Recently, local officials have launched a series of crime-fighting efforts that have brought desperately needed relief to some beleaguered locations in the city, including Little Saigon and Third and Pine Downtown.
The list of agencies involved is very varied, from the city to the federal government. And the new campaigns come with branding such as “Operation New Day” – suggesting that this time is really going to be different in Seattle.
I hope so. I believe that dismantling the concentrated criminal activity that has taken hold in a neighborhood is a welcome step even if it does not solve the long-term problems.
That said, a review of the arrests and, more importantly, the court decisions to date suggests that we may already be looking more towards “Operation Same Old Revolving Door.”
Of 16 people arrested for alleged crimes in Little Saigon under Operation New Day, only two are found to have remained in the King County Jail for more than a day or two. Three are now in federal custody, I’ll get to that in a minute. But most were either released immediately by judges or asked to post very low bail, which they did.
That includes some offenders who sit right at the intersection of Seattle’s two street scourges – synthetic drugs and guns.
Four men were released onto the streets of Seattle with no or low bond as repeat offenders charged with illegally carrying firearms and selling fentanyl, the synthetic opioid accused of killing 388 people in King County last year. The allegations are serious enough that three of them were later re-arrested and charged in federal court.
The fourth armed defendant, Cuong Cao, was still at large on Friday, now described by a federal justice spokesman as a “fugitive”. There’s no reason he should be a fugitive as he was arrested in 12th and Jackson last month after police said they saw him selling fentanyl pills on the sidewalk and then walked away. squatting over a woman who was overdosing.
When Cao was booked, he was carrying heroin, methamphetamine and 88 “blues” – street slang for fentanyl pills – as well as $800 in cash and a Canik 9mm pistol. He has a slew of convictions for burglary, auto theft and drug trafficking, and he’s had 39 warrants for his arrest dating back 20 years due to a propensity to skip court.
Yet he was released from jail 45 hours later on bail of just $2,500, down from the $75,000 requested by prosecutors.
Another of the four, Joseph Johnson, was selling fentanyl to the 12th and Jackson while carrying a loaded 9mm pistol, police said. Past convictions do not allow him to carry a firearm and he has also been the subject of 17 arrest warrants. He was released anyway.
His story turned into something of a revolving door case study because Johnson was then re-arrested a few weeks later in Seattle’s other major hot spot, Third and Pine.
This time, police said he was carrying 187 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and a “ghost gun” – an untraceable homemade semi-automatic weapon called “Polymer 80” loaded with a magazine holding 16 rounds. Guess because the laxity was getting ridiculous for such a high-profile operation, the Feds took over the case, and now Johnson is in SeaTac’s federal dungeon.
The good news is that it’s a ghost gun, finally, on the street.
The bad news is this: why are these armed suspects, some of whom have a history of violence, going through the local justice system like water through a sieve?
I’m with the public defender types that there’s no point in punishing drugs users. They should be held accountable for petty crimes like shoplifting. This responsibility, however, should be met with a large dose of help.
But what if you’re carrying illegal weapons along with bags of drugs and cash, and you have a history of violence? It’s not the same thing.
Yet the revolving door seems to be spinning as fast as ever.
The King County District Attorney’s Office did something a bit unusual in response to all of this: They began to publicly challenge judges.
A news release spoke of all of the recently arrested individuals who “have been released by judges…over the objection of the King County District Attorney’s Office, including a suspected drug dealer with a loaded 9mm handgun. “.
Leesa Manion, chief of staff in the prosecutor’s office, put it this way: “Our deputies have been in court every day and have urged the court to ensure these individuals are detained, arguing that an immediate release would send the wrong message”.
It was an argument they clearly did not win.
Now Seattle and King County have launched what they call the “High Utilizers Initiative” – Seattle-speaks for people who get repeatedly arrested. The goal is to break the cycle for 118 prolific offenders, who have collectively committed 2,400 offences, using more aggressive prosecution as well as social services.
Sounds good, but it follows similar efforts in the past: the “Familiar Faces Initiative”, the “High Impact Priority Repeat Offender Program”, the “High Barrier Individuals Task Force”.
It can also be meaningless if the rest of the legal system, including the judiciary, is not on the same page.
In a collision of slogans, one of those arrested in connection with “Operation New Day” in Little Saigon turns out to be one of the 118 “High Utilizers”.
Ryan Palmer was arrested at 12th and Jackson offered to sell “crack, hard and blues”, police say. In court, prosecutors said Palmer had been charged in Seattle more than two dozen times since 2016, including six times for assault and “unlawful use of a weapon for the purpose of intimidation.” He has had eight terms not to run, including two that are active today, and has been in and out of diversion programs, all to no avail.
He was released anyway.
Our city is in a big debate about what to do about street crime – whether to go hard, soft or somewhere in between. What we have right now is a picture of a system that can’t make up its mind.