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Banishment as City Policy

Story by
Nancy Joseph

A young woman, cited for suspicious activity in downtown Seattle, was banned from the downtown core for a full year. Although she was never charged with a crime, she risked arrest if she returned to downtown, even to visit a parent who lived there.

This scenario has become increasingly common in Seattle in recent years. In an attempt to keep “unsavory” characters out of certain neighborhoods, the police have been permitted to issue warnings and make arrests based on nothing more than their own discretion. The growing trend and its impact are explored in Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America, by Katherine Beckett, professor of sociology and law, societies, and justice, and Steve Herbert, professor of geography and law, societies, and justice.

Steve Herbert and Katherine Beckett

Steve Herbert and Katherine Beckett. Media credit: Jesse Beckett-Herbert

Beckett became interested in Seattle’s banishment policies while studying arrest records for another research project. She noticed unfamiliar codes—SODA, SOAP, PEO, TA—next to some suspects’ names and wondered what the codes signified. When she learned that they indicated exclusion from large portions of the city, she was shocked. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that someone can be banished from whole areas of the city,” she says.

SODAs (Stay Out of Drug Area) and SOAPs (Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution) were introduced in the 1980s and 90s to prohibit a person from visiting certain neighborhoods after being arrested on drug or prostitution charges. Such orders are typically issued by a judge, after an arrest. PEOs (Parks Exclusion Orders), introduced through city legislation in the late 1990s, banish a person from a city park—and often neighboring parks—if police or parks officials observe park violations. Exclusion can range from a week to a year based on an individual’s past history and the nature of the rule violation.

While SODAs, SOAPs, and PEOs are the result of specific violations, Trespass Admonishments (TAs) can exclude people from areas without cause. If police observe a person doing something they consider “suspicious” in a public space such as a recreation center or bus stop, or on private property normally open to the public, they can issue a TA without proof of criminal activity. The TA often includes banishment not only from that site but also from similar properties in the neighborhood for one year.

“The city has drawn together business owners with similar businesses to create a single trespass program,” explains Beckett. “So if, for example, you are trespass-admonished from a downtown parking lot, you are admonished from 328 downtown parking lots. You can imagine how difficult it would be to get around in that situation.”

Beckett and Herbert question this policy on many levels. There’s the fact that once a police officer trespass admonishes someone, there is no avenue to contest it. There’s the cost to the public—in 2005, TA and PEO arrests accounted for 10 percent of all case filings in Seattle Municipal Court. And there’s the cost to the individuals who are banished.

Man on bench

To determine the frequency and effectiveness of banishment efforts, the researchers reviewed a four-month sample of TAs and PEOs in Seattle from 2005. They also interviewed police officers, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, and judges, as well as 40 individuals, many of them homeless, who had been banished. Their conclusion? Despite the high cost of banishment efforts, they are largely ineffective.

“Most people returned to the area despite the exclusion order,” says Herbert. “People talk about homeless people being rootless, but that is not the case. Some of them have been in Pioneer Square for many, many years. The services they use, their social network, their food sources, and their case managers are all there. They are anchored. Exclude them from that neighborhood, and where are they going to go? So they do ducking and dodging instead of leaving.”

It should be noted that many individuals interviewed by Beckett and Herbert freely admitted they had checkered histories. In fact, Beckett was surprised by their candor about things they’d done. But when it came to being trespass admonished, they felt they were unfairly targeted when they were just trying to live their lives.

Beckett shares the story of one trespass admonished man who kept missing his interview appointment with her. Each time, he’d say that he’d been picked up by the police for violating his trespass admonishments. “I thought his excuses were getting to be a pretty tall tale,” says Beckett. “But when I checked the jail registry, which shows bookings into jail, I saw that he was telling the truth.”

Interviews with police officers tell another story. One retired officer describes trespass admonishments as “a beautiful thing” because they allow the police to make easy arrests and thus placate concerned property owners without having to create a trumped-up charge. “From the police perspective, it’s great,” says Herbert. “They see Joe in a parking lot, run Joe’s name, see he’s not supposed to be there, and arrest him. They don’t have to work at catching someone actually doing something illegal.”

Attorneys who represent the poor have been agitating about these exclusion policies for years, working to have the policies overturned. Beckett and Herbert hope that their book—particularly their extensive data on the ineffectiveness of banishment efforts—will support the attorneys’ efforts.

“One of the things that concerns us is the extent to which the use of this mode of thinking—that is, the use of spatial exclusions—is becoming more common, not just in Seattle but around the world, as a way to solve social problems, “ says Herbert. “While our focus was Seattle, I think we’re telling a bigger story.”