Why don’t the police enforce the laws banning camping in Seattle’s parks and streets?

We asked what readers wanted to understand about homelessness, and the most popular question was, “Why aren’t the police enforcing the laws against camping in Seattle’s parks and streets?” As Ask Project Homeless tries to answer this, it helps to know the history of Seattle.

Pat Simon has heard one thing a lot lately: Regarding the homeless camps in Seattle – where more people now live outside than in New York City – cops say their hands are tied.

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She is not sure that is true. This is what she reads in the blogs and Facebook groups that she joined, where some speculate that the mayor or a member of the municipal government has quietly given the police a “withdrawal order” not to enforce the laws against camping.

This summer, we asked readers what they want to understand about homelessness, and Simon’s question: “Why don’t the police enforce the laws banning camping in Seattle’s parks and streets?” ? – was our most popular, with over 1,700 votes.

It’s not hard to see why Simon, a lawyer who lives near Greenlake, would ask. Ever since the infamous camp known as The Jungle was cleared in late 2016, tents have spread throughout the city.

Simon and others are frustrated by what they perceive as two sets of laws: those they must obey and those homeless people must obey.

As part of Ask Project Homeless, we tried to answer his question.

Laws for civility

Under the laws of the city of Seattle, it is illegal to camp in a park, except in places where Seattle Parks and Recreation says it is allowed. It is also illegal to sit or lie on many of the city’s busy sidewalks, including downtown. These are generally referred to as “civil laws,” and breaking one means that a police officer can give you a ticket.

No one told the police not to enforce these laws, the sergeant said. Seattle Police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb. “It’s a pervasive myth,” Whitcomb said.

But the police don’t enforce them exactly the way they enforce most other laws. The police have a special team that takes care of the homeless camps, the navigation team, made up of policemen and outreach workers who clean the camps and try to get people inside.

To understand why the police don’t consider outdoor camping a crime, knowing the history of Seattle helps.

In the 1990s, police enforced civility laws with a tougher hand, said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Seattle Public Defender Association. When she started out as a lawyer in Seattle in 1996, the city attorney was at the center of an effort to “clean up” the downtown area by enforcing laws prohibiting sleeping outside, urinating, and drinking in public. His name was Mark Sidran, and he was sometimes referred to as Rudy Giuliani from Seattle.

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This approach has frustrated defenders like Daugaard and some beaten cops. Homeless people usually don’t have the money to pay for tickets and often don’t show up to court, which means an offense turns into a criminal charge. They can then be arrested and jailed for a few days.

“So you’d fix it for an hour or a day, but they’d be back, and it felt like you were going around in circles,” said Jim Pugel, who spent 31 years with Seattle Police, including a passage as an interim. the chief of police. “There are smarter ways to do it. At the time, that was the only way we knew how.

After Sidran ran for mayor and lost to Greg Nickels, the city switched to softer approaches, including the LEAD program for low-level drug offenders, and last year the navigation to take care of the tent camps.

However, there are only 22 people on the navigation team (soon to be 30) for the entire city of Seattle, and about 400 tent camps, according to a spokesperson for the team. They are stretched.

They’re at the mercy of other factors, too: the team slowed down cleanups last year when city shelters ran out of space, and they sped up in May and June, when city leaders pulled back. came under heavy criticism for tent camps during the debate over a head tax to fund affordable housing and homeless services.

In the meantime, the city has moved further away from Sidran’s approach.

When Pete Holmes was elected city attorney in 2009, he dramatically reduced the cost of camping and urinating in parks and non-response to offenses. Last year, the city attorney only charged seven people with camping in a park.

This discouraged many police officers, Daugaard believes. Police began receiving memos from Pete Holmes’ office, regularly without explanation, according to Daugaard.

“There’s not much a police officer can do,” Pugel said. “And if they are told to watch out for this behavior which is technically illegal or justifies a civil offense… and nothing is done about it, then the officer feels extremely frustrated.”

That’s why officers can tell people their hands are tied, Daugaard thinks. “The old approaches are being rejected, and they don’t know what the new approach is,” Daugaard said.

Holmes declined an interview request for this story, but said in a statement: “We have worked with SPD to improve investigative techniques and report writing, but this has not affected the way we respond. to the homeless. “

In the statement, Holmes reiterated that Seattle “cannot stop us from this problem”. But he pointed out that if someone declines an offer of accommodation, agents can issue a trespass warning, which if violated, they can prosecute. In June, his office indicted four such cases this year.

Even with Seattle’s soft approach to civility laws, Holmes noted that he was still defending the city against two lawsuits where this approach is challenged for allegedly violating the rights of the homeless.

Nick Licata, who served on the Seattle council for 18 years and chaired the Public Safety Committee for four years, spent a lot of time with screening officers. He saw that when officers feel they cannot enforce the laws, they often engage in “liability reversals.”

“A lot of times, I think, supervisors say, ‘Well, it’s coming from above,’” Licata said. “A lot of cases, they’ll blame the mayor, the mayor will blame the council, and it’s a circle.”

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