costs to the city of Seattle.”
Considering public policing “outsourcing” is an edgy idea to those of us who believe law enforcement policies and oversight are public responsibilities, where decisions desperately need transparency. Yet Holmes agreed with his challenger. The three-term city attorney said dealing with theft comes down largely to companies using better security — not to being a problem that better policing or thoughtful prosecution in a public court can tamp down effectively. You know, the things his office is responsible for.
“We have talked with loss-prevention officers, for instance, who are compensated on the amount of items they recover outside the store,” Holmes claimed, anecdotally. “So rather than intervening in the store, it’s in their economic best interest to allow someone to continue shoplifting.”
Stop right there. Take a minute to appreciate the policy inversion. Gritty self-reliance is supposed to be the right-wingers’ thing. If it’s “outsourcing” to rely on public resources for law enforcement, then whither public transit and schools? What’s next on this voyage to connect the far right and left — anti-tax huckster Tim Eyman running a ballot initiative to defund cops?
Both these liberal lawyers discussed retail theft as a problem mainly for corporations — Target came up — to cry into their revenue reports about. The theory seemed to be that, if Amazon can deploy its own security force to help keep folks moving along its busy South Lake Union streets, then other businesses should buck up too.
But small enterprises exist as well, and any decent city benefits from cultivating them. A world where every taxpaying candy store, restaurant, fishmonger and grocer also has to eat the cost of its own security ups the cost of keeping a retail startup viable. That carries a human cost too, not simply a business one — and not just for staffers attacked when they intervene with a shop-floor problem. Clerks and customers lose when a store has to hike prices or can’t raise wages and can plausibly cite the inventory walking out the door as the reason.
Overzealous and unfair policing and prosecution have hurt people in innumerable ways. But so does the idea that we ought to junk-pile the notion of law enforcement as a public concern. Justice must be equitable and merciful. You can get that by holding public agencies accountable for doing right by everyone, not by fleeing into a world where we cede policing in retail districts to latter-day Pinkertons.
Just because some far lefties and archconservatives come down on the same side doesn’t make it the reasonable middle ground. It can put you on the dark side of the moon. Hard to thrive there.
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