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Anger, frustration roil Seattle City Council budget talks following news of sex worker arrests

Council members expressed support for funding alternatives to arrest.

A woman walks down a block of Aurora Avenue North near North 103rd Street in Seattle, during the late evening hours of Oct. 1, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Upon learning that the Seattle Police Department has resumed arresting sex workers on Aurora Avenue, several members of the Seattle City Council expressed dismay this week and pledged to find extra funding for alternatives in this year’s budget.

“I’ve been educated to understand that the largely women on the street in the sex trade are victims in this system, not the criminals,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “It’s amazing to note that our prosecutors, our cops all understand that reality; that is not an easy thing to pull off in other cities. And then to read, for lack of anything better to do, despite what everyone knows, we have now reverted to the old system and that is just crushing to me.”

Since 2012, law enforcement in Seattle and King County has subscribed to the “Nordic model” approach to the sex trade, arresting “johns” who buy sex, rather than the people selling it.

But beginning last July, the department resumed arresting and booking sex workers on Aurora. In an interview earlier this week, Capt. Mike Edwards, head of the Seattle Police Department's High Risk Victims unit,  said the change was in response to an increase in activity, a call for action from North Seattle residents and — what frustrated council members the most — because diversion programs are over capacity. 

Representatives of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a pre-arrest diversion organization that historically has accepted sex worker referrals in lieu of arrest, told the council Wednesday that they are far beyond capacity. The program is struggling to accept new referrals, and police officers, knowing their referrals are not likely to go anywhere, are not even bothering to send them.

“The only reason we can’t do [diversion] is because, in a city with the wealth that we have and a big budget, we have not figured out how to fund that,” said O’Brien.

In her proposed budget, Mayor Jenny Durkan did not include significant new funding for LEAD, adding only a modest increase that would largely cover pay increases.

In the context of common repeat offenders, the council was already considering scaling up diversion programs, namely LEAD. But the revelation of sex worker arrests, first reported by Crosscut Wednesday, has spurred even greater momentum.

“I think that as we work through the next four weeks of the budget it is critically important that we find ways to expand this system to meet that demand because the alternatives are horrendous,” said O’Brien.

Police officials say they continue to use a “trauma informed” approach to sex workers, even if arrests are up. Edwards told Crosscut Thursday that the priority continues to be those buying sex and the pimps who manage the sex workers. “Nothing has changed on our end as far as where we stand on diversion and how we see it, but we’ll constantly reevaluate what our efforts are and look to the resources we have available,” Edwards said.

In an interview Thursday, Councilmember Kshama Sawant expressed her frustration. “I think the whole conversation yesterday spanned two critical issues for the city as a whole,” she said. “One is the question of women’s rights, that’s at the center here. … The other thing that it touches upon from yesterday’s discussion is the funding for programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.”

How the council’s heightened interest in the issue of street prostitution plays out in the coming weeks remains to be seen. O’Brien and other council members have not yet identified where, exactly, the money would come from to scale up diversion programs.

Sawant called for moving funds away from homeless encampment "sweeps," something she’s proposed during past budget discussions, to no success. She also suggested that the council could hold some funding from the police department in response to the shift to arrests and to effect change in approach by police. But she said that idea has not been widely discussed among council members.

Wednesday’s council meeting took a particularly tense turn after Deputy Chief Mark Garth Green, when questioned about the arrests, said some women were on the street by “choice” and “enjoyed” it. In response, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, “I have never been so shocked by such an assertion.” Garth Green later apologized for the remarks.

Responding to the uproar over Garth Green's comments about people enjoying sex work, Edwards said it is something they’ve heard, but that it doesn’t inform or color their approach, which remains trying to connect workers with service providers.

The department’s increased arrests of sex workers touched a nerve in the city, exposing the wide range of views on how Seattle should approach sex work. At least one leading candidate for Seattle City Council, Tammy Morales, called on Twitter Thursday for the decriminalization of sex work. Most council members, meanwhile, continue to support targeting the “demand” side — the “johns” buying sex. However, even that approach is controversial, rejected by Amnesty International as driving the practice underground and making it less safe.

Meanwhile, businesses and residents in North Seattle have called on the police to use a more forceful approach.

The city council will vote on the city’s final budget this November.

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Anger, frustration roil Seattle City Council budget talks following news of sex worker arrests

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