Week in Review: April 9, 2021 - Erica Barnett

Week in Review: April 9, 2021 - Erica Barnett

Erica C. Barnett joins Crystal on the show this week to discuss developments in Seattle’s response to the homelessness crisis, the ironic language of the Compassion Seattle Initiative, the cancellation of a needle exchange program in Federal Way, and calls for the King County sheriff to resign in light of a recently publicized email articulating her support for a cop who unjustly murdered a civilian.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s co-host, Erica C. Barnett, at @ericacbarnett, and read more of their work at Publicola.com. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.


Watch our guest today, Erica C. Barnett, talk with Omari Salisbury about the “Compassion Seattle” Charter Amendment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohb-H65i9AY

Learn more about the proposed charter amendment here: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/04/02/group-seeks-amendment-to-charter-requiring-homeless-services-and-clearing-of-parks/

Find more information about the Federal Way decision to end needle exchanges here: https://publicola.com/2021/04/08/hostile-architecture-at-the-library-needle-exchange-ban-in-federal-way-and-a-roads-heavy-transpo-bil/

Read about calls for the King County Sheriff to resign here: https://publicola.com/2021/04/09/calls-for-king-county-sheriff-resignation-expand-beyond-county-council/


Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work with behind the scenes perspectives on policies in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, we're continuing our Friday almost live shows where we review the news of the week. Welcome back to the program friend of the show and today's co-host, Seattle political reporter, editor of PubliCola, and author of Quitter: A memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, Erica Barnett.

Erica Barnett: [00:00:48] Great to be here, Crystal.

Crystal Fincher: [00:00:50] Great to have you here with us again. It's always an enlightening time when you're here. And as one Seattle City Councilmember noted, It seems like Erica's always on there.

Erica Barnett: [00:01:01] <laughter> Ooh, which one?

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:06] So you're - people are hearing you.

Erica Barnett: [00:01:08] Awesome.

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:08] And I wanted to start off talking - with an issue that is really relevant in the City of Seattle right now. A proposed charter amendment - an initiative that's being brought up that they'll be gathering signatures for, from a group called Compassion Seattle. We talked about this a little bit last week, but do you want to go over what it is and who is putting that forward?

Erica Barnett: [00:01:33] Sure. Compassion Seattle is a group of organizations and individuals. So the original proposal was made by former City Councilmember, Tim Burgess. But it's being funded primarily at this point by the Downtown Seattle Association. There's also some organizational support from the Public Defender Association and the Chief Seattle Club and the Downtown Emergency Service Center, so some homeless service providers.

And what the initiative would do is it would set a mandate in the City charter. So it would amend the city's constitution to mandate that the City spend 12% of its budget every year on a special human services fund that would pay for homeless services, behavioral health, and things like that. And it would also mandate 2,000 new units, beds of shelter. It says shelter or housing, but I, think that realistically, what we're talking about is shelter, within the first year after the charter amendment passes. So it constrains future mayors and City Council members in that way.

And then in addition, it says that as this housing/shelter becomes available, the City shall endeavor to keep, or it shall keep, parks and public spaces open and clear of encampments, which I would say opponents and just people kind of reading between the lines would say is a return to sweeps. So that's the broad strokes of what it does. Still a lot of unanswered questions about some of those mandates in particular.

Crystal Fincher: [00:03:20] Well and still a lot of questions, certainly. One of the first ones that I have just currently is - What exactly is different in this proposed charter amendment than the current state now? Are we currently funding anywhere close to 12%? Is that - that's being certainly billed as a big amount and, Hey, we're really investing. Is that a big investment?

Erica Barnett: [00:03:44] Well, I mean, it will be a big investment, if it ends up being additive to what the City is already providing to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. And I know that's a bit of a wonky answer, but we are supposedly going to a regional approach to homelessness. And so the question - I mean, a huge unanswered question with that 12% of the budget, which is about, I think, $185 million a year at the current budget size, is that - is this going to be the City remaining in the business of providing homeless services, or is this going to the King County Authority?

So that's a whole other giant policy question of - are we moving toward regionalism or is this a step in the other direction? The 12% number was apparently based on it being 1% higher than what we spent in the 2021 budget, but that is sort of a very, very - not misleading, but not representative amount. We usually - the City usually spends considerably less than that. So more like 9%. So this would be a pretty big hike and it would commit the City in perpetuity. So, no matter what happens, if there's a giant earthquake or other disaster, if we have another economic depression - no matter what, this money would have to be spent in this way.

And so it really is - sorry that this is a legalistic term and I'm sure they've vetted this legally, but it is a prior restraint on future city councils and on mayors, to spend this money in this way. And to use the City's constitution to do that, as I've reported on PubliCola, is unprecedented. It's just, it's not usually what we amend the City charter for. So there's a lot of things about this proposal that are highly unusual and unprecedented.

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:46] Definitely. And this initiative was announced just over a week ago, but you have been reporting at PubliCola on this for months and saw this coming. So I guess, as you're looking at what the actual impact of this is going to be in terms of housing units and in terms of sweeps, what does it look like?

Erica Barnett: [00:06:11] Well, I think that the - if you look back at the early drafts of the amendment, and I'll have a story coming up on Monday about this as well with more details. But if you look back at the early drafts, it was all about sweeps. And I think that one sort of reason some of these groups that are not business groups bought into it is that some of that language was eliminated.

But where this came from was polling that found a tremendous amount of support for encampment sweeps. And so, the early language was all about removing encampments, keeping parks and public spaces clear of encampments, and it was much more punitive. So I think that, you know, that language isn't quite in there as much anymore, but the fact that that's how it originated says to me that this is fundamentally about removing encampments from parks and public spaces where they are visible. And whatever the actual language - it's important to know that context of that's where it comes from.

I think that because there's so many unanswered questions at this point, it's a little hard to say what the long-term impact is going to be. But I think that there - when you have a very vague language, like emergency housing including everything from enhanced shelter to permanent supportive housing, that tends to default to the cheapest, lowest, common denominator of those things. So if you're saying you have to build a thousand units of something, it's much, much easier to put in a thousand shelter beds in a congregate, enhanced shelter than it is to build a thousand units of permanent supportive housing. And of course that's impossible in one year. It's just not going to happen that quickly.

So what I perceive this as is - a mandate for shelter that probably won't happen because there is no historical precedent for the City building shelter that fast. I mean, look at the pandemic. We stood up 95 new shelter beds in the first six months, not a thousand, not 500. 95. So the City is very slow about this stuff, and there's a little bit of, I think, magical thinking going on that if we just tell the City they have to do something, they're going to do it. We tried that with the emergency declaration on homelessness and that's been five and a half years now. And the emergency is still here and if anything, worse than ever. So, I don't think the immediate impact that you're going to see, in terms of actual housing, is going to be very great.

I mean, I could be proved wrong. That's certainly why some of the supporters from the kind of more left-leaning, homeless service provider community are - say they are supporting it. Because it actually does set sort of priorities and principles out, but let's also look at practice and look at what the City has done historically. And there's just not - there's not a whole lot of promising precedent there.

Crystal Fincher: [00:09:16] Yeah. And you actually raised a really interesting point that caught a lot of people's attention when they announced. This isn't - certainly with the original language and as many people see the intent, it is being supported by a lot of people who have been very in favor of sweeps without any services and seem to be primarily concerned with doing away with visible homelessness and not actually providing shelter for people.

With the language around, one, just the name of the organization now - Compassion Seattle. It just sounds, I mean, how can anything bad happen from a group named Compassion Seattle? I mean, come on. How could you not trust that? But at the same time, there is a coalition of organizations and people like Lisa Daugaard from the Public Defenders Association, who people associate with the LEAD program, other programs that have been lauded as beneficial from social justice advocates and others. And so they're looking at this going, Well, why is she on board? Are they on board? Why does this - has this attracted someone who seems to be pushing in the other direction, I guess, what have you seen from that? And what have you heard from them as to why they're supporting.

Erica Barnett: [00:10:46] Well, I mean, what I've heard from Lisa and from other groups in their statements - Chief Seattle Club put out a statement and other groups have as well - is that, as I said, this sort of sets out principles and it doesn't contain language that mandates sweeps without any kind of services. So it ties those two together, in principle. I think, and I've written a little bit about this too - the Downtown Seattle Associa-, uh, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and the PDA, and Chief Seattle Club, and Plymouth Housing as well - I mean, these are not as unlikely of allies as you might think.

Simplistically, it's easy to just think that, Oh, these are homeless advocates and these are bad business guys. Right? But the Downtown Seattle Association and DESC and all these groups have been working together on various things for many, many years. I mean, LEAD is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. They started out as an organization in Belltown that came out of complaints about encampments and about drugs and - actually primarily drug users and crime in the Belltown area. And it's - it was done in collaboration with police. So, you know, the directors of Plymouth Housing and the Chief Seattle Club sit on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association. The CEO of DSA is on the board of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. So these organizations are all connected, and I don't mean that in a conspiratorial way, just that they've worked together for a really long time and it's not really that surprising.

I mean, I think that advocates, the fact that advocates have not signed on - advocates like Real Change, like the Lived Experience Coalition, which is made up of individuals who actually have lived experience of homelessness. They told me yesterday that they have not even been consulted on this initiative and they have asked to be - they've asked to be included in conversations and they say that they have been refused or just didn't get any response. So, look at who's not there, I think, and that is more telling than the fact that these downtown groups are there and are at the table.

Crystal Fincher: [00:13:06] Yeah, certainly. And again, as we've talked about in candidate races with endorsements and figuring out where people stand and where their interests seem to align, follow the money. Who is funding this and who is likely to benefit from it? And that's pretty illuminating, but in this entire conversation, we will certainly continue to keep paying attention. They will be collecting signatures - will probably be able to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot. So we will see, as this unfolds, but certainly a lot of people are asking questions. A lot of people are skeptical, and there's a lot of people who have not been heard from, as you said.

So I guess looking - in a related issue - currently what we're dealing with, there are more sweeps planned right now. Do you want to talk about those?

Erica Barnett: [00:14:09] Sure. So the City is, well, this week actually, this morning, as we're talking on Friday - the City's parks department removed an encampment at the Rainier Playfield. And it was a small encampment that was inside the dugout. It was a number of men who all are Spanish speakers who were removed from that place. And the City has told me that four of them were moved to the Executive Pacific Hotel, or at least offered spaces there. I'm not sure if they are actually there right now. And then the rest of them are being offered some kind of shelter.

So that's kind of the first in a wave that's going to be happening over the next few weeks, I'm told. Miller Park, on Capitol Hill, is next. They've got a playfield there that kids, I guess, play Little League there and there's a school a few hundred feet away. So that's happening. There's one up in Ballard at Gilman Playfield. And then - or Gilman Playground rather. And another happening at the University Playground after that. So, this is just kind of the beginning of a ramp up, I think, of returning to encampment removals, which have been mostly suspended during the pandemic because it's the danger of moving people around. I would argue that moving people around is dangerous to those people no matter what. So yeah, so we're back at this again. And the reasoning given is that it interferes with playfield use, it interferes with children being able to get to school safely, and all the same kind of reasons you always hear for these encampment removals.

Crystal Fincher: [00:15:54] Well, you know - speaking of a reason that we always hear. In two separate instances, we have heard people say, Well, you know, if there is trafficking going on within encampments, and there may be sex trafficking or trafficking of minors - have you ever heard of that happening, or are aware of any instance of that happening ever in Seattle?

Erica Barnett: [00:16:19] I'll be honest with you, Crystal. I mean, yes, that does happen at encampments. I mean, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. That certainly does happen. Not on the level that it would be proportional to the response. Because I think instead of using a scalpel like we do with housed people, where we target the individual who is engaging in the activity, as opposed to saying, you know, we're going to sweep everybody who lives in the house. We should be doing that in encampments. There's certainly, I mean, there's bad stuff happening in encampments just like there's bad stuff happening in people's houses and people's apartments across the City.

So I would say that that has happened, and sex trafficking has happened in encampments from what I understand. And I don't want to whitewash that or sugarcoat it, but that's not - but to me, that is still not a justification for saying we're going to remove every encampment, or we're going to remove every single person at this 60-tent encampment where something bad or illegal was happening in one tent. I mean, we don't do that with any other kind of crime. It's only with homeless and vulnerable people that we use that kind of broad brush and just say, We're going to get rid of all of them.

Crystal Fincher: [00:17:40] Yeah, absolutely, and appreciate the perspective. It is important to address the problem and not just do that broad brush. It doesn't matter how many people we negatively impact if we are trying to address a problem. And also this week, in Federal Way. Federal Way decided to ban needle exchanges. Do you want to talk about what happened there?

Erica Barnett: [00:18:17] Yeah. There was a City Council vote this week, I think on, Oh boy, Wednesday? I don't know - time is meaningless. But essentially, the precipitating factor - so what happened before, leading up to this meeting, was that there's this needle exchange that is run by King County. It's called SCORE. And it's a van that goes out upon request when people call and say, I would like to exchange needles. So you're talking about - generally, drug users. And they go out there and a lot of times, they will go to a Park and Ride in that area and do the needle exchange. So it's on request.

So a woman, you know, neighborhood activist woman, called and said, I don't have any needles to exchange, but can I get some needles? She claims that she was given a hundred needles and this kind of turned into a giant social media nightmare like a lot of things like this do. And it just kept getting blown up and blown up more and more. And so this ended up leading to King County, actually, agreeing to suspend this program down there. And then last, or earlier this week, the City Council voted to affirm that, and to extend it, so that they can convene a working group to talk about what to do about this, I would say, non-existent problem.

Crystal Fincher: [00:19:46] Yeah, definitely a non-existent problem. And making sure this does not get mixed in with the conversation about safe consumption sites, which, you know, that has been a conversation, definitely in South King County, that has been used to scare people and as a wedge issue.

With needle exchanges, these have been around for decades and are very uncontroversial from a public health perspective. They've been around, they've been established. It is a benefit to all of our health. We have a very recent example of how our health depends on the health of our neighbors. And if there is a vector of risk that we can address, we should do that. And that's really what needle exchanges do. We are all healthier when we make sure that everyone in our community is healthier. And if we can reduce the risk from activity that is going to happen - people are currently using, and even if we're unhappy about it in our own minds, it doesn't solve or address substance use disorder. So people are going to be using. If they're going to be doing that, we want to make sure that they are not inflicting more harm than they would be otherwise. And actually make sure that they're alive and healthy so that if they can get back on a healthier path then excellent. But there's no reason to just let our neighbors die if there's a better option. Really. Frankly.

Erica Barnett: [00:21:22] Yeah. What was so - what was so shocking to me - I mean, because I've been a reporter for a long time and these debates about drug use have really evolved over the years. And there's much more of an acceptance of the idea of harm reduction. And what was shocking to me at this meeting, or maybe not shocking, but surprising, was that people in Washington state were saying things like, I don't, you know, if they get AIDS, I don't care. And, well the drugs are going to get them anyway, so who cares if they get hepatitis. And, if you give them needles, it will make them do drugs.

And I mean, which is truly like the kind of stuff I heard as a kid, growing up in the eighties, about condoms. I mean, it just - it doesn't make sense that condoms cause sex and it doesn't make sense that clean needles cause drug use. The reason for needle exchanges, just to be clear is - if you're reusing needles over and over again, first of all, as you said, there, it becomes a vector. I mean, you can get hepatitis, you can get HIV. All kinds of diseases are communicable that way. But also if you have old needles that aren't sharp, it leads to abscesses. It leads to horrible infections. It leads to, frankly, hospital stays, which costs all of us as a society, money to put people in the hospital for weeks for abscesses that - for people who are uninsured.

So even if you're just looking at it from a selfish perspective, it's not a good policy to let people get infected and sick and need long hospital stays, which is truly what happens and where the needle exchange movement emerged out of - was that people were getting very, very sick and being sick didn't deter them from using drugs either. So, there's just absolutely no evidence that denying people access to clean needles and clean drug paraphernalia causes them to stop using drugs because that's just not how addiction works.

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:35] Yeah. It's not a choice at that point. If someone is experiencing addiction, then choice has been removed from the equation and they are experiencing a health issue. And so to simply act like they could choose to stop, or to not care that they can't, and to even get them to a place where that's an option, we need to keep them healthy. It's just, it's just sad.

And to me, I see the connection between this conversation about "Seattle is Dying" and that whole thing, which a lot of people in Seattle can very easily dismiss because the portrait that they're painting of Seattle does not ring true from anyone who lives in the City and is moving about. I mean, it's very disingenuous. They're telling a - it's propaganda. It is not reality. But for people in the suburbs, I don't think people really understand that Seattle is not actually the audience for that. It's the suburbs. And it's people who do not have an immediate experience in Seattle and who they're trying to inoculate against public health guidance. The data that is becoming increasingly clear and conclusive, in a variety of different areas saying, Yes, we have many shared concerns with public health. The health of our neighbor directly impacts us - our immediate health financially. It does. And that helping people instead of criminalizing them is generally the most effective method to deal with most problems that have a health or substance use component.

So, there are people who are very, very interested from the religious right, from the alt-right, and who just see this as a front on their culture war. And that is how they're battling against it. And so this propaganda and scaring people that, Hey, Seattle treated people like humans and look what they got - it's dying. And that is being heard and reacted to in suburbs, and rural areas, and areas outside of Seattle. And it's not a coincidence that we're seeing this kind of backlash. And that we're not just having a conversation about the policies in Seattle today. This is leading to the repeal of long-term, decades-long accepted, uncontroversial issues and practices that now they're using to advance their agenda on the other side, really. So it's just really troubling.

Erica Barnett: [00:26:23] Yeah, it'd be nice if people listened to public health experts instead of the testimony of somebody who says they knew one person who used drugs and they responded well to a tough love approach, which is secondhand, anecdotal, and not based in any actual public health data or expertise.

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:44] Not based in any public health data at all. I mean, everything flies in the face of it. This is uncontroversial from a public health perspective. It just was used by people who wanted to advance a social agenda. And who felt that humanizing people was not compatible with that agenda. And treating people like people - like people we care for, and not just not caring if people die. So I hope that we see a change of that. And certainly there are a lot of local elections this year that are going to dramatically influence that conversation. And I hope you all get involved in that wherever you're listening to this from.

There's another issue this week. Looking at the King County Sheriff, the current King County Sheriff, who was elected, but actually will be - the Sheriff is going to transition to an appointed position after a vote last year by voters in King County. But the Sheriff is not having a good time right now. And lots of people from lots of different corners are asking for her resignation. You want to explain why?

Erica Barnett: [00:27:57] Sure. So, and this is based on reporting by my reporter Paul Kiefer, as well as some great reporting in the South Seattle Emerald by Carolyn Bick. Great reporting by both of these reporters about a department-wide email that the Sheriff, Mitzi Johanknecht, I believe is how you say it, sent after the killing, or about the killing of Tommy Le in Burien in 2017. And in this email, she basically said that the settlement with King County for Tommy Le's death was not uncalled for, but that she understood why the deputy shot Le. A couple of the shots landed in his back. It was clear that he was not in fact, as the deputy argued, running at him or a threat in any way. But what she said in the email was that, It was an understandable decision and that she did not entirely agree with the decision to settle.

So this is causing a lot of consternation on the city- on the County Council. And this week, State Senator Joe Nguyen joined the chorus and said that she should resign. Now, I don't know that that is going to have any impact on her directly. There's going to be an appointment process that comes up. It will probably not include her among the candidates, but I have not heard that she has any plans to resign so far. So it looks like, at this point, we're going to have to wait to see that appointment process play out.

Crystal Fincher: [00:29:46] Yeah, certainly it looks like that. She just did a King 5 interview. I feel like it was three days ago, but this week - days run into each other for me. So in the past she did that and certainly said that she did not plan on resigning, that she has no plans to resign, and really defended her actions. And is going on a tour to try and cover things up, and I guess get beyond this crisis for her, but, it certainly is troubling. She certainly is not reading the room. Just, you know, this is a conclusive finding. This is not - this seems like it should have been out of the realm of opinion by this time with the data and evidence that came out. There doesn't seem to be room for question about what happened and that it wasn't correct.

There were King County Councilmembers who, right after the decision said, Hey, we legally could not comment while this was going on, but now that it has settled, this is the bare minimum that the family should have received. And they also should have received an apology that this was wrong. And for her not to be able to engage with that just further underscores why a lot of people say, Hey, this conversation about reform - it's not actually working for a lot of people, because if that is the attitude that we're dealing with in that extreme circumstance where it looks pretty conclusive that the version of events given by the deputy did not match the version of events that actually happened. And that that was an outcome that was not necessary. And that if it's not necessary to kill someone, then someone shouldn't wind up dead.

Erica Barnett: [00:31:42] Yeah. It's interesting to sort of contrast the way - you know, looking at the Sheriff's response to this and sort of saying, She understands why this deputy did what he did and he made a tough decision. And it - that feels like the kind of statement that you would hear from police chiefs and sheriffs maybe a decade ago. And now it seems as though there's, in most cases, at least some lip service to the idea of reform from chiefs and from people who are high up in law enforcement. So what struck me about it is, Wow, this is just such a throwback attitude. And not to say that the Seattle Police Department has made meaningful strides toward reform and certainly not defending them in any way, but just to go out of your way and cross 12 lanes of traffic that you don't need to cross to say, to defend the actions of somebody who has pretty unequivocally acted badly. Just, I think, speaks to how behind the times and how the Sheriff is and how inappropriate that kind of leadership is for 2021.

So in some ways I think it really validates the decision - I mean, we'll see who the County Council ultimately appoints, or the commission that's going to be discussing the appointments. But it does speak to the reasons that the voters passed this initiative to have an appointed sheriff rather than an elected one.

Crystal Fincher: [00:33:22] Absolutely. And that is our time, actually, for today.

Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks on this Friday, April 9th, 2021. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler and our wonderful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericacbarnett. That's Erica with a "C" and on PubliCola.com. You can buy her book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery anywhere right now. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F I N C H F R I I. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live show and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed.

Thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.