Unchecked petty crime will destroy Seattle communities
February 2, 2022
Three years ago, Bartell Drugs announced it was closing one of its downtown Seattle stores due to rampant thefts. Anyone who has visited, lives in or has even heard of Seattle knows it’s not the only place. From the Safeway in South Seattle to Uwajimaya’s Chinatown-International District location, businesses throughout the city are reeling from chronic shoplifting and even violent crime.
The ultimate cause is also not hard to guess. According to a report released that same year, then-City Attorney Pete Holmes declined to file 46 percent of the criminal misdemeanor cases forwarded to them by the police. In short, thieves were essentially given a “get out of jail free” card by the person whose job it is to put them there.
What’s often lost in the discussion about petty crime is the full impact it has, especially when it is tolerated. Having a minor theft on a rare occasion, which results in arrest and swift punishment, is one thing. Is another when are between 10 and 20 incidents a day, as was the case with Uwajimaya’s.
When the city gives its unofficial blessing for criminals to operate in the open, without fear of consequences, the outcome can be devastating. Employers close their doors, workers lose their jobs, and residents have to travel farther to get the same goods and services they need.
The Rainier Safeway could suffer the same fate as Bartell Drug’s downtown store. The South Seattle Emerald last year described the effects on the local community were that to happen:
Though Rainier Beach is not technically a food desert, the neighborhood could be described as food insecure, with the only neighborhood grocery store surrounded by five fast-food restaurants. Should shopping at the Rainier Beach Safeway be untenable or a necessary product unavailable, residents — many without cars — would need to travel two miles west to Othello to get groceries at either Ba Mien Seafood Market or another subpar Safeway or two miles south into unincorporated Skyway to Grocery Outlet.
The situation likely would be much worse if the city had moved forward with its “poverty defense” proposal made last year allowing someone to claim mental illness or poverty as part of their legal defense in a misdemeanor case. Councilmember Lisa Herbold kept it from public scrutiny by introducing it as an amendment in a Budget Committee meeting, effectively bypassing public transparency.
Thanks to Change Washington bringing it to the public’s attention, the City Council never voted on it.
But fact that it was even contemplated shows there’s a profound disconnect between City Hall and the realities in neighborhoods struggling with crime.
You reward things you want to encourage and punish behavior you want to discourage. As simple as this seems, it appears to elude many of Seattle’s elected officials.
We know they’re encouraging crime, because the perpetrators are repeat offenders who have learned time and time again they face little to no repercussions for their behavior.
One such case is Douglas Rich, who in 2018 broke into 15 vehicles at the Northgate Mall parking lot, admitting to police that he was attempting to steal money for drugs. The Seattle Police recommended felony charges, but King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to press charges. His case was then referred to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office as misdemeanors.
Mind you, this was after Rich had agreed to a plea deal with the Seattle City Prosecutor to avoid prosecution for prior thefts in 2016.
While it took more than nine months to finally file charges against Rich, he was released from jail two days after his arrest only to – you guessed it – commit more thefts. Despite all this, the City Attorney still declined to prosecute him for his 2016 thefts despite violating a plea bargain.
The message sent to law-abiding citizens has been adamantly clear: we don’t care about crime. The city’s reputation for being criminal-friendly also means it attracts bad people from other parts of the state or country where their activities aren’t tolerated.
Public safety is directly connected to the prosperity of an area. Chronic petty crime emboldens the worst elements of society while demoralizing those who engage in honest work that enables people to live quality lives. Eventually, people learn to stop caring and communities are left to deteriorate.
With the way things are going now, Bartell Drugs won’t be the last store to close its doors.
While newly-elected Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has vowed to take a tougher stance on crime, she’s fighting an uphill battle against the prevailing City Hall culture. Shortly after the November election the City Council voted overwhelmingly to assume more oversight of her office’s activities in a way they never did with Holmes.
Thankfully newly-elected City Councilmember Sara Nelson is bringing a voice of reason to City Hall. The chair of the Economic Development, Technology, City Light Committee, she said at her first meeting on Jan. 26 that “public safety is the core foundation of our recovery. My office is getting a lot of calls and emails from small businesses and representatives of neighborhood business districts just expressing frustration and anger and, frankly, desperation at what they see as a total breakdown of the social contract when it comes to public safety.”
Unfortunately, Davidson’s efforts can only change how misdemeanor cases are handled. Felonies are prosecuted by King County, where there’s an ongoing effort by “public defenders” to end jail bookings for sex offenders who fail to register, car thieves and burglaries.
If Seattle’s crime problem is to get solved, it must start with holding local and county elected officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to enabling it.
Contact Mayor Harrell and the Seattle Council, and demand they support tougher prosecutions by City Attorney Ann Davidson and the message that new City Councilmember Sara Nelson delivered last week.
Also, contact all nine King County councilmembers and demand they reject any policy allowing criminal suspects to avoid jail bookings.
Mayor Bruce Harrell
Tammy J. Morales
Andrew J. Lewis