Eight days after a man allegedly tried to rape a public employee inside a King County Courthouse restroom, more than 250 people — mostly county workers and their supporters — rallied and marched around the downtown Seattle landmark, demanding that local elected officials take immediate action to make the building and its surroundings safe.
“This has been going on for several years now,” said Erica Conway, a 21-year courthouse worker and one of more than a half-dozen speakers to address the crowd. “ …We demand you make a commitment that we are safe while we do our jobs.”
Dubbed the “March for a Safe Workplace,” many participants wore teal shirts and some carried signs calling for safety, as they gathered across Fourth Avenue at the King County Administration Building during the noon lunch hour for a series of speeches followed by a march around the courthouse.
Speakers emphasized the fear and frustration of courthouse employees, jurors and visitors, and what they described as the failure of city and county elected officials to protect them by addressing a long-running problem that disproportionately has victimized women.
“I was working here, in the 1990s, when the women were shot,” said paralegal Kris Bridgman, a participant in the march, referring to the 1995 slayings of three women in a courthouse hallway, including the killer’s pregnant wife. “And I’ve used the bathroom where the woman was attacked last week. I don’t think it’s gotten any better.”
Timothy Blackwell, convicted of three counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the 1995 shootings, was sentenced to life in prison. Clint James Jory, the man accused of last week’s courthouse attack, has been charged with second-degree attempted rape and is being held at the King County Jail in lieu of $750,000 bail.
Mary Laskowski, a training and outreach coordinator in the prosecutor’s office, told the crowd Friday that workplace violence against women is a pervasive problem that ranges from unwanted gestures to homicide, but is typically dealt with as an afterthought.
“King County is only intervening after people have already been harmed,” she said. “Even when the system works the way it should … it cannot undo the damage that already has been done. We deserve better.”
In light of last week’s reported rape attempt, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, which provides legal advocacy for sexual assault victims at the courthouse, announced Friday it would allow its employees and clients to opt out of attending in-person meetings and hearings in the building.
Earlier this week, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, citing safety concerns, ordered all noncommissioned office staff to return to remote work.
Last week’s reported rape attempt is the latest incident spurring calls to improve safety at the courthouse, which has been a site of physical assaults, open-air drug dealing and other crimes. The problems have only seemed to get worse in recent years, several participants at Friday’s rally said.
The blocks surrounding the courthouse, situated between Third and Fourth avenues on James Street, host many of the city’s homeless-shelter beds and social-service outlets. That has drawn both those in need of help, and the people who prey on them, to the area for years.
Lately, the grounds of City Hall Park next to the courthouse have become a tent encampment sheltering dozens of people. Social service workers who spoke at Friday’s event said many of those now living in the tents next to the courthouse were displaced from elsewhere after recent encampment sweeps.
Unsheltered people “are not the problem” causing the safety concerns, said Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Amy Freedheim, who has worked in the courthouse for more than 30 years.
“The problem is elected officials that give lip service but are not making this a safe workplace,” she said.
Again and again, courthouse employees, jurors and others have reported attacks and other safety issues, she said. But rather than make investments and specific workplace safety plans, officials have offered hollow warnings for employees to “be aware of your surroundings,” Freedheim said.
“We are — and we are still not safe,” she said.
In recent years, judges, sheriff’s employees and others who work in or regularly visit the courthouse say they’ve witnessed or encountered assaults, confrontations and other incidents. In turn, jurors and others have increasingly reported being afraid to go to the courthouse, they say.
In mid-2017, King County judges Jim Rogers and Laura Inveen joined then-Sheriff John Urquhart to recount to County Council members various assaults on jurors and employees at the courthouse. Less than two months later, a homeless man was arrested after he charged at Urquhart and his chief of staff with scissors outside the courthouse.
In late 2019, Rogers, the King County Superior Court’s presiding judge, ordered the temporary closure of the Third Avenue entrance, a week after the Sheriff’s Office said a man attacked an attorney and bus driver outside the courthouse, punching them and knocking them to the ground.
In June, after 31-year-old Bradley Arabie was fatally stabbed at the park immediately south of the courthouse, Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn proposed condemning the city-owned park — known colloquially as Muscatel Meadows — as a public safety hazard or nuisance property.
Several speakers said Friday efforts to address the courthouse safety problems in recent years have been all talk and no action.
Manka Dhingra, a senior deputy King County prosecutor and Democratic state senator from Redmond, said the Legislature last year prioritized funding for several social services and housing programs for local communities to address problems now evident around the courthouse.
“Now, it’s up to the city and county to implement them,” she said. “The plan already should be there. It’s long past time.”