SPD's Softer Side

A troubled department, a troubled neighborhood, and a new approach.

Gerald reckons he's been on the street since he was 10. He is now 41.

"One day, I came downtown. I saw the nightlife and became addicted to it," he explains. "The drugs came, the partying. The next thing I knew, I was out here. It was fun. Exciting."

Having grown up in a middle-class home, he makes no excuses. "This is what I chose," he says.

He chose drug dealing too, and shoplifting and robbery. He has been convicted 32 times on various felony and misdemeanor changes. When he hasn't been in prison, he's been on probation.

He calls himself "a legend," not because he's a badass, but because he's been on the street so long that everybody knows him.

That includes the cops and Department of Corrections officers, one of whom has tried so hard to turn Gerald around that he calls her his "surrogate mother."

In recent months, officers began talking to Gerald about a new program targeting Belltown's habitual offenders. Rather than cracking down with the force of the criminal-justice system, the program attempts to deal with the problems that got offenders committing crimes in the first place by offering intensive social services, such as drug and mental-health treatment, and help with housing and medical benefits. "Just try it," they urged. But he brushed them off.

Then one day last fall, Gerald found himself near the DOC office downtown, getting high on a combination of heroin and crack. "Fuck, I'm tired," he said to himself, a condition that may have had something to do with the fact that he "died twice," as he puts it, after being stabbed in the heart while getting in the middle of a street fight last year. (He was revived by paramedics.) Deciding to finally see what the program was about, he threw his crack pipe on the ground, walked into the DOC office, and announced "Let's do this."

Whether that program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), can finally turn Gerald around is a question of great interest to just about everyone with a stake in the city's future. That's not just because LEAD is a novel approach that gets cops to do something they've hardly ever done before—send offenders to treatment rather than jail. It's also because Gerald, legend that he is, is on a special list: those whom the cops call Belltown's "frequent fliers," the people officers question and arrest most often.

The list was drawn up last summer by Belltown beat cops Bob Besaw and Tom Burns during a time when residents and business owners were—once again—up in arms over rampant open-air drug dealing. Somebody had talked to one of the dealers, gotten his name, and looked up his record, discovering dozens of prior cases.

"That got us thinking," Besaw recalls. He and Burns resolved to run criminal histories on the people they deal with daily in Belltown. They had various motivations, but as the two officers and their command staff discussed the idea, everybody agreed on a central question. As Assistant Chief Mike Sanford puts it: "Who are these people, anyway?"

Besaw and Burns started jotting down names off the top of their heads, adding more as they went about their beat patrols over the next few months. They looked up each in a database that records not only publicly available court charges, but every arrest and "contact."

A "contact" is any kind of formal exchange between officers and a citizen, whether that person be a suspect, witness, or even a victim. It isn't necessarily evidence of criminal behavior. But according to Burns and Besaw, the numbers attached to every name represent mainly arrests. And they were high. Very high.

"It shocked me, and I've been here for 30 years," says West Precinct Captain Joe Kessler.

In a precinct alcove that serves as a computer room, Besaw and Burns go down the list, looking up the latest records on a few select individuals. One had 90 contacts as of the most recent viewing a few months ago; now he has 93. The drug dealer who started it all has 105. And the highest scorer of all, someone whose computer profile warns "caution: mental," is up to 208.

Added up, the list names 75 people responsible for some 4,500 contacts, including arrests for murder, rape, drug dealing, and scores of misdemeanors.

When word leaked out, everyone seemed to agree that Besaw and Burns' list revealed something important about how crime was committed and combated in the city. But they didn't agree on what to do with that new information, which is how the list also became one of Seattle's most effective Rorschach tests.

Many Belltown residents saw it as further confirmation that the neighborhood was under siege. "It's disgusting," says Davina Dockter, a member of the family that owns and runs Federal Army & Navy Surplus on First Avenue. "Some people on the list have horrible criminal backgrounds."

Councilmember Tim Burgess called attention to the list in a manifesto released when he stepped down from the City Council's public-safety committee in January. Police and prosecutors need to pay "special attention" to such "high-frequency offenders," he wrote. Mayor Mike McGinn and his staff, on the other hand, repeatedly used the list to assert that the city couldn't "arrest its way" out of crime problems, without explaining exactly what that meant.

Most interesting, however, was the reaction to the list from the department that drew it up.

The SPD is in the hot seat after a scathing federal Department of Justice report on its use of force, which painted a picture of a hyperaggressive department trampling the rights of minorities and the mentally ill. Seemingly minor transgressions, like jaywalking or speeding, have blown up into confrontations that have seen officers punching, kicking, or hurling profanities at suspects. A series of dash-camera videos posted to YouTube and circulated by the press have made the public all too aware of these episodes.

Yet on a day-to-day level, as the SPD tries to figure out how to deal with its most perplexing crime problems, it reveals itself to be a far more complex department than those incidents might suggest. Indeed, at some levels, like in its attempt to turn around Belltown, it is embracing a surprisingly soft touch.


One day in the middle of January's snowstorm, Assistant Chief Sanford walks into a foyer on the upper floor of the SPD's downtown headquarters. Trim, gray-haired, and wearing an open-collared blue-checked shirt, Sanford has just finished watching a video of a recent scuffle between three off-duty officers and security guards outside a Capitol Hill bar.

Although he says he didn't see anything particularly disturbing in the video, he also makes it clear that he thinks his officers should have just walked away, especially in light of the SPD's current image problem. "We don't have the luxury of two or three years [to turn that around]," he says. "It strikes me we have two or three months."

Sanford reportedly can be a demanding taskmaster. A comment he made at a meeting of sergeants last year, comparing officers who had been disciplined to wildebeests who don't make it across the Serengeti, sparked an uproar in the ranks. Doctored pictures of the command staff standing next to dead wildebeests started to circulate, the notion being that the brass saw officers as disposable. (Sanford says he was misinterpreted—that in fact he was making the point that "bad things sometimes happen to good people," or wildebeests.)

Like a lot of SPD senior command, though, he's a product of what modern police departments see as desirable training grounds: the wonky, freewheeling schools of criminology and public policy, where all kinds of professionals come together to pore over longitudinal studies and debate what's best for society in dealing with criminals. In 2007, Sanford earned a master's degree from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs.

Sanford says he relished the "broader view" gained from that experience, and over the next several hours in a conference room, he grows expansive as he describes how he sees the Belltown list fitting into the bigger picture. "The genesis of this—I'll say this for myself—is to look at things differently than we historically have," he says.

In recent years, he elaborates, criminologists have made a couple of significant observations. One, thanks to the work of renowned George Mason University professor David Weisburd, who based his conclusions in part on a 16-year study he did in Seattle, is that cities have crime "hot spots"—micro-regions as small as half a block that collectively are responsible for an inordinate share of a city's overall crime problem.

Weisburd found that a similar phenomenon applied to people: a small number cause a lot of crime. Now, Weisburd says, police departments like Seattle's are finding an even smaller number of "hyper-rate offenders."

The conventional police perspective would have officers put them in cuffs. Sanford, however, argues that that's not the answer. "For many years, the primary tool police used was arrest, arrest, arrest." He jumps up to a whiteboard and draws an arrow going up. In the mid-'90s, as this approach was in full swing, the crime rate did start to drop. But then a funny thing happened. The arrest rate also started going down. Sanford draws a corresponding arrow. "Yet crime keeps going down," he says.

So if, as he reasons, arrests aren't the reason for the huge drop in the national crime rate, what is? The question has caused lively debate in recent years, with people pointing to everything from rising abortion numbers to longer and longer prison sentences. Sanford, for his part, says "We need to know more."

Whatever factors are at work, he sees a kind of reverse corollary in the Belltown list. "We've arrested these people many, many times. Yet it has not made these people better—or Belltown safer. That's not how we want to proceed going forward." In this way, he agrees with the mayor.

But this logic also presents a challenge for the SPD, since it doesn't know how it does want to proceed. "We're still trying to feel our way," Sanford says.

He says he wants to start by finding out a lot more about the people—"our clients"—whom the SPD deals with on a daily basis. "What other city services do they use? How do they get their housing? Where do they stay during the daytime?" Also: Are they addicted to drugs? Do they have mental-health issues? Where are their families?

He says the SPD is trying to interest some academics, perhaps at George Mason or the University of Washington, in doing a thorough analysis. Part of the point would be to ask what these people need to stop committing crimes. "Can we look at these people as human beings first and foremost?" Sanford asks. Liberals, social-service agencies, and even other parts of the criminal-justice system may have asked this question for years, but for the SPD to do so—to adopt what Sanford calls a "non-police angle"—is new.


In May 2007, Gerald added to an already extensive rap sheet by pleading guilty to possession after selling a rock of crack to an undercover officer in Victor Steinbrueck Park. The prosecutor recommended a 16-month sentence, but a Superior Court judge offered Gerald a break. Instead of prison, he could go to a residential drug-treatment program in Spokane for three to six months. He lasted less than 24 hours.

What followed were five years of mostly self-inflicted wounds. At one point, offered treatment again while facing jail, Gerald says he made it 12 months clean and sober, gaining free housing in the bargain. But when he graduated from that program last February, it meant a return to the streets, and a return to a life of dealing and using.

"I came back home," he says, meaning Belltown. "This is what I know, right here."

Surely many lessons can be learned from Gerald's experience, but one of them would seem to back up a point made by Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of the public-defense agency known as The Defender Association. When dealing with offenders, she contends, "Drug treatment by itself is not effective." She maintains that other issues propel criminals back to the life they know, including homelessness and unemployment.

That is a central premise behind LEAD, which got off the ground in October, just in time to present itself as a potential solution for at least some on the Belltown list. (Since LEAD is mainly intended for low-level offenders, it's not a solution for all.)

The program has a lot of involved parties, including the King County Prosecutor's office, which suggested Belltown for LEAD's trial run. "If it can work in Belltown, it can work anywhere," Daugaard recalls Prosecutor Dan Satterberg saying. But particularly noteworthy is the SPD's unlikely yet vital role: rounding up participants. Often this occurs when officers arrest suspects and then offer LEAD as an alternative to facing charges.

Until recently, the idea of police doing such a thing was "a non-starter," Daugaard says. She recalls a similar idea being shot down by a deputy of then–Chief Gil Kerlikowske at a City Council meeting five or six years ago.

But around that time, the SPD began looking for a way to combat the charge that it was enforcing drug laws in a selective way that put far more black people than white in jail. TDA was, in fact, pressing that point in court as it attempted to have a slew of cases dismissed.

Amid a break in the legal wrangling in 2005, the agency sat down with police, prosecutors, and officials from the mayor's office to see if they could find any common ground. They couldn't, at least on the question of whether racial disparity in drug enforcement really did exist. But then, as Daugaard remembers it, Captain Steve Brown, then head of the SPD's narcotics unit, asked: "What if we did something different?" That is, what if police handled drug arrests in a different way? Was there an alternative everyone could agree on?

Nobody had an answer right then, but TDA went away and came up with a proposal, based on successful programs in the UK, that was the genesis of LEAD.

It wasn't the only soft approach the SPD would weigh over the next few years. There was tremendous buzz around a model designed by New York criminologist David Kennedy, in which police around the country called criminals to staged interventions in which they faced not only law enforcement but family and community members too. Police would present the offenders with criminal cases they had laboriously built over the preceding year, and then offer an ultimatum: Turn your lives around and we'll defer charges. Don't, and we'll come after you. The SPD eventually carried out versions of that model in the Central District (where it was dubbed the "drug-market initiative") and, on a smaller scale, in Columbia City.

The LEAD proposal laid out an even softer method. Police would not threaten to come after criminals who reoffended. Instead, they would simply offer help, and in a more focused way: through a social-service agency specially designated for that purpose.

While many saw the drug-market initiative as successful, LEAD offered local law enforcement a way not only to get TDA off its back, but to save money in the process. No laborious case-building was necessary, and TDA eventually brought in nearly $1 million in private grants to help foot the bill.

Kerlikowske asked Captain Brown to work with TDA on exploring the idea, but it was current chief John Diaz who gave it the green light within the SPD—a not-insignificant fact, in Daugaard's view. That's because she sees a cultural shift brought by the leadership change.

"I think more has been done in the last two years to attempt meaningful reform than at any time in the last 15 years," she says—a startling vote of confidence from one of the SPD's most persistent sparring partners. While other critics use the DOJ report to call for Diaz's head, Daugaard sees it as a reflection of patterns established long before the chief took charge.

She looks instead at the way the SPD, under Diaz, changed its trespassing policy, long attacked by TDA and others as unconstitutional. The old policy empowered officers to ban misbehaving individuals from a given property, even if they wanted to come back to do something harmless—say, buy a carton of milk from a store. Now officers ban only specific behavior—you can't sleep under this doorway, for example. SPD commanders made the change voluntarily and enthusiastically, Daugaard says.

She also notes that the new chief put the widely respected Brown in charge of training. He's gone on to ask for dash-camera tapes showing alleged problematic behavior by officers. "Nobody ever asked us for that before," she says.

Then there's the "progressive" bent, as Daugaard sees it, to the talk that is happening within the SPD about the Belltown list, as typified by Sanford. Yet not everybody within the SPD sees the list in the same way, which is obvious from a walk around Belltown with its best-known beat cops.


Besaw and Burns share just about everything. They have the same build (burly) and age (middle). They were best men at each other's weddings, have been close since childhood when they both knocked around West Seattle's Hiawatha Playfield, and also share similar views on crime and policing, although you're much more likely to hear them expressed by Burns.

"I've been doing this for 23 years. He's been doing it for 25. We are passionate," Burns announces when he introduces himself at the West Precinct. Burns and Besaw have separately worked a variety of beats during that time, but have come together in the past few years to work as partners in Belltown, which they usually patrol by bike.

Today they've agreed to walk, after first making their way by car. "See that guy on the right," Burns says as they approach First Avenue and Battery Street, where a man in a baggy jean jacket is staggering against a wall. "I've arrested him a bunch of times."

"Let's go talk to him," Besaw says.

"I need help," says the man, slurring his words, after the officers have parked and walked over. "Medical detox."

Besaw radios in a request while Burns asks, "Why don't you sit down?"

The man declines, then suddenly starts shouting. "Are you going to shoot me? Are you going to fucking crack my head open?"

"You want us to drive you to detox?" Burns asks, seemingly calm as can be but moving in slightly (he later explains) to contain a possible punch.

"Nah," says the man.

"How come you just said you did? We'll take you up there right now."

"You're going to shoot me, like fucking John T." The man, who appears to be Native American, is referring to John T. Williams, the Native American carver and chronic inebriate shot dead by an officer in August 2010. They continue like this for several minutes until the man wanders off, telling the officers to "shoot my ass, man."

This man is not on the list. But the encounter gets Burns riffing about the frustration officers feel in seeing the same people making the same mistakes over and over. Of the man's familiarity with detox facilities, "What does that say about about the system?" Burns wants to know. To him, it says this: "Nobody ever holds them accountable." It's a theme he will repeat again and again over the next four hours. He says he supports LEAD—indeed, he and Besaw take part in meetings that oversee its administration—but doesn't believe it's for everyone.

"Everybody makes mistakes," he says. "But when they do it 100 times?"

The problem, as Burns sees it, and as Besaw, nodding along, apparently does too, has less to do with the needs of offenders and more to do with the inadequate way they've been punished. This doesn't mean that they think police can arrest their way out of the problem. As Sanford does, they see the list as proving they cannot. But in their view, that's because the rest of the criminal-justice system isn't following through.

"Police are actually doing their job," Burns says, citing all the arrests documented by the list. It's prosecutors and judges, he says, whom the Belltown community should look to when wondering why these perpetual offenders still cause problems in the neighborhood—them, and social-service providers, according to the officers. "We've got 20 different social-service programs [in Belltown]," Burns says. "So we're bringing people to this area that are not the most productive."

And living in Belltown, with all its drug dealing, doesn't help them either, Burns contends.

"See this guy," says Besaw, now near the intersection of Second Avenue and Bell Street. The officer nods toward a glazed man with wild hair crossing the street who turns out to be the list leader—208 and counting—in contacts. "He's a very scary guy."

According to court records, that "very scary guy" had a burglary and a host of alcohol-related misdemeanors to his name when in 2000, walking barefoot and wearing a dirty trench coat, he approached a 75-year-old woman from behind as she walked in Queen Anne. He then rammed into her, sending her four feet in the air. When she fell, she struck her head on the pavement with an audible crack.

"I didn't mean to do that," he muttered as he wandered off, according to a police officer's account. But as he made his way to Belltown, he proceeded to ram two other women—neither of whom were hurt as badly as the 75-year-old, who died the next day.

Admitted to Western State Hospital, where he had already been eight times in the preceding decade, he began talking to a psychologist about "Zeus" and "Aphrodite with the black beard." Yet despite being diagnosed as schizophrenic, he was judged competent, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to 86 months.

More recently, Besaw says, this man was found in a Belltown dog park attempting to choke one of its four-legged inhabitants. "It just amazes me that they put him in a spot like this," says the officer.

Besaw and Burns then head over to the "Blade," as the Pike/Pine corridor is known by cops and drug dealers. The officers, despite their tough views, behave like town squires, greeting hustlers, ex-cons, and longtime street denizens with good-natured ribbing. When they spy a man in a wheelchair, Burns sneaks up on him. "What's up?" the officer asks, grinning.

Only a few minutes earlier, Burns cited the man, "Ricky," as an example of someone who desperately needs to be held accountable. According to Burns, Ricky is a onetime gang member who committed murder in St. Louis, then came here to deal drugs and "run girls." At some point he got into an accident and lost a leg, but his escapades continue. The officers tell how he recently stabbed a man, thereby getting himself kicked out of the cushy high-rise apartment—with "a view" and "227 cable-TV channels"—that a nonprofit had kindly provided him. Now, they relate incredulously, he's on a wait list for yet another subsidized apartment.

"Listen, knucklehead," Burns tells Ricky, "you get caught high out here, you're going to lose that housing."

Ricky nods.

"What's happening with that stabbing?"

Ricky smiles and gives a thumbs-up. "All good. No probation. No nothing."

"A lot better than when you got caught in St. Louis," Burns says. Ricky laughs.

His allegedly consequence-free stabbing would seem to be a perfect example of how the system doesn't exact accountability, but Ian Goodhew, the King County prosecutor's deputy chief of staff, offers another explanation. The victim, friendly with Ricky and not wanting to testify, insisted despite his wounds that he had not actually been stabbed.

Goodhew reveals something else about Ricky, confirmed by court records and the FBI's national database of crime: According to all those sources, Ricky never did commit a murder in St. Louis, but an aggravated assault in Ohio, for which he served six months in jail.

"Folks on the street often puff up their criminal record," Goodhew says, offering a possible explanation for how Burns and Besaw (and others on the force, according to police reports) came to believe Ricky was a murderer. Yet Goodhew, aware that "murder" sits by Ricky's name on the list, now wonders: "How many other data points are not accurate?"

It's a reminder that the list is a rough and evolving document, still to be thoroughly fact-checked and analyzed, still raising more questions than answers.


A couple of months after enrolling in LEAD, one of five people on the Belltown list to do so, Gerald walks from the program's Belltown office to a nearby Starbucks. Wearing a puffy black jacket over a grey hoodie, he lopes from side to side and talks a blue streak. Like a Chamber of Commerce guide, he gives a rundown on Seattle's growth in recent years and the diversified economy brought by Amazon, Microsoft, and the like. Reaching Starbucks, he asks for "something with caramel," and turns to his attempt to start a new life.

He says it's working, gradually. "I just needed somebody to say 'This is real. You're not here to shuck and jive.' " He describes his LEAD caseworker, Tina Walker, as that person. "She know how it is," he says.

That's because the 62-year-old Walker is a former addict herself. Crack, heroin, alcohol—she used it all, until she found herself homeless and unemployed. "I was 46 years old when I went back to treatment for the third time," she says. It was the time that stuck.

Walker knows firsthand that "People are not always ready when they think they are." When Gerald disappeared for a couple of weeks, missing his appointments with her, she told him he was messing up his life, but added: "We can always start over."

Gerald took her up on it. She got him an ID and food stamps, and applied for disability benefits (citing mental-health problems) and subsidized Section 8 housing on his behalf. "I want a roof over my head," he says. "I want my own refrigerator. I want to watch TV and walk around the place buck-naked."

As of this morning, though, Gerald is still homeless. He woke up in Denny Park. Then, he admits, he had his morning fix of heroin, meaning he is high as he speaks. "I don't consume as much as I used to," he says. But he still consumes.

Likewise, he says he's cutting back on the "hustling," but hasn't stopped yet. "I ain't going to lie to you," he says. At one point, asked for his phone number, he takes out two of his many phones: "one for drug money, one for ho money," he explains. (He says he's not a pimp, but maintains a separate line for selling drugs to prostitutes.)

But Walker sees hope. Since Gerald got back on track, he has been coming to see her at least four times a week of his own volition, just to check in. "He's motivated," she says. After jumping through the necessary hoops, she got him signed up for a methadone-treatment program to deal with his heroin addiction. Once he gets a free daily dose of methadone, she reasons, he won't need to hustle.

"I still need to help him address his crack addiction," she says. "I'm thinking maybe an outpatient treatment program."

A couple of weeks later, Gerald answers his "drug money" phone. He's on the bus, he explains, coming back from his very first session of methadone treatment. It went "pretty good," he says, and the SoDo clinic had also offered him a weekly class that would teach him about his addiction.

He had spent the night before at an Aurora Avenue motel that Walker had brought him to. "She dropped me off at 2 o'clock and I didn't leave 'til she came and picked me up and brought me down here [to the methadone clinic]," he says. He was expecting his Section 8 housing to come through any day now.

"Everything will come together," he says. Does he really think he can stick with his daily treatments and kick the heroin habit this time?

"I have to," he says.


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow