Funding has been restored for four city attorneys who will advise neighborhoods and police on chronic and emerging community problems.
After 10 years of fighting problem motels along Aurora Avenue North between the Fremont and Wallingford neighborhoods, residents got help from an assistant city attorney assigned to the Seattle Police Department’s North Precinct who brought 180 tax-evasion charges against the owners and forced them to sell.
But the federal grant money that funded the precinct-liaison program in 1995 dried up and city budget cutbacks shuttered the program last year.
Now the Seattle City Council has restored funding for four attorney liaisons in the city’s five police precincts to help solve public-safety issues and advise police about emerging problems around issues such as nightlife and medical marijuana.
“We’re really pleased that it’s going to be up and running again because it was really crucial to improving Aurora Avenue,” said Linda Clifton, a member of the Fremont, Aurora and Wallingford Neighbors — or FAWN, an association of block watches.
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City Attorney Pete Holmes is calling the retooled program Precinct Liaison 2.0, to reflect its broader focus, not just to provide legal advice to police but to serve as a resource to neighborhoods facing chronic problems such as drug and gang activity or nuisance properties.
Holmes said the city liaisons, who will begin their jobs in mid-February, will work closely with other city departments to address community concerns, allowing police to concentrate on criminal activity.
“A lot of people call 911 with problems that really aren’t law-enforcement issues. It might be feuding neighbors. It might be garbage that isn’t getting picked up. It might be streetlights that are burned out. These liaisons provide immediate relief to the police,” said Holmes.
The uncertain laws around the use of medical marijuana and its distribution is another area in which the precinct liaisons can provide guidance to neighbors and police, Holmes said. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but under a broad interpretation of state law, dispensaries can operate as “collective gardens” with up to 45 marijuana plants for use by patients with valid medical authorization.
“Is this collective garden legal? Have they counted the plants correctly? Are the medical authorizations valid? The police have more important things to do,” Holmes said.
Police say that having such a resource helps protect the city from potential liability and helps ensure consistent practices across geographical boundaries.
“It’s a partnership that greatly increases our capabilities,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, Seattle Police Department spokesman.
All of the new precinct-liaison attorneys have experience in the City Attorney’s Office. Two, Jana Jorgensen and Melissa Chin, live in precincts in which they will work.
Chin, who will cover both the South and Southwest precincts, lives in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle. Her grandparents live on Beacon Hill, an uncle is a patrol officer in the South precinct and she has tutored at Rainier Beach High School.
She said her familiarity with the area’s many cultures and ethnic groups gives her greater understanding of why some regard police and government with suspicion and may be reluctant to ask for help. She’s also aware of some of the areas plagued by crime — including her own neighborhood.
“I have a vested interest in seeing the streets safer, not just for the community but for myself as well,” Chin said.
With the city petitioning the state to allow longer hours for liquor service, Holmes said the liaison attorneys will likely play a role in drafting good-neighbor agreements with clubs seeking the extended hours or new liquor licenses. Noise, disorderly conduct, over-service, service and criminal activity can all be addressed in agreements drafted by the liaisons.
“It’s such a valuable tool,” said Pete Hanning, owner of the Red Door bar and restaurant in Fremont and president of the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association. “The police, the Chamber of Commerce, the community groups, all have someone who understands the legal side of public safety.”
Ed McKenna, who served as an assistant attorney liaison in the North and East precincts for eight years, said good-neighbor agreements required club owners to meet with neighbors and police, to provide security for the club and training for staff.
“Crime actually went down despite additional liquor establishments opening in the neighborhood. The fact that owners knew they were being monitored made them more responsible,” said McKenna, who is now a Seattle Municipal Court judge.
An even larger challenge was the chronic criminal activity associated with four motels along Aurora Avenue North. Neighbors said there had been rampant drug sales, prostitution, trespassing, dumping of stolen cars and use of backyards as latrines.
“You couldn’t walk to your house without getting some kind of sign from someone in a car thinking you’re a prostitute,” said Clifton, of the FAWN group.
McKenna worked with Tim Burgess, a City Council member, to strengthen the city’s chronic-nuisance law in 2010. He also got creative in bringing pressure on the motel owners, working with mortgage holders to initiate foreclosure actions and suing owners for failure to pay business taxes. Two of the motels were sold and one was razed to make way for low-income housing.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.