Victims, law enforcement speak about King County Courthouse conditions

An entrance to the courthouse was closed after an assault.

Speakers described assaults, stalking and harassment incidents that have occurred outside the King County Courthouse during a hearing Dec. 10 on the emergency closure of the 3rd Avenue entrance.

The entrance to the county courthouse was closed Dec. 2 by King County Superior Court Judge Jim Rogers following an assault on a bus driver and public defender that took place Nov. 27. That particular assault adds to some 160 assaults the Seattle Police Department has responded to between January and September this year, according to the Seattle Times. The closure and assaults were discussed Dec. 10 as part of the county’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee.

“I want to say that when this problem is not addressed, which is why we closed the courthouse — taking that extreme step — justice is endangered,” Rogers said at the meeting.

Another entrance on 4th Avenue was opened and has been serving as the primary entrance.

A panel of judges and law enforcement representatives also spoke. Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell said the courthouse is surrounded by people in crisis, and he doesn’t see that changing.

“Tragedy awaits if the status quo is maintained,” he said.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht apologized to staff and the public for the ongoing assaults. She said the sheriff’s office is working with the Seattle Police Department to increase law enforcement presence in the area. However, outside of the courthouse is Seattle’s jurisdiction.

Several courthouse employees spoke at the meeting about being harassed or assaulted while going to and from work. Heiti Milnor-Lewis, a court operations supervisor, said people often scream at her while she goes to work. She recounted seeing people masturbating in public and using drugs.

Jake Kamaunu, owner of JustUs Cafe inside the courthouse, said that being blind presents other challenges with the closure of the 3rd Avenue entrance. He’s had employees tell him where to walk on the sidewalk to avoid feces. He described these instances as things he has to be concerned about when making his way in to work.

The King County Metropolitan Council is poised to vote on an emergency funding package at its Dec. 11 meeting, which would appropriate funding to address the issue. The money will go toward increasing money for law enforcement, improving security, and funding for a RADAR navigator social worker to partner with law enforcement, said King County Council member Rod Dembowski.

“Folks will know we’ve got that visible presence,” Dembowski said of law enforcement.

Council member Larry Gossett said he supports increasing public safety, and said he didn’t think the county was putting sufficient resources into addressing the social problems that are creating dangerous conditions outside the courthouse. The area of downtown Seattle surrounding the courthouse has a large population of unsheltered people, and services to get people into treatment for mental health or drug addiction are inadequate, he said.

“I do not think that enough of us as staff and professionals think significantly enough about the kind of services that we also need to fund,” Gossett said.

Gossett cited long waiting times to get people who have been deemed incompetent by a judge into a mental health facility or treatment programs. He agreed with Dembowski that more social workers should be outside the courthouse.

“I’m just hopeful that we take a more comprehensive view when we have people living in wretched conditions caused by our society,” he said.

Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles said the county was in a bind, and said the area around the courthouse served as a microcosm for what’s happening all over the country. Council member Kathy Lambert said Seattle should enforce and prosecute more civility laws in the area.

“We all know that conditions have been worsening over the course of the past few years and that it’s dangerous to walk to work if you work in the King County Courthouse,” said Kevin McCabe, one of the men assaulted on Nov. 27.

The King County Metropolitan Council will vote Dec. 11 on whether to approve emergency funding to address the closed courthouse entrance at its 9:30 a.m. meeting.

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