Mixed messages: Did Seattle police get a ‘stand down’ order for RVs?

Apr 27, 2016, 12:18 PM | Updated: 1:38 pm

The above dash cam video is referenced in this article. The comments used in this article are at 13-17:10

Almost as long as conversations arose over Seattle’s controversial RVs, there have been two messages spread among Seattleites: one from city hall, and another from residents.

On one hand you have statements made by Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole at an April 20 Neighborhood Safety Alliance meeting:

We are not going to criminalize homelessness, but if there are people cooking meth, or selling heroin from RVs they are criminals and they need to go to jail.

And on the other hand, you have Seattleites claiming that officers are telling them a different story.

“The answer that I got several times on the street was ‘Well, there’s not much we can do. We’ve really been told to stand down on this. Our hands are tied,’” said self-described regular ‘ol Ballard mom Angie Gerrald. “These were police who are very polite and professional trying to be respectful.”

Related: Roadside RVs and dumping waste in Seattle

Gerrald said that she and her neighbors noticed oversized vehicles parked in the same spot well over the allotted time; trash and hypodermic needles were piling up around them; and property crimes were becoming more common.

Gerrald reports that when she asked officers why the RVs stayed despite what appeared to be “flagrant” lawbreaking, officers told her they had a “stand down order” — that officers’ hands were tied.

“We need more legal clarity about the laws we currently have on the books and whether they will or won’t be enforced,” Gerrald said.

That’s a similar message Interbay’s Harley Lever was told when a TV was stolen from his porch, according to Lever.

“I do think the police are restricted from being able to do what they need to do,” Lever said.

“There are clear laws on the books that can be enforced and should be enforced, and police are not allowed to do this,” he said, noting issues such as drug use, trash, needles and waste along the road, or vehicles parked beyond the allowed time or in zones they are not permitted for.

But Lever isn’t coming to this conclusion alone. There seems to be a gap between what city officials say, and what is discussed on the street. Just like Gerrald, Lever claims a police officer told him that their hands were tied when it comes to people living in their vehicles. One such experience was caught on dash cam video.

The video

Lever called 911 in December after he noticed that a flat screen TV was stolen off his porch — it was among items to be donated to Habitat for Humanity. He found the TV outside a vehicle not far from his home. He confronted the man who lived in the vehicle — the man became agitated. Lever documented the encounter with his cellphone. The man began to threaten Lever, noting that he knew where he lived.

After being threatened, Lever called police. Two officers responded and searched around the vehicle before and after they spoke with Lever. They noted the ground was littered with syringes, but did not find the suspect.

On the video, Lever says he felt that cops’ hands were tied when it came to enforcing laws around vehicles people were living in. The two officers agreed.

“They are tied. We can’t do anything anymore. They took that away from us,” an officer tells him, then instructs him to call 206-684-CITY, Seattle’s customer service line. The message was that Lever should call city hall to get the city council and mayor to change policies.

“We can’t do anything. You would have to call them,” the officer said.

“(Parking offenses) used to be 24 hours. I give you notification, 24 hours and you (and your vehicle) got to be gone. Now they’ve jumped it to 72 hours,” he said. “And now, you got a car and ‘Oh, I’m living in it,’ we can’t impound it. An RV, we can’t impound it.”

Then the other cop chimes in and says that for Lever to get anything done about law-breaking RV residents, he has to get it documented.

“This is the way you do it though. It is through writing reports and having lots of reports on file. Documenting it,” the officer said. “That’s the way things get done now. It’s not about actually rolling up your sleeves and doing stuff.”

The first officer adds another thought.

“There’s a lot of people on the council, they are homeless advocates,” he said. “We say, ‘Fine. Give us your address. Let them live on your block.’”

‘There is no stand down order’

Despite impressions on the street, the Seattle Police Department maintains that there is no “stand down order” when it comes to people living in their vehicles.

“There is no order at all,” said Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb.

Whitcomb said there is often a gap between what neighbors witness and what cops can legally do. For officers to do anything, they must get evidence to prove a crime.

Whitcomb also says that the 72-hour parking law is often misunderstood.

“You know what you got to do to beat the 72-hour law? Just re-park your car. This is what we told people back in the day. You don’t have to drive it around the block,” he said, noting that RVs and cars often just re-park and the clock starts over, therefore police can’t legally do anything about the vehicles — despite appearances, they are following the parking rules.

“No one is going to criminalize homelessness,” Whitcomb said. “If you got criminal activity happening, putting people at risk through needles and human waste, that needs to be addressed and should be addressed.”

But to be addressed, evidence comes into play.

“Heroin use and delivery, there are clear patterns there. Just because someone has needles, that doesn’t mean we can arrest them,” he said. “We need to arrest them based on a criminal investigation that is the backbone of probable cause.”

One example of this is when a Magnolia company took video of allegedly drug sales and use around an RV on its security cameras. — all in front of a business. Despite the video and citizen reports, Seattle police still had to conduct an investigation and perform controlled purchases of the drug. Then police made an arrest.

“It’s not that complicated but it is the law and you have to satisfy the law,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb suggests that Seattleites request to speak with a supervisor if they are ever told police have a stand down order, or any similar message.

As for the officials at the policy-making level, or rumors the city council, as “homeless advocates,” is influencing the police department, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said the council has no such authority.

“As part of the legislative branch of government, the city council does not give orders to the SPD. I have never issued, nor could I issue, a ‘stand down order,’” O’Brien said. “As a city, we are employing holistic efforts through Multidisciplinary Outreach Teams including connecting individuals to services and police responses when necessary. My office has continued to support a multi-faceted approach to issues related to both homelessness and car camping. There has not been any other feedback provided by my Office.”

Moving on

Both Lever and Gerrald note that conditions in their neighborhoods are much better today than in 2015. The city has since opened safe RV lots and safe parking zones to address RV issues.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a hypodermic needle on Thorndyke, 20th Avenue, or Gilman Way. Trash is reduced greatly,” Lever said. “Interbay now has a reputation that they are not going to tolerate people dumping stuff. That’s an automatic deterrent. And parking enforcement has stepped up their enforcement. They also encourage them to move to the safe lot, which is good.”

“Interbay is very much a changed place. But in Green Lake or Greenwood — most the RVs that have been pushed out have been pushed up there. Now they’re seeing the same effects we were seeing a few months ago,” he said.

Lever is quick to point out that he is not anti-homeless, rather, he wants the distinction made between a homeless individual, and a person who steals his TV, or dumps waste on the street.

“I’m not saying arrest them for being poor,” Lever said. “But you can say, ‘You’re getting ticketed because you dumped your trash here. You’re getting ticketed because you dumped your feces all over the ground. You’re getting ticketed because you dumped hypodermic needles all over the ground.’ But these things don’t happen.”

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Mixed messages: Did Seattle police get a ‘stand down’ order for RVs?