The Metropolitan King County Council will be asked Wednesday whether to spend an additional $600,000 on courthouse security, after hearing from county employees and others who said they fear for their safety outside the downtown Seattle courthouse.
At a Tuesday meeting of the County Council’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht apologized to employees who had been assaulted and to those who said they felt being attacked was inevitable. She said her office would increase security, as long as it received the additional funding.
Officials have discussed concerns about security outside the downtown courthouse for years, but they’ve gained a sense of urgency after a Nov. 27 assault, in which authorities said a man punched a defense attorney several times in the head and then punched a Metro bus driver who tried to stop the attack. Presiding Judge Jim Rogers issued an emergency order last week closing the entrance through the end of the year, which sparked public criticism of Seattle and King County officials’ ability to combat crime.
“We all know conditions have been worsening the past few years and that it’s dangerous to walk to work if you work in the King County Courthouse,” Kevin McCabe, the defense attorney who was attacked, said at Tuesday’s meeting.
In response to public concern, County Council Chair Rod Dembowski proposed emergency funding to place two uniformed sheriff’s deputies on Third Avenue, hire another security team to keep the Fourth Avenue entrance open, and to hire outreach workers to work with officers in the area this year. Council members at the Tuesday meeting supported increasing security, but some expressed concern that the county is not doing enough to address underlying issues such as a lack of affordable housing and shelter, mental-health services and chemical-dependency treatment.
“I do not think enough of us, as staff or professionals, think significantly about the kind of services that we also need to fund,” said outgoing longtime Councilmember Larry Gossett. “When we have people living in wretched conditions caused by a society of neglect … then we need to do more to help them get out of that condition.”
Johanknecht said she would want her deputies to focus on “repeat offenders” who were not likely to respond to outreach workers and posed a threat to the public.
About 11 people who work in the courthouse building spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, and most of them called for increased officer presence. Four recounted being assaulted themselves, with one saying he had a gun pointed at his face, while others said they felt intimidated by people yelling at them or using drugs.
“For those of us working in the courthouse, it’s not a matter of if we’re going to get assaulted, it’s a matter of when,” said Nadia Simpson, a court-operations supervisor for King County Superior Court.
The number of Seattle police officers assigned to the West Precinct, which includes downtown, has dropped in the last decade as the department has diverted resources to patrol the courthouse’s block of Third Avenue. From January to September, officers responded to 160 assaults there, and almost all occurred across the street from the courthouse, according to SPD data.
If the council approves the appropriations ordinance, the Sheriff’s Office would receive $400,000 to be split between the deputies on Third Avenue and security team for the Fourth Avenue entrance, which would allow it to remain open during business hours instead of just peak hours, as it had been prior. The other $200,000 would fund outreach workers through the North King County’s Response, Awareness, De-escalation and Referral (RADAR) program, Dembowski said.
The Seattle Police Department has indicated it will commit officers to the area during peak times, which will be paired with efforts by Metro transit police and the Sheriff’s Office, Dembowski said.