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Third Avenue entrance, King County Courthouse
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King County OKs $600K in emergency money as fearful workers detail courthouse attacks

King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. (Dyer Oxley, KIRO Radio)

For people working at the King County Courthouse it’s become a fact of life.

“It’s dangerous to walk to work if you work at the King County Courthouse,” public defender Kevin McCabe said Tuesday, as he told a county council committee how bad conditions around the courthouse had become.

City, county to tackle safety at King County courthouse

Being aware of that danger still wasn’t enough to prepare McCabe for the day a random man attacked him. A Metro bus driver stepped in to save him last month.

Superior court judges had had enough after that assault on McCabe and, in a rare move, Presiding Judge Jim Rogers ordered the 3rd Avenue entrance to the courthouse closed for the rest of the year, citing safety concerns.

McCabe told the council committee he supported the decision to close the 3rd Ave entrance, and was glad to see such quick action after his attack. He also urged the county leaders to move quickly to find a permanent solution.

Several others also laid out the detailed reality of what it means to work at the courthouse.

“I’ve been a victim of assault on 3rd Avenue last summer. I’ve been a victim of someone who is a repeat offender, someone who was not convicted … repeatedly hit multiple people, [and] deciding to assault me,” worker Hanna Madsen testified.

Court Operations Supervisor Nadia Simpson told the committee that because of her job, she was accustomed to being around dangerous people such as convicted murders, child molesters and other criminals.

“In the last four-and-a-half years having worked here, the number of incidents that have happened to me individually has far outnumbered anything that I’ve experienced in even far more dangerous situations sitting in the company of convicted murderers,” Simpson explained.

She then detailed some of those experiences for the committee, including having been stalked, followed by groups of men, verbally assaulted, sexually harassed, and running in terror to get to her train after a woman on the street hit her with a bag and pinned her up against a fence, only to have an unrelated man jump out of the shadows and try to stop her.

“I am constantly vigilant of my surroundings, but the stress of having to deal with this on a daily basis is insurmountable,” Simpson told the committee. “For those of us who work in the courthouse its not if we’re going to get assaulted, it’s a matter of when.”

And the stories continued as a line of courthouse workers pained a grim picture.

“I’ve seen open air drug dealing, I’ve seen people urinating in public, people defecating on sidewalks, people walking around with needles sticking out of their arms, people smoking crack pipes leaned up against the courthouse, people vomiting on themselves on the sidewalks,” described courthouse clerk Dale Gillen.

“I’ve had four co-workers who have been assaulted out in front of the courthouse in the last year. Personally I’ve been harassed, I’ve been yelled at, I even had a firearm pointed directly in my face out in front of the courthouse,” Gillen continued.

Many workers highlighted the lack of police presence outside the courthouse as a big part of the problem, and told stories of calling 911 after an incident only to be told no officers would come unless there was an assault.

Judge hopeful courthouse’s Third Avenue entrance will become safer

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht was among several local leaders at the committee meeting. As the courthouse workers wrapped up their stories, she turned to them and apologized, vowing to act, before turning to the committee members and telling them to give her the funding she’s asked for so she can finally do something to help these courthouse workers.

While it’s not clear whether the sheriff will get all the funding she wants, emergency funding for security around the courthouse was taken up by the full county council Wednesday morning.

King County Council unanimously approved $600,000 in emergency funding to cover two deputies for on-street security, more screeners, and a marshal to keep the 4th Avenue entrance to the courthouse open all year long, and for outreach workers outside the courthouse to try to help get those causing the most trouble connected with services.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and City Attorney Pete Holmes were also invited to the meeting, but could not attend.

Much of the area outside the courthouse is Seattle Police jurisdiction, leading some courthouse workers and some county council members to throw blame Seattle’s way for the problem, especially the issue of prolific offenders they largely place at the feet of the city attorney.

While Best and Holmes could not make the meeting, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong did respond to the committee with this letter:

Thank you for reaching out to the City of Seattle. We recognize there have been persistent challenges, particularly on Third Avenue, which is why the City has and will continue to be a partner in solutions to complex issues as it relates to multiple jurisdictions. It is that recognition that led to the creation of a working group consisting of representatives from the County and the City several years ago, the Courthouse Vicinity Improvement (CVI) work group. On Thursday, the Mayor will be meeting with many of the Judges who are participating.

Many actions have been identified and executed through the work of this cross-jurisdictional team, such as: increased SPD and King County security patrols, increased sanitation services, a CPTED study, relocating the Metro stop on the west side of 3rd Avenue, and additional projects by city departments further detailed below.

Working closely with our law enforcement partners at the County, SPD is committed to safety in the area. As is clear from our data, the SPD already expends enormous amounts of resources on the area surrounding the King County Courthouse and King County Metro bus stop located at the 3rd Avenue entrance. In the courthouse area year to date, SPD has made 292 arrests, of 216 unique individuals. SPD has dispatched to 605 crimes so far this year to this immediate area and has dedicated over 5,766 service hours on this block, either proactively patrolling, assisting other agencies, or responding to calls for service. That is a 9% increase (491 hours) from 2018. Two of the top five most frequently dispatched blocks in the entire city are in the immediate courthouse area.

Seattle Police Department has and is continuing to work with the King County Sheriff’s Office and Metro Transit Police to better coordinate law enforcement in the area. Building on their ongoing work in the area, SPD will deploy its mobile precinct near the courthouse and create consistent deployment schedules between agencies during key hours, such as morning and evening commutes. We know you and your colleagues at the County will prioritize this important collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office located in the Courthouse and Metro Transit Police, which has jurisdiction of the light rail and bus stop.

Police presence alone cannot make meaningful change or ensure that crime does not occur, as evidenced by a recent assault on a police officer in this area and the fact that SPD made four arrests, in a month’s span, of the individual accused of assaulting an attorney outside of the courthouse. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office filed charges in each of those incidents. Only a collaboration amongst all our jurisdictions and a holistic combination of behavioral health and human services, coupled with strategies related to facility operation, changes to the built environment, and law enforcement can achieve the desired outcomes we have sought for this challenging area.

The High Barrier Working Group convened by the Mayor’s Office earlier this year was successful through such collaboration in producing pilot projects that will be implemented in 2020 including new investments in shelter, rapid re-entry services for those who are quickly released from jail after bookings, and case conferencing, which will aim to increase communication between city and county criminal justice agencies to develop tailored solutions for specific individuals otherwise resistant to intervention attempts. We hope the County continues to be a partner to deliver critical behavioral health resources to both the Courthouse and our community.

In addition, the City of Seattle is making significant investments to the Neighborhood. In collaboration with the County and Pioneer Square Alliance, Seattle Parks and Recreation and SDOT have committed $1.1 million for planning and activation in City Hall park, Prefontaine Fountain and the adjacent Sound Transit station. There is an additional $1.25 million set aside for SDOT in 2020 for improvements of the 3rd and Yesler intersection, sidewalk repairs and redesign.

While the City Attorney and Chief Best will not be at the King County Council meeting, we look forward to meeting with some of the members of the Courthouse Vicinity Improvement work group and continue briefing individuals on Seattle Police Department actions in the area.

Please don’t hesitate to ever reach out to Mayor Durkan, myself, or the Mayor’s Public Safety Advisor, Julie Kline with any questions or concerns.

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