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City of Seattle
Ed Murray, Mayor

SUBJECT: Reinventing Precinct Liaison Program to Meet New Demands

8/3/2011  11:00:00 AM
Kimberly Mills  (206) 684-8602

Backed by community and business leaders and City Council members, City Attorney Pete Holmes on Wednesday advocated for a full complement of five police precinct liaisons to bolster the City’s response to emerging and increasingly complex neighborhood public safety and regulatory issues.

Holmes’ 2012 budget proposal, as submitted to the City Budget Office on July 13, would reinvent the Precinct Liaison Program by providing a full-time assistant city attorney in each police precinct. These attorneys will focus on providing critical legal services on the issues of high importance in their precincts. They will also be accountable for managing a number of regulatory provisions in a more effective and efficient manner because they will better understand the dynamics in the individual communities.

Due to budget reductions and attrition in recent years the program has been reduced by 60%. “We have tried to preserve the core functions of the Precinct Liaison Program but with only two attorneys we can no longer provide the full range of legal services that the Seattle Police Department and our community have come to expect,” said Holmes, who seeks an additional $470,000 in the budget year beginning Jan. 1, 2012 to fully fund the program. “Right now it’s more appropriate to call them circuit-riding liaisons,” he said, because the remaining two liaisons travel among the North, East, West, South and Southwest Precincts. “Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable.”

Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the Council’s Public Safety and Education Committee, strongly supports a revitalized program. “Reestablishing the precinct liaison attorney program reflects our desire to bring critical thinking and innovation to policing. We know that effective policing uses a wide variety of means beyond traditional police responses. These attorneys will partner with our officers to proactively tackle neighborhood safety and crime challenges,” Burgess said.

The Precinct Liaison Program was created in 1995 to give direct and proactive legal advice to police officers and to act as a legal resource for public safety problem-solving efforts in the neighborhoods. The program has since fluctuated in size as grant funding has come and gone and city budgets have tightened.

The current staffing makes it impossible to provide geographic-based legal services for either SPD or the community. Next month the remaining two liaisons will be brought into the City Attorney’s Office downtown to work on criminal cases as well as regulatory matters for the remainder of 2011.

The increased demands on precinct liaisons are varied and voluminous, Holmes said. Two of them -- nightlife regulations and liquor licenses -- relate specifically to the interplay between the entertainment industry and the neighborhoods, and Holmes’ plan is endorsed by industry leaders.

“During my 20 years in the restaurant and nightlife industry, I've witnessed firsthand the value that the City Attorney's precinct liaisons deliver to both local businesses and the neighborhoods they are situated in,” said Pete Hanning, president of the Seattle Nightlife & Music Association and owner of the Red Door in Fremont. “The liaisons also play a critical role in facilitating proactive communications and ensuring a safe and vibrant nightlife economy."

With more than 2,000 liquor licenses up for renewal each year in the City and dozens of new license applications, a large part of the liaison attorneys’ time will be spent identifying and monitoring establishments that have public safety concerns and representing the City before the Washington State Liquor Control Board when the city files an objection to a license. A precinct-based attorney will be able to identify potential problems earlier and attempt to work with the licensee to correct the problems before an objection is filed.

The precinct liaisons will also play a crucial role in the City’s comprehensive strategy to promote a vibrant nightlife and ensure public safety. Another component of that strategy is the proposal to allow for extended service hours, which was recently promoted by Mayor Mike McGinn and endorsed unanimously by the City Council. The liaison attorneys will be essential in monitoring compliance with rules and regulations and assisting SPD and other departments in responding proactively to possible problems before they occur.

Possibly the most topical issue for the City Attorney’s Office is the transition in the medical marijuana landscape brought about by recent changes in state and local laws. A new regulatory process gives the City’s Code Compliance Team (CCT) the responsibility for managing complaints and concerns. The precinct liaisons will work with SPD and the community to ensure that medical marijuana activities comply with state and local laws.

The City created this interdepartmental team initially to monitor code compliance of business and properties that could negatively impact public safety. The team is already responsible for nightlife, liquor licensing, street vending and nuisance issues. The precinct liaisons have traditionally played a large role on the team by providing legal advice to departments and helping to coordinate interventions and responses.

Holmes’ plan, laid out Wednesday to the Council’s Public Safety and Education Committee, is also endorsed by Oscar Velasco-Schmitz, who provides medical marijuana to patients through the Dockside Co-op in Fremont. “The City Attorney's Office provides an integral legal insight not only into the civic affairs of Seattle's citizens, but also into the relationship of our citizenry with our Seattle Police Department,” he said. The precinct liaison program “provides a crucial element of support in each of our city's precinct communities and builds a strong relationship between SPD, City Attorney's Office and the public. The city as a whole benefits greatly from these open lines of communication, resulting ultimately in an open, more well-informed, and safer Seattle.”

Other major responsibilities of the precinct liaisons will be:

• Providing real-time proactive legal advice for each precinct, which will result in better decisions by officers and ultimately reduced liability for the city and better community relations. Experience has show that officers are more willing to ask for legal advice when there is an established relationship with the liaison attorney who is also very familiar with the issues in the precinct and the concerns of officers.

• Helping neighborhoods rid themselves of chronic nuisance properties. Two years ago the City adopted an ordinance giving the police chief the authority to declare properties to be a chronic nuisance and, if corrective action is not taken, to initiate abatement proceedings. To this end, the City Attorney advises the chief, drafts documents and correction agreements and represents the City in court. Each precinct captain is responsible for monitoring and identifying potential nuisance properties and the liaison attorneys play a critical role in this process.

"The City Attorney’s Office, and Ed McKenna's dedicated work -- with the North Precinct SPD, with motel owners, with the community -- made a crucial difference, both in putting necessary legislation in place and in keeping the issue on the front burner until real results were achieved,” Linda Clifton of Upper Fremont said of the coordinated efforts that shut down several trouble-plagued Aurora Avenue motels in 2010.

“Now, with proposals to add significant Catholic Community Services and DESC housing on the Aurora corridor, we will need this kind of support both to assure safety for everyone living here, in the neighborhoods, in those large facilities, and on Metro, and to reassure the neighborhoods that they have protection as things change,” Clifton said.

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