The best way to describe reaction from some Seattle City Council members to comments made by Seattle Police Deputy Chief Marc Garth Green is “shocked.”
“Some of them choose to do what they’re doing,” said Garth Green during a Wednesday meeting, explaining why he decided to shift the department away from the approach of not arresting prostitutes.
That approach has been in place since 2012.
As first reported by Crosscut’s David Kroman, Seattle police have regularly been arresting sex workers along Aurora Avenue North since July. It’s a big departure from the city attorney’s policy of targeting demand. Instead of busting prostitutes, who could be forced into the job, the attorney prefers to target the buyers or “johns.” The sex workers are instead connected to services and diversion programs, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).
Garth Greene explained that there had been a big uptick in prostitution in the North Precinct. With that uptick has come a growing number of complaints from the community.
During the Wednesday budget meeting about LEAD the discussion shifted to the value of investing in an expansion of the overwhelmed diversion program versus other pilot programs in the mayor’s budget proposal, such as enhanced probation.
The council had just learned LEAD was over capacity and struggling to accept referrals. Council members asked Garth Green if the lack of room in the program was the reason for shifting to arresting – rather than diverting – sex workers.
The short answer: No.
“[It] was not due to the inability to get people into LEAD. It was due to the fact that I believed that LEAD program was not a good solution for many of those folks up there,” Garth Green said.
He said prostitution in the North Precinct had exploded since Backpage and similar websites were shut down, forcing many who relied on them for their livelihood onto the streets.
“We have people that are working the streets that aren’t necessarily substance abuse — they have homes … some of them choose to do what they’re doing,” Garth Green said.
The deputy chief added that law enforcement needs to have some type of intervention for such people. LEAD or otherwise, he continually stressed the need for multiple options, not a one-size-fits-all approach.
But it was his use of theword “choose” that caught the attention of those on the dais.
“The idea that we can conclude that women are prostituting themselves as a choice, is something that is almost shocking to even say,” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said.
Teresa Mosqueda was so upset her voice shook as she, pointed out sex workers are often victims of economy just trying to sustain themselves and their family.
“In my 15 years of working on this issue from human trafficking and labor trafficking and standing up for worker’s rights, I have never been so shocked by such an assertion,” Mosqueda said, calling on the deputy chief back to back up his statement with data, showing that arrests are better options than diversion and that sex workers choose the job.
The deputy chief quickly noted his statement was based on his experience as a cop working that area and the words of a sex worker he spoke with.
“A young lady who specifically told me she was there to make money … and enjoyed it,” Garth Green said drawing the ire of Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
“This is just not acceptable that you are speaking this way. Did you just say that they’re enjoying it,” Sawant, interrupting the deputy chief.
“That’s her words, not mine,” Garth Green replied.
Sawant urged him to avoid speaking for women, or about sex trade statistics, arguing that global research shows people get into the business, primarily because of financial constraints.
Garth Green went on to apologize, explaining he meant no offense, but was just trying to highlight the fact that it was a complex issue. He went on to say he did believe most sex workers were trafficking victims which SPD is committed to rescuing. But he stressed they need multiple different resources in order to do that, not just a diversion program.
Later, he tweeted to reporters covering the meeting from the official SPD account in an effort to clarify his remarks. His statement included:
I’d like to clarify my earlier remarks that I was unable to finish at City Council today. There is a reason we refer to those engaged in prostitution as High Risk Victims. In our experience, victims are forced into prostitution through violence, deception, and other factors not of their choosing. Diversion options can be limited, and we may need to arrest them to disrupt the cycle of violence and abuse. For people trafficked in prostitution, jail can be a safer place than out on the street. That said, our primary enforcement focus will ALWAYS be those who profit from and support this form of human trafficking.
Sawant was even more critical Thursday, calling the idea of need to take a sex worker off the street and to jail for their safety doubling shocking.
“To suggest that the most vulnerable in our society should be arrested in order to protect them, is like saying we need to burn the village in order to save it,” Sawant said. “This is dishonest and horrifying logic and we should reject it.”
Sawant called on SPD to stop arresting sex workers and return to the “trauma informed” approach, such as diversion programs like LEAD. She and others on the council will attempt to find funding for LEAD in the budget.