A Path Forward for CHAZ

Annie Eby
5 min readJun 27, 2020


Also read: Service Design Quick Sketch: Replacing the Police

This applies to Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and everywhere else Public Safety services have failed.

In response to a lawsuit from businesses, property owners, and residents in the area of CHAZ, Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle announced plans to remove roadblocks surrounding the occupied area of CHAZ, except those surrounding the East Precinct, which will remain in tact for continued demonstrations. The mayor met with organizers on site to “discuss the restoration of the Capitol Hill area” including the rights of residents and property-holders, and “long-term changes to transform policing”.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have a point and have been very patient as the aspirations of the area known as CHAZ were unsurprisingly subsumed to the lord of the flies lawlessness of what came to be retermed CHOP. But an original point remains: something has to be done about the police.

In May, the Seattle Police Department filed to terminate the federal consent decree that has been in effect for eight years due to the department’s excessive use of force, on claims that “we have met all of the requirements” and have “come a long way”. But after making this come-to-Jesus claim, SPD proceeded to spend the following weeks teargassing trapped crowds, macing children, grenading medic tents, and more horrors. It is foolish to think the department has the will or even ability to reform (due to structural corruption); the mayor’s promise of “long-term changes to transform policing” is very unlikely if SPD is involved.

So I take the CHAZ movement at face value: people are wanting a “zone”, the territory of which has already been designated, that is “autonomous” from — not necessarily the U.S., State, or City— the existing law-enforcement/public-safety/dispute-resolution system. The City could relieve SPD, the failed contractor/service-provider, of its obligation to provide services in the territory within CHAZ and open a request for proposals from prospective service providers to render law-enforcement/public-safety/dispute-resolution services.

The services could be defined by CHAZ property-owners and inhabitants, and the City could set the law enforcement requirements. The portion of CHAZ property taxes formerly allocated to SPD could be reallocated to the new service provider. In normal circumstances, this funding reallocation would be a very tough sell, but since #DefundPolice and #AbolishPolice have made headway, it is politically feasible right now. Moreover, since taking office in 2017, Mayor Durkan has increased the SPD budget by 27.5% to over $400M. So there is no basis for funding-related complaints from SPD.

It’s really not a very radical idea. Within my city of Wichita, there is a small city-block-by-city-block city called Eastborough. It feels like a normal neighborhood. The only thing noticeable about it is it has its own police with its own police department and police cars. They rescue ducks, respond to crime, enforce the speed limit, and assist the greater municipal area’s police forces.

But Seattle need not give up its lucrative property taxes or allow another city to form. All it needs to do is redefine the territory SPD is contracted to cover, and allow the district to hire its own service provider within its defined territory.

Organizers are asking that police officers guilty of misconduct be fired, and to defund the police department by 50%, reallocating funds to communities. This plan would effectively fire all SPD police officers — though good officers could quit SPD and apply for a job with the new service — and 100% defund the police, within the autonomous zone.

Some think the experiments at CHAZ somehow ruined it. I don’t think so. The violence and slow emergency responses were frankly just another day in the life in Seattle, SPD or no SPD. Either way, every place needs law-enforcement/public-safety/dispute-resolution servicess. A competing service provider that can be hired and fired by locals, and is beholden to locals’ actual service requests, will do better.

I do not think the foundation too faulty or the tension too high. The neighborhood of CHAZ is kind of a Jane Jacobs ideal. Formerly a gay neighborhood, it is the heart of the gentrification of the city; it has fancy coffee shops, restaurants, record stores; it’s situated on a park; its buildings are 3 or 4 stories high; it’s in a city with major global leaders and good jobs. A lot could be done with neighborly “eyes on the street” and other community measures.

Of course, tension is high because — I think we can sympathize —demonstrators are just people who arrive on the scene. They don’t know what system would work better; they just know they don’t want to be ruled by terror. They’re just people, not political experts, who are signalling to the world with sharpies and cardboard. They need the collected help and support of people who have spent time researching aspects of this problem and can offer solutions.

It’s an interesting service design prototype for a new autonomous zone. Something like: “You are now leaving the area patrolled by Seattle Police Department and entering the area patrolled by <TBD Service Provider>”

To move forward, there needs to be opportunity for solution-finding. The conversations about designing the future of services needs to happen now. Service designers, graphic artists, lawyers, and the residents of CHAZ need the opportunity to work together to design the law-enforcement/public-safety/dispute-resolution system of the future. Here’s a start of a list of people that could be at an initial meeting.

  1. Mayor Jenny Durkan
  2. Louise Downe (UK government service designer and facilitator)
  3. Elected representative from CHAZ
  4. Someone from Threat Management Center e.g. Dale Brown
  5. Mariame Kaba (Project NIA)
  6. Someone from Metis Institute or ResolvedOnline (advanced dispute resolution methods will drive down police calls, leaving money for training)
  7. Patrick Short (Northwestern improv leader — to engage, gather opinions, collaborate, and perhaps gather a nomination from demonstrators in an entertaining street-theatrical way)
  8. We have seen the whole world march on the side of police reform. Many Seattleites, even the distraught residents and property-owners of the occupied area, have sympathy for this cause. They are also unwilling subjects of what has shown itself to be an incompetent organization incapable of reform. But people don’t want to protest forever. It’s clear the SPD is not able to reform. Make Capitol Hill a permanent Autonomous Zone that will be a provocateur for many more autonomous zones.

We HAVE opportunities for real change. We need to actually DO something with them or stop playing pretend-protest. I believe if we can start reallocating funds for new service providers we will have a real chance at dismantling the #CarceralIndustrialComplex.

Also see:

Service Design Quick Sketch: Replacing the Police

A path forward for the USA 2020