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caption: King County Executive Dow Constantine speaks at a media briefing on the region's COVID-19 outbreak, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
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King County Executive Dow Constantine speaks at a media briefing on the region's COVID-19 outbreak, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Credit: Public Health Seattle-King County

King County Executive on inquests and his upcoming budget

King County Executive Dow Constantine joins us for our weekly chat.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation between Marcie Sillman and Dow Constantine on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

Two years ago, you introduced new rules requiring inquests into police-caused deaths to examine whether officers followed agency policies and training. On Monday morning, a King County Superior Court judge threw out those rules. She described the process you shaped as stacked against law enforcement officers. How do you feel about that setback?

Making change in the criminal legal system is very tough sledding. And there are a lot of actors inside and outside the system who are trying to slow it down. But I don't think she's right about either the facts or the law. And I think that the Supreme Court is going to be relied upon by all of us to sort it out.

The fact is that we need more transparency for the families, for the officers, for the public about instance, when force is used by public officials against citizens, against residents.

At the top of the hour, we heard about the story of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, who was shot a times, shot in the back as he tried to enter his SUV with his children inside. It is important that our community be able to sort out when something like that happens, whether procedures were followed, what those procedures are, and what could be changed by those police departments to prevent that kind of thing from happening in the future. Sometimes officers will appropriately use force but there are a lot of times when a different approach may have saved a life. And we need to dig into these cases and find out what could be changed to prevent tragedies in the future.

Is the judge's ruling in part a sign that perhaps the judicial system is starting to push back against this changing policy? That some see to be the curbing of police powers?

Well, I wouldn't presume to speak to the judges motivations. I assume she's trying to interpret the law as best she can. But I will say that there's clearly a conflict within the judiciary about the type of change and the pace of change that needs to take place. And that is reflective of a battle that's happening elsewhere.

We see many actors in many parts of the criminal legal system, who are coming around to seeing that the way we've done things for years is not the best, most productive, fairest, and most equitable way to conduct business and beginning to push for change. Not just from the defenders, of course, who've always had that perspective, but from prosecutor's offices, from within our detention system.

Folks in many arenas, including in the courts, seeking change, and yet there is a natural tendency for people to be afraid of change, to push back against change. And yes, we are seeing that and yes, I find it tremendously frustrating. And the difficult things I've tried to do in my time in office -- building a region wide rail system or restoring the environment or taking on COVID -- you know, this may well end up being the toughest, is trying to remake the criminal legal system.

Nancy in Burien: With the potential loss of midfunding of Burien's LEAD program, the first to be adopted citywide in the state of Washington, may be gutted. What are you doing to ensure that creative and successful diversion programs like LEAD, that provide such better outcomes for people, stay afloat during this time of calls for police reform?

LEAD is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. And it is a program that has been tremendously successful, I think and nationally recognized, in having the police direct people who come into contact with the law on the streets into programs that can get to their underlying challenge rather than into a legal system that is ill equipped to help correct what brought them there in the first place.

And I will tell you, as I'm putting the finishing touches on my budget -- that I will propose to the county council next month -- that I am going to propose ways to preserve the LEAD program in Burien and make sure that it stays strong and that our other alternatives are strengthened throughout the count. I do think that this is the wave of the future. And I think that we're going to have some pretty bold proposals to share in just a few weeks.

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control dropped the 14 day quarantine recommendations for international and out of state travel. What impact could this have on King County's Covid plans?

The CDC originally had a recommendation that people quarantine 14 days then they really dialed that back and they said that you should under certain circumstances. Fact is that you've if you've been in a place where you you're with people you don't know or you don't know where they've been, you should strongly consider quarantining.

They never had a recommendation around domestic travel, but parts of the United States are some of the worse hotspots on the globe for the coronavirus. We believe, and I talked with our public health director Jeff Duchin about this just this morning, that if you have been anywhere away from your familiar surroundings, and folks you know, that it is wise to try to keep your distance from others to quarantine or get tested if you're able, to make sure that you're not going to pass on the virus and unintentionally cause harm to those around you. Especially if you're going to gatherings, which you should not be doing, like weddings or college parties, which we're seeing a lot of and seeing major outbreaks across the country as school resumes.

You really really need to assume that you may have been infected by someone who may not themselves have known that they're contagious. And you need to keep yourself isolated and get tested.

I know that King County public transit ridership is down about 80% for light rail and express buses and King County Metro down more than 60% from pre-Covid numbers. But it seems like a vicious cycle because we can't support the transportation system can we, if we don't ride it?

Of course, there is funding outside of fares to pay for transit, but it is a fact that transit ridership is way down. A lot of that owing to people working remotely. We see in parts of the county where there are a lot of folks who have to show up to their jobs in person, particularly in South County, that transit ridership has remained fairly strong.

What we have done is really step up the protocols to protect passengers, employees and the community. Disinfecting every vehicle every day, requiring masks, upgrading air filters, creating physical distancing on the buses, and much more. And we are doing even more than that, for example, we stopped collecting fares, so people could enter just through the rear door to protect our operators.

And we are adding shields for the operators. And I'll be rolling those out along with some other improvements very shortly.

I want you to know, though, that although intuitively, you would think that a bus is not a particularly safe environment, we've seen in studies internationally, that transit is not a place where infections are particularly more likely than anywhere else. And we are grateful that we have not seen a lot of infection that is traceable to public transit here. Part of that because, of course, we've taken all of these precautions.

There's a whole other discussion about hearts and minds because you've taken these precautions -- you've told us about them many times over the months that we've been in Covid social distancing mode -- and yet some people still are leery about it.

I think it is going to take people a while to become comfortable with some of the things they used to take for granted. Even if they are objectively safe. And one of those is transit, that is true of a lot of other places where people gather or interact.

We have the good fortune in transit to be able to control a lot of the environment, to be able to put these protocols in place. There are a lot of other environments, from which I mentioned, like weddings and parties where the danger is actually quite a lot higher. And we would continue to caution people before we leave the Covid issue, that autumn and winter are coming and in our region that means being inside more and that is where the danger really starts to rise.

o we want people to really think about the kinds of precautions they were taking earlier in the year to reduce unnecessary contact with others, to help us head off what otherwise will almost certainly be an increase in infections as people are compelled to be inside together because of the change in the weather.

What if restaurants aren't even following the Covid guidelines that there are? Is there any recourse for those of us who patronize these establishments follow up with health authorities?

Yes, you can contact Public Health Seattle and King County or the state state health department. I created, in public health, an initiative where we are going out and inspecting restaurants. We've hired people to do that specifically. And we've visited over 500 restaurants, some of them repeatedly, so far.

We did close one restaurant, nearly closed another before they came into compliance. But we also are trying to highlight those who are doing well and I wanted to give special commendation to two restaurants we singled out this week: Skillet and Grappa who went above and beyond in implementing Covid-19 protection measures.

We really want to encourage restaurants to seek out best practices, to protect their employees and their customers, and help us reduce the spread of Covid.

If a restaurant is closed down because of violations, are they required to continue to pay staff who are losing work due to no fault of their own?

Yeah, we're not able to require them to do that. And it would be a good inappropriate thing for them to do but they need to hurry up and come into compliance. The restaurant we closed, got the message, got the protocols in place, and after inspection, they were allowed to reopen, and employees were able to get back to work. So we don't like the idea of having to close down businesses. We want them to be able to function but we have to have them do it in a safe way.

The county's new $41.4 million Rental Assistance Program rolled out last week. There are concerns that renters could be evicted once moratoriums lift because of back rent that they're unable to pay, or pay to their their landlords. Are there any plans to mitigate that problem?

This is part of that. Mitigations of course won't cover all the rent that has gone unpaid. But we do recognize that even with the special federal unemployment that was offered during the summer, a lot of folks have fallen behind. And that should not be just on the landlords. They're not required to house people for free. So we're trying to make sure that there's a fair way that we can help, but probably not fully make up for the rent that's gone unpaid, and keep people housed because it's obviously tremendously more expensive to get people rehoused if they become homeless.

The program we put out, $41 million in emergency aid, is expected to assist about 7,700 to 10,000 households. And we've already gotten a lot of inquiries and applications. We're very eager to make sure that money is put out there, used wisely, we keep people housed. And then we move on to a conversation about what this county, state, and nation needs to do to make sure people can weather the rest of the Covid crisis.

Will King County move away from the use of congregate shelters as the pandemic continues and we move into inclement weather?

We are continuing to explore how we can build on the model that really evolved out of necessity in Covid, which is getting people who were in congregate shelters into individual rooms. In many cases, hotels that were vacant because of the downturn in tourism. That has proved really successful in not just preventing transmission of the coronavirus, but also helping people stabilize and begin to get control of their lives back.

So in my budget, I will be reflecting that success and trying to build upon it and I am very eager for us as a community to embrace the idea that people need to be gotten into housing with supports if they have underlying challenges that require that, and that we can move away from the congregate shelter that just has people cycling in overnight and back out into the streets with no forward progress in their lives.

What is your biggest concern for people experiencing homelessness as we move into the fall and winter?

It's always the brutality of being on the streets, but the added danger of people contracting a potentially fatal illness and of spreading it to all of the communities, is clearly the highest concern I have. In homelessness and our jail system, we've worked to get people distanced and I think we've had a great deal of success and want that to continue.