On Aug. 14, Seattle police cleared Cal Anderson Park of a homeless encampment and protesters who were occupying a parks building and distributing food to homeless people there.
One week later, officers referred a hungry person living outside to the protesters who had again started distributing food at the park — the only place the officers could think of where that person could get help.
The incident, captured on body camera during a homeless person’s arrest for allegedly stealing shoes and candy from Bartell’s and other items from Walgreens, is a contradictory stance in a city that has repeatedly removed the park’s homeless encampments and protesters headquartered there since last summer.
Eleven days after the person was arrested, the park was cleared once again.
The moment provides a snapshot of a city straining under a homelessness crisis during a pandemic, a police department grappling with local and national reckonings over race and class and officers confused about where to direct people living on the street.
“We’re trying to get him services, but there aren’t any services to get him,” says an officer while being recorded, who later complained about protesters to her colleague after the arrest.
The body cam video and audio captures Seattle police Officers Mika Harmon and Patrick Walters responding to reports of shoplifting on Aug. 21. While searching for the suspect from their police car, Harmon is heard telling Walters that the job is “soul-sucking” and “starts to beat you down.”
After some minutes pass and they approach the park, Harmon says that they’ve arrived at Cal Anderson — which Harmon describes with a profane term.
Last summer, Cal Anderson Park became the site of nightly antipolicing protests after demonstrations erupted nationwide over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters also repeatedly occupied a park building to distribute food and clothing to people living in the park.
City officials said they cleared the park last summer because of safety concerns like fires inside the park and damage to buildings. Throughout the summer, a group of protesters who met most nights in the park sometimes broke windows and set fires elsewhere in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Those protesters, as well as people who were homeless and living in the park, were dispersed from the park three times last year after police broke up the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, or CHOP, that had taken root in the park and on the blocks surrounding the East Precinct.
“Isn’t this lovely,” Harmon says as they drive around the park, searching for the suspect, and continues with an obscenity-filled commentary: “This should be (expletive) impounded. It’s so — it’s such bullshit. Like if we start putting the hammer down on these (expletive) … yeah, so this is the park.”
It’s unclear to whom she was referring.
In a whisper, Walters reminds her that they are being recorded.
“Oh, I don’t care,” Harmon says. “I’m already on the chopping block. No, I’m just kidding.”
Seattle police spokesperson Sgt. Randy Huserik said the officers’ comments had been referred to the Office of Police Accountability and that Seattle police could not provide more details.
Huserik stood by the officers’ choice to refer the arrested person to the park for services.
“We provide services to those requesting/needing them, and guide them to the nearest services available, as officers did in this circumstance,” Huserik said in an email.
Around that time on Aug. 21, officers in a second police car dispatched to the shoplifting incident spot a shoeless person on the sidewalk. That person had been interviewed by one of the officers the day before on another shoplifting report. They handcuff the person. Harmon picks up body spray, a comb and razors off the sidewalk and returns them to Walgreens security.
“So how come you keep shoplifting?” Harmon asks the person on the sidewalk. “Is it just no money?”
“I don’t have any money or any way to make it,” the person says.
Harmon also asks if the person had been referred to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program that aims to provide social services to people who commit low-level crimes because of poverty, addiction or homelessness. But later in the footage, another colleague tells Harmon the program is “done” and would not be funded the following year.
That isn’t the case. It’s possible the officer could have been referring to changes made to the program in which referrals could be made by community members, not just police.
“I’m not aware of any conversation that the city would not continue to fund or support [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion], especially on the council,” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis.
At various points on the recording of the arrest, the person in handcuffs appears confused and speaks in indiscernible phrases.
The officers suggest Mental Health Court, but say that they would have to book the person into jail in order to connect with those resources. In March, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that in order to reduce the jail population during the pandemic, the county jails would not accept bookings for nonviolent misdemeanors like theft.
A spokesperson for Seattle Municipal Court clarified by email, however, that a person does not have to be booked into jail in order to connect with Mental Health Court.
“Kind of limited,” Harmon says, before the officers ask if their suspect has been to the park and recommend going there for clothes and food.
“Are you guys going to let me go?” the person asks before a woman using her phone to record the officers asks if she can pay for the shoes in order to let the person in handcuffs go.
Harmon explains that the woman will have to work that out with store management, not police.
“We’re just going to take him to the precinct, we’re going to do our paperwork and then we’ll kick him loose,” Harmon says to the woman taking video. “We’re going to try to direct him to go over there. Because really, he needs services.”
“We don’t have a lot of options right now,” Harmon says.
The officers appear to be acknowledging the pandemic’s toll on homeless services. As shelters limited their intake and many daily services shut down, few resources were — and are — available for the thousands of people living outside with nowhere else to go.
Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told The Seattle Times by email that the Seattle Police Department “is trained on and has the ability to refer vulnerable individuals who need services to providers who can meet their needs,” including LEAD, the Health One team — a team of firefighters and social workers who can respond to 911 calls — or mental health professionals at Seattle police precincts.
In a follow-up email, Nyland said that the “incident also underscores how our police are often placed in situations that would best be managed by a social worker.”
“A police officer doesn’t have the training needed to function as a social worker, and shouldn’t be expected to,” Nyland said. “This is a prime example of a situation in which an alternate response or co-response model would function best, and the city is working towards more alternate responses such as expanding Health One and investing in community-based safety services.”
Nyland also said, “It’s clear that the officers weren’t approaching this incident from the frame of what aligns with the city’s ongoing policy on Cal Anderson, but rather what would most quickly meet the individual’s immediate need for food and shoes.”
In this case, the officers tell the handcuffed person that food and clothes are available at the park.
“That the closest resources were at Cal Anderson speaks less to the City’s policies regarding keeping the park safe and clean, and more to the need for deeper and ongoing investments in services for vulnerable communities,” Nyland said.
Later, Harmon complains about the protesters who showed up on the scene.
“They just want to scream and yell, but they don’t want to hear any information,” she says.
“The shoes are not the issue,” she says. “It’s the constant stealing. It’s like, so, big picture. We’re trying to get him services, but there aren’t any services to get him.”