System failure: Seattle isn't dying and poverty isn't a crime

A recent report on misdemeanors continues a toxic narrative in local politics.

Chief of Police Carmen Best and Mayor Durkan, with City Attorney Pete Holmes

Two recent reports critique City Attorney Pete Holmes, pictured here, for failing to more robustly prosecute misdemeanors. According to Op-Ed contributor Dujie Tahat, there is a line that connects those reports to politically motivated, business-friendly funders, to Mayor Jenny Durkan's office, and to the megaphone platform that is local broadcast television. (Matt McKnight/Crosscut)

A group of business associations released a report earlier this month that claims City Attorney Pete Holmes is failing to prosecute misdemeanors to the full extent of the law.

The architects of this report, called "System Failure Part 2," are attempting to validate and codify the criminalization of poverty. By their own admission, they are trying to “force a conversation about the undeclared crisis in Seattle’s criminal justice system,” all while implying correlations between crime and people who are cash poor or experiencing homelessness.

Chief among its flaws: the report does not acknowledge the ecosystem it’s been ushered into. In this moment, downtown businesses are using individual instances of crime — often petty theft — to both generalize and criminalize a population of over 10,000 people living on the streets. At the same time, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has been outspoken against certain city-proposed tax measures aimed at reducing homelessness. The authors of this report had an opportunity to push back more stridently against these widely presumed correlations; they didn’t take it. In the field of political communications, it is understood that if you don’t connect the dots, people will fill in the gaps.

The report is nakedly political. Authored by Scott Lindsay — a former political opponent of Holmes and public safety adviser to Mayor Ed Murray — it both continues troubling trends in Lindsay’s political praxis and perpetuates a narrative that serves local business interests.

In the last weeks of his unsuccessful bid for city attorney, Lindsay and his campaign pushed a story to local press and through targeted Facebook ads claiming, “New FBI data shows Seattle has the highest property crime rate in the nation." That was wrong, and Lindsay later acknowledged the mistake. But this sloppy streak continues: Upon reviewing the first of the two “System Failure” reports, Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight discovered an alarming amount of methodological flaws.

It turns out the report published at the beginning of the month is as lacking in good faith as Lindsay’s previous work. But the report isn’t without moments of truth. It is aware that “the criminal justice system may not be the appropriate place to resolve” many of the upstream issues that lead to misdemeanors. Similarly, it nods toward the ways that a broken system can trap those facing homelessness. The report, however, provides no solutions to this dilemma.

More troublingly, without providing more robust alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, Lindsay implies that prosecuting more people is a good thing — people whom, the report in one instance doesn’t mind telling you, are both “struggling with homelessness and behavioral health issues,” equating the two as if they were necessarily linked. The report does this despite ample evidence to suggest jail time is a terrible substitute for a lack of housing or social services. In fact, the greater exposure people have to the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to be rearrested.

In Seattle, at least one in five people booked into jail is homeless. Lindsay’s report claims to want to help vulnerable people, but instead perpetuates the notion of a “prolific offender,” an archetype originated by the first “System Failure” report and one that calls to mind past political (often Black and Brown) boogeymen — including welfare queens.

It’s not surprising that the likes of the Downtown Seattle Association, SoDo Business Improvement Area, Visit Seattle and the Alliance for Pioneer Square found a friend in Lindsay — who, during his failed 2017 campaign, happily took the maximum amount of donations from several business-minded PACs. But their most dependable ally has turned out to be local media, including TV broadcast stations and the Seattle Times editorial board.

In February, when Lindsay and the same consortium published their first report — which did even less to push back against the correlation between poverty and crime — it generated a series of stories about “prolific offenders.” In fact, by creating this category of people, it reinforced an existing narrative so well that Mayor Jenny Durkan created a “prolific offender” task force. The mayor’s move then prompted another series of stories about the “prolific offender” and the taxpayer resources thereby dedicated to solve it. This is how political narratives get reinforced.

Giving the Mayor Durkan the benefit of the doubt, I suspect she didn’t take the step of convening a special committee because of this report. But her unwillingness to reframe the very idea of the “prolific offender” further ingrained the narrative. A month after the first report was released, in March, KOMO TV capitalized on the moment with an irresponsibly reported propaganda piece, Seattle Is Dying. By way of the right-wing online media apparatus, it landed mentions on Fox News and other national outlets. Ever since, talk of Seattle’s homelessness problem has taken place in the shadow of this warped narrative.

So who’s served by this narrative politically? In February, it was reported that the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC was “taking seriously” the first “Systems Failure” report. They relied on Seattle Is Dying themes, if not explicitly, then allusively in mailers throughout the primary election. So long as elected officials feel the pressure of the crisis and have no room to tout victories, they’ll continue to get bullied by the chamber. One need look no further than the toxic head tax debate to see evidence of the disproportionate influence business interests wield in local politics. When it comes to homelessness, advancing the narrative that Seattle is dying maximizes their political leverage.

There is a line that connects the author of the “System Failure” reports to politically motivated funders, to the mayor’s office, to the megaphone platform that is local broadcast television. The big business interests the chamber represents created a vicious cycle of originating and legitimizing their political narrative, forcing officials to react, prompting local media coverage, giving pretense to conduct yet another “study.” If the politics motivating this cycle didn’t harm over 10,000 people in King County living in the streets — much less the tens of thousands more facing housing instability — one could almost admire it.

Clarification: A previous version of this Op-Ed noted that the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce “is using every tool at its disposal to maximize political leverage in order to beat back city-proposed tax measures,” while linking to a story detailing the business backlash to the so-called “head tax.” While the Chamber has been a vocal opponent of the head tax, the group was not directly involved in the referendum effort. Also, the Chamber has supported a handful of city-proposed tax measures, including the Housing Levy, the Family, Education, Preschool, and Promise Levy, and Move Seattle.

, an earlier version of this Op-Ed also claimed that “The Chamber and its allies have a vested interest in suppressing stories of success when it comes to homelessness...” The Chamber has in fact shared stories of success involving housing homeless youth and veterans.

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