This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.
Today: Jim Pugel, the former Seattle police chief who worked in the West Precinct, which overlaps much of District 7, for many years. After leaving the force, Pugel became chief deputy at the King County Sheriff’s office. He’s running to replace Sally Bagshaw, who’s retiring.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): You were West Precinct Commander at SPD when the city and a group of public defenders set up the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which offers pre-arrest alternatives to people facing low-level drug and prostitution charges. You’ve mentioned in the past that you were initially reluctant to adopt alternatives that didn’t involve arresting people and sending them through the court system. Can you talk a little bit about your reluctance at first and how that evolved?
Jim Pugel (JP): I had had limited exposure to harm reduction and it was only for alcohol [with the 1811 Eastlake project]. And then, um, uh, from the time you’re a baby police officer in the academy, you’re taught if you have drugs, you go to jail, end of story. It was a bipartisan issue. Whether there was a Democrat or Republican in the White House, whoever controlled Congress, judges, prosecutors, presidents—all of them said if you have drugs, you go to jail.
So we had this group of chronic drug consumers and nonviolent sellers in Belltown, and that’s when [now-Public Defender Association director] Lisa Daugaard approached and said, ‘Let’s work with the community and figure out a better way. You keep arresting them, and we keep defending them, and we’re expecting a different outcome and that’s insanity.’ So the more I thought about it, [I realized] we were spending more money doing the buy-busts, and the arrests, and the prosecution, and the defense, and the jailing, and then the probation of people, than it would cost to try to get them healthy and at the same time return the neighborhood to a semblance of order so that there wasn’t this feeling of insecurity and visible disorder. So that’s what got me. But it wasn’t like a light came on. It was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Although people look at this program and say it was revolutionary, it evolved. And it took a while to get the police officers on board. Just because that was counterintuitive to what we always been taught.
ECB: What do you think of the mayor’s latest proposals to deal with so-called prolific offenders?
JP: There is a core group of people, 150 to 200 people, that cause a disproportionate amount of crime. Many of them are committing crimes to feed their habit. And if they’re not amenable to diversion or treatment, which we should offer, then they have to be held accountable. [At the same time], we should build our capacity for diversion. Because I think just from my experience with LEAD and then my experience with 1811 Eastlake, most people do want some type of recovery, whether it’s abstinence-based or whether it’s harm reduction. So let’s get them so that they’re not harming the society that they’re living in individuals themselves.
ECB: How would you hold people accountable if they aren’t interested in LEAD or treatment?
JP: I’m open to any reasonable solution, but there is a certain number of people out there who I call the will-nots—they just won’t do anything unless they want to do it. And there comes a point where you have to incapacitate them and whether they want treatment while they’re incapacitated or not, that’s up to them. You can’t force it on them, but you can’t allow everyone to be victimized because of them.
“There is a certain number of people out there who I call the will-nots—they just won’t do anything unless they want to do it. And there comes a point where you have to incapacitate them and whether they want treatment while they’re incapacitated or not, that’s up to them. You can’t force it on them, but you can’t allow everyone to be victimized because of them.”
ECB: Speaking of harm reduction, you’ve taken a couple of positions on safe drug consumption sites. [Pugel represented the King County Sheriff’s office on the county’s Opiate Task Force, which unanimously recommended safe consumption sites in 2017]. You now say they’re a bad idea. Why?
JP: The more I’ve looked at it, I think it would take too much money. The current administration out of Washington DC would come flying in—and they’re the biggest law firm in the world—and [City Attorney] Pete [Holmes] or [King County Prosecutor] Dan [Satterberg] or both would have to spend a bunch of money on attorneys to defend them. Number two, the more I’ve looked at it, when a person is dope sick, when they need to consume—there’s probably only going to be one location—the only people who are going to use it are people who can walk there. Because you’re not going to score your dope in Enumclaw or Duvall or Woodenville and take three transfers downtown to shoot up. And who’s going to spend the political capital to say we’re going to put it in our backyard? No one’s going to do it right now. I looked at the morbidity, and 82 percent of the people who passed from an overdose are housed, so they’re doing it in their house or in their apartment. So it’s not out on the street.
I think we could spend the money better and more efficiently on treatment, on medically assisted therapy, on syringe exchange programs.
ECB: There’s been quite a bit of concern about safety and the perception of safety all along Third Avenue downtown, which is in your district. There are concerns about the area around the King County Courthouse, which is across from DESC’s biggest shelter, and separate concerns about Third and Pine, which has been the site of a large number of shootings and stabbings over the years, including just this month. How would you respond to those concerns?
JP: Let’s start with the courthouse. Having worked in the King County courthouse and going through that door for four years, I would say that there’s a distinction between people in front of the DESC shelter and those in front of the courthouse. The ones in front of the courthouse were a little bit more aggressive. They would defecate right on the sidewalk and urinate around the corner, in that kind of dead space on Jefferson Street. And now the Downtown Seattle Association has tried to activate that with games, chairs, and lighting. They’ve opened it up a little bit. But you need physical presence. And one thing I’m going to really push if I’m elected is for officers on foot. That really sends a statement to those who are not familiar with the area that they’re safe. There are officers here.
At Third and Pine, that’s where almost every single bus route from the County converges. That’s where this county brings people and picks them up. If you look at some of the tenants in those stores between Pike and Pine, it’s check cashing, vaping, fingernail polish. So you need economic development.
It’s tough. You have aggressive shoplifters, which borders on a robbery. And the margins for some of these boutique stores are pretty narrow margins, so they can only have one employee there, and this one employee is a young kid, quote often a female who doesn’t live in the city. She commutes in and these people come in and will defecate in the doorway or in use the employee only bathroom. You can’t have that and expect the healthy business environment. You’re always going to have some degree of loss, but when it’s so cascading, you can’t run a business that way.
ECB: As a former police officer and police chief, do you think the fact that SPD remains under a federal consent decree because of police accountability issues is impacting hiring and retention?
JP: Oh, there’s a lot of things impacting retention. I was in charge of hiring in Seattle from 2004 to 2008 and we were trying to hire 100,, 110 officers, and it was hard then. There’s multiple factors that go into it. We have the lowest recorded unemployment rate since records have been kept. So you’re really fighting for those people. Traditionally, you had more people who didn’t have a college degree than had one. Now those people are being scooped up by private industry as programmers and for other jobs. You have the cost of living in Seattle. You have a new workforce that doesn’t look at [policing] as a career anymore, it’s a job. So there’s myriad things that come into the rubric of retention.
I think right now we have to try everything. We need more cops. When I started in ’82 the population of the city was, like, 410,000 and we had about a thousand police officers. We now have double the amount of people in the city, almost 800,000. and another hundred thousand-plus that come into the downtown core every day to work, to recreate, to go to sporting events. And we have 1,300 cops. So the population’s more than doubled, the police force has not. Now do we need to double [the force] every time [the population doubles]? Not necessarily because we have technology, but you need a visible presence. I’m not saying that because I’m a former police officer. I’m saying this because this is what I’m hearing in the campaign.
“Right now, the consortium of homeless service providers who can get people housed has 4,000 units ready, tomorrow, to start building, but they’re tied up in permitting at the Department of Construction and Inspections. We need to put them at the front of the line. If we just had a 9.1 Richter earthquake, it’d be an emergency. Would we speed up permitting? Hell yes.”
ECB: You told Real Change that you support the city’s current encampment removal policy. Can you talk a little bit about why, and where you think there’s room for improvement?
JP: Number one, it’ll be improved when we have affordable housing for people making the minimum wage or a little bit above the minimum wage, which is very not much money at all. So we need affordable housing and then we need a lot more permanent supportive housing. And before we get there, we have to speed up the permitting process for these [permanent supportive housing developments]. Right now, the consortium of homeless service providers who can get people housed has 4,000 units ready, tomorrow, to start building, but they’re tied up in permitting at the Department of Construction and Inspections. We need to put them at the front of the line. If we just had a 9.1 Richter earthquake, it’d be an emergency. Would we speed up permitting? Hell yes. We would make sure that we were back to normal as soon as possible. If we really believe this is a housing emergency, we have to speed up permitting.
ECB: But in the short term, why do you support removing people from encampments when there isn’t enough low-barrier shelter?
JP: You legally can’t move them unless there’s shelter beds available. Living unsheltered, outside, it’s unhealthy for everyone. I’ve personally witnessed it. I was there when the Jungle first got created in the ’80s and it’s just grown in scale. We need to help these people. The homeless folks have a higher rate of victimization in these unauthorized encampments than anyone else. And it’s physically unhealthy for them and it’s unhealthy for the neighborhoods or the business community.
Let’s convert our public surplus land to public housing. We can do that now under state law. We have to quit selling our public land and banking the money and saying we’re going to build housing later.
ECB: Why have you opposed the downtown streetcar?
JP: One, I think it’s hugely over budget. It’s going to take away all loading zones and parking. Can those businesses survive that? Especially Pioneer Square, the waterfront and some of the businesses from Madison Street on south. They’ve gone through so much construction trauma that I don’t know how much more they can survive. And we as city and county employees are told to look through everything in the race and social justice lens. We know with construction, every time you delay anything, construction costs, material costs, and labor costs go up. So it’s going to be over $300 million. What could we do with those transportation dollars to increase bus service in the transit deserts that we know people experience in South Seattle or North Seattle or Magnolia?
ECB: That actually leads into another question. Why have you said you support a “one-for-one replacement” of the Magnolia Bridge, which would cost at least $400 million, as opposed to one of the cheaper alternatives?
JP: There’s got to be a less expensive alternative. To rebuild it exactly? No. But you’ve got to have something that connects. Let’s say that we didn’t have the Magnolia bridge. And for two weeks Dravus was closed because of snow. You can’t get on or off. We’re going to choke out all the businesses in Magnolia village You have to get in and out of neighborhoods. We had the earthquake in 2001. So what are we been doing? What are we waiting for? [Without the bridge], if you’re making a delivery, what you do is you go all the way up to Dravus or to Emerson, and then you go all the way up around or over the hill, increasing your carbon footprint, and then you come back to deliver to the stores, to the restaurants, to everything down there.