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caption: King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Darrah Hinton said Friday's rally at the King County Courthouse was about workplace safety — not about blaming people in a nearby encampment.
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King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Darrah Hinton said Friday's rally at the King County Courthouse was about workplace safety — not about blaming people in a nearby encampment.
Credit: KUOW / Amy Radil

King County Courthouse employees demand safety measures after attack on colleague

Dozens of employees who work in the King County Courthouse rallied and marched in downtown Seattle on Friday, calling for stronger safety measures in the building and neighborhood.

The crowd, made up of mostly female employees, said the report of an attempted rape of an employee in a courthouse restroom last month has added new urgency to their concerns.

Court documents say the man charged with attempted rape was homeless and had just been released from jail days before. Some employees said they were outraged by the county’s email alerting them to the attack, which called it "a sad reminder that all employees should be aware of their surroundings and potential threats in and around their workspace.”

A letter from the King County Prosecuting Attorneys Association to King County Executive Dow Constantine said, “The email sent in response to a County employee’s sexual assault, within hours of the assault, was unprofessional, perpetuates victim blaming, and reinforces rape culture.”

It added, "The County is also hereby put on notice that, should anything happen to a member of our Association, we will take legal action for the County’s liability in fostering and maintaining an unsafe work environment."

At the rally, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Amy Freedheim told the crowd, “We are all aware of our surroundings. And we are still not safe,” she said, echoing the slogan on the teal T-shirts of rally participants.

Freedheim said she is not seeking specific security measures, but calling attention to the larger issue that Seattle and King County officials have played “political games” over safety rather than taking responsibility.

“There are many, many ways to solve safety issues with individuals. And the city needs to get it together, the county needs to get it together, and quit pointing fingers and take care of the problem that is escalating,” she said.

Stephanie Sato works at the King County Prosecutors office in human resources and attended Friday’s rally. She said she just heard about a colleague who left her job at the courthouse because she was traumatized after a man exposed himself and chased her inside the county administration building. She also said employees have had bags of urine thrown on them under the Yesler Street bridge. But the attempted rape in the courthouse restroom was even more threatening.

“For the longest time people talked about ‘running the gauntlet’ from public transportation or the parking garage to get into the safety of the courthouse,” she said. “But now that apparent safety was also gone.”

Sato also said pandemic exacerbated safety concerns for the remaining employees. “It’s made it a lot worse for people that do have to come to complete their work. Because you don’t have the safety in numbers to some degree that you used to have, walking with your co-workers and commuters in general.”

She said she supports new measures like escorts and shuttles to help employees get to the building from transit stops and parking garages.

King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert has spoken about courthouse safety concerns in recent years and attended the rally. Lambert called the proposal for employee escorts "a band-aid for the situation that is before us."

Lambert said officials haven’t had the political will to address the encampment in City Hall Park and provide support and services to the people living there. “It’s been an uphill battle and people kind of rolled their eyes for the past two years,” she said.

Suzette Dickerson spoke at the rally on behalf of the Coalition of Unions. She said her group submitted a list of demands to King County Executive Dow Constantine, that include more security officers and cameras.

“We’re asking for staff-only bathrooms that are locked with a keyed entry.” Dickerson said. “We are working with King County, I did have a meeting with them earlier today. And they are working some of those demands right now.”

But State Senator Manka Dhingra, who works as a senior deputy prosecutor in King County, said creating staff restrooms doesn’t help other visitors to the courthouse.

“We have survivors come in seeking protection orders,” she said. “And they need to be able to go to the bathroom and be in this building and come and go in a safe manner. So it’s not just about employees, it’s about everyone who needs to access this building.”

Tiarra Dearbone with the Public Defender Association said a group called the JustCare consortium is working to secure placements for everyone living nearby in City Hall Park.

“The safety issues at the courthouse are not limited to this park, and most of those living here are not posing the safety concerns,” she said. “Dispersing folks across the neighborhood will not alleviate courthouse safety and could make things worse."

Ann Davison, a candidate in the race for Seattle City Attorney, joined the march around the courthouse and said employees’ concerns echo issues she has raised in her campaign.

“To hear the things they’re having to endure in their workplace is absolutely unacceptable,” she said, “and so I’m just here to be one of those out in the public saying ‘We support you and thank you for helping us in the administration of justice.’”

Davison added that the area has gained a reputation for criminal activity. “I think we need to change that reputation,” she said, “and there’s a way to have compassion and safety mixed together.”