JASON RANTZ

Rantz: Seattle’s plan for six stationed cops isn’t quite happening, suspects already released

Mar 6, 2022, 4:57 PM | Updated: Mar 7, 2022, 6:11 am

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to address what is one of the most dangerous streets in the city.

The plan comes after a week of high-profile crimes. Over the course of just a few days, on or around Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle, there were two fatal shootings, three stabbings, and a carjacking.

Harrell’s plan includes a mobile precinct, plus six dedicated officers on Third and Pine, and emphasis patrol by the King County Sheriff’s Office. At the time his plan was shared, local and federal law enforcement announced 16 arrests of suspected drug dealers to show the region is getting serious on crime.

Unfortunately, much of the plan’s unveiling was a PR stunt.

While there are certainly efforts by Seattle police to clean up the area, the department is hamstrung by a lack of available staff. There’s also little clarity on whether or not they can enforce many laws. Plus, most of the arrested suspects were already released from jail when the announcement was made.

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There’s not enough police staff for Harrell’s plan

 

Mere hours after Harrell’s announcement, there were only two dedicated officers visible on Third and Pine in downtown Seattle. There was also what was effectively a dummy sheriff’s vehicle parked in the area, belonging to a deputy working private security for a nearby business.

On Saturday, there were three officers stationed on the block.

On Sunday afternoon, after the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH inquired about staffing levels, the SPD was more than fully staffed along the downtown corridor. Several officers volunteered for overtime from different precincts. There were at least 10 officers on patrol, with others supplementing for arrest. It’s possible that due to the rushed nature of the current plan at Third and Pine, officers didn’t have time off until Sunday to volunteer for overtime.

The SPD does not have the necessary staffing levels for six dedicated officers to actively patrol this dangerous block. It’s likely why the criminal homeless addicts and drug dealers who were on Third and Pine moved just one block south to Third and Pike/Union. On Friday night and into the weekend, they continued to openly sell and consume drugs.

At one point on Friday night, a homeless drug addict was openly carrying drug paraphernalia, including a small piece of tin foil to smoke his drug of choice, feet away from the two patrol officers. Two blocks east, more addicts openly smoke what’s most likely fentanyl in front of private security officers guarding local retail shops.

The department is struggling to recruit enough volunteers to take the open slots for Third and Pine, while concurrently trying to keep visible staff at 12th Avenue and Jackson St., another high-profile location for crimes that is getting SPD emphasis.

The staffing puzzle

While they are not stationing six officers on Third and Pine, the SPD is offering more patrols in the area. Some are undercover, and others are on bicycles or patrol cars in the general area. The SPD is also using officers from various precincts to patrol when they can.

But plans on staffing are still being fully developed.

When an officer makes an arrest on or near Third and Pine, it pulls that officer from the area as he or she processes the arrest or submits paperwork. Officers also get breaks during their shifts. And as the city experienced on Saturday night, a nearby shooting took officers away from the specific patrols.

There’s not yet a plan to backfill those officers when they have to leave the area for whatever reason. This is problematic because when they leave, the homeless addicts and other criminals return over the course of half an hour.

“We have supplemented with other resources as necessary to achieve the desired public safety effect,” SPD Captain Steve Strand tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH via email. “We now have bicycle officers assigned to the area 6 days a week. If you don’t see a uniformed presence in the area I would suspect we have an undercover operation occurring.”

What can actually be enforced?

There’s also confusion on what laws officers can and cannot enforce.

Under former Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes, officers were forced to take a hands-off approach to enforcement. Many misdemeanor laws were purposefully being ignored, such as open drug use and displaying obvious drug paraphernalia, trespassing, and trafficking in stolen goods.

Newly-elected Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison campaigned on the promise to charge more criminals for their crimes. But during the plan’s unveiling, Harrell said there “will be arrests, … where it is a bookable offense.” Due to COVID restrictions, most misdemeanor crimes have not been bookable.

To clear up confusion, SPD leadership is communicating and meeting with the City Attorney’s Office and Harrell’s representatives to figure out if officers are allowed to arrest for many of the crimes they witness.

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Suspects already released from jail

The 12th and Jackson location has seen a surge in violence, too.

The SPD is offering emphasis patrols and presence there, similar to Third and Pine. But to keep these patrols from impacting the Third and Pine plan, the SPD is using detectives, rather than patrol officers, at 12th and Jackson. Some progressive activists, however, are trying to push the police out.

Thanks to difficult and dangerous police work over the last couple of weeks, at least 16 suspects were arrested for drug trafficking, gun violence, and crime at 12th and Jackson as part of Mayor Harrell’s “Operation New Day.” The arrests were announced via a press release from Harrell, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and the Seattle Police Department.

But of the 16 charged in King County, nine of them were released before the press release reached the inboxes of media outlets that reported the operation’s success.

District Court Judge Rebecca Robertson released four of the nine suspects on their own personal recognizance, over the objections of prosecutors.

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Judge releases suspects

The King County Prosecutor’s Office says Ryan Palmer sold fentanyl to an undercover officer.

Upon his arrest, police say Palmer possessed “heroin, suspected fentanyl pills, mushrooms, and 38 individually wrapped packages of crack cocaine.” The KCPO argued that he was “unlikely to return to court if released because of his eight previous warrants and two cases with current open warrants.”

Judge Robertson released him on his own personal recognizance.

Officers arrested Nalong Somchanthavong after allegedly catching him selling narcotics near 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. According to police, when Somchanthavong was arrested, they found him with over 36 grams of crack cocaine, over 34 grams of suspected fentanyl, and nearly 23 grams of suspected methamphetamines.

At Somchanthavong’s first appearance, Judge Robertson was told about his 13 previous warrants, which the KCPO argued “makes it unlikely that Mr. Somchanthavong will return to court if released.” He was released on his own personal recognizance.

Quan Nguyen is accused of selling fentanyl to undercover police. When Nguyen was arrested, the prosecutor’s office said police found approximately 100 pills of suspected fentanyl on him, plus $20,093 in cash. Similarly, Kevin Guzman is accused of selling fentanyl to undercover police. He has two prior convictions for assault and criminal solicitation, according to the prosecutor’s office. Judge Robertson released them both on their own personal recognizance.

A court spokesperson explains the releases

A spokesperson for the court offered an explanation for the decision to release the suspects. He said, at the time of the first appearance, charges had not yet been filed.

“Individuals appearing on the District Court first appearance calendar are being held only on a suspicion of a crime; no charges have been filed yet,” the spokesperson told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “The court rules that District Court judges must follow for these hearings require a person’s mandatory release for non-capital offenses unless the Court determines that such release: (1) will not assure the person’s appearance at future hearings, or (2) when there is shown a likely danger that the person will commit a violent crime, seek to intimidate witnesses, or interfere with the administration of justice. Even if one of those risks is found, the rules allow bail only as a last resort if no other conditions are sufficient.”

The spokesperson did not explain how suspects with prior criminal convictions and, in one case, a suspect with 13 previous warrants, would not be considered a danger to the community. Judge Robertson didn’t even impose bail.

It’s also normal for charges and additional paperwork to come in after a first appearance.

“Additional documents beyond the first appearance document are required by law to be referred to prosecutors by police for a felony case filing, and those are typically sent after the first appearance happens,” a KCPO spokesperson said.

Minor improvements

An understaffed SPD is doing what it can to combat the surge of crime. But without more cops, there’s only so much they can do. And the officers who are working are getting burnt out from significant overtime.

At the same time, Satterberg’s unwillingness to charge for open-air drug use and selling prior to the state decriminalizing created a culture where the homeless addicts do not only continue to use, but smoke fentanyl, meth, and/or heroin right in front of officers. Previous City Attorney Pete Holmes contributed as well. Officers still can’t make some arrests because of the region’s (and now state’s) decriminalization efforts. And the one law enforcement vehicle driving around the area for visibility is unlikely to do much good anyway.

When you know you won’t get charged, you’re unlikely to change your behavior.

These addicts will inevitably die of an overdose while area politicians claim arresting them lacks compassion and stigmatizes the addict. They’d rather the addict die than make them feel bad for their illness.

Still, Captain Strand believes they will be able to make a difference.

“Just like with my emphasis at 12th and Jackson, the results should speak for themselves. I have crafted a holistic approach that includes outreach, community involvement, focused enforcement, along with a police presence,” Strand said. “My goal is to improve the safety of the downtown core that is seen and felt. It will take time for lasting success but I am optimistic for the future of Seattle.”

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How long will this last?

Will this plan cut down on some of the violence in the area? Maybe.

It seems hard to imagine that drug dealers will be violent in front of cops — even where there are only two camped out nearby. But they’re still selling on the street, and some are armed. Indeed, a suspect arrested during Operation New Day, after being released by a judge, ended up arrested at Third Avenue with a firearm days later. And an addict may turn violent without realizing the error of doing so in front of a cop.

For how long will this understaffed emphasis patrol continue? The police department is in need of between 400 and 600 more officers for them to be considered fully and safely staffed.

And then there’s the reality of left-wing politics infecting the criminal justice system.

Without judges keeping suspects in jail, the criminals will continue to hold this city hostage. They end up moving to other parts of the city. South Lake Union, which is normally safe, is seeing an uptick of aggressive, homeless addicts. Belltown is seeing more, too.

Mayor Harrell does deserve some credit for trying to implement a plan. The Seattle City Council does virtually nothing and we’re living with the results. They’ve long pretended the problem doesn’t exist because it’s their policies that are responsible for the crime surge.

But Harrell’s office must clarify whether or not the mayor will allow officers to enforce the law. He must commit to standing with them when they arrest criminal addicts, not just when they arrest drug dealers.

Harrell also knows for this plan to actually work, it requires significantly more cops than the city has, and there’s no meaningful plan to recruit or retain officers.

As a new mayor, he would normally be granted some time to fully address the problem. But a solution to this crisis is years overdue. He needs to act faster.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: Seattle’s plan for six stationed cops isn’t quite happening, suspects already released