KC Sheriff's Office sues over Burien encampment ban

Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director calls Burien’s ordinance “unconstitutional.”

On March 12, King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) issued a statement applauding the decision by King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall to refuse enforcement of a Burien city code that criminalizes homelessness, and to seek relief in federal court declaring the code unconstitutional.

On March 4, 2024, the Burien City Council adopted Ordinance 832, which prohibits individuals from camping on public property between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., if shelter is available. Camping on public property is also prohibited during daytime hours.

According to the City of Burien, the city is working closely with the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) and service provider partners to ensure outreach and services are offered before enforcement.

“If, after repeated contact with service providers an individual refuses the available shelter and refuses to leave the public property, they could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. In addition, Burien supports the use of any available deferral process since the priority remains getting people off of the street and into the housing, services, or treatment that they need,” the city stated on their website.

The City of Burien contracts with King County Sheriff’s Office for police services. The city allocated more than $16 million in its 2024 Adopted Budget for contracted police services with King County. The funding for the police contracting with the KCSO makes up almost the entirety of their police budget in lieu of their own police force.

PubliCola Reporter Erica Barnett reported that King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall announced on March 11 that her office is suing Burien over its total ban on living unsheltered in the city, calling the law a violation of the rights affirmed in a consequential 2019 case, Martin v. Boise, which prevents cities in the western U.S. from banning homeless people from public spaces unless adequate shelter is available.

“Since his hiring in late 2022, the Burien city manager has seemingly been carrying out a vendetta against unsheltered persons in Burien,” said Tamer Abouzeid, OLEO Director. “The extremes to which the city has gone, and the city’s continued refusal to utilize support offered by King County to help with issues of homelessness, belie any pretense that these actions are taken to improve public safety in Burien.

Abouzeid also argued that based on current case law, the code is unconstitutional, and that Burien’s anti-homeless policies are ineffective and counterproductive, whether at combatting homelessness itself or at improving public safety.

As it has done throughout the past year, OLEO will continue to monitor the situation in Burien and to discuss the issues with community stakeholders, the Sheriff’s Office, and King County’s Community Advisory Committee for Law Enforcement Oversight (KCSO).

“Research has shown that the criminalization of homelessness, especially in areas like Burien where there is insufficient housing and support, neither improves public safety nor ameliorates the factors leading to homelessness,” said OLEO Senior Policy Analyst Katy Kirschner. “As early as 2012 and as recently as last week’s State of the Union address by President Biden, the federal government has reiterated common-sense, uncontroversial ideas about homelessness: things like building affordable housing, lowering rent costs, and increasing access to behavioral health services help people escape the cycle of homelessness, while criminalization ‘creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back.’”