Are Harrell and Murray Turning Seattle Street Disorder Into Political Opportunity?

Is public safety downtown a pressing problem or a political opportunity? Are urinating drunks, open-air drug dealing and sleeping homeless people creating an unsafe atmosphere in Seattle or a chance for Mike McGinn’s haters to go on the attack?

Based on recent events, it would seem the answer is all of the above.

On Wednesday night Bruce Harrell’s Public Safety Commission met to get an update on the mayor’s Center City Initiative – which aims to collaboratively tackle problems associated with homelessness and street disorder downtown. Not surprisingly, the meeting was scheduled as public concern over downtown safety grows, stoked by things like Danny Westneat columns about his alarmed buddy from New York and comments, cited by the Seattle Times this morning, about how King County Sheriff John Urquhart’s wife doesn’t feel safe taking a bus downtown to the movies. Of course, all of this comes with the backdrop of last month’s bus shooting and a string of other unnerving events that provides the impression that low level crime and homeless-related blight is at an all-time high in the Emerald City.

According to the Times, Public Safety Commission Chairman Harrell scheduled yesterday’s meeting because he “wanted an update on the initiative, how it was measuring the problem and how the city can most effectively ‘move the needle’ on the chronic problems downtown, which include open-air drug dealing, public drinking and urination.”

With the perceived uptick in all the problems, it’s not really surprising that the City Council’s Public Safety Commission – led by Harrell – would want an update and a chance to ask questions. However, with election season upon us, perhaps it’s also not really surprising that the very next day, at a press conference this morning, Harrell would stand beside McGinn’s challenger Ed Murray at a planned press conference and offer his “official and unconditional endorsement” for the man gunning for McGinn’s job. As a press release issued this morning from the Murray camp trumpeted, the presser was intended “to roll out Murray’s public safety agenda,” with one of the key components being how to deal with “the mounting concerns about street crime in Seattle.”

Coincidence? Sure, maybe. But while there’s no doubt Harrell has a track record as a leader and champion on public safety and social justice issues during his time on the Council, the timing of it all makes Wednesday “update” on the Center City Initiative feel like politically motivated theater, doesn’t it?

“I heard a unity of vision and purpose among the participants in the discussion, which is remarkable and positive. I did not hear any Councilmembers voice any basis for concern with the Center City approach as outlined yesterday,” says Lisa Daugaard, a key player in the Center City Initiative and deputy director of the Defender Association. Echoing what she’s said all along about the Center City Initiative, and as the Times notes in its piece on yesterday’s committee meeting, Daugaard told those on hand, “I don’t want anyone to think Center City stands for social services first and enforcement second.”

Interestingly enough, as the Times also notes, Harrell’s main concern during yesterday’s committee meeting centered on “the dramatic drop in civil charges filed by the City Attorney’s Office for low-level street infractions ...” (UPDATE: City Attorney’s Office Spokesperson Kimberly Mills points out that Holmes’ office “doesn’t file civil charges; SPD officers file the tickets/infractions directly with the Seattle Municipal Court.”) According to the Murray press release, however, at today’s press conference Harrell was to be joined by none other than City Attorney Pete Holmes, with both men calling for McGinn’s ouster.

Nice to see the two leaders have a shared vision … at least when it comes to getting rid of McGinn.

“Credit for this emerging consensus about a new, more reality-based approach to public order issues definitely goes to visionary business and neighborhood leaders participating in the Center City Initiative, and to civil rights and human services leaders who are committed to improving the situation for poor people whose challenges cause problems for themselves as well as for neighborhoods. The City Attorney and Chief Pugel have made a sincere commitment to this approach as well,” Daugaard tells Seattle Weekly. “But unquestionably, Mayor McGinn and his senior staff have championed and supported this approach, which is the most promising development on making real progress on public order issues for many years. The McGinn administration has brought the stakeholders together and encouraged development of a consensus approach, in contrast to past divisiveness which accomplished nothing.

“No matter what the outcome of the election is, my hope is that the Center City consensus will hold and community leaders will demand that all of our elected officials pursue an agenda that uses law enforcement where it is fair and effective, and social service strategies where they are most effective.”

At this point it seems like the biggest threat to that vision is November’s election. While the Center City Initiative doesn’t need McGinn to succeed, what threatens to doom it is politicians turning Seattle’s problems with homelessness and street disorder into political opportunity, risking any progress made via Center City in the process. More than Mike McGinn’s job, that’s what’s really at stake.

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