Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s public-safety adviser pointed a finger at King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg in a memo about street crime downtown, but the mayor and Satterberg say they’re working together.
When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, in a January email exchange with staff, called his administration “significantly behind” in responding to an uptick in street crime and disorder downtown, his top public-safety adviser blamed the current state of the neighborhood on King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
“The increase in street disorder is largely a function of the fact that heroin, crack and meth possession has been largely legalized in the city over the past several years as the County Prosecutor significantly raised the bar to prosecuting drug possession (arrests and prosecutions have dropped off a cliff as a result),” Scott Lindsay, Murray’s special assistant on police reform and public safety, wrote in the Jan. 28 email exchange, which The Seattle Times obtained this week via a public-records request.
“The unintended consequence of that social policy effort has been to make Seattle a much more attractive place to buy and sell hard core drugs,” added Lindsay. “With drugs and drug addiction comes property crimes and street disorder.”
Satterberg held his ground in an interview Thursday, arguing that his office isn’t causing the problem. More social and mental-health services are needed, he said, along with more police officers on the street, rather than more felony prosecutions.
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Satterberg and Murray are now working together on a new, multipronged effort to curb downtown crime, they said Thursday.
The mayor will soon announce what planning documents obtained by The Seattle Times refer to as a “9½ Block Strategy.” The effort will focus on a section of downtown between Stewart and Union streets and First and Fourth avenues where there were 10,000 “calls for service” in 2014.
The Jan. 28 email exchange began when City Council President Tim Burgess wrote Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole “to express my continued deep concern about street crime and disorder in some of our city’s neighborhoods.”
Burgess attached a letter from employees of the Mayflower Park Hotel and an article co-authored by New York City Police Chief Bill Bratton titled, “Why We Need Broken Windows Policing.” The Broken Windows Policing theory, developed in the 1980s, contends that stamping out low-level disorder can help keep serious crime at bay.
Murray reacted by emailing Lindsay, O’Toole and other aides, including Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, a former president of the Downtown Seattle Association.
“We have to step up telling the story of why and our comprehensive response,” he wrote. “We are significantly behind in putting together a response.”
That’s when Lindsay chimed in, attributing “shoplifting, car prowls, aggressive panhandling and street robbery” to “an ecosystem of drug addiction” and linking the situation to Satterberg’s approach.
In 2008, faced with budget cuts, the prosecutor changed the way his office dealt with certain cases, including some drug cases, deciding to allow people arrested with small amounts of narcotics to plead guilty to misdemeanors in the county’s district court rather than being charged with felonies in superior court, Satterberg explained.
He defended his approach Thursday, describing it as a smarter, gentler way of prosecuting — in contrast with the country’s long-running “War on Drugs.”
“In the ’90s, we used law enforcement almost exclusively to deal with what was perceived as downtown disorder. We sent thousands of people to prison for tiny amounts of drugs and that had no noticeable impact on the street,” he said.
“Yes, open-air drug dealing is unacceptable. We shouldn’t have to sit back and just watch it happen and law enforcement is part of the solution … But we’re not going to arrest our way to a better downtown Seattle. We tried that and it didn’t work.”
Confronted with Lindsay’s assertion that heroin, crack and meth “have been largely legalized,” Satterberg replied, “I think that’s hyperbole.”
And asked whether his office should be held responsible for downtown disorder, the prosecutor said, “I think that’s a very simplistic view of a very complicated issue.”
“It’s not true that we don’t file drug cases anymore,” Satterberg said, noting that his office filed 1,805 drug cases countywide in 2014, up from 1,578 in 2013.
In 2014, 46 percent of the county’s drug cases were bumped to district court, 16 percent went to drug court and the remaining 38 percent were handled in superior court.
In 2013, the breakdown was 38 percent, 18 percent and 46 percent.
“We’ve never taken the policy that we’re not going to file drug cases. If the police bring us a case with sufficient evidence, we’ll file it,” Satterberg said. “But we have a continuum of options.”
Murray spokesman Viet Shelton acknowledged Thursday that Lindsay’s assertion that hard drugs had become “legalized” in Seattle was an oversimplification.
And Shelton said the mayor and Satterberg are now “on the same page.”
Murray and Satterberg, along with O’Toole and City Attorney Pete Holmes, are cooperating to clean up downtown’s roughest 9½ blocks, Shelton said.
“It’s not just one person’s fault or one agency’s fault,” Shelton said, adding, “The mayor and prosecutor are moving in the same direction … and there’s going to be a significant improvement in public safety.”
The strategy will include high-visibility policing, moving newspaper boxes used for drug dealing, limiting access to alleys, activating park spaces, reviewing the siting of some bus stops and opening a shared storefront for several government agencies.
It will also include the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which launched as a pilot under then-Mayor Mike McGinn in 2011. Satterberg is a major proponent of LEAD, which offers help to people picked up for nonviolent street crimes.
“We are working with (the Murray administration),” Satterberg confirmed. “In the next couple of weeks you’ll see some concrete examples of that.”
Still, Shelton stuck by Lindsay’s argument that drugs are behind the street disorder and that fewer drug prosecutions are part of the problem.
Police records show that crimes downtown are concentrated near drug-dealing hot spots. Drug-offense bookings countywide dropped from 6,747 total in 2004 to 2,304 in 2013, Shelton noted.
“The reduction in arrests and prosecutions has been a factor,’ he said.
Satterberg said he isn’t sure whether crime downtown is worse than in the past. More people are living downtown these days, many of them in luxury condos, he said.
Satterberg is on board with Murray’s plan to use a wide array of tactics downtown.
But he’s skeptical of get-tough demands.
“I understand what (Lindsay) was saying. I’ve been that staffer before,” he said. “I had to write memos trying to reduce complicated issues to something simple. But it’s too easy to say the prosecutor should just file more cases.”