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King County prosecutor sets record straight on protest arrests

Seattle police arrest a protester during the clearing of the CHOP. (Getty Images)

One of several demands from groups calling for defunding police and ending systemic racism is to release all demonstrators arrested in connection with recent protests, including during the occupation of the CHAZ/CHOP area on Capitol Hill.

Seattle City Attorney says he will not file charges against peaceful protesters

Last month, Mayor Durkan called on the city attorney’s office not to charge those arrested for peacefully protesting during any of the demonstrations. Earlier this month, she sent a letter to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg calling on his office to continue declining to file charges for those picked up in relation to peacefully protesting.

Satterberg says his office was already on that path from the outset, and wants to set the record straight about what happens when someone is picked up during a protest.

“There is widespread confusion about the process,” he noted.

In order to provide some clarity, he laid out what typically happens after protests where arrests are made.

When someone is arrested, and they’re brought to jail, sometimes the jail will even say ‘so and so has been charged,’ but it’s the prosecutors job to charge. It’s not the police who do that. So typically what has happened over the last several months is that if there is an arrest that happens during a protest, the police may book somebody in jail, but they’re almost always released the very first moment that they could be, and certainly no later than 24 hours when they see a judge, so that’s not a charge. That’s someone who’s been arrested, and booked, and released.

So even if the jail booking says “charged,” that does not mean that person has officially charged with a crime by the prosecutor’s office. If there is someone Satterberg’s office decides to charge it works like this:

“Then we have a 72-hour period for the police detective to rush file a case with us, to bring us a case that we can then get a judge to sign off on within 72 hours. We have filed 15 of those kinds of cases that have something to do with the protests. But we have not charged anybody with a felony for their participation in a protest.”

The 15 cases his office has filed are not for people who were peacefully protesting.

“The cases that we have filed include burglaries in the first couple of nights of unrest when some of the businesses were broken into, or later on, Bellevue Square businesses were broken into. We’ve certainly filed cases involving the shooting that happened and also the vehicular homicide, as well as cases involving illegal guns, and harm, so they’re pretty limited,” Satterberg said.

“Our rule in our office, first of all, the principle that protesting and airing your grievances against the government, that’s a sacred American right, and you shouldn’t go to a protest and then come home with a felony because things got out of hand,” he added.

Even those who hurled projectiles at officers during protests have not been charged by his office.

“There are obviously tensions that mount and certainly were the first week or so of June when police were pushing back on the line; so protesters, we’re not going to file any of those cases that are referred to us as an ‘assault three’ against an officer, not without seeing all of the video that’s out there,” Satterberg explained.

“We’re no strangers to these protests — we’ve had May Day riots and the WTO protests, and so we know that there is video of these incidents and we’re not going to file a serious felony case against somebody without reviewing that video and making sure that it’s a strong case. So far, we have not filed any of those cases,” he continued.

As for the broader conversation about reforming policing and the criminal justice system, Satterberg is no stranger to such efforts, with his advocacy of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, as well as policies to not prosecute people busted with a gram or less of any drug that he put in place back in 2018.

That being so, he believes the current conversation about police reform is needed.

It’s a moment where we can reimagine the response that we might be able to build. I think it is a good case to be made that we over-rely on police and jail and courts and prosecution for complicated social issues. It’s become the default response for drug addiction and mental illness and homelessness and school misconduct. I think there’s some good conversations to have, but it’s a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. We need to build up the other responses, we need to invest in and train more social workers with stabilizing services to respond to some of these human crises. They may also need to have security there when they show up so it’s not going to happen overnight.

The groups pushing to defund police also want a path to life without policing – but that’s not a future Satterberg can see happening.

“We’re not going to eliminate the police; there’s too much violence on our streets right now. We’re always going to need detectives to solve murder cases and sexual assault cases, we can’t outsource our response to everything,” Satterberg said.

Satterberg says to some degree, all agencies are going to be forced to rethink how they handle criminal justice.

“It’s [the conversation] happening at a time of COVID, when local government budgets are getting hammered, and I’ve been told to take a $9 million cut from my office in the next biennium,” he pointed out. “So we’re not going to be able to continue to do everything for everybody. We’re going to have to really talk about inside my office what are the things that we can continue to do well, and what are the things that we shouldn’t do at all? How do we continue to do our work with $9 million less in the next two years.”

That provides opportunity.

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“It’s an historic opportunity to use our imagination and design the community that we want, and the response that we want to things that are maybe not criminal, but they’re where we have built an over relied on a criminal response. I would like to see a lot more help for people with drug addiction and mental illness and homelessness, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a police officer who responds. In fact, good arguments could be made that other disciplines would be better to handle those complicated social problems,” Satterberg said.

These criminal justice and police reform conversations stretch outside of the local region all the way to Olympia. Among the discussions going on at the statewide level: enhancing the decertification process for officers.

As a lawyer, the bar association both gives me my license, but they also can discipline an attorney up to the point of disbarring that attorney for misconduct. The Criminal Justice Training Commission does not do that and the commission issues the ability to be a police officer but has a very small process for the decertification of officers, so there’s a lot of different conversations out there, and at the same time the state budgets going to get hit. I think that there’s a desire to continue to reduce the number of people in prison and our King County jail population, which went from 1900 to 1300 [due to COVID] that needs to stay at 1300 or lower, just so that the staff and the people who are incarcerated can be safer.

Bottom line, Satterberg describes this all as a “huge moment,” where people should feel free to protest.

“We’re just at the beginning of all of this,” he said. “It requires us to use our imagination, and to not make things worse, and frankly, I think, filing a bunch of cases against protesters who went to a protest and came home with a felony charge … that would be the wrong thing to do right now.”

Editor’s note: This interview was given prior to two arrests made by police during protests on Sunday, July 19.

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