At a press conference announcing more money for cops last week, Mayor Mike McGinn said the city has "been working to identify the individuals who are the most problematic … who will not take services ... and are simply not going to follow the rules."
The press conference was a response to last week's Metro bus shootings, in which a gunman shot a Metro driver and was shot by police after attempting to commandeer a second bus.
McGinn's tough-on-crime statement was a reference to the city's Center City Initiative, a city-led effort to deal with street disorder downtown. Seattle Police Department chief Jim Pugel has asked City Attorney Pete Holmes to prosecute 28 specific downtown Seattle residents who have failed to come to court three or more times to respond to citations for violating the city's prohibition on open containers of alcohol or sitting or lying down on public sidewalks.
If convicted, those 28 individuals could end up with misdemeanor charges on their records.
In a letter to Holmes that referred repeatedly to chronic downtown nuisance-law offender J.T. Morin, who is currently in King County jail, Pugel wrote, "Just as in Mr. Morin's (aka Morris) case, I am requesting the Failure to Respond process be initiated by the City Attorney's office for these 28 individuals."
Holmes' spokeswoman Kimberly Mills describes failure to appear as "basically turning a failure to respond on multiple civil infractions into a crime, in the City’s case a misdemeanor."
Initially, McGinn's office and the Seattle Police Department both denied that a list of specific individuals was being targeted for potential arrest and prosecution; McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus and SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb both told PubliCola that beat officers simply know who the frequent fliers are. "They know there's a small group of people they see all the time," Pickus said.
Which raises an obvious question: What are the civil-liberties implications of targeting specific individuals for prosecution, even if those individuals aren't committing different crimes than other homeless residents of downtown?
Doug Honig, the spokesman for the state ACLU, says, "Enforcing so-called civility laws – which these are – is not a sustainable solution. It would be better to figure out why these individuals are on the street and provide services that enable them to get off the street."
However, two of the city's leading advocates for homeless and indigent residents are cautiously optimistic about the program.
Tim Harris, head of the homeless advocacy group Real Change, says there should be some consequences for repeat violations, but he doesn't know exactly what the threshold should be. "If nothing happens with these tickets [for minor crimes like open-container violations], the police don't have much incentive to hand them out," Harris says.
"The things that needs to be settled is, where is that threshold? If you set the threshold too low, you get what Holmes' office is trying to avoid, which is a failure to appear notice that goes from being [the equivalent of] a parking ticket to actually being a misdemeanor, which has implications for people that are disproportionate to the offense actually being committed."
Lisa Daugaard. co-chair of the Defender Association, which defends indigent clients, agrees that the only way to make the Center City Initiative work is to give it teeth. "There has to be some kind of backstop if folks won't change their behavior, because it's a credibility issue with businesses, neighbors, the police, and other people on the street. ... The Center City strategy is not just to go file a whole bunch of quality-of-life misdemeanor charges, because we know that that has historically been ineffective, but we also know that you have to have that as a tool."
Late this afternoon, McGinn alluded to the new policy briefly on his blog, writing, "[West Precinct Captain Jim] Dermody has developed a priority list of repeat offenders and that has been submitted to the City Attorney. It is expected that the multi-disciplinary team will help prioritize these and other individuals for failure to respond citations if that is deemed the most effective way to change the individual’s behavior."