Sid Tran, owner of Flame Café downtown, is all smiles and affability when I come in his door. His mood darkens considerably though when the talk turns to King County — and how officials there Monday deemed the block outside to be too dangerous for its own employees.
“C’mon, they are the law,” Tran says, gesturing at the county courthouse across the street. “And they’re saying they’re afraid?
“What does that say to the rest of us?”
On Monday, the presiding judge for King County issued an emergency order to close the courthouse’s Third Avenue entrance, at least until next year. He said the conditions on the street outside had become appalling, even in day time.
“This Court receives constant reports of assaults committed against litigants, jurors, attorneys, members of the public and employees,” Judge James Rogers wrote in his order.
Business owners across the street were not amused.
“They should be more proactive and try to help the situation, instead of closing,” said Jessica Kim, of Commissary Korean Kitchen, also on Third Avenue. Her lunch crowd is lots of court employees and jurors, who now won’t be coming that way.
On Tuesday, irony and confusion reigned outside the 89-year-old courthouse doors. The court had put up sandwich boards saying the entrance was closed by a judge’s order “until further notice” but had provided no sign telling people why that was, or how to get in the building.
“I was supposed to report as a witness in a trial five minutes ago,” one man said as he pulled on the locked doors. “What’s going on?”
I told him the county says the street is unsafe, so you have to walk around the building to the Fourth Avenue door. One TV station reported that county officials said it was “simply too dangerous” for the station to even film its report outside.
Yet there wasn’t a guard or officer outside the supposedly perilous entrance Tuesday morning.
“They’re in there, and we’re trapped out here,” someone laughed.
“The courthouse should be the safest four blocks in King County, and they’re the un-safest,” King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer told KIRO TV. “How many more incidents are we going to have before people react?”
Ok, but … aren’t county officials the very people in a position to do something about it?
“Cutting and running doesn’t seem like a solution,” Tran said.
The man’s got a point, King County!
Some county officials blame the City of Seattle for not providing enough police or prosecution resources in the area. The Seattle Times noted last summer that the West police precinct, which includes downtown, had 129 patrol officers in 2010, and now has only 95.
The last straw came last week when a man attacked a defense attorney right outside the Third Avenue entrance, during the work day. It turned out the man had been arrested on that block four previous times in the past month and released each time (he’s now being held for the latest attack).
But in dithering Seattle fashion, neither government seems able to agree on an overall strategy — whether to get tough or get compassionate. Some judges are calling for more security, while some County council members argue the true answer is more mental-health and drug treatment. Stalemated, they haven’t done much of either. Ditto over at the City of Seattle.
As a newspaper columnist, I am licensed to never offer constructive suggestions. But isn’t the answer obvious here … both?
Yes we need to work on more mental-health and drug treatment. But the courthouse entrance also clearly needs some freaking security.
Seriously what does it take to post a guard or two outside? No it won’t solve the larger societal problems. But when you’re The Man — when you’re literally the county seat of justice — you can’t just announce that it’s too hazardous outside, on one of our most crowded streets, and barricade your entrance.
“I can’t do what they did — I can’t just close my door,” Tran, at the Flame Café, pointed out. “What message are they sending across the street to me?”
The message is: We’re the justice system, and even we can’t figure this one out. Oh, and also: You’re on your own.