State trooper attacked as Seattle’s homeless problem spills onto I-5
Jun 13, 2016, 3:36 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2016, 8:22 am
Things have changed dramatically along the I-5 corridor in Seattle for Sgt. Courtney Stewart since starting with the State Patrol 14 years ago.
Just like for the rest of us, traffic alone has made it much harder to get around. And the ever-growing homeless tents and camps along and under the freeway? Stewart and her troopers are the ones who have to deal with all the problems that come with them.
“The increase is insane,” Stewart said, “Which is kind of taking us away from our primary job function, which is protecting the motoring public.”
Stewart says the number of incidents involving the homeless, mentally ill, inebriated people wandering onto I-5 has skyrocketed recently.
“When I started out as a trooper, we maybe got one or two pedestrian calls, maybe in a week,” Stewart said. “Looking at our numbers, just in the month of May alone, the troopers responded to 529 pedestrian calls.”
That’s 529 times a month troopers weren’t available to respond to accidents, help stranded drivers, or respond to other calls.
The situations continue to grow more complex every day.
Stewart recently responded to a woman shooting drugs alongside the I-5 express lanes just south of the Ship Canal bridge during rush hour, in plain view of passing motorists.
Then there’s the woman troopers tried getting off the freeway 13 times this month alone. Although the woman was clearly disturbed and breaking the law, there’s little troopers can do except offer to connect her and the other homeless with services at either Harborview or Overlake Medical Center.
“That didn’t work out,” Stewart said. “She refused the food and water we tried to give her. She really wanted to go to jail but she wasn’t suitable to go to jail, so we were kind of stuck.”
For the troopers, it’s both heartbreaking and infuriating.
The law prevents jails from taking people who have certain medical or mental health conditions, like the woman on I-5.
Then the troopers have to try and get them involuntarily committed to a psychiatric unit, but the person has to be considered an immediate threat to themselves and others.
When they’re in the ER, they’re not on the roads.
“Oh, they can come off the road for six-to-eight hours just waiting to get someone cleared,” she said. “It’s a lengthy process. So when you look at that and you think what’s our primary job function, it’s not sitting at Harborview waiting to book somebody.”
Suffice it to say, troopers didn’t sign up to be social workers and drug counselors when they first went to the academy.
The state patrol is doing all it can to provide supplemental crisis intervention training now to all its troopers, Stewart said.
“We’re kind of playing a little bit of a catch up in dealing with these people,” Stewart said. “Even though you have that training, the reality of it, when you’re faced with it, still is very, very difficult.”
Especially since many don’t actually want or take help.
In the meantime, the growing powder keg comes ever-closer to blowing up. It nearly did last Thursday morning when a fight in Seattle’s notorious Jungle homeless encampment spilled out onto I-5.
A trooper was called out to reports of a shirtless, distraught man swinging two large metal pipes. When the trooper confronted him, the man attacked the trooper, Stewart said.
The trooper faced two choices: shoot the attacker or run to his car, lock the doors, and wait for backup – which arrived soon after.
Lucky for the attacker, the trooper chose the latter despite the danger. In the meantime, the guy smashed the windshield with the trooper inside.
“That guy’s very lucky because that trooper was within his rights to use deadly force in a situation like that. The state trooper was trained very well…luckily it ended the way it did,” Stewart said.
But Stewart worries someone is going to get killed out there. They’re already dying just off I-5. She recently got called out to the Jungle about a dead body.
“A man had been deceased probably overnight,” Stewart said. “And people had been walking over him, and he had been laying there for a long time. We’re there. I’ve seen it. My primary concern is the troopers that I supervise and those that I work with every single day. I don’t want to see any of them get hurt.”
In the meantime, everyone keeps passing the buck.
Seattle city leaders say it’s inhumane to clear the camps. Some have actually proposed adding outhouses and other services in some of the areas including what they are calling the I-5 East Duwamish Greenbelt.
State patrol brass say it’s the Washington Department of Transportation’s job to clean up the camps and the city of Seattle’s job to deal with the people living in them.
But at the end of the day, it’s the troopers bearing the brunt of it.
“It does feel like the situation is out of control with the encampments on the freeway,” Stewart said. “I don’t see an answer in sight or an end to this anytime soon. So we’re kind of the one’s left dealing with it.”