We asked what readers want to understand about homelessness, and the most popular question was: “Why are the police not enforcing the laws against camping in Seattle’s parks and streets?” While Ask Project Homeless tries to answer that, it helps to know some Seattle history.

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Pat Simon has been hearing one thing a lot recently: When it comes to homeless camps in Seattle — where more people now live outside than New York City — police officers say their hands are tied.

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She’s not sure if that’s true. That’s what she reads in blogs and Facebook groups she’s joined, where some speculate that the mayor or someone in city government has quietly issued police officers a “stand-down order” to not enforce laws against camping.

This summer we asked readers what they wanted to understand about homelessness, and Simon’s question — “Why are the police not enforcing the laws against camping in Seattle’s parks and streets?” — was our most popular, with over 1700 votes.

It is not hard to see why Simon, an attorney who lives near Greenlake, would ask. Since the infamous encampment known as The Jungle was cleared in late 2016, tents have spread across the city.

Simon and others are frustrated with what they feel are two sets of laws: The ones they have to abide by, and the ones homeless people have to abide by.

As part of Ask Project Homeless, we tried to answer her question.

Laws for civility

Under Seattle city laws, it is illegal to camp in a park except in places where Seattle Parks and Recreation say it’s allowed. It’s also illegal to sit or lie on many high-traffic sidewalks around the city, including downtown. These are usually called “civility laws,” and breaking one means a police officer can give you a ticket.

No one has told police not to enforce these laws, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesperson for the Seattle police. “It is a pervasive myth,” Whitcomb said.

But police don’t exactly enforce them like they enforce most other laws. The police have a special team that deals with homeless encampments, the Navigation Team, made up of police and outreach workers who clean up camps and try to get people inside.

To understand why police don’t treat camping outside as a crime, it helps to know some Seattle history.

In the 1990s, police enforced civility laws with a tougher hand, said Lisa Daugaard, director of Seattle’s Public Defender Assocation. When she started as a public defender in Seattle in 1996, the city attorney was at the center of an effort to “clean up” downtown by enforcing laws against sleeping outside, urinating and drinking in public. His name was Mark Sidran, and he was sometimes called Seattle’s Rudy Giuliani.

This approach frustrated advocates like Daugaard, and some beat cops. Homeless people don’t tend to have the money to pay for tickets, and often don’t come to court, which means an infraction turns into a criminal charge. They then can be arrested, and jailed for a few days.

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“So you’d fix the problem for the hour or the day, but they’d be back, and you felt like you were spinning your wheels,” said Jim Pugel, who spent 31 years at Seattle police, including a stint as interim police chief. “There are smarter ways to do it. At the time, that was the only way we knew.”

After Sidran ran for mayor and lost to Greg Nickels, the city moved to softer approaches, including the LEAD program for low-level drug offenders, and last year, the Navigation Team to address the tent camps.

However, there are only 22 people on the Navigation Team (soon to be 30) for the entire city of Seattle, and around 400 tent camps, according to a spokesperson for the team. They’re stretched thin.

They’re also at the mercy of other factors: The team slowed down cleanups last year when the city’s shelters ran out of space, and they sped up in May and June, when city leaders faced heavy criticism over the tent camps during the debate over a head tax to fund affordable housing and homeless services.

In the meantime, the city has retreated even further from the Sidran approach.

When Pete Holmes was elected City Attorney in 2009, he dramatically reduced charges for camping and urinating in parks, and for failure to respond to infractions. Last year, the city attorney charged only seven people with camping in park.

That has discouraged many police officers, Daugaard believes. Police started getting decline memos from Pete Holmes’ office, regularly with no explanation, according to Daugaard.

“There’s only so much that a police officer can do,” Pugel said. “And if they are told to pay attention to this behavior that is technically illegal or warrants a civil infraction … and then nothing is done about it, then the officer does feel extremely frustrated.”

That’s why officers may be telling people their hands are tied, Daugaard thinks. “The old approaches are being rejected, and they’re not sure what the new approach is,” Daugaard said.

Holmes declined an interview request for this story, but in a statement said, “We worked with SPD to improve investigation techniques and report writing, but that hasn’t affected the way in which we respond to homeless individuals.”

In the statement, Holmes reiterated that Seattle “can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem.” But he pointed out that if someone declines an offer of shelter, officers can issue a trespass warning, which, if violated, he can prosecute. As of June, his office has charged four of those cases this year.

Even with Seattle’s soft approach to civility laws, Holmes noted he’s still defending the city from two lawsuits where that approach is being challenged for allegedly infringing on the rights of homeless people.

Nick Licata, who served 18 years on the Seattle Council, and ran the public safety committee for four years, spent a lot of time with beat officers. He saw that when officers feel they can’t enforce laws, they often engage in “reverse passing-the-buck.”

“Often, I think, the supervisors say ‘Well, it’s coming from higher up’,” Licata said. “A lot of instances, they’ll blame the mayor, the mayor will blame the council, and it’s a circle.”