Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz (Photo: Paul Kiefer, PubliCola News)

By Paul Kiefer

By next summer, Seattle’s emergency call dispatchers may have a new crisis response team at their disposal. The new unit, called Triage One, would be housed within the Seattle Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health program and tasked with responding to some crisis calls that don’t clearly involve a medical emergency or criminal activity.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan debuted the proposal at a press conference on Friday morning alongside Councilmember Lisa Herbold and the heads of the Seattle Police and Fire Departments, and the newly created Communications and Community Safety Center (CSCC).

The goal of the Triage One team, said Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, is to reduce the city’s reliance on police officers as the default crisis responders. Diaz pointed to “person down” calls—calls about people either asleep or unconscious in public—as an example; at the moment, SPD treats those calls as high-priority, which involves dispatching at least two officers to respond as quickly as possible.

Durkan said the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours.

“But a majority of ‘person down’ calls are because someone’s experiencing addiction or a health crisis, and when SPD responds, officers still need to call another agency [for a more appropriate response],” Diaz said. Instead, the city could rely on an unarmed team to respond to those non-criminal emergencies and call for medical assistance, police backup, caseworkers, or other responders after taking stock of the situation.

Triage One would rely heavily on Seattle’s 911 dispatch center, which is now part of the CSCC. According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, the unit would function as an extension of the dispatch center itself. “911 has always been in a pinch to, in a minute to 90 seconds, decide what’s happening and how to deploy resources to help,” he said. “We see the Triage One system as a way to extend the time available to figure out how to get someone [in crisis] the services they need.” Meanwhile, the CSCC is developing a standardized list of questions for dispatchers to ask 911 callers, ostensibly to streamline emergency calls.

At the moment, the program is still only theoretical; the details of the Triage One team, including its size, makeup, and cost, won’t be resolved until the project receives approval and funding from the city council, Durkan said. She added that the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours. Continue reading “Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team”

Durkan Takes Credit for Funding She Vetoed, Police Chief Says Few Changes Needed to Comply with State Reforms, and More

Seattle interim police chief Adrian Diaz

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a press release on Wednesday touting her own success, along with that of her Human Services Department in handing out more than $10 million in grants, over 18 months, to 33 community-based groups and nonprofit organizations that work on upstream violence prevention and intervention strategies.

“Together, these investments strengthen community organization’s ability to address institutionalized inequities that result in BIPOC communities being underserved and unsafe,” Durkan’s press release said. 

What Durkan’s statement failed to mention is that her office spent much of the last year fighting not to spend this money. The city council first directed the mayor’s office to spend the $10 million last September, when they adopted a midyear budget amendment allocating $10 million “solely for community-led efforts to scale up organizations to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.”

At the time, the council hoped to get funds out the door quickly to respond to public demands for investments in alternatives to police that emerged during citywide protests throughout the summer.

Durkan vetoed the council’s adopted budget, specifically citing the $10 million expenditure, which the council’s budget paid for using an interfund loan, as a reason for rejecting the budget. The council narrowly overturned her veto, earmarking the funds for community organizations. The money was supposed to be spent this year.

When Durkan still failed to spend the money the council allocated—telling the council she planned to do her own request for proposals—the council acted again, amending Durkan’s 2021 budget to take the $10 million out of Durkan’s Equitable Communities fund (which the mayor established as an executive-branch parallel to the council-led participatory budgeting process) and allocating it to the same purpose as before.

This week’s announcement, which comes in the waning months of Durkan’s term, is a step toward finally getting the long-delayed funding out the door.

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2. In a Thursday afternoon blog post, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlined his department’s plans to comply with a pair of new state laws that place limits on police tactics and equipment, restrict when officers can use force, and require officers who witness out-of-policy uses of force to their supervisors.

Overall, Diaz wrote, he believes SPD is already complying with most of the new restrictions and requirements are already included SPD policy or local law, so the new statewide standards for pursuits, for example, won’t spur any changes in Seattle. Diaz added that the department would continue using 40mm “less lethal” projectile launchers, which police used on protesters last year, calling the launchers “an established tool that has allowed marked success in bringing about positive outcomes in dangerous situations.”

The new policies will prohibit police statewide from using force unless they have probable cause to make an arrest or they are responding to an “imminent threat” to themselves or another person; require police departments to empty their arsenals of “military equipment,” including some high-caliber weapons; and prohibit vehicle pursuits unless police believe they are chasing a suspect in a violent crime.

Diaz said the new rules will spur changes to how officers handle so-called “Terry stops,” or stops made without probable cause for an arrest. “If officers cannot articulate … a basis for a use of physical force with an uncooperative or resistant subject,” he wrote, “officers will be expected to disengage.” PubliCola has reached out to SPD’s legal department for details about the current bar for using force during Terry stops.

In addition, Diaz wrote, SPD will do away with its high-caliber rifles and shotguns. While some departments around the state have also claimed that the law requires them to turn over their high-caliber rubber bullet launchers, Diaz contended that he has “increasing confidence that it was not the intent of the legislature” to force departments to abandon weapons that can be used as less-lethal alternatives to guns during some crisis responses.

According to a department source, SPD expects that Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson may issue guidelines on whether departments can keep their high-caliber rubber bullet launchers before Sunday.

3. Erstwhile Human Services Department Interim Director Helen Powell has taken a job as deputy director of the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, a story PubliCola broke on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. Current HSD deputy director Tanya Kim will take over for the rest of the year, Howell said in an email to staff.Howell, the former executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Building Changes, was in the position for about seven months. Durkan appointed Howell last December to replace the previous interim HSD director, Jason Johnson, whose name the mayor withdrew from nomination when it became clear the city council would not confirm Johnson for a permanent appointment.

Howell’s departure comes at a shaky time for the department, which has not had a permanent director since early 2018, when Ed Murray appointee Catherine Lester left shortly after Durkan took office.

4. Earlier this week, PubliCola pushed our primary-election endorsements of Lorena González for mayor and Brianna Thomas for City Council Position 9. (If you’re wondering how to vote in Position 8, we encourage you to vote for past PubliCola Pick Teresa Mosqueda.)

Keep an eye out later this year for our general election endorsements, which will also cover the races for Seattle City Attorney, King County Executive, and potentially the Compassion Seattle and Sawant recall elections, depending on whether those proposals make it onto the November ballot!

Continue reading “Durkan Takes Credit for Funding She Vetoed, Police Chief Says Few Changes Needed to Comply with State Reforms, and More”

How Seattle’s Mayoral Candidates Rank Green New Deal Priorities

Photo by Atomic Taco; Creative Commons license

By Maryam Noor

In 2019, the city of Seattle joined a growing list of US cities by passing a local Green New Deal resolution that would mobilize all city departments to reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels and invest in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution. The resolution calls for new public investments to increase access to healthy foods, transition homes from natural gas to electric power, and strengthen green building standards.

In September 2019, just months after passing the Green New Deal resolution, the city council passed an ordinance requiring the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment to establish a 19-member Green New Deal oversight board, including eight members of communities directly impacted by racial, economic, and environmental injustices.

But in the years since the two bills passed, the city still hasn’t implemented many of the policies it recommends.

As PubliCola’s new intern, my first assignment was reaching out to Seattle’s mayoral candidates to ask them what they think of the policies outlined in the Green New Deal, and which ones they’d prioritize if elected. We also asked them to rank four policies in order of importance: Appointing a Green New Deal oversight board [Editor’s note: See correction below]; ensuring free public transit for all Seattle residents; decreasing the use of fossil fuels in Seattle homes; and exploring alternative housing models that aim to increase equity and affordability, such as community land trusts and limited-equity coops.

“
We’ve taken steps forward in banning reliance on fossil fuels in new construction of commercial buildings. I think we need to use the focus on that to make sure that we are not continuing to build infrastructure that delivers one of the most harmful emitters and products out here.”—Mayoral candidate Lorena González

Of the six candidates who responded to our questions––Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González, Bruce Harrell, Andrew Grant Houston, and Lance Randall–– Houston, Farrell, and Randall all said that alternative housing options would be their first concern. Farrell said she considered free public transit equally important, and Randall questioned the validity of free public transit in general.

“I would say in terms of importance, the alternative housing models would be my first priority,” Houston said. “In order to build new housing, it’s going to take at least three to five years, and so that’s something we should start off immediately.”

Farrell said affordable housing and transportation have to work together; you can’t have one without the other. “You gotta do housing and transportation together.”

Randall doesn’t want free public transit, at least not for everyone, because he believes it wouldn’t be practical or affordable.

“I believe more in subsidies for low-income people who need help, but there are a lot of people who can afford to pay for transit and they should pay for it because we have to pay the drivers,” Randall said. “We have to do bus maintenance. We have to purchase new buses.”

One of the most ambitious goals of Seattle’s Green New Deal is achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. In order for Seattle to do so, the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere need to be equal to the amount taken out in the city. Hitting this goal would mean implementing incentives to reduce carbon emissions, such as carbon taxes and electrification of industries and transportation, and long-term investments in clean energy sources like renewable diesel or biogas.

Only one candidate, Lorena González, put reducing carbon emissions in Seattle homes at the top of her priority list. To some extent, this is already happening. In February, the city banned the use of natural gas for space heating in new commercial and apartment buildings larger than three stories and for new heating systems in older buildings that match these qualifications. The ordinance also bans the use of natural gas to heat water in larger hotels and apartment complexes.

González doesn’t think it’s enough. “Fossil fuels are the largest producer of carbon emissions. 
We’ve taken steps forward in banning reliance on fossil fuels in new construction of commercial buildings,” González said. “And so I think we need to use the focus on that to make sure that we are not continuing to build infrastructure that delivers one of the most harmful emitters and products out here.”

Find out how the six candidates ranked the four issues we asked about below.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the mayor and council had not yet appointed the members of a new Green New Deal Oversight Board. The board has been appointed and will convene later this year. We have edited the story to remove quotes about the board, but have left the rankings below in their original order.

Continue reading “How Seattle’s Mayoral Candidates Rank Green New Deal Priorities”

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”

Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control”

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies, released the first round of recommendations for changing how the Seattle Police Department responds to protests. The OIG made its recommendations after a year-long review of SPD’s response to last summer’s protests by a panel of community representatives, including current and former members of the Community Police Commission, and SPD staff, including some who played key roles in the department’s protest response.

With the help of OIG staff and outside facilitators, the panel reviewed a series of widely criticized police actions during the first three days of protests in late May and early June of 2020—a period that accounted for two-thirds of SPD’s uses of force and arrests during the protests—and assembled recommendations that could help the department avoid similar missteps in the future.

The proposals range from basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests, to more unique suggestions, like loosening the department’s policies on neutrality to allow officers to express solidarity with protesters.

In general, the panel recommended moving SPD away from a “crowd control” approach, emphasizing that the department’s role should be to facilitate protests, not direct or manage them.

“We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.”—OIG director Lisa Judge

Inspector General Lisa Judge, who heads up the OIG, said some of the tactical recommendations—directing officers to minimize unnecessary arrests at protests, for example—are “no-brainers.” But at least one could be controversial. Responding to officers’ concerns about communication failures during the first few days of protests, the panel suggested that SPD could consider replacing radio communication with an encrypted messaging system, such as WhatsApp, during protests.

John Hollway, a consultant from the University of Pennsylvania Law School who helped design and facilitate the OIG’s review, said the change to encrypted messaging would give officers a reliable and better-organized channel for communications that can easily be shared with other law enforcement agencies providing backup during large-scale protests. Radio communications rely on a single channel that can only be used by one officer at a time—an obvious challenge for the department during frenetic protests. But shifting to an encrypted messaging system could also allow SPD to operate less transparently during and after protests. Messages sent using apps like Whatsapp are private and can be set to disappear, making them unlikely to show up in response to records requests. And unlike Whatsapp conversations, members of the public can easily tune in to SPD’s radio frequencies.

“There’s a tension here between transparency and tactics,” Judge said. “We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.” Though the panel’s recommendation doesn’t specifically suggest that SPD keep a record of its encrypted communications, Hollway said that ideally, the department should determine how to communicate discretely while archiving officers’ messages so that oversight agencies could review them as needed after-the-fact.

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The panel used the report to question Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to impose a citywide curfew starting on May 30, advising future mayors to exhaust other communication options before declaring a curfew. “If you’ve got 100 cops and 5,000 people who are very angry at policing in government and institutions, you are setting your police officers up for failure if you choose that as your strategy,” said Judge. “Even the police panelists said that they felt frustrated that the curfew pressured them to make arrests instead of focusing on more serious priorities.”

The panel’s recommendations for cultural change, Judge said, were about reframing the role of police at protests not as crowd control but protest facilitation. “The notion that [police] can command or manage a crowd is outdated, and it’s just not consistent with constitutional principles,” Judge said. “This report clearly states that they need to shift to an approach that’s about facilitating a protest, not directing it.”

As part of the shift in SPD’s approach to protests, the panel recommended that the department assemble a team of “dialogue officers.” This unit, based on a model launched in Sweden during large-scale protests in 2001, would act as a conduit for sharing information between protesters and police. “The whole point would be to have the dialogue officers spend the entire year building relationships with community members so that, when a protest happens, they pass information back and forth between the crowd and police.” Continue reading “Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control””

Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech

1. When the city initially denied a permit for a June event celebrating the art of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (relenting at the last minute after the ACLU of Washington threatened to sue), the department said it did so because of an “emerging concern” that any event commemorating CHOP could be “disturbing or even traumatic” to community members.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department told PubliCola, “We will not be issuing a permit for this event as we have heard from community members expressing concerns that any events celebrating or commemorating the events that occurred at Cal Anderson in summer of 2020 would be disturbing or even traumatic to the community.”

But emails PubliCola obtained through a Parks Department records request reveal that this “emerging concern” consisted of emails from a relative handful of individuals, mostly people suggesting that an anniversary event would lead to graffiti, vandalism, and crime in the park. Three of the emails from members of the public mentioned trauma as a concern.

The emails also suggest that the mayor’s office wanted to deny the permit from the beginning, and landed on a number of different justifications for doing so before the city ultimately landed on “community concerns” as the official reason. (The mayor’s office has not provided records yet in response to a similar request.) In addition to the concern about community “trauma,” the mayor’s objections, as Parks staffers described them, included, at various time, concerns about COVID-19 protocols, the impact of closing down a street for the event, and the “safety and security” of people in the area.

According to the emails, Durkan’s office began raising concerns about the CHOP Arts event as far back as early May, and met with high-level staff in several departments on May 20 to discuss the event. Parks staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that the mayor’s office wanted them to deny permits for the event, and any event related to the anniversary of CHOP, because of the association with last year’s protests alone.

Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, confirmed that she convened the meeting. Her message to department leaders, Formas told PubliCola, was “We’re not permitting an official city event that violates the Governor’s order, shuts down multiple blocks of the City for a block party celebrating CHOP, and could be a security and safety concern if there’s permitted and unpermitted events occurring at the same time with thousands of people.”

Organizers did change their plans for the event several times, but the final version of the application, which Parks had received by June 4, did not propose blocking off any streets.

Formas suggested that COVID protocols were the mayor’s primary concern at the time.

“In mid-May, we were in the midst of planning for special events permits for May and June and planning for expected unpermitted protests around downtown and Cal Anderson,” Formas said. “We understood that there would likely be many unpermitted protests and marches downtown and on Capitol Hill, which did in fact occur, and we were planning for allowing permitted events that met the Governor’s restrictions. So ultimately the question was how do we balance COVID-19 safety and security of both planned and unpermitted events.”

Emails between parks employees, however, suggest that Durkan’s main concern was that the city shouldn’t appear to be acknowledging or commemorating the anniversary of CHOP, a long-term protest zone that formed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct after SPD abandoned the precinct amid protests against police violence last summer. The incident became a significant embarrassment for Durkan and the police department, which refused to say who gave the order to abandon the precinct; reporters at KUOW unravelled that story earlier this month.

The Parks Department came away from the meeting with Formas believing that the mayor’s direction was clear: Avoid permitting any event associated with CHOP, period.

For example, on May 20, the Parks Department’s recreation division director, Justin Cutler, wrote in an email to Parks staff that “the Mayor’s Office has given direction that we are not to permit events at Cal Anderson at this time. More specifically any event that would be celebrating CHOP.”

In a May 20 email to parks staffers about upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park, Parks Commons Program director Randy Wiger described the CHOP Arts event as “canceled as per mayor.”

In a Powerpoint distributed on May 23, the CHOP Arts event is “X”d off a list of upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park; the document cites ‘New direction from Mayor’s Office’ as the reason.

And on June 3, Wiger reiterated on a different email chain that “the direction from the Mayor’s Office is ‘no celebration of the CHOP zone.'”

The CHOP Arts event, which organizer Mark Anthony described as a kind of “Black renaissance fair,” went ahead as scheduled on the weekend of June 11. It did not result in a new protest zone.

2. On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a clerk file—a type of clarification for earlier legislation—that would designate facial recognition as a form of “surveillance technology,” closing a loophole in the city’s surveillance regulations that came to light after a Seattle police detective used an unapproved facial recognition software in at least 20 criminal investigations.

The bill would augment Seattle’s three-year-old surveillance ordinance, which requires the council to approve surveillance technologies before a city department can put them to use. When the council passed the ordinance in 2018, they defined surveillance as any method of tracking or analyzing the “movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals.”

In November 2020, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigated South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes for using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview.AI without his supervisors’ knowledge. In his defense, Kartes argued that the surveillance law does not cover facial recognition. Continue reading “Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech”

City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park

A forest of angry hands rises in the Broadview-Thomson K-8 School cafeteria.

By Erica C. Barnett

During an often rowdy public forum in the cafeteria of Broadview-Thomson K-8 school last week, Seattle Public Schools deputy director Rob Gannon said the school district is working slowly toward a plan for moving more than 50 unsheltered people off school district-owned property behind the North Seattle school. The city of Seattle has refused to assist the school district in sheltering or housing people living on the property, and the district has turned to a small nonprofit called Anything Helps, with the goal of getting everyone off the site by September. 

“We got caught in a difficult situation and … with a rather large encampment and no resources to be able to address how to return that area to its original intended purpose or how to respond to the needs of the people living on that property,” Gannon said. “For the past two months, we have been actively seeking partners to help us address that situation, and only recently have we started to find traction to begin to help people move off that property.”

Emails from city officials show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

Although the school district property is directly adjacent to city-owned Bitter Lake Playfield and has historically been maintained by the Parks Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that Seattle bears no responsibility for the encampment because it isn’t on city property. In May, Durkan suggested that if the chronically underfunded district wants the encampment gone, it should “stand up” its own human services system.

Durkan has repeatedly suggested that people living behind the elementary school made a conscious decision to move away from property owned by the city, and have therefore chosen to be beyond the city’s help. But emails from city officials obtained through a records request show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

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In an email on July 8, 2020, for example, a recreation specialist with the city’s Parks Department told a school facilities staffer that the department would be removing and replacing lights in the park and would be asking “several campers in the area” to “relocate during construction.” Those “campers,” the parks staffer wrote, “may move elsewhere or around the SW corner of [Bitter Lake Lake which I understand is SPS property with Broadview Thompson [sic] School up the hill to the west. We never know what we will get when requesting a move of their ‘home.'”

Liza Rankin, the school board director for North Seattle, said that “seeing these communications now from a year ago, it’s really frustrating to know that had there been a prompt and appropriate response instead of sweeping people from the park at that point—offering services or shelter or even just an alternative location— this whole thing could have been avoided.”

After the city told the people living at the playfield that they had to leave, they did exactly what the city predicted, setting up their tents on the school district property a few feet away. “As we’ve seen where other encampments have sprung up, it’s not random,” Rankin said. “People are setting up tents where there’s a community center nearby, where there’s transportation nearby, where there’s other resources.” If the city hadn’t “shooed away” people camping on park property, or if they’d responded to the encampment behind the school when it was small, Rankin continued, “I think there would still be an encampment at Bitter Lake— I just think it would probably be by the community center” and not next to the school. Continue reading “City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park”

PubliCola Picks: Brianna Thomas for Seattle City Council Position 9

There are two candidates in this race who could fill progressive city council president Lorena González’ shoes— Brianna Thomas and Nikkita Oliver. There’s also a third candidate, Sara Nelson, who’s promoting a Silent-Majority agenda that makes us shudder. We’ll be voting for the highly qualified Thomas, and against Nelson. We encourage voters to send Thomas to the general election, where we expect reactionary forces will propel Nelson.

Thomas, a longtime aide to González who’s well-versed in the mechanics of City Hall, knows how to draft, negotiate, and pass legislation—critical institutional skills on a council where seven seats will be up for grabs in two years. She worked behind the scenes on 2017’s widely lauded police accountability ordinance, helped draft a law regulating the city’s use of surveillance technology, and worked closely with González on the secure scheduling law, which provides hourly workers with more predictability and a right to rest between shifts. As a former field director for the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund and tireless lead organizer for SeaTac’s historic, first-in-the-nation $15 minimum wage law, we’re not surprised González tapped Thomas as her chief of staff to run a progressive agenda through city hall.

Thomas’ familiarity with legislative sausage-making can make her more cautious than some advocates might prefer. Her plan to redesign the Seattle Police Department, for example, is long-term and methodical, showing patience that’s unlikely to satisfy activists who wanted the council to slash SPD’s budget by half last year. And her campaign pitch can veer into jargon—like when she answered a question about density by talking about her plan to maximize returns from the city’s Multifamily Housing Tax Exemption (MFTE) program, which exempts developers from property taxes for 12 years if they provide some affordable housing units for the same period. Her deep science is okay with us—we love a wonk, especially one as motivated and hard-boiled as Thomas.

Her idealistic commitment to good governance and city workers who “come to work every day for the city of Seattle because they do want to solve problems for their communities” (as she put it during a recent forum) is backed up by the yeoman’s dedication to service she has exhibited during seven years as a stalwart council staffer.

Thomas’ reverence for public service is unmistakable—and unusual. Her idealistic commitment to good governance and city workers who “come to work every day for the city of Seattle because they want to solve problems for their communities” (as she put it during a recent forum) is backed up by the yeoman’s dedication to service she’s exhibited during seven years as a stalwart council staffer.

Nikkita Oliver, the other progressive choice in this race, has an impressive history of community activism and a deep understanding of local issues. As an organizer, Oliver helped lead efforts to stop King County from building a new youth jail, and has advocated for defunding the police and investing in community-based alternatives; the organization they lead, Creative Justice, offers arts programming as an alternative to jail for young people. We’ve been impressed by Oliver’s commitment to addressing the root causes of violence, replacing a broken criminal-justice system with intervention and prevention programs that address those root causes, and ending exclusionary zoning rules that have excluded BIPOC communities from access to opportunity. Continue reading “PubliCola Picks: Brianna Thomas for Seattle City Council Position 9”

PubliCola Picks: Lorena González for Mayor

In this critical, post-COVID election year, Seattle needs a mayor who understands the job, has a plan to translate their progressive values into policy, and can jump into the job with both feet on day 1. City Council president Lorena González will come to the mayor’s office with a well-defined agenda, a solid track record, and a set of achievable plans for addressing the city’s thorniest issues..

González has set a standard for not just talking a good game—but getting things done. In her two terms as a council member, she has pushed for—and passed—protections for hourly workers, such as the secure scheduling bill; established a permanent legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation; and passed a number of underreported but important election reforms, including a ban on some corporate contributions, new transparency requirements, and restrictions on indirect lobbying, in which lobbyists seek to influence the public without revealing who’s paying them. She has also been a pragmatic and savvy advocate for police accountability, spearheading a police accountability ordinance in 2017 that advocates hailed as a groundbreaking step for reform.

And, in a lone dissent that got little coverage at the time but telegraphed her understanding of the challenges inherent to a “regional approach to homelessness,” she voted against a plan for the new regional homelessness authority that handed significant power over to suburban jurisdictions that pay nothing to support the authority, but wield outsize influence over its policies.

A lot has happened since 2018, including a nationwide movement to hold bad cops accountable and demilitarize and defund police departments across the country. González recently told PubliCola that if she was voting on the same contract today, “I’d vote very different[ly].”

González noted before her prescient vote that “politics have already taken hold in this structure.” She was right. We’re already seeing the ramifications today, with suburban cities adopting anti-homeless policies and insisting on their own, locally unique “sub-regional” plans. The former co-chair of the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force is also right about how to tackle homelessness in the future; she’s committed to adopting new progressive revenues to fund the billions of dollars the city will need to truly address homelessness instead of passing a ballot initiative that she has called an “unfunded mandate” designed to cement the “status quo.”

González has caught some flak from the left for voting, along with seven of her eight council colleagues, to approve a 2018 police contract that nullified some elements a historic 2017 police accountability ordinance. But activists who want to castigate her for this vote should consider a bit of context. At the time, the police union had been without a new contract since 2014, after members rejected a negotiated contract in 2016. Meanwhile, Mayor Jenny Durkan was working overtime to convince the public and the council that police would quit en masse if they didn’t get the raises promised in the contract. Most council members, including dogged police accountability advocate, council member Lisa Herbold, agreed that the new contract, though inadequate, was an improvement on the existing 2014 contract, keeping parts of the accountability law intact and preserving a law requiring cops to wear body cameras on duty.

Finally, a lot has happened since 2018, including a nationwide movement to hold bad cops accountable and demilitarize and defund police departments across the country. González—a former civil rights attorney who secured a $150,000 settlement for a Latino man who sued the city after a Seattle police officer threatened to “beat the fucking Mexican piss out of” him—has expressed support for this core agenda. She recently told PubliCola that if she was voting on the same contract today, “I’d vote very different[ly].”

González has a real vision for Seattle’s recovery—one that doesn’t rely on clichés or empty promises (how exactly will philanthropic giving fund the $450 million to $1 billion the region needs to spend every year to address homelessness, Bruce?) For starters, she wants to make it easier for renters to stay in their homes, providing rental assistance as well as caps on move-in costs that can add thousands of dollars to the price of an apartment. Continue reading “PubliCola Picks: Lorena González for Mayor”

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”