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Seattle vows quicker charging decisions to deter petty crime

The move aims to help tackle persistent low-level crime that has plagued businesses downtown

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A Seattle Police vehicle sits parked at Hing Hay Park on March 18, 2021, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

By Associated Press

SEATTLE — Seattle’s elected prosecutor on Monday promised quicker charging decisions to help tackle persistent low-level crime that’s plagued businesses downtown.

City Attorney Ann Davison, a Republican who won election in November over progressive former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, said that her office will make charging decisions on all incoming cases within five business days.

“The best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department,” Davison said.

Making charging decisions more quickly will help the city avoid adding to a backlog of about 5,000 cases at the City Attorney’s Office, Davison said. Davison’s office reviews misdemeanors and more serious crimes are handled by the King County prosecutor.

Like many cities across the country, Seattle has experienced an increase in crime, especially violent crime, amid the pandemic and as the ranks of officers dwindled.

With retirements and resignations, the Seattle Police Department is down 350 officers following the 2020 mass protests for racial justice and talk of defunding police.

Davison last November was elected Seattle’s first female city attorney after a campaign in which she promised to get tough on low-level crimes. Misdemeanor prosecutions had been reduced throughout the 12-year tenure of her predecessor, Pete Holmes.

Davison’s opponent in the election, Thomas-Kennedy, took an opposite approach — saying she would work toward abolishing misdemeanor prosecutions in favor of diverting cases to mental health, addiction or restorative-justice programs.

Some downtown businesses have pleaded for increased attention to crime that has helped drive away customers.

Restaurant owner Olga Sagan told The Seattle Times that she closes her bakery at 3 p.m. now due to rampant street crime, including break-ins, graffiti, public drug use, harassment and litter.

“I don’t want my employees here or leaving here after dark,” Sagan said, adding that “businesses can’t operate unless someone does something about crime.”

But not everyone is convinced that aggressively prosecuting low-level crimes is an effective way to deal with broad societal problems.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a former assistant city attorney, said law enforcement should focus on bigger crimes, such as burglary and organized retail theft — which are felonies handled by the county prosecutor — rather than repeatedly arresting low-level offenders for crimes like shoplifting, which are easily prosecuted but carry light penalties.

The quality of prosecutions is more important than the quantity, he said, and many crimes are linked to homelessness, drug addiction or mental health issues. Providing shelter and services are cheaper and more effective than jail, Lewis said.

“For the systemic issues that we’re getting hit with downtown, once something gets referred as a misdemeanor, we’ve kind of already lost,” Lewis said. “If they do go to jail, it’ll be for a couple of weeks, you know, a lot of people will kind of tolerate that part of ‘the business.’”

Davison said she’s had productive discussions with the Seattle Police Department and the office of new Mayor Bruce Harrell about addressing the problems with crime.

Harrell has promised a “holistic” approach to crime that would involve human services and outreach and would work with police to address crime hot spots.

Deputy Mayor of Housing and Homelessness Tiffany Washington said the mayor’s office will work to address systemic issues such as drug use that contribute to street crime.