Seattle’s new city attorney to expedite prosecution decisions, focus on misdemeanors, backlog

Restaurant owner Olga Sagan often walks home from one her two restaurants in downtown Seattle.

“When I’m leaving this location, this would be the quick way to where I live,” Sagan explained on the walk Thursday. “But I don’t walk down that part of Pike.” 

“That” part of Pike is a stretch between Third and Second avenues. It has a few ground-level businesses such as a pharmacy and a Thai restaurant, but there’s also frequently graffitied boarded up storefronts, recurring litter and a steady crowd of people sitting or lying on the sidewalk.

Sagan, owner of Piroshky Piroshky, demonstrated her route to and from work recently to newly elected Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, who wants to prosecute misdemeanors more often and more quickly, in an attempt to aid businesses and public safety. 

Sagan’s alternative route, which involves a longer stretch of Third to get to Pine, adding about a block to her commute, has similar, even denser crowds. There’s more trash and more boarded windows, but there also is more security, lighting and businesses. 

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“It feels safer, but still, it’s always drug use and people shouting at you whichever way you walk,” Sagan said.

“And that’s why we close at 3 p.m. now. I don’t want my employees here or leaving here after dark,” Sagan explained, noting a string of break-ins, drug sales, harassment, indecent exposure and similar episodes in and around her business at the Market at Century Square.

While her landlord has contracted private security, since the Third Avenue location opened in 2019, Sagan says conditions have gotten worse and — along with the pandemic — have caused her sales to plummet from $3,500 per day to $300-$400. 

“And businesses can’t operate unless someone does something about crime,” she said, calling for stricter law enforcement.

Davison says that’s exactly what she wants to do. 

“That’s why I’m doing these tours with businesses,” said Davison, who took office in January and has visited downtown businesses to seek owners’ input. “I need to understand how I can use my office to help businesses and communities.” 

In November, Davison was elected Seattle’s first female city attorney after a campaign built on a promise to increase the office’s prosecution of misdemeanor crimes, which had been reduced throughout the 12-year tenure of predecessor Pete Holmes.

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Davison, a 53-year-old Republican pledging law and order, beat progressive former public defender Nicole Thomas Kennedy, who took an opposite tack, disavowing police and working toward abolishing misdemeanor prosecutions. The diametrical pair overtook Holmes in the primary. 

Although her job also includes providing counsel for the mayor and city council, Davison is starting out with a clear focus on the criminal side of her position.

Broadly, she said in January, that means addressing the nearly 5,000-case backlog in the office and prosecuting neglected cases, with an emphasis on repeat offenders. 

In the first signal of those changes, Davison is expected to announce Monday that her office will make a decision on whether to prosecute new cases within five days of a crime being committed, in an effort to avoid the backlog, which has cases up to two years old, and expedite intervention. 

“We are going to be doing a change of course,” Davison said Thursday. “It’s going to be deliberate and purposeful to start to change the timing of when a crime is committed and when we do our part to address it.”

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who used to work as an assistant city attorney and whose district includes the troubled area of Third Avenue and much of Davison’s focus, said Friday that aggressively prosecuting misdemeanors may not be the best approach to addressing street safety. 

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“Typically, everyone I’m talking to has been a victim of a horrendous and unacceptable crime,” he said of his efforts to address the same high-crime areas. “They’ve been a victim of a burglary or organized retail theft, which is a felony, and that needs to be addressed.

Lewis said he believes the city attorney and law enforcement should focus on identifying larger organized crimes that spur some of the misdemeanors in Davison’s purview, rather than repeatedly arresting the lower-level offenders on, charges such as shoplifting, which are easily prosecuted but carry little penalty.

“For the systemic issues that we’re getting hit with downtown, once something gets referred as a misdemeanor, we’ve kind of already lost,” he said. “If they do go to jail, it’ll be for a couple of weeks, you know, a lot of people will kind of tolerate that part of ‘the business.’”

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Lewis fears that repeat offenders who are habitually prosecuted for more minor crimes will continue to offend. So, rather than inherently prosecuting misdemeanors, he suggests the city focus on identifying and referring more serious crimes to the King County prosecutor.

“Quality of prosecutions is more important than quantity,” he said.

To do the broader work, Davison knows she will have to work with other elected officials, city departments and parts of the legal system.

“I intend to create or reestablish formalized operational working relationships within that public-safety circle,” Davison said.

Davison said she’s had productive discussions with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the office of Mayor Bruce Harrell about approaching crime. She and the council got off to a rockier start before she took office.

In December, Lewis co-sponsored an ordinance requiring the city attorney to report data on the number of cases charged, declined and diverted, which was approved by City Council 7-1. 

While Lewis had been considering the “good government” ordinance to require quarterly reporting since last summer, Davison took its passage in the weeks before she took office as an affront.

In an email to the council, Davison criticized the decision, asking the body to consider whether it was a “double standard.”

“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office,” she wrote. “Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor.”

In the fall, Lewis and then-Council President M. Lorena González also considered, but ultimately decided against, introducing a measure to add upholding pre-filing diversion as a legislative mandate for the City Attorney’s Office.

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On Friday, Lewis said he hopes Davison will work well with the council going forward and that it’s too early to speculate on the direction of her office. 

He also noted the importance of continued diversion efforts and alternatives to prosecution and jail time.

“Many of these misdemeanor offenses are survival crimes, related to homelessness, or are linked to mental illness or addiction, so [they] should be met with services, rather than jail time,” Lewis said. “Shelter and services are cheaper than jail and more likely to keep someone off the street long term.”

Harrell hosted a news conference on Friday to address a “holistic” approach to crime. When asked about cracking down on misdemeanors, Harrell said he would “stay in his lane” to allow people in other elected positions to lead how they see fit.

“And so to the extent the public wants them to do it a certain way, they should do that and make their voices known on the sentencing and the prosecutorial piece,” Harrell said.

Deputy Mayor of Housing and Homelessness Tiffany Washington said after the news conference that the administration will work to address systemic issues that contribute to street crime where they start, rather than focusing on “the middle” of an issue.

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“If someone is committing a crime, we need to think about what factors like systemic racism, poverty, mental health, homelessness and substance abuse got them there,” Washington said. “And we need to do it ethically.”

Washington said that each branch of government and community partner needs to focus on their own work but think holistically.

“Of course we have to stay in our own lanes, but all of those lanes have to come to one table eventually,” she said.

Harrell also announced he would work with SPD to address and provide services in select areas of high crime on Friday, but he would not name the areas.

“At this point, honestly, it doesn’t matter who fixes it, but we’ve been trying for a long time and [Davison] says she’s going to help,” Sagan said after their tour. “I hope it gets better, and I hope the people who need help get help, but business owners need help now.”

Article Source: The Seattle Times