Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Courthouse Safety Concerns Grow

December 2019 Bar Bulletin

Time for New Solutions

This year has seen 160 assaults near the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle during the first ten months of 2019, most focused near the 3rd Avenue entrance.

160 assaults.

That number initially leaves me speechless. We’re talking about acts of physical violence. And while underlying causes that lead to these acts include mental illness, drug addiction, and other problems that cry out for a solution themselves, these acts of violence against the public who work in or have business before the judicial system must be stopped.

And beyond this violence, we are increasingly immobilized as a society when witnessing in plain sight of our downtown courthouse open drug use, people urinating and defecating on the courthouse steps, and indecent exposure, to share just a few examples reported in the media.

A group of county leaders including Judges Jim Rogers and Sean O’Donnell, Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, and County Chief Administrative Officer Caroline Whalen have attended multiple inter-agency meetings on these challenges with City of Seattle counterparts, including police and community organizations. They have made progress on issues like increased power-washing of sidewalks and improving streetlight brightness, and most importantly seem to have reached a budget agreement for the regular opening of a small alternative Fourth Avenue entrance.

Yet the assaults are continuing. The sense of a lack of safety permeates. We have to do more.

The judges, courtroom staff, attorneys, litigants, jurors, and the public with business before the court all deserve better. And they receive it at every other court facility across our county, both state and federal, everywhere except for the downtown King County Courthouse.

Look for example at the Regional Justice Center in Kent. Beautiful grounds with an inviting entrance. The Federal Courthouse has a magnificently maintained plaza that feels significantly safer. Even the Seattle Municipal Courthouse, just two blocks east on Fifth Avenue and across the street from City Hall offers a welcoming environment where visitors and workers alike can comfortably sit outside and eat their lunch without fear of an attack.

Okay, let’s be honest and acknowledge the biggest difference benefiting a safe environment for Seattle Municipal Court. Their next door neighbor is the Seattle Police Headquarters. But aren’t there still options available to us short of relocating the King County Courthouse, as one councilmember recently opined in a media report?

For my part, I am not satisfied that the bar has stepped up enough to offer its full support and assistance with developing solutions. At a minimum KCBA can and will be in contact with Mayor Durkan and Executive Constantine and implore them to engage more personally on this critical issue, and we will lend our voice in support of efforts to address the violence outside the Third Avenue entrance to our courthouse. Can you think of more we should do? Reach out to me with your thoughts.

Finally, please don’t mistake my concern about safety as being in any way uncaring or naive about the underlying causes of this crisis, including mental illness and the current opioid addiction that has trapped so many of our neighbors. Compassion and commitment to supporting solutions to the underlying causes is our responsibility, too.

But step one is safety.

Andrew Prazuch is KCBA’s executive director. He can be reached by email (andrewp@kcba.org) or phone (206-267-7061).

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