Laura Zeck owns an art gallery, which is not normally a high-risk enterprise when it comes to worker safety. But she finds herself today with zero employees who are willing to even come in to work.
“They decided it’s not worth it anymore,” Zeck said the other day. “At this point I have no staff who will come down here.”
Katherine Anderson owns a restaurant nearby.
“We are on the brink of having to lock our doors because our staff can no longer take being on the front lines of mental health and harassment patrol,” she said.
Jonathan Fleming says he feels, at times, like he’s working in the “wild, wild West.”
“I don’t even call the police anymore, there’s no point,” he says. “I’m at the stage where I just try to do security for every incident personally, by myself.”
These three all run businesses in Pioneer Square (Zeck owns Zinc contemporary art gallery, Anderson owns The London Plane cafe, and Fleming runs Pioneer Square D & E, which stands for drinks and eats.) This past week they joined to plead with Seattle officials to help them manage a street scene they say is overwhelming the neighborhood.
The three wrote to the two citywide elected council members, Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González, as well as to their district council member, Andrew Lewis. They copied Mayor Jenny Durkan, the parks department and a slew of Seattle police officials, from an assistant chief on down.
They described how there are multiple incidents each day when people who appear to be suffering from mental illness or drug addiction bash on their windows, harass customers, smash things or, in the worst cases, physically threaten and assault the staff.
“We are at a complete loss as to how to handle the relentless aggression that plays out at our business,” Anderson said.
Said Zeck: “When we call the police they say: ‘We choose not to respond.’”
Anderson recounted calling police four times in one afternoon to no avail. She added in her plea to city leaders: “We know the police are understaffed, and we know they aren’t necessarily the solution to these problems anyway … (but) I am ready for some REAL solutions.”
Added Fleming: “There’s a ton of pessimism down here right now.”
Pioneer Square, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, has never been the city’s safest. But these three folks, who have been living or working down there for decades, say a delicate balance has been jarred loose recently.
Fleming said he now regularly has to roust people who wander into his restaurant, while it’s open, and start rifling through employee workstations.
“You didn’t get that sort of brazen aggressiveness as much before,” he said.
Zeck said she’s now looking to move. It ought to set off alarms at City Hall that an art gallery may ditch Pioneer Square, one of the original arts districts, with the first art walk in the nation.
What I suspect is going on here is yet more fallout from the backward drive to reimagine or defund the police. I’ve written about this before: how the city, and now the state Legislature, are trying to get armed police officers out of the business of going to every distress call related to mental illness and drugs. It’s a sound goal — it’d probably be better in many of these situations to have mental health counselors coming to the scene than cops.
But the problem is the city and state haven’t yet stood up any replacement for the police — let alone judged it to see if that replacement works.
The local news website Crosscut reported what this has wrought on the ground: There was a 45% drop in the number of police interventions in mental health calls this August compared to previous monthly averages. The drop is apparently due to a tug of war between police and lawmakers over a new state law restricting when police can use force, passed in the wake of the defund the police movement.
But meanwhile, a new “Triage One” crisis team, proposed to replace the cops in many of these types of situations, won’t be running until next year. The City Council approved $700,000 for a pilot program on Monday.
You don’t wind down crisis interventions and then later start your crisis intervention pilot program. That practically guarantees that in the meantime there will be more souls in the grips of episodes out there not getting any help, and more friction on the streets.
In some cases people are being left to deteriorate, to the point where they can cause harm to themselves or others, one crisis responder told The Seattle Times.
In a note to The London Plane owner Anderson, Durkan’s office acknowledged this mismatch in timing.
“While of little immediate comfort, we expect the first of these (triage) teams to be operational by January 2022,” it says.
I didn’t know what to tell these Pioneer Square business owners. There’s hope it may get better … next year? So just hang in there?
Left unsaid: For now, it looks like you’re basically on your own.