Photo depicting the glass windowed exterior of downtown Seattle's Target entrance.

How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man

And Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: a “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)

In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, Seattle police officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state — emphasis in the original.

Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out — details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.

For instance: Nearly every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address — usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the City had swept his encampment at least four times — most recently in April, when it threw away the cellphone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court. 

“They throw people away.”

—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH

Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not re-offended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.

“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up … and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”

In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street-level drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the Chinatown-International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.

Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years.) But his offenses fall under another category City and County officials have also vowed to target: organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over several weeks.

Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court — a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.

Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.

“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”

Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander] — people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion says that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.

“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”

—King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal

While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,” Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.”

Flood says she can think of two or three LEAD clients who have successfully made it through all five stages of drug court. “If you don’t have housing and a phone, it’s really hard to keep up with drug court,” she said. “If we have an individual who is not in a position to stop using and they don’t have their own desire for not using, drug court is not the best option for them.” Sometimes, LEAD case managers suggest their clients go through the mainstream court system, rather than “flunk out” of a system that wasn’t designed for people who aren’t ready to quit.

But the failures that led Alexander to the point where he is facing felony charges for stealing liquor from Target aren’t merely the result of too few options for people with substance use disorder in the court-based system, Khandelwal says. “This person does not need lawyers and judges involved in his life; he needs housing and some measure of help with his substance use.” Even if the City and County court systems offered a wealth of options for unhoused people with substance use disorders, they would continue to fall short as long as the problems that lead people like Alexander to steal what they need — poverty, homelessness, and addiction — go unaddressed. 

In the months since the charges were filed against him, Alexander has experienced significant setbacks. A friend overdosed, and although he recovered, the incident sent Alexander on a spiral, Flood says, and he began using street drugs in addition to alcohol. (Alexander declined to talk with us because of his pending cases; Flood spoke to us with his permission).

Although LEAD was able to find him an apartment, he has struggled to settle in — a common problem with people moving indoors after years of living unsheltered, according to Flood. “When you’re on the street and you have this rat race of things to keep you going to survive, you don’t always think about your struggles and trauma, and now that you’re in these four walls, everything hits you,” Flood said. “Sometimes our clients fall into a deep depression in their first few months of being housed.”

In addition to the organized retail theft charge, Alexander faces a felony charge of drug possession with intent to deliver for selling $20 worth of crack, or approximately 0.1 grams, to an undercover officer at Third and Pine last year. (Alexander initially offered to sell the officer a bottle of alcohol, according to the report.) The arresting officer in that incident suggested in his report that Alexander, who gave the REACH office building as his home address, was one of the “narcotics dealers who frequent this area and openly take advantage of the homeless, addicted population who stay at the nearby shelters.” The drug charge carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $25,000.

LEAD continues to work with Alexander, who continues to show up for his weekly appointments at its office. If he can get over his latest personal and legal hurdles, Flood says, he wants to look for a job. He is not ready to quit drinking or using drugs, but, Flood says, that’s okay. “Even if he never quits using completely, he can make some significant changes in his life where he’s going to be okay. If you send him away for a couple of years, he’s going to be near 50 when he gets out. People get thrown away.”

Flood says Black men like Alexander, in particular, have been targeted in the City’s high-profile efforts to crack down on crime. “We have one toe in the door. He has an apartment. Let’s give him the opportunity to go to treatment, like they would for any white man,” she said. Another REACH client, a queer, deaf Black man charged with stealing clothes and “knick-knacks” from two local stores, is facing the prospect of six months in jail because a security guard told police the man said he had a gun, Flood continued.

“That’s what I’m worried about — that we’re not going to pay attention to the underlying issues because of the fearmongering the media is engaging in about theft rings. It’s really not theft rings — it’s thefts [that stem from] poverty.”

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

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