Probably everyone would agree, especially now, that about the last place Travis Berge should have been living was in a makeshift fort in a Seattle city park.
OK, that’s the easy part. But what should the “system” — which everyone is saying failed catastrophically again this past week — have done instead?
Berge, suspected of killing his partner this past week in a homeless encampment at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, was later found dead by police in a park pump house.
Most everyone in the city who deals with street issues downtown knew Berge. He was a 100-watt character who turned his meth use and his constant arrests into a media circus. He became the “star” of KOMO 4’s documentary “Seattle is Dying,” about the city’s chronic homelessness and street drug problems. And last year he was one of the featured exhibits in a report on Seattle’s “prolific offenders,” 100 mostly petty offenders who incessantly churn the waters between the streets, jail and courts.
The report’s chapter on Berge noted he had been charged with more than 30 crimes in Seattle just since 2014, and had been contacted by police more than 100 times.
“I was familiar with Berge having dealt with him on a number of prior occasions in the downtown core,” a police officer wrote wearily in one of dozens of official accounts. “I knew Berge to be a drug user with mental health issues, and knew him to be a volatile threat to officers and the public at large due to his instability.”
Those sentences were written more than three years ago.
Yet there Berge still was this past week, living in a homeless encampment on Capitol Hill. Still a threat to himself and the public, as we clearly now know.
So what should Seattle have done instead with Travis Berge?
A chorus on one side is saying Berge should have been locked up. Had he been in jail instead of at Cal Anderson, two people wouldn’t be dead. So it’s worth asking: Did Seattle’s infamous liberal compassion enable this tragedy?
“Our criminal justice system is asleep at the switch,” Scott Lindsay, the former deputy mayor who wrote the prolific offenders report and knew Berge, told Q13 News.
But here’s the thing about that: Last year, after the report featuring Berge was published, Berge was arrested again, for breaking some windows. He served three months in jail for malicious mischief, but then a Seattle municipal judge did the opposite of coddling him. Ruling on the violation of Berge’s probation for a previous sentence, the judge ordered Berge locked up for a total of 240 days, triple what the city had asked for.
So the bottom line is that Berge spent most of 2019 and the first part of this year in detention, released in February when his sentence ended.
This protected the public for a period of time, but apparently did nothing to rehabilitate Berge. Which is why, when City Attorney Pete Holmes was asked the same question, about the lesson of the Cal Anderson killings, he said it isn’t more jail time.
“This tragic alleged domestic violence incident signals the urgent need for more behavioral health treatment resources, more housing access, and additional resources to combat addiction,” Holmes said in a statement.
OK, but here’s the thing about that. Also last year, a different judge, confronted with the conundrum of Berge, ordered him to attend mandatory drug treatment, called the Community Center for Alternative Programs, Enhanced. The carrot is you get out of jail, while the stick is that if you don’t do the drug counseling, a warrant is issued for your arrest.
So that’s holding Berge accountable while also aiding him with resources to combat addiction — exactly what Holmes is saying we need. Only this didn’t work either. Berge came to treatment one day without a shirt on and was refused entry, so he got mad and again broke a window. Back to jail he went.
What about mental health treatment?
“He does have under-addressed substance abuse issues and those are really interfering with the ability to do an adequate mental health evaluation,” a probation officer at one point told the court.
Berge was so flamboyant and eager to be interviewed that he had long become the poster child for a broken system, even before the horrific end. “Sorry that I killed Seattle,” he once told a KOMO reporter, riffing off the station’s theme that Seattle is Dying.
But is he a case study of how we need more incarceration of unrepentant drug offenders? Or of how jail clearly doesn’t work?
One idea that needs more attention: A couple years ago the state passed “Ricky’s Law,” which allows involuntary commitment for drug treatment. Maybe a sort of “treatment jail” could have altered Berge’s trajectory. But currently there are only a few secure treatment facilities — nine are planned by 2026 — and so in King County the premise of forcing treatment on some of the hardest addiction cases hasn’t yet been widely used.
Involuntary commitment is controversial too, and no panacea. But something’s got to shift. Because contrary to the view that Seattle is just shrugging and doing nothing about street crime, the reality is a lot of effort and resources, both inside the criminal justice system and out, were poured into trying to make it so Travis Berge didn’t end up in that makeshift fort in a Seattle city park this past week.
That none of it worked on him, not the get-tough parts, nor the compassion, seems to defy any easy political point. It doesn’t make his case a poster child for anything — unless it’s a poster saying that Seattle’s got a ton more work to do.