SEATTLE -- Seventeen-year-old Universal Allah was enjoying his after-school snack -- until police arrived.
"I wasn't doing anything illegal. I wasn't smoking, I wasn't drinking, I wasn't loitering," he said of his encounter with Seattle police in May. "I was just standing there, eating, maybe texting."
Allah, who now attends Garfield High School, had been buying chips and soda from the convenience store across the street from Southlake High School, which he attended last school year. As he left the store, he saw a police officer approach schoolmates gathered around the curb.
The teens started to walk away from the officer, who followed them, Allah said. Allah also tried to walk away. "I didn't want any part of that," he said.
But he says the officer grabbed him, took his name and told him he was banned from the store. Allah learned later that if he were caught at the store again he could face arrest for criminal trespassing. Police said the owners of that store had asked for help dispersing loiterers.
"I was a little bit offended," said Allah, an honors student with no criminal history. "I don't know what the hostility toward me was for when I wasn't even a part of the group."
Allah is among the hundreds of Seattle residents who've been banished over the years from public places and private property under a police practice called "trespass admonishment."
Essentially, it allows police to ban people from certain areas once they've been stopped for loitering or suspected criminal activity.
Defense attorneys and civil rights activists say the policy unfairly targets vulnerable people, including the homeless, and criminalized their existence rather than just their behavior. Many people banned from businesses and public property often had no other place to go, critics said.
Seattle police have defended the policy, saying it helped them enforce the rights of property owners and prevented loitering and criminal acts.
But in the wake of a recent court settlement, talks are under way to abolish the old system and replace it with one that "enforces rules without creating a burden," said Assistant Chief Mike Sanford. "The program served its purpose, but it needed to evolve," Sanford said.
Anita Khandelwal, a public defender with Defender Association, has been working with police and business owners through the Racial Disparity Project to create an alternative policy. "We are in the process of finding ways to deal with the public safety issues and to prevent the regulation of people who are not doing anything wrong," she said.
Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), said the process of hammering out the proposed new policy has been fruitful.
"We agreed on common goals and also agreed that the current way we were handling trespasses may not be effective," Joncas said. "There were a lot of gray areas. People will now have very clear instructions about what is allowed and what is not allowed."
The issue has been a thorny one.
Businesses wanted police to be able to prevent loitering and other misbehavior around their property. Activities such as sleeping on loading docks and dealing drugs in doorways were problems, Joncas said.
Police typically had handled these issues by "trespassing" the alleged offenders from the business, and sometimes, portions of the neighborhood.
Earlier this year, however, the city was sued in federal court over the policy after a homeless vendor of the Real Change newspaper was "trespassed" from the public sidewalk in front of a bank for allegedly harassing people.
In the October settlement, the city agreed police no longer would ban people from public sidewalks but did not address the policy of banning people from other public areas or private property. Khandelwal said that wasn't enough. The entire policy needed an overhaul.
Historically, banishment has been used to "deal with troublesome situations that do not rise to the level of crime and that disproportionately involve marginalized people," said Katherine Beckett, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who has co-authored a book on the subject called "Banished."
Business owners were, by and large, supporters of the practice, signing a contract that authorized police to remove disruptive or bothersome individuals from their properties, said police spokesman Mark Jamieson.
In a number of areas, businesses that signed the contract were part of a coalition, so when a person was trespassed from one property, the person automatically was banned from all the others in the group, Khandelwal said.
The admonished person then could be arrested for criminal trespassing if the person was caught at any one of the businesses in the group, according to Khandelwal.
This effectively criminalized people's existence and impeded their mobility, Khandelwal said.
"It can prevent people from going places they need to go," Khandelwal said, "and that is not a role we've ever said the police can play in a free society."
The actual trespass admonishment used by Seattle police was outlined on a 4-by-5-inch card, Jamieson said. On the back of the card was a list of all the participating retailers from whose property the offender also was banned.
In many cases, Khandelwal said, the trespassed are not given copies of the admonishment. There is a lack of uniformity in the issuance of admonishments, she said, and sometimes there is no paperwork.
The proposed policy, a one-year pilot program Sanford said he hopes will go into effect Jan. 1, has been hammered out by police, business groups and defense lawyers, police said.
Property owners will be asked to create a list of guidelines that would function like a code of conduct for patrons, and police will be asked to enforce those rules, Khandelwal said.
Joncas, of the Downtown Seattle Association, said the pilot-program group worked to develop new signs that can be posted by business owners.
"They will give very clear instructions on what is allowed and what is not allowed," she said.
Additionally, the DSA will be providing information to business and property owners, she said.
Khandelwal said the pilot program will call for officers to warn offenders orally or in writing before further action.
"No one wants their parking lot used for drug transactions, and parking lot owners do not want people using their lots to camp," Sanford said. "But what we will do is explain to people that they are violating the rules and that they can be arrested for criminal trespass if they continue to violate the property's intended purpose," he said.
The key difference from the current program would be that those who had violated the rules in the past would not be banned from the property in the future, as long as they abide by the code of conduct.
That means even if a person were loitering in a convenience store parking lot one night, the person still could go to the store during the day as a legitimate customer, police said.
Lisa Daugaard, supervisor of the Racial Disparity Project and an attorney with the Defender Association, said she's optimistic about the change.
"We believe this will be a meaningful policy change that will protect the interests of property owners as well as protect the people's civil rights," Daugaard said.
Khandelwal said, "We're giving a lot of credit to Seattle Police Department brass for being willing to sit down and talk and find common ground."
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