Statement of City Attorney Pete Holmes
Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology Committee
September 4, 2013
Thank you for the opportunity to engage in this important conversation regarding public safety in Downtown Seattle, Councilman Harrell. I’m here today with my Criminal Division Chief, Craig Sims. Craig and I and the entire Law Department are committed to addressing these serious issues and finding lasting, effective solutions. We have new tools and the outlook is positive.
The troublesome behavior downtown runs the gamut from uncivil “PIPs & DIPs” — peeing and drinking in public — to dangerous criminal conduct such as the recent shooting of a Metro bus driver. It is critical that anyone seeking true solutions first understands the difference between civil infractions -- such as public urination (punishable by a ticket imposing a small monetary fine) -- and outright criminal conduct, for which immediate arrest is warranted. While incivility is disgusting and unacceptable, often criminal conduct is the actual complaint — including panhandling that is so aggressive that victims feel objectively threatened with physical harm.
Second, it is important to understand the further distinction between criminal conduct that constitutes a misdemeanor and that which constitutes a felony. While I prosecute the former when the conduct occurs within city limits, Seattle felonies are prosecuted by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Both felonies and misdemeanors, however, are subject to immediate enforcement by SPD when they occur within City limits, referred to county or city prosecutors as appropriate. Only police officers can make these arrests, and only police officers can issue tickets for these civil infractions. A 2012 decision by the Washington Supreme Court, moreover, limits my jurisdiction to misdemeanors in the Seattle Municipal Code — I cannot prosecute any misdemeanors under the Revised Code of Washington. (This is why we have prepared an extensive ordinance for Council’s consideration, to incorporate many RCW misdemeanors into the SMC.) Despite these challenges, Mr. Satterberg and I work hard to coordinate our efforts to ensure public safety.
One misdemeanor that is within my jurisdiction is the failure to respond to a civil infraction. In other words, an individual is arrested, jailed and prosecuted — not for urinating in public - but for failing to pay the $27 fine or appear in court to contest it. Like many municipalities, Seattle has learned many hard lessons attempting to leverage a civil infraction into this “crime” in the hope of curtailing downtown incivility. We’ve almost always failed to achieve the goal, but always consumed lots of taxpayer resources. It is true that jailing a homeless, alcoholic or mentally ill person will get him off downtown streets for several days or weeks. When he is released, however, he will still not have shelter, be cured of his addiction or be mentally competent. And the offensive conduct will likely occur again, and again, and again. This endless cycle of recidivism is well known by participants in the Center City Initiative, who recognize that we cannot “arrest our way out of this problem.”
This is not to say we must tolerate such conduct; fortunately, we now have other tools at our disposal — including LEAD and the Crisis Solutions Center (CSC), operated by the Downtown Emergency Services Center. As we have made clear in our work with these agencies, and especially with SPD, where a Failure to Respond (FTR) warrant will provide the necessary “teeth” to get an individual into needed services, we will seek such relief. Aside from the much publicized and nonconforming request for 28 such warrants late last month (see my Aug. 19 letter to Chief Pugel, attached), we have honored two such requests from SPD in the last two years, and will continue to collaborate with this process to leverage participants into LEAD and CSC as appropriate. In the meantime, collaboration is the key operative word, and it is important that we not backslide into old and ineffective responses. Thank you.