Analysis: The Real Story Behind the ‘Feud’ Between Pete Holmes and SPD

If it’s drama and controversy you’re looking for – and the media usually is – you needed look no further than the last paragraph of a letter Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes sent to acting Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel on Tuesday.

“You should also know that I am disappointed by the inaccurate and unhelpful statements Captain Dermody sent to the entire City Council last Friday,” the closing paragraph began, expressing Holmes’ displeasure with the written words of the West Precinct’s top cop. Dermody’s e-mail claimed the City Attorney’s office stopped filing failure to respond misdemeanors - an apparent attempt to prove Seattle police are doing all they can to curb downtown street disorder but are being thwarted by Holmes.

In the larger – and more important - context, Holmes’ letter came in response to a request Pugel had sent the City Attorney’s Office seeking failure to respond charges on 28 individuals identified to have over three outstanding citations for low-level civil infractions like drinking in public and violations of the city’s sit/lie ordinance. Filing such charges is a fairly new approach launched under the Center City Initiative (CCI), a citywide collaborative effort championed by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn to find solutions to the city’s issues with homelessness and street disorder downtown.

So far, one such failure to respond warrant has been issued – against Jay T. Morris (AKA Jeffrey Morin). Under a compromise reached through CCI, Holmes has agreed to consider such warrants on a case-by-case basis, when the various arms of law enforcement and social services feel such a step might be effective.

As The Seattle Times pointed out in its lede, the request from Pugel came just two days after last week’s jarring bus shooting. Was the request reactionary - a direct result of the bus shooting? “I don’t know,” says SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb. Would the bus shooter even have made such a list? “I don’t know,” Whitcomb again responds. (UPDATE: Kimberly Mills, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office, confirms that the bus shooter - Martin Duckworth - would not have been on the list of 28.)

“The idea that this has any connection to the bus shooting makes no sense,” says Lisa Daugaard, the deputy director of the Defender Association and a key player in CCI. “I think there’s a disconnect there, and I don’t think The Times story should associate things that aren’t associated.”

What is known is that Holmes, as has been documented with vigor by the paper of record, denied the request, replying to SPD that the case had not been made for turning civil infractions into criminal charges. He returned the binder in which the 28 repeat civil offenders stories were included, providing an outline of what his office would need from SPD to file the failure to respond charges.

“In cases where specific people chronically commit similar infractions under similar circumstances, fail to respond to these infractions, and refuse to stop their behavior after repeated attempts (by law enforcement, human services, LEAD, the Crisis Solutions Center, the Mobile Crisis Team, or other agencies, as appropriate) to achieve compliance, I will consider criminal FTR [failure to respond] charges,” writes Holmes. “To meet the high burden of turning civil violations into criminal offenses, it is important that law enforcement document the chronic nature of the violations, the efforts to gain compliance, and the result of human services or other outreach.”

“What we said in our response was we’d certainly consider filing charges, but more workup needs to be done,” explains John Schochet, Holmes’ deputy chief of staff, diffusing the notion of a rift between the City Attorney and SPD and pointing out that, in addition to returning the binder, the City Attorney’s Office had included more information about a number of the 28 people the binder documented, including that several already have active warrants for which they could be arrested. “We’re trying to be helpful in clearly articulating what we need for these charges,” Schochet says.

In other words, it wasn’t as much of a rebuff as it was the start of a conversation about what the City Attorney’s Office would need to see in order to file the failure to respond warrants SPD is seeking – a move in line with Holmes’ stated willingness to consider such actions on a case-by-case basis.

“This is part of an ongoing conversation in our city. We have a very close relationship with the City Attorney’s Office,” says Whitcomb. “In order for us to be successful in our respective missions we need to be working very closely together.”

The trouble is, that’s not a very juicy story. Focusing on the finger pointing plays better when it comes to generating buzz, moving papers and garnering page-views.

“I think that it’s blown out of proportion,” says Schochet of the coverage the “feud” has received so far.

Of course, the blame game is nothing new. It’s a constant in politics, especially during campaign season. And since last week’s bus shooting, the blame game in Seattle surrounding downtown crime and safety has reached a fevered pitch.

Days before 31-year-old Martin Duckworth was taken out by police as he hopped on a bus at Second and Seneca – after he’d shot metro bus driver DeLoy Dupuis at least twice earlier in the morning – the Downtown Seattle Association was already sounding the alarm, issuing a letter July 31 that called growing street disorder and violence downtown out of control and urging Mayor McGinn and Seattle Police to do more. Noting that the Association had “patiently participated” in the CCI process, the letter urged the mayor and the city to step up efforts to crack down on lawlessness. More than talk was needed, the Association argued.

The bus shooting only upped the ante, prompting McGinn and Pugel to defend their records and go on the offensive. Press conferences were called, money was pledged and stats painting a picture of reduced crime were trotted out.

Many remained unconvinced, however. To no one’s great surprise, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark and Bruce Harrell joined the chorus calling for more from McGinn and the police force, publishing a politically motivated and highly critical open letter on Burgess’ blog titled “It Takes a Mayor.” (Burgess and Clark have endorsed McGinn’s mayoral challenger, Ed Murray, while Harrell said in primary defeat that voters “want change and a new mayor, too.”) Meanwhile, the staunchly anti-McGinn Seattle Times ran a watchdog piece Aug. 15 disputing McGinn’s claims of reduced crime downtown. Finger pointing ran rampant.

Dermody’s e-mail to council came the next day.

For the arms of law and justice, all of it has created a highly-charged atmosphere, where the various parties involved feel compelled to defend their worth. It was perhaps this feeling that led Dermody to fire off his e-mail to Council essentially laying the blame at Holmes’ feet – even though his accusations, likely made in the heat of the moment, failed to do the situation justice. (Dermody is on vacation until Sept. 3, and thus unavailable for comment regarding the motivations of his e-mail.)

“Everyone is trying to demonstrate under a lot of public pressure that they’re doing their job,” says Daugaard. “I do think [Dermody’s e-mail] misstates the current agreement [between SPD and the City Attorney’s Office]. I wish [Dermody] had acknowledged that the City Attorney’s Office had already shifted to embrace a policy of filing these charges under the directive of the CCI.

“I do understand Captain Dermody impetus to defend of his officers,” she continues. “I would translate the language [of his e-mail] as, ‘We can only do our part. What happens after we cite somebody or arrest somebody is up to other players.’ It’s just that it implies that there’s something wrong.”

You already know how Holmes responded, and you already know the treatment the media has given the situation. The Times has framed it as a growing feud between the City Attorney’s Office and the police force, and perhaps even evidence that CCI is on the verge of disintegrating. The nightly news has followed suite.

The only trouble with that narrative? It’s not exactly accurate.

But accuracy often takes a backseat during election season.

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