Sheriff in Washington state won't enforce city's ban on homeless encampments, prompting lawsuit: 'We passed a law'

A pair of dueling lawsuits in Washington state have shone a national spotlight on homeless encampments and the rights of local municipalities to restrict or ban them.

The case involves leaders of Burien, Washington, a city of more than 50,000 residents located near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. While Burien has a police department, the city spends $16 million, roughly 45% of its annual budget, on contracting with the King County Sheriff’s Office for police services.

Earlier this month, the Burien City Council voted to pass Ordinance 832, which banned homeless tents within 500 feet of many city locations, including schools, day care centers, and parks. The law provides one exception: In the event that shelter space is unavailable, homeless residents may remain in their tents from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.

“We passed a law that tackled the negative impacts around tent encampments,” said Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling. “[We’re] giving people the option to sleep at night in a tent, but saying, ‘You can’t have it up 24/7 because that is what leads to bigger problems.'”

Though the law was passed properly, King County Sheriff Patricia Cole-Tindall ordered her deputies not to enforce it. On March 11, she filed a lawsuit against the City of Burien, suggesting that the encampment ban is unconstitutional.

“After completing a legal analysis of the ordinance, the sheriff’s office has serious concerns about the constitutionality of the ordinance, especially when the exclusion zones are determined solely at the discretion of the City Manager and can be changed at any time,” the sheriff’s lawsuit said.

Cole-Tindall is a political appointee of Democrat County Executive Dow Constantine, but she claimed that Constantine was not involved in the decision not to enforce the law.

Two weeks after the sheriff filed suit, the City of Burien filed a countersuit in Snohomish County Superior Court, claiming that by not enforcing the law, the sheriff’s office was in breach of contract.

An investigation from journalist Jonathan Choe of Discovery Institute revealed that the homeless in Burien are often using drugs and harassing locals in broad daylight. In the following video posted to X, one homeless man ordered the person filming him, ostensibly Choe, to “get the f*** out of his] face.” Moments later, he warned that he was “about to get violent”:

Mayor Schilling likewise explained to various news outlets that the decision not to enforce the law posed a danger to homeless people living in Burien. Three homeless people have suffered overdoses just in the last few weeks, and one of the individuals later died, Schilling claimed.

The sheriff’s office released a statement about the city’s lawsuit: “The constitutionality of Burien’s anti-camping ordinance is squarely before the federal court. Burien’s attempt to avoid a binding judgment by filing a lawsuit in Snohomish County is just a misguided distraction as we await decision from the federal court.”

Schilling says he hopes that at the very least, the lawsuit will help the city transition to an independent police force. “This whole situation is a waste of taxpayer dollars, taxpayer time, and government resources,” he said, “when we could have been all focused on getting people off the streets and into shelters and services.”

While the lawsuits languish in the courts, area residents remain frustrated that their city has been overtaken by lawless vagrants. “This is on purpose,” one area businessman said about the cluster of tents that have sprung up around his city.

“Who’s making all the decisions? Not us.”

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