Ex-Sheriff on failed Seattle drug laws: ‘Look at what this city has become’

Jun 17, 2023, 8:09 AM | Updated: 2:24 pm

Seattle drug laws...

Residents of a homeless encampment walk through the encampment after smoking fentanyl on Seattle. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As the City of Seattle works to reconcile its drug laws after an ordinance failed last week, a former sheriff said politicians aren’t funding the tools needed to keep people safe.

Former King County Sheriff John Urquhart joined The Gee and Ursula Show to discuss how the city should move forward.

Seattle mayor, city council respond to failed drug possession ordinance with new plan

The Seattle City Council voted 5-4 against a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the authority to prosecute people for public drug use or possession. Councilmembers Alex Pederson, Debora Jaurez, and Dan Strauss joined Nelson in voting in favor of the ordinance.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he planned to vote for the measure but decided against it at the last minute, stating the issue required further discussion in committee before being voted into law. Lewis was the deciding vote in the decision, with Nelson claiming he failed his constituents of District 7, which includes South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, and downtown.

“I’m very disappointed in Andrew Lewis. He represents Magnolia, Queen Anne, and downtown Seattle. That is his constituency,” Urquhart said. “My advice is he should walk around some more and take a look and see what this city has become.”

Councilmember Lewis released a statement following the city council vote explaining that he was unsure of giving the “prosecutorial discretion” of drug cases to the City Attorney’s Office, especially with a lack of clear diversion programs.

One of the biggest issues, Urquhart said, is that there is little to no ability to properly handle anyone that does get arrested for drug charges in Seattle, with jails historically understaffed, an arrest is unlikely to end up with the suspect being booked.

“They’re not gonna get prosecuted, or they’re not even gonna get booked, they’re not going to get booked in jail because the jail won’t accept them.” Urquhart said. “It’s a terrible morale situation for officers.”

This morale problem has seen police and correction officer positions unstaffed, which has limited the ability to even get people into treatment.

According to a report being made to the Seattle City Council, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) isn’t hiring as many officers as it had planned, despite an increased budget for recruitment. The department wanted to hire 31 officers in the first quarter of 2023 but only brought on 26.

“I’ve never seen in my 40 years in law enforcement, I’ve never seen a situation where we can’t get people to take this job. It’s a fantastic job, when you are allowed to do that job,” Urquhart said. “And now we can’t do it because the politicians won’t let us, and nor will they fund the treatment programs that need to be there. It’s just abysmal.”

There are several drug diversion programs around King County, including the LEAD program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, and the Community Court system. Urquhart said these systems are not extensive enough and are often underfunded and unable to bridge the gap between services needed to rehabilitate those with an addiction.

Councilmember Nelson: Failed drug possession law is ‘not the War on Drugs’

“We have chronically underfunded the treatment programs in the state of Washington, especially in King County,” Urquhart said. “[The] City of Seattle has a $6 billion budget for 2020…you think they can take just some of that money and increase treatment to make it readily available for people that are addicted to drugs. It’s a sickness that needs proper medical treatment to be addressed.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell and the Seattle City Council are working to create an alternative to the drug ordinance with a new 24-member workgroup looking to advance effective and sustainable solutions addressing illegal drug use in public spaces.

“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests. But we will do that with compassion to protect people when we have to, but our values will always be to lead with compassion, with help with love, always,” Harrell said.

The ultimate goal, according to the mayor’s office, is to craft a local law that puts Seattle in compliance with the new state law that takes effect July 1. When asked if a new ordinance would be finalized by then, Mayor Harrell declined to give a specific timeline.

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Ex-Sheriff on failed Seattle drug laws: ‘Look at what this city has become’