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< Browse to Previous Book | Most Recent

Book of the Fortnight:
Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle

HistoryLink.org Essay 11167 • Printer-Friendly Format

By Christopher T. Bayley
Hardcover, 240 pages
Illustrations, bibliography, index
Sasquatch Books, 2015
ISBN 978-1-63217-029-3

In Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle, Christopher Bayley, who served as King County Prosecuting Attorney from 1971 to 1979, provides a fascinating and eye-opening exploration of the history of corruption within Seattle city government and the Seattle Police Department while also recollecting his own experience as a proponent of reforming the system, first as a young political activist and later as the newly elected King County prosecutor.

Much of Bayley's focus throughout the book is on Seattle politics during the era of the so-called "tolerance policy," adopted by the Seattle City Council and Seattle Police Department in the late 1940s and in place through the late 1960s. Under the tolerance policy, Seattle police would enforce gambling laws and shut down places involved in bookmaking or gambling with large payouts, while not enforcing gambling laws against places involved in low-stakes gambling. Instead, to avoid prosecution, these places would just have to apply for the appropriate licenses and follow the advice provided to them by the police.

As Bayley explains, while defenders of the tolerance policy argued that it protected Seattle from criminal enterprises and groups trying to establish operations in the city, it led to unintended corruption within city government and the police department. City government benefitted from the increased revenue from places applying for gambling licenses. Meanwhile, Seattle police benefited from a payoff system in which owners of businesses with gambling licenses would pay officers making calls on their establishments to avoid police attention. As Bayley states, "the Tolerance Policy carried its own message -- lawbreaking would be tolerated for money."

In between his exploration of Seattle under the tolerance policy, Bayley takes time to look over his own experience as a supporter of reform. This includes discussion of his involvement in the mid-1960s with Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC), a political-advocacy group of young Seattle activists supporting election to the Seattle City Council of reform candidates willing to challenge the establishment's support for the tolerance policy. Bayley later examines his involvement with Action for Washington, a Republican political group working to elect and support progressive Republicans such as Governor Dan Evans and Attorney General Slade Gorton.

Bayley's examination of his own entry into politics leads to reflecting on his political career, in particular his decision to run for King County Prosecutor in 1970, challenging longtime incumbent Charles O. Carroll, during whose time as prosecutor the tolerance policy was in force, and the reform measures he undertook after winning that race.

Perhaps the most eye-opening section of the book comes at the end, when Bayley examines the relationship between the public and the police. As he shows with current examples of more recent controversies involving the Seattle government and police department, a sense of distrust between the community, the police, and local government is not a new phenomenon and there will always be a need for reform to repair public trust in these institutions.

This book is highly recommended and provides a thought-provoking exposé of the history of local Seattle politics for those who may have not heard of these events.

By Thomas Parker, December 23, 2015

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Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle by Christopher T. Bayley
Courtesy Sasquatch Books

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