A private security company has indefinitely suspended its nightly patrols of downtown Olympia after an encounter with protesters last weekend.
Starting last spring, Tacoma-based Pacific Coast Security was hired to patrol certain downtown businesses in response to people sleeping outside and leaving behind trash and waste. The business group Olympia Downtown Alliance, which coordinated the program, described it as a “safety team” similar to the downtown ambassadors employed by the city of Olympia who work during the day.
Teams of two patrolled four hours each night. They would ask people sleeping or staying on private property to leave and would call police if people didn’t cooperate.
On Saturday, more than 20 protesters, some in masks, surrounded the guards along Capitol Way, ODA Executive Director Todd Cutts told The Olympian. Police were called to escort the guards away from the crowd. No arrests were made and police suggested the guards leave for the night.
Cutts said he believes the protesters were part of the Olympia Solidarity Network, or OlySol, an activist group that launched a campaign this summer to stop the patrols, which it said were forcing homeless people out of downtown.
OlySol members did not respond to The Olympian’s requests for comment this week. In a statement provided to The Olympian, the group called the suspension of patrols a “victory” and a “crucial step ... to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents.”
“Of course, we expect that the Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA) will maintain its commitment to vacating our houseless neighbors from the downtown core. We will remain vigilant to such efforts,” the statement continued.
Cutts said this was the third time protesters have confronted Pacific Coast guards in recent months. At least one person was charged after an incident in October in which, according to Cutts, protesters followed guards to their office, beat on the door and yelled at them through a megaphone.
OlySol’s campaign was criticized for seeming to threaten local businesses. In September, Harlequin Productions and Orca Construction/Cooper Realty got letters demanding they cancel their contracts or face “further action” by the group, and last month protesters held brief demonstrations inside some businesses.
On Tuesday, OlySol defended its campaign online, writing that homeless people are the ones being threatened, not business owners.
“We are not threatening, we are promising that if these violent and selfish actions against houseless individuals do not stop, we will continue to take action,” the group wrote on its website.
Pacific Coast Security has contracts for other downtown locations, including City Hall. It is often hired to patrol areas where there are homeless people and guards have had run-ins before, said Vice President Troy Weller.
“In Olympia, it’s the only case where groups of individuals on behalf of homeless people tried to intimidate officers,” Weller said. Weller said he believes police should be more proactive when it comes to the protesters targeting his guards.
While Saturday’s confrontation may have been intimidating, Olympia police did not think it was illegal, said Deputy Chief Aaron Jelcick.
“Oftentimes (there is) a fine line between exercising First Amendment rights and engaging in behavior that makes people feel uncomfortable, and crossing over into behavior that violates the law,” he said.
Amy Evans is a vice president at the commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews in Olympia, where she represents downtown landlords and tenants. She said clients moving downtown tell her they are nervous about the area, but she thought the patrols were helping.
In a Facebook post, Evans described the protesters’ actions as “bullying and terrorism.”
“I’m flying the flag of downtown and what a great place it is. I feel personally invested in the tenants and the people I encourage to go downtown,” she said. “It’s hard to continue to tell people it’s going to be OK when things like this happen.”