Public Defense staff join forces with Operation Nightwatch

On a blustery Saturday night last month, seven volunteers served a home-cooked meal to 150 homeless men and women at Operation Nightwatch, a ministry located in Seattle. The volunteers included stalwarts in the Department of Public Defense as well as their relatives – DPD Division Director Donald Madsen and his wife, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, DPD Senior Staff Attorney Jonathan Newcomb and his daughter Natalie, DPD Seattle Municipal Court Supervisor Karen Murray and DPD financial controller Anne Dolan and her husband Cary.

As that night’s coordinator, Karen had checked the kitchen pantry a few days before to decide what donated food items would be used to prepare the night’s meal. The menu was simple: grilled cheese sandwiches, along with garden vegetable and chicken noodle soup. All told, more than 250 sandwiches were distributed that night.

This wasn’t the first time employees from the Associated Counsel for the Accused, now a division within the county’s Department of Public Defense, stepped up to serve meals to homeless residents. ACA began volunteering with Operation Nightwatch four years ago, part of a conscious effort to channel the firm’s volunteer efforts toward those activities that directly touched the lives of many of their clients.

Pam Pasion, ACA’s Assistant Drug Court Supervisor, brought Operation Nightwatch to ACA’s attention after she met with Nightwatch staff to discuss some of the unmet needs ACA volunteers could fulfill. She quickly saw that the populations Operation Nightwatch served were some of the same people who entered the criminal justice system due to ongoing issues of substance abuse, mental illness or physical and emotional abuse – a population that mostly goes unnoticed because they’re homeless. Operation Nightwatch is a nighttime ministry whose mission is to provide the homeless with shelter and food. Those in need are treated with respect and dignity by Nightwatch staff and volunteers, and, for a window of time, they become visible.

Operation Nightwatch

Karen Murray, left, checks the soup, while others make sandwiches. In the foreground at far right is Don Madsen.Photo Credit: Jonathan Newcomb.

Since Pam introduced ACA to Operation Nightwatch, ACA staff have volunteered 21 times, and they now know a thing or two about the needs of the organization’s clients. As a result, ACA volunteers handed out not only home-cooked meals on that rainy February night but also dry socks and toiletry kits – items donated by dozens of ACA employees.

These efforts are in keeping with the mission of ACA and now the Department of Public Defense, which seeks to provide high-quality legal representation to clients and to do so with a profound respect for their dignity and independence and an understanding of what’s driving their criminal behavior. Although the clients’ names change, the stories are often familiar, revealing histories of chemical abuse, physical abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness and sometimes homelessness. And ACA is not the only division that undertakes such efforts. DPD’s three other divisions – The Defender Association Division, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons Division and the Northwest Defenders Division – have also embraced a range of volunteer activities, efforts that bring them closer to the needs of their clients.

The Department of Public Defense is increasingly focused on holistic defense – a kind of practice that recognizes clients have not only legal needs but also a wide range of social service needs. The goal is to provide excellent legal representation as well as seamless access to social supports, so that the client doesn’t quickly re-enter the legal system. And to do that well, a public defender needs to see the whole person and garner his or her trust. Experiences like those with Operation Nightwatch do both. They underscore what many in public defense know full well – that by meeting clients on their turf and in their communities, they’ll begin to establish relationships far stronger than those forged only in the courtroom.

(Article originally appeared in the Department of Public Defense’s For the Defense newsletter).