Three officers standing around a squad car
Officers at the Seattle Police Department spend to much time in their squad cars and not enough time walking a beat and deterring and solving crimes. (Seattle Police Department)

The war on drugs is back, and Seattle is about to entrust SPD to carry it out with minimal guardrails.

This Tuesday, Seattle City Council will be voting once more on drug criminalization legislation that could, in practice, reinvigorate a punitive war on drugs instead of addressing the current fentanyl crisis through a public health approach.

While the current legislation differs very little from the bill narrowly defeated by Council back in June, the addition of a few workgroups, the promise of insufficient funds, and the decision to rely on the discretion of police officers and an as-of-yet ill-defined threat of harm standard seems to have quelled concerns on-the-fence councilmembers felt about supporting a bill likely to increase both overdose deaths and racial disparities in policing. 

We know the promised funds to accompany this bill are not enough to address the urgency of the issue. The council found $7 million for one-time capital costs, some of which are going towards an overdose treatment center. We’ve been told there will be $1.4 million available for ongoing annual costs, not even enough to keep the new overdose treatment center open 24/7. Are we really expecting people to time their overdoses accordingly? 

And now it sounds like even the $1.4 million might have been overstated, with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda suggesting a large chunk of those funds are likely to get eaten up in administrative costs.

Until Mayor Bruce Harrell presents his proposed 2024 budget on September 26, we won’t know if he is allocating additional funds to programs like LEAD, co-LEAD, REACH, and Health One to provide more services to those experiencing substance abuse disorder. 

Meanwhile, studies show people who have been arrested and held in jail or prison are at much higher risk for overdosing upon their release and up to 129 times more likely to die from a drug overdose.

Proponents of the new bill have emphasized how it states diversion is preferable to arrest in most cases. While we have yet to learn whether diversion programs will be adequately funded to meet this new need, councilmembers also chose to water down this aspect of the bill when they voted 3-2 to pass an amendment walked on by Councilmember Nelson to no longer require officers to “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest.” This means it will be up to an officer’s discretion whether or not any particular person is offered diversion. 

Andrew Myerberg, who is special projects director in Harrell’s cabinet, said at a hearing last month that officers are also being encouraged to practice discretion through a threat of harm standard set out in the ordinance. If there is a threat of harm to others, officers will be encouraged to make an arrest, whereas if there is a threat of harm only to self, officers will be encouraged (but not required) to offer diversion. 

However, the ordinance does not define the threat of harm standard. Language in the bill suggests that simply witnessing the public use of controlled substances constitutes harm to “adjacent businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.” In practice, this would mean officers would be encouraged to arrest most public drug users instead of attempting to offer them access to pre-arrest diversion programs. And an amendment proposed by Councilmember Mosqueda that more carefully defined the threat of harm standard to comprise specifically the potential of physical harm inflicted on others was shot down, with no other councilmember voting in favor. 

Perhaps most alarmingly, this emphasis on officer discretion gives additional power over disenfranchised people to the Seattle Police Department (SPD), an organization that has not shown itself to be deserving of such trust. 

I’ve already written about the alarming failure of the 12-year-old consent decree to prevent SPD’s unconstitutional policing, with officers stopping and frisking Black and Indigenous people at much higher rates than White people. SPD officer discretion already disproportionately impacts people of color, a trend that seems unlikely to be reversed by simply offering the police more power.

Aside from this data, we have a myriad of examples illustrating why trusting SPD officer discretion is a poor idea, given the lack of judgment and care officers have routinely demonstrated. In just the last few days, damning body camera video has been released showing Officer Daniel Auderer, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) vice president, laughing at and making light of the death of student, Jaahnavi Kandula, who was hit by Officer Kevin Dave going 74 mph in a residential zone with no consistent usage of his flashing lights and siren. 

But this is just the latest in a stream of similar incidents. In the last three or so years, we have seen:

Even moderate Seattle Times Columnist Danny Westneat has noticed this trend, dedicating an entire recent column to the contempt shown by SPD officers and SPOG toward the community they’re serving.

And yet these are the same officers our city officials are trusting to use their judgment to enforce this new drug criminalization law – even while experts say criminalizing drug use does nothing to treat substance abuse disorder or prevent overdoses.

Doing something does not automatically equate to doing the right thing. With elections looming, the Mayor’s Office and councilmembers are rushing to show they’re doing something – anything – about the fentanyl crisis. Instead we need to commit to doing the right thing: reject criminalizing health disorders and poverty and adopt a robust public health strategy to help those suffering from substance abuse disorder instead of further harming them.

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Amy Sundberg is the publisher of Notes from the Emerald City, a weekly newsletter on Seattle politics and policy with a particular focus on public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system. She also writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. She is particularly fond of Seattle’s parks, where she can often be found walking her little dog.