This past spring, 100 Seattle police officers received special training in how to quickly move homeless people off city sidewalks, streets and other public rights-of way, part of an ongoing effort by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to increase encampment cleanups here.

The result was that in June alone, police officers interacted with homeless people 142 times, mostly without outreach workers.  That was more interactions than Seattle’s highly publicized Navigation Team, a group of officers and outreach workers, had with people when they were about to clear encampments that month.

Police involvement in clearing encampments is nothing new — Seattle officers have been a part of the Navigation Team since its inception more than two years ago. The new strategy, however, quietly ramps up the city’s reliance on police alone to supplement the Navigation Team’s work. 

The city disagrees, saying the training provided “clarity” on existing rules that determine when an encampment can be removed. Police officers already interact with homeless people all the time, and they received the new training to, in part, “connect those who want it with services, shelter and safe storage of personal belongings,” said mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower.

The effort resulted from months of discussions between the office of Mayor Durkan, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD), Seattle police and the City Attorney’s Office. They came together with an intended goal to decrease the number of unauthorized encampments, internal documents obtained by the Seattle Times through records requests show.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Internal records made clear a change was coming. One of the mayor’s priorities in her “Navigation Team Reboot,” as it was referred to in meeting documents, was to adopt what the city called a “clean and hold” approach — though the city said that term is no longer being used. It included goals to maintain clear sidewalks, reduce public health and safety impacts of unauthorized encampments, increase the number of encampment removals and ensure the camps didn’t return once they were removed.

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It’s apparent that some of that strategy evolved into work done by the city’s community police teams and bike patrol. According to data from June 1 to Oct. 13, community police and bike officers interacted with people on the street or in parks 515 times — 6% of those encounters resulted in an arrest, most related to existing warrants. 

In those hundreds of interactions, less than 2% accepted referrals to homeless shelters after system navigators — a kind of outreach worker — came to the scene.

The first six months of this year, the most recent time period for which data is available, the Navigation Team had a 27% referral rate, though only 8% made it into shelter.

“Pushing the wheel up that hill”

On a recent Friday morning, Officer Michael Cruzan, a 25-year veteran of the police force with five years on the community police team, and Officer Nic Boys, a newer presence on the team, approached tents propped up in front of the Ballard Library. 

“Morning, Seattle police,” Boys said.

“Isaiah,” Cruzan asked. “Is that you? You doing OK? 

A young man wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Go see Paige,” Cruzan chided him gently, referring to Paige Killinger, Ballard’s dedicated outreach worker from the organization REACH. “We talked about that.” 

Cruzan has been doing the job long enough that he knows the regulars. And they know him, too.  

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“These officers are pretty cool, pretty lenient,” said Kristy Stroud, a woman living in a tent in front of the Ballard library. Her plan was to move her things to another spot for the day, then come back and set up camp at night. “They just want you to keep it down.” 

Cruzan acknowledged that success stories in his work are rare, though he lives for the moments when he can direct a person or a family toward the appropriate resources. A lot of times, it can feel Sisyphean, “pushing the wheel up that hill,” Cruzan said. He’s social worker, community liaison, enforcement all in one — though he hadn’t arrested a person for not moving yet 

Did he feel he had all the tools he needed to solve the problems he saw? No. 

There isn’t an easily identifiable solution here,” Cruzan said. “We haven’t come up with it yet.”  

At the same time, neighborhood business leaders are encouraged. They say the mayor’s strategy on encampments is working.

“I think it’s really been a game-changer,” said Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, another neighborhood with a high volume of encampments. “We used to get a lot more complaints about people trying to access the transit hub and being harassed along the way.”  

Howard said she first noticed a difference in her neighborhood after a drug bust and encampment cleanup on Second Avenue South and South Washington Street in May. 

With more police officers moving people along — and new construction in the area — Howard said the aftermath of the bust “was the first time since I’ve been down here that camping hasn’t been allowed on the sidewalk.” 

An early draft of an internal memo about the effort said a secondary goal, in addition to removing more unauthorized encampments, was to reduce the complaints about them. The final version changed that goal to reduce “unsafe living conditions that impact communities across Seattle.”

Other evidence demonstrates the city’s effort to stop encampments from returning. Data from the City Attorney’s Office show 15 charges filed against people who allegedly trespassed on a hill in the city’s International District, the site of a former encampment that was cleared after a May drug bust there.

The Boise challenge

The city navigates a murky legal environment when policing homelessnesssaid Seattle University law professor and homeless-rights advocate Sara Rankin. 

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case out of Boise, Idaho, that if a city doesn’t have enough accessible shelter beds, banning people from camping in public constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  

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West Coast cities have felt the ruling’s impact. Seattle has said that its own ordinances regarding camping are different from the Boise case because they’re restricted to certain times and places.  

Rankin believes that Seattle’s practices haven’t yet been tested — and that makes the city vulnerable. 

“I think what the city is trying to do, whether they’ll say it or not, is have some creep in the size of the police force they have addressing homelessness,” Rankin said.  

The city puts it differently.

“Although not required, Mayor Durkan has made it a priority that CPT and bike patrol offer to connect each individual with the Navigation Team to receive an offer of services and shelter,” Hightower wrote by email. 

Rankin thinks it’s the wrong approach. 

“If you’re dispatching police officers and tasking them with the dual role of gaining someone’s trust and potentially jailing or ticketing or charging them with something, why would we expect people to respond any differently than they do? she said. 

In Ballard, Cruzan and his partner left the people in tents in front of the library to pack up and move on.

Half an hour later, Isaiah and his tent were gone. Two new people with hoods pulled tight against the cold stood in the place where he had slept.