The Metropolitan King County Council voted unanimously Wednesday to provide $600,000 in emergency funding for added security at the downtown Seattle courthouse after a highly publicized assault last month spurred a judge to close the building’s main entrance.
The new funding will be split evenly among three priorities: It will pay for two sheriff’s deputies at the currently-closed Third Avenue entrance, another security team at the Fourth Avenue entrance and behavioral-health social workers to work in the vicinity of the courthouse.
Security issues around the downtown courthouse have simmered for the last several years but took on added urgency after a Nov. 27 assault, caught on camera, when a defense attorney was repeatedly punched in the head outside the building. Judge Jim Rogers, the county Superior Court’s presiding judge, then ordered the Third Avenue entrance closed through the end of the year.
On Tuesday afternoon, a County Council committee heard from about a dozen employees who work in the downtown building and said they often feared coming to work and worried they would be attacked.
“Nothing was more effective than looking in the faces of those men and women who have been assaulted just for coming to work,” said Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer. “We have a moral and legal obligation to stand up today and provide a good working place.”
The Third Avenue entrance sits across the street from the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which serves chronically homeless men and women with persistent mental-health and substance-abuse issues. Down the block, on Third Avenue and Yesler Way, is the Morrison Hotel, an apartment building for homeless adults with disabilities, and a stone’s throw south from there is the Union Gospel Mission shelter on Second Avenue Extension South.
Between January and September, Seattle police responded to 160 assaults on the Third Avenue block the courthouse is on, according to department data.
The courthouse is also the seat of county government, and the County Council took its vote to approve the increased funding from the chambers on the 10th floor. Several council members said that while adding the security is necessary, it’s not a substitute for addressing the underlying issues, including crime and mental health.
Councilmember Joe McDermott said he was concerned that boosting security around the building could just move the problem elsewhere.
“To want to hyper-protect one block of downtown Seattle isn’t the appropriate response,” he said.
King County Sheriff’s marshals, who are typically retired police officers, provide security inside the courthouse while King County corrections officers are responsible for escorting defendants between the jail and court and keeping the peace inside individual courtrooms. But outside the courthouse, Seattle police have the primary responsibility for city streets. There were 129 patrol officers assigned to the West Precinct — which includes downtown — in 2010 but as of last year, that number had dropped to 95.
“What happens outside the building is Seattle’s responsibility and if we’re going to do their job, they need to pay us for doing their job,” Councilmember Kathy Lambert said.
For more than a year, Seattle police have assigned foot-beat officers — diverted from beats in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District — to patrol the 500 block of Third Avenue, with West Precinct bicycle officers and Anti-Crime Team members also conducting patrols and drug-bust operations on the streets around the courthouse, according to the department.
Council Chair Rod Dembowski said he was hopeful that the increased funding would be enough for Rogers to reopen the Third Avenue entrance.