This story first ran in the print and online editions of Seattle Magazine.
Image credit: Hayley Young, Seattle Magazine
It’s a little before 10 a.m. in the courtroom of King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galván, and the crowd is getting restless. Dozens of spectators, many wearing red scarves to indicate their opposition to supervised drug consumption sites, are murmuring quietly, waiting for Alicea-Galván to emerge from her chambers. Advocates say the sites—safe spaces for people to consume illegal drugs and access medical care and treatment—will save lives and put drug users on the road to recovery; opponents say they will enable drug users and lead to crime.
What’s at stake today is a ruling on an initiative, filed by Bothell City Council member Joshua Freed, that would preemptively ban the controversial sites throughout King County.
Suddenly, Lisa Daugaard, the 5-foot-2, 51-year-old director of the nonprofit Public Defender Association (PDA), which advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform, bounds from her seat in the second row and makes a beeline for Freed, who is sitting at the defendants’ table. Before Freed can process what’s happening, Daugaard is pumping his hand, politely forcing the antidrug activist (he once told KVI-AM’s Dori Monson that safe consumption sites would make Seattle a magnet for the nation’s heroin users) into a bit of friendly courtroom small talk.
Daugaard’s friendliness is strategic. “I always go talk to the opposite side,” she says, laughing. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I get where you’re coming from.’”
For Daugaard, who has spent decades waging legal battles on behalf of people with few advocates in the criminal justice system, maintaining an open dialogue with the “opposite side” is a key part of the formula that has helped her win some of the most significant political and legal victories for civil rights in Seattle of the past 20 years.
The era isn’t long past when Seattle police officers set up “buy-and-bust” operations (undercover stings in which an officer buys drugs from a suspect, then arrests him) to put addicts behind bars, arrested people for sitting on the sidewalk and seized people’s cars for failing to pay their parking tickets. Today, that kind of draconian enforcement is unheard-of, and Daugaard is a big part of the reason why.
As Seattle has shifted leftward (from a place where people were arrested for smoking weed in parks to one where the big drug debate is about safe consumption sites), Daugaard’s focus has shifted, too. Instead of fighting on behalf of individuals against overreaching police, she’s advocating for policies that “advance the common interests of people who have suffered a lot of harm as a consequence of traditional policing,” such as progressive drug policy reform, and fighting against homeless encampment sweeps and for increased civilian involvement in how the Seattle Police Department conducts its business.
Daugaard cut her teeth as an activist during the South African apartheid era, when she was a grad student at Cornell. She found defending activists arrested and expelled during the anti-apartheid movement more interesting—and transformative—than writing her thesis on the criminalization of homelessness, and she decided to go to law school to pursue “a career trajectory where [activism] was the work rather than a distraction from the work.”
She has been at the center of many of the key civil rights battles of the past two decades, starting in the early 2000s, when thousands of low-income Seattleites lost their cars due to an initiative called “Operation Impound.” Daugaard, then a founding attorney of the PDA’s Racial Disparity Project, which worked to promote police accountability and reduce racially biased policing, says it took her a while to connect the dots between the thousands of seemingly routine license suspensions and the impoundment cases she came across through her work. The cases seemed unrelated—a litany of individual injustices.
“I knew the relationship between race, poverty and the justice system, but before I worked in public defense, I hadn’t realized the systematic way in which people of color were being deprived, as a generation, of the ability to drive,” Daugaard says. Over time, however, Daugaard started to see a pattern: Poor people, overwhelmingly people of color, were losing their licenses over moving and equipment violations or unpaid parking tickets, then losing their cars under a city law that allowed the city to seize the car of anyone caught driving it whose license had been suspended. This fed a cycle of poverty, as people who couldn’t afford to pay their tickets lost their cars, and then, with no way to get to work, their jobs.
“She’s an organizer, an analyst, an advocate, a strategist, an academic, an orator, a social worker and a spin doctor. You don’t come across that very often.”—Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold
Supporters of Operation Impound presented the issue as a simple question of personal responsibility, but Daugaard, along with a community group called Drive to Survive, reframed the impoundment law as an assault on the rights of low-income people and people of color. They packed public meetings with people who had lost their cars, putting a human face on what had been a fairly obscure administrative issue. And they won. By the early 2000s, Operation Impound was a thing of the past.
This kind of no-holds-barred, uncompromising activism earned Daugaard accolades from unlikely corners. “Nobody I’ve met in my professional career can negotiate as effectively, and has the stamina and persistence that Lisa has,” says Scott Lindsay, a former candidate for city attorney who worked as a criminal justice adviser to former Mayor Ed Murray. City Council member Lisa Herbold, who worked with Daugaard on numerous issues when she was an aide to former council member Nick Licata, describes her as the full package. “She’s an organizer, an analyst, an advocate, a strategist, an academic, an orator, a social worker and a spin doctor. You don’t come across that very often,” Herbold says.
Daugaard’s status as a child prodigy—she started classes at the University of Washington at age 12, leaving at age 17 to study at Cornell and earn a law degree at Yale—is one of the first things people mention when talking about her. But her longtime employee and close friend Patricia Sully, who works at the PDA running a drug policy group called VOCAL (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders), argues that it’s the least interesting thing about her. The two met shortly after Sully graduated from law school, when they were both working with legal teams defending clients arrested during the Occupy Seattle protests. What’s most unusual about Daugaard, Sully says, is her ability to relate to a wide variety of people. “There’s no one I’ve met who is as comfortable being in a board room and talking to people in suits, and walking straight from that board room into an encampment and having a totally authentic relationship to the people in that encampment.”
Daugaard hasn’t always been so comfortable working both sides of the fence. In her early days as a public defender, some issues just seemed black and white—you either supported taking away people’s cars because they were poor or you didn’t.
But in 2005, when the PDA was fighting the police department over buy-and-busts, an SPD precinct commander challenged Daugaard to come up with a better plan, and she realized she didn’t have one. “That was a wake-up call for me,” she says. Instead of fighting the cops, she realized she needed to work with them; and instead of dismissing neighborhood concerns about public safety, she needed to find a solution that addressed those concerns.
That epiphany led to the development of a program that has become a model for criminal-justice reform around the nation. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which began as a grant-funded pilot project in Belltown and has expanded throughout downtown and to the Chinatown/International District and the East Precinct area (Capitol Hill, the Central District and Little Saigon), gave beat cops the opportunity to offer people engaged in drug activity an alternative to arrest.
“Ten years ago, she might have thought [prosecutors] were the enemy, and now we’re important partners. She’s a formidable adversary, but she’s an even better friend.” —King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg
Instead of cycling through jail again and again, those people can enroll in LEAD, where they are connected to mental health and drug counseling, housing assistance, and education and job opportunities, among other services. Crucially, LEAD doesn’t require that participants stop engaging in whatever criminal behavior made them eligible for the program; instead, it gives people stuck in the cycle of addiction opportunities to access a better life, while recognizing that transformation doesn’t happen overnight. The program has been shown to reduce recidivism by as much as 60 percent. It’s also made arrests for minor drug possession essentially a thing of the past. “It’s a genuine paradigm shift,” Daugaard says.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, initially a LEAD skeptic, says Daugaard didn’t just convince him to give her long-shot proposal a try; she changed his mind about how the criminal justice system should respond to drug-related offenses. “She’s taught me a lot about harm reduction and how a community-based response can be a lot more effective than just dragging someone into the courtroom, where we don’t have the tools to change people who are in a drug-dependent state,” Satterberg says. “Ten years ago, she might have thought [prosecutors] were the enemy, and now we’re important partners. She’s a formidable adversary, but she’s an even better friend.”