On the day before Thanksgiving, a defense attorney took several punches to the head outside the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. A Metro bus driver who tried to stop the unprovoked attack got socked in the face and knocked to the ground, according to King County prosecutors.
The following Monday, King County Superior Court’s presiding judge ordered the Third Avenue entrance to the 103-year-old building closed until Jan. 1, except to those with physical disabilities who are unable to make it up the small hill to what had been a seldom-used, smaller entrance on Fourth Avenue.
Judge Jim Rogers acknowledged his decision to temporarily close the entrance was a drastic step, but he said last week’s assaults are indicative of the increasing incidents of harassment and street violence that county employees, jurors, witnesses and other court visitors have been forced to contend with in the past year or so. They’ve become an almost weekly occurrence, he said.
Rogers acknowledges the closure is not a long-term solution and would like to see a greater police or security presence outside the courthouse.
“We’re unique, as in one-of-a-kind-in-the-state as having this problem,” Rogers said, noting the Juvenile Court on East Alder Street and the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent don’t experience the same issues as the courthouse in downtown Seattle, which also houses the seat of King County’s government and the King County sheriff’s headquarters. “It’s gotten worse and employees feel sometimes like it’s a condition of employment, to be yelled at and feel unsafe.”
King County sheriff’s marshals, who are typically retired police officers, provide security inside the courthouse while King County corrections officers are responsible for escorting defendants between the jail and court and keeping the peace inside individual courtrooms. But outside the courthouse, Seattle police have the primary responsibility for policing city streets. There were 129 patrol officers assigned to West Precinct — which includes downtown — in 2010 but as of last year, that number had dropped to 95.
For more than a year, Seattle police have assigned foot-beat officers — diverted from beats in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District — to patrol the 500 block of Third Avenue, with West Precinct bicycle officers and Anti-Crime Team (ACT) members also conducting proactive patrols and drug-bust operations on the streets around the courthouse, according to the department.
“We understand that some of those we arrest are not held in jail, but return to the same area due to the proximity of social services. Knowing this, our strategies are predominantly deployment focused, with an emphasis on police visibility, crime prevention, and deterrence,” says a statement released by the Seattle Police Department.
Geography is a big contributor to the security issues, with the downtown courthouse located along the busy Third Avenue transit corridor, where 11 of the street’s 42 routes are served by the bus stop directly outside the court’s front doors.
Across from the courthouse, at 517 Third Ave., is the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), which serves chronically homeless men and women with persistent mental-health and substance-abuse issues. Down the block, on Third and Yesler Way, is the Morrison Hotel, a DESC apartment building for disabled homeless adults, and a stone’s throw south from there is the Union Gospel Mission shelter on Second Avenue Extension South.
Those three locations — the DESC shelter, the Morrison, and the Union Gospel Mission — are the only ones in the city that the Seattle Fire Department’s emergency medical technicians and medics won’t respond to without backup, either from Seattle police, or if officers are unavailable, an additional four-person engine or ladder truck, said spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley. Combined, firefighters have responded to the three spots more than 1,100 times so far this year, and nearly half of the calls were to the DESC.
Between January and September, police have responded to 160 assaults — both misdemeanor assaults and aggravated assaults involving weapons or serious injuries — on both sides of the 500 block of Third Avenue, with 146 of them occurring across the street from the courthouse, according to SPD data. The total is up from 155 and 120 assaults reported in the same block during the same period in 2018 and 2017, respectively, the data show.
For Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, the closure of the courthouse’s main entry “was a good catalyst to draw people’s attention to the problems on Third Avenue … Closing one door is forcing people to think about it, not just the building but the environment around it.”
Von Reichbauer is the chairman of the county council’s Government Accountability and Oversight (GAO) Committee and has invited Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to a Tuesday hearing to discuss what can be done to address what he sees as a crisis.
Large numbers of people congregate daily on the sidewalk in front of DESC, which has sheltered 2,300 people so far this year, said Noah Fay, the agency’s director of housing programs. Of those served at DESC’s main Third Avenue shelter, 14 have been “trespassed” from the facility because they represent an ongoing threat, he said.
One of the 14 was the suspect arrested last week for assaulting the defense attorney and bus driver, court records show.
According to charging documents, court employees ran inside the courthouse and alerted a sheriff’s marshal to the disturbance outside. The marshal, a retired Seattle police officer, used a Taser on the suspect and got him in handcuffs. The assaults and arrest were captured by surveillance cameras.
“We have this very peculiar and tragic and dangerous situation on Third Avenue where just getting in the front door is proving to be so harrowing,” said Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell, who is the co-chair of the county’s courthouse security task force, charged with implementing security measures mandated by the state Supreme Court in 2017. Last week’s attack, he said, “was like an exclamation point to this unacceptably dangerous situation and Judge Rogers acted decisively because the status quo isn’t working.”
Frank Hypolite, 25, was charged Tuesday with third-degree assault for the attack on the attorney, who suffered a sprained wrist, and fourth-degree assault for punching the bus driver, court records show. He remains jailed in lieu of $75,000 bail.
In July, Hypolite, a New York native, was charged in Pasco County, Florida with burglary after attempting to break into a veterinary clinic north of Tampa, online court records show. He spent two days in jail then never returned to court.
When or why he ended up in Seattle is unknown, but Hypolite, who is homeless, has been arrested five times since October, including his arrest last week. His first arrest was for assaulting four people, including a staff member, at the DESC across from the downtown courthouse on Oct. 4, according to Seattle Municipal Court records. He was arrested for criminal trespass after returning to DESC following his release from jail two days later, and then again on Oct. 18, the records show.
Hypolite was also arrested Oct. 9 for criminal trespass after he went to the Recovery Café on Boren Avenue, where he had been receiving mental-health services but was told he couldn’t return after threatening staff. One employee told police Hypolite had become aggressive and his “mental health had been noticeably deteriorating,” court records say.
Seattle Times reporter Scott Greenstone contributed to this story.