Seattle leaders are taking heat over their response to street crime, particularly over a relatively small group of persons critics say are cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system with little or no lasting consequences or rehabilitation.

Neighborhood and business leaders recently aired such grievances in a letter to City Hall, citing assaults, open-air drug activity and “erratic behaviors fueled by substance abuse disorders.”

An hour-long program by KOMO News, titled “Seattle Is Dying,” also has painted a picture of a city overrun with addiction-fueled lawlessness by people who are homeless.

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On Episode 105 of The Overcast, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes responds to some of the criticism, arguing the issues are more complex than sometimes portrayed. Holmes joined reporters Jim Brunner and Daniel Beekman for this week’s episode, recorded at the Seattle studios of public radio 88.5 FM KNKX.

As the elected city attorney, Holmes leads an office that prosecutes misdemeanor crimes (felonies are handled by the county prosecutor) as well as acting as the city’s law firm, providing legal advice and defending against lawsuits.

He saw KOMO’s “Seattle Is Dying” piece, and disputes some of its assertions.


“It was quite uncomfortable to watch. I think it was quite a bit over the top, frankly, but it certainly captured… the visual of homelessness encampments in our beautiful city, and of course concern about crime rates,” Holmes says. He said the station did not contact his office about its program until the day before it aired, with a question about a felony prosecution, which the city attorney’s office does not handle.

Holmes pushes back against the notion that the city is shirking its public health and safety duties – he notes his office is defending the city against a lawsuit by civil liberties groups that is seeking to halt sweeps of homeless encampments.

Holmes said his office seeks civil referrals under the Involuntary Treatment Act in cases in which someone is charged with a crime but deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial; for example, a man charged with trying to throw a woman over a freeway overpass had received two or three previous referrals by his office.

So why did the man wind up back on the streets and threatening harm to someone? Holmes says he doesn’t know, because his office’s jurisdiction ends after its referrals for treatment. “At that point it is a separate civil process,” he said.

As the city’s lawyer, Holmes has defended boundary-pushing laws that have drawn legal challenges — with mixed results. For example, the city’s tax on guns and ammunition has been upheld, yet a city income-tax ordinance has lost in court.

In the podcast, Holmes raises an explicit link between Seattle’s unsuccessful income-tax effort, and complaints about crime and homelessness. “That [an income tax] would give us some of the resources to address these problems. I assume everyone that’s complaining about the problems also agrees they must pay for the remedies,” he says.


That’s just a sample of this week’s conversation. Also covered:

  • Other critiques by Holmes of KOMO’s report and crime data presented by the business community.
  • Is the city ignoring complaints of rampant shoplifting at stores like Uwajimaya?
  • Seattle’s “sanctuary city” legal win against the Justice Department.
  • The common legal principle at stake in Seattle’s multiple fights with conservative legal groups.
  • Where things stand after a move by Holmes and Mayor Jenny Durkan to push for vacating hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana convictions.
  • Why Holmes supports publicly funded “safe injection” sites for heroin users, but is cautious about possible federal intervention.

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