As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight

Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias and deputy Seattle Schools superintendent Rob Gannon take questions at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school earlier this year.

By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.

In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”

It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.

But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.

It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?

 

People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.

But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.

Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.

Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.

Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.

Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.

The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.

The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.

For months, Mathias and a handful of volunteers have been out at the encampment daily, setting up a makeshift “headquarters” that has consisted of a portable awning, some card tables, a few laptops, and a printer. None of the volunteers, who Mathias referred to as “volunteer staff,” received a salary, including Mathias. Nonetheless, on his application for vouchers, Mathias wrote that Anything Helps had seven “FTE case managers,” or the equivalent of seven paid full-time case managers, on staff. Continue reading “As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight”

Eco Blocks Update, Sawant Replacement Rumors, Another Preventable Outbreak,and Another Sweep In Ballard

City Light anti-RV fencing

1. Last week, PubliCola reported on the widespread use of “ecology blocks” to prevent people living in RVs from parking on the street in the Ballard industrial area. Although blocking public right-of-way without a permit  is against the law, the city’s transportation department has chosen not to enforce the law, and at least two government agencies—the US Postal Service and Seattle City Light—have installed their own barricades to keep RV residents at bay.

Seattle City Light spokeswoman Julie Moore, following up on our questions from late November, said the electric utility decided to install a double line of fencing, which completely blocks the sidewalk on the north side of its Canal substation in Ballard, after two RVs caught fire next to the substation earlier this year.

City Light installed the fencing, at a cost of about $15,000 a year, “to mitigate risks to our critical infrastructure, specifically lines that provide communications to the System Operations Center and 26kV capacitor banks, which, if damaged, would create a power loss at the King County Wastewater Treatment Plan,” Moore said.

Moore said City Light did not install the eco-blocks that block off parking on the south side of the substation.

Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the department’s street use team “is working with Seattle City Light to consider possible solutions to create a pathway or detour for pedestrians while still addressing their safety concerns.”

“Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”

2. As voters in Seattle City Council District 3 decide the fate of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a recall election today, the city council is reportedly already mulling her potential replacement.

One name that has risen to the top of the list is that of Alex Hudson, the director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Hudson, who first rose to prominence as the pro-transit, pro-density director of the First Hill Improvement Association and the co-founder of the website Seattlish, told PubliCola, “I like the job I have now,” adding that she “never wanted to be a politician” or subject her family to the kind of toxicity elected officials have to endure. (Case in point: The Kshama Sawant recall election).

Another rumored contender, Marjorie Restaurant owner and Capitol Hill EcoDistrict executive director Donna Moodie, said she had heard her name “mentioned as well,” but added, “I am currently so enthusiastic for the work I’m doing at Community Roots Housing [formerly Capitol Hill Housing that I can’t imagine anything distracting me from that.”

3. Shigella, a gastrointestinal disease that can be prevented by providing access to soap and running water, is on the rise again among Seattle’s homeless population. According to King County Public Health, there were 13 documented cases of shigella among people experiencing homelessness in King County in November.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, as of late last week, the HOPE Team had relocated 51 people living at the Ballard Commons into tiny house villages or emergency shelter.

Additionally, Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole said the agency has see more reports of diarrheal illness in general, “but we have no testing or other clinical details to indicate type of illness, so we don’t know if this could be Shigella, norovirus, some other pathogen, or something non-infectious.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, advocates have asked the city to provide access to running water and soap so that people living unsheltered can prevent the spread not just of COVID but of other diseases more likely to be transmitted by unwashed hands, like shigella and cryptosporidiosis, which can result in severe illness and hospitalization. To date, the city still has not installed the street sinks the city council funded in 2020, citing a dizzying array of supposed logistical and public health problems with giving homeless people opportunities to wash their hands.

(Update: A Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson says two sinks have been installed, and that the utilities department “is evaluating all hygiene options, including street sinks and hygiene stations, to better understand challenges. To date, provider willingness to host a sink appears to be one of the greatest barriers.” As PubliCola reported earlier this year, providers have expressed frustration that the city is holding them solely responsible for meeting the requirements it has established for any sink to operate, including total ADA compliance and hooking the sinks up to the city’s water supply.)

“Pathogens that cause GI illnesses, including Shigella, are highly transmissible, particularly in settings with large numbers of people living unsheltered,” Cole said. “Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”

4. Outreach workers and members of the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter placements to people living in encampments the city plans to sweep, have relocated most of the people living at the Ballard Commons and behind Broadview Thomson elementary in the Bitter Lake neighborhood in preparation for the closure of both encampments. The Commons, incidentally, has been the site of several previous outbreaks of shigella and other gastrointestinal illnesses. Continue reading “Eco Blocks Update, Sawant Replacement Rumors, Another Preventable Outbreak,and Another Sweep In Ballard”

County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine

1. King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which audits King County Sheriff’s Office policies and reviews misconduct investigations by the sheriff’s office, is set to grow next year after the King County Council added two new positions to the office—a first step, OLEO Director Tamer Abouzeid said, in his long-term plans to expand the responsibilities and reach of the office.

County voters approved a charter amendment in 2015 empowering OLEO to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force by sheriff’s officers, but the county’s contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild—the union representing most of the rank-and-file sheriff’s officers—stripped OLEO of most of its investigative authority in 2020. The office is now mostly an advisory body.

Last year, OLEO flagged problems with objectivity or thoroughness in five of the 56 use-of-force investigations it reviewed. The office has only one designated staffer to review more than 100 investigations a year, out of hundreds of investigations by the sheriff’s office. This has meant “a lot of triaging to manage the workload,” Abouzeid said. For now, his office focuses its energy on investigations into alleged biased policing or excessive force.

One of the two new staffers will join OLEO’s investigation review team. The second will be on the office’s policy analysis team, part of Abouzeid’s push to expand his office’s role as a quasi-think tank on police oversight policy for Washington state. “We would like to see statewide policy to codify the roles of civilian oversight bodies, because otherwise oversight becomes a hodgepodge of what police unions negotiate into their contracts,” he said.

King County is preparing to negotiate a new contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild after the current contract expires at the end of the month, which could be a chance for the county to restore OLEO’s authority to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force. In October, the county council asked OLEO to submit suggestions for improvements to the next contract. “Our plan is to be able to do the job that voters wanted us to do,” Abouzeid said. “That takes a new contract, and it also means that we’ll need to keep adding staff in the near future.”

The council also approved some expansions of the sheriff’s budget, including more than $1 million for emphasis patrols around the county courthouse and $4 million to offer hiring and retention incentives to sheriff’s officers.

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2. City council members Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle, and Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, are reportedly both lobbying colleagues to serve as City Council President next year. Lorena González, the current council president, gave up her council seat to run for mayor, leaving the position open. The council selects its own president every two years, or when the seat becomes vacant because a council member leaves.

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. The job typically goes to a senior council member, but not every council member gets to be president; embattled Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has served on the council longer than any other current member, has never held the role.

Over the years, council presidents have interpreted the job, which is not clearly defined in the city charter, in different ways; while some have used the position to delegate work to other council members based on their colleagues’ interests and expertise, others have used it to raise the profile of the council as a whole, serving as a diplomat to or adversary with the mayor’s office, depending on the issue (and the mayor). Council presidents have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to present the council as a united group with shared interests—a quasi-fiction that has been harder to maintain as the council has become more fractured.

Neither Juarez nor Herbold responded to requests for comment. However, earlier this week, more than a dozen Native American leaders issued statements supporting Juarez for council president—an unusual instance of lobbying for an internal council position

One of the letters, signed by the leaders of Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and other Seattle-based Native groups, praised Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, for her work securing funds to address urban Native homelessness, establishing the city’s first Indigenous Advisory Council, and working on behalf of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

3. A facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County has left dozens of sick inmates in solitary confinement cells to quarantine. Although the state Department of Corrections announced in October that it would no longer use solitary confinement as a form of punishment, the department has repurposed the cells as quarantine facilities since the start of the pandemic. Continue reading “County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine”

Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work

The Seattle Parks Department, which conducts encampment sweeps and cleans up trash at encampment sites through Seattle’s Clean City Initiative, hired a company owned by a current City of Seattle employee to do nearly half a million dollars’ worth of encampment cleanup work, despite the fact that the company was not on the city’s list of approved contractors to perform this work and does not have any contract with the city.

The company, Fresh Family LLC, is owned by a city employee named Debbie Wilson, who registered the company with the secretary of state’s office this past May. Wilson, who worked as a parks maintenance aide for the Parks Department until taking a job with to Seattle City Light in 2017, declined to comment when PubliCola contacted her by email and phone.

Ordinarily, when a company wants to work for the city’s encampment cleanup crew, they must wait for the city to run a formal bidding process for inclusion in the city’s “blanket contract”—essentially, a list of pre-approved sanitation companies that the parks department can call on to do cleanup work. When the encampment cleanup team goes out to remove or clean up waste in and around an encampment, they are supposed to draw exclusively from this list, using other suppliers only if no company on the list is able to do the work. The only exceptions are for contracts under $8,000, which do not require any bidding process, or under $55,000, which require the city to get written quotes from three different companies.

Not only is Fresh Family not on the city’s blanket contract list, they aren’t in the city’s contractor database at all, because they don’t have a contract with the city. “There is no contract,” the Parks spokeswoman, Rachel Schulkin confirmed. Instead, it appears that Fresh Family was simply told to do the work and submit invoices to the city. As of December 2, Fresh Family had charged the parks department about $425,000 for its work, Schulkin said.

The circumstances that led the city to hire Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup company outside the ordinary process and without a formal contract are convoluted and still somewhat mysterious.

There are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

According to Schulkin, a Parks Department employee selected Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider after locating them in the city’s online business database, which includes all “companies, including women and minority-owned businesses, who have expressed interest in doing business with the City.” The database includes a column, labeled “WMBE—Ethnicity,” that identifies the “ethnicity” (or race) of the owners of Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprises (WMBEs). Schulkin said the employee misunderstood the designation “B” in this column, assuming that it stood for “Blanket” (as in a blanket contract) rather than “Black.”

As of mid-November, according to weekly “snapshots” of Clean City work provided by the Parks Department, Fresh Family was still doing encampment cleanup work, although Schulkin said the department has since stopped using the company and has informed Wilson she would need to go through the ordinary open bidding process the next time the city seeks new encampment cleanup providers. 

“We are remedying this situation with providing this employee and their team with better training on City contracting policies, reexamining our department accounting controls and contract management systems, as well as working with the City’s [Finance and Administrative Services] … to find out how we can better prevent this type of mistake, and catch it sooner should it occur again,” Schulkin said.

The Parks Department did not respond to repeated questions about which employee approved Fresh Family to perform encampment cleanup work. August Drake-Ericson, the former manager of the Human Services Department’s erstwhile Navigation Team, is now a strategic advisor for the department’s encampment cleanup team, which is headed by senior manager Donna Waters.

Schulkin characterized the error that led to the no-bid, no-contract approval as a simple “mistake” involving a misunderstanding of what the letter “B” stood for in the city’s business database. But there are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

In addition to B for Black, the city’s “ethnicity” designations include A for “Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander,” W for White, N for “Native American or Alaska Native” and “H” for Hispanic or Latino.” A link to information about what each letter under “ethnicity” stands for is at the bottom of the search page.

What the Parks Department is saying is that whoever approved Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider overlooked both the column heading (“WMBE & Ethnicity”) and the link explaining what the letters meant.

Assuming that is what happened, and that the unidentified employee in charge of deciding which companies receive encampment work believed that “B” meant “Blanket,” that employee would also have to have believed that a company that had been in existence only a few months was already part of the blanket contract. All seven companies in the blanket contract were initially approved in 2017. Continue reading “Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work”

Homeless Authority Won’t Extend Hotel Shelter Contracts; County Won’t Adopt Republican Sweeps Policy

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority informed the Low Income Housing Institute this week that it will not extend its lease on the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel past January, ending a program launched by Mayor Jenny Durkan that was supposed to swiftly move hundreds of people from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing using a combination of new permanent supportive housing and “rapid rehousing” rent subsidies for market-rate apartments. The city has used the hotel as a primary receiving site for people displaced from encampments because of sweeps, which are now performed by the Parks Department.

In a letter to the KCRHA’s implementation board, which includes elected officials from across the county, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “Key factors [in the decision] include that each current guest has an exit plan, the lease costs requested by one of the hotels has significantly increased, and one of the service providers”—the Chief Seattle Club, which operates a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown—”stated a desire to close on schedule.”

As recently as a month ago, the authority said that it wanted to keep the hotels open after their current contracts with the city expire, potentially using $6 million in unspent rapid rehousing funds to cover the expense.

Now, the authority may use that same money to “prevent closures and loss of beds in several of our existing permanent shelter facilities,” according to the letter to the implementation board. The authority is currently running a survey of providers to find out how much money they need to make up their 2022 funding gaps and the number of shelter beds that are at risk if they don’t get additional funding.

LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said she was “shocked” to find out that the homelessness authority will not extend the hotel’s lease, adding that LIHI doesn’t know where the 126 people still living at the Executive Pacific will go.

“We have quite a number of people in the hotel who are very interested in moving into tiny houses” in LIHI’s tiny house villages, Lee said but many of those spots have already been claimed by the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter placements to people in encampments the city is about to sweep. LIHI recently opened two new tiny house villages—Rosie’s Place in the University District and Friendship Heights in North Seattle—and expanded an existing village in Interbay.

LIHI received 93 federal emergency housing vouchers through the federal American Rescue Plan. Allocating the vouchers could open some spaces in existing villages and shelter programs, but it’s unlikely that enough beds will open up to shelter all 126 current hotel residents.

The hotel-based shelter program was based on the assumption that it would be a fairly simple matter to move people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing in a matter of weeks or months. But as PubliCola noted when the city adopted this plan, rapid rehousing subsidies work best for people in good physical and mental health who just need some temporary financial assistance to get back on their feet. By using the hotels as receiving sites for sweeps, the city engineered failure right into its plan.

Currently, Lee said, just 11 of the people living at the hotel are “enrolled” in rapid rehousing, which simply means they have started the process to qualify for a subsidy.

Lee estimates that LIHI will have to move about 24 people out of the hotel every week between now and the end of January to have everyone out by the end of the lease. “The concern I have is that the end of January  is the coldest part of winter and we have two major holidays between now and then,” Lee said.

2. King County Council member Reagan Dunn, who recently announced he is running against Democratic Congresswoman Kim Schrier (D-8), tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion (similar to a city council resolution) directing County Executive Dow Constantine to adopt a plan that would make it easier for the county to remove encampments in unincorporated parts of King County. (Dunn’s mother, the late Jennifer Dunn, represented the Eighth Congressional District until 2005; in 2019, Schrier became the first Democrat to represent the district.)

Because the committee where Dunn introduced his motion is made up of two Democrats (sure votes against the proposal) and two Republicans (Dunn and Kathy Lambert, who recently lost her reelection bid), the vote was a foregone conclusion. However, it did give Dunn and Lambert an opportunity to issue a scathing (and, for Dunn, politically beneficial) press release “slamming” their Democratic colleagues, Girmay Zahilay and Joe McDermott, for “refus[ing] to even engage in a conversation about how to provide housing and support services to people currently living in County parks or other County-owned property.”

In fact, the legislation was silent on the question of housing and support services. Instead, it would have represented a first step toward banning encampments on public land in unincorporated King County and empowering county officials to sweep encampments for a broad array of reasons, including the presence of human waste, lack of running water, and criminal activity.

Noting that King County plans to eventually house as many as 1,600 people through the Health Through Housing sales tax, Dunn said, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect now that there has been such an investment in these services that these open spaces begin to be cleared. … If there is help available, King County should have expectations that people utilize that help and they should be prepared to remove encampments that are a public nuisance and a danger.”

The last annual count of King County’s homeless population, in 2020, found about 5,600 people living unsheltered across the county. The point-in-time count, which King County will forgo for a second consecutive year in 2022, is widely considered an undercount.

—Erica C. Barnett

New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct

Seattle Police Department cruiser parked outside of Union Station in Seattle's International District
(Paul Kiefer: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

A year-long audit of Seattle’s disciplinary system for police officers by the city’s Office of the Inspector General identified an array of shortcomings in how the Seattle Police Department hands out discipline and flags misconduct in officers’ records.

Among other discoveries, auditors revealed that SPD supervisors aren’t able to track when officers work highly paid overtime hours while suspended for misconduct, and that the officers’ misconduct records don’t appear to have an impact on whether their commanders decide to promote.

The OIG’s audit focused on the steps that follow a misconduct investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability, starting with how SPD decides to discipline officers who violates department policies.

The OPA director and SPD supervisors are responsible for choosing a range of possible consequences for an officer’s misconduct based on a review of past discipline for similar cases, but the police chief has the final say in how to discipline an officer. According to the audit, between 2018 and 2021, police chiefs chose the least-severe discipline in nearly half of all cases. When presented with a range between suspending and firing an officer, the chiefs—during the period the auditors looked at, Carmen Best and Adrian Diaz, along with short-term acting chiefs—chose suspension in every case the OIG reviewed.

At least six officers who hadn’t completed their suspensions were able to work enough overtime hours to offset the financial impacts of their suspensions, the OIG found. In one case, the auditors discovered that an officer worked nine hours of overtime on a day when they were supposed to be suspended.

If the police chief decides to throw out the OPA’s findings altogether, city law requires them to explain their decision in detail to the mayor, city council, and the city’s police accountability bodies. This happened in May, when Interim Chief Adrian Diaz overruled an OPA investigation that pinned responsibility for a widely criticized use of tear gas against protesters in 2020 on a well-known lieutenant. However, the chief is not required to explain his reasoning if he decides to ignore the OPA’s disciplinary recommendations. While the OIG acknowledged that it is rare for a chief to ignore discipline recommendations, the auditors warned that “a future chief may be able to undermine the accountability system and public trust” by ignoring discipline recommendations with impunity.

The OIG’s auditors also pointed out that basing discipline on similar misconduct cases has disadvantages. Some cases of misconduct are too novel to find an easy point of comparison, Judge said, and relying on disciplinary standards from a decade ago makes it difficult to adjust penalties to reflect new public concerns about police misconduct. While a police chief could decide to impose harsher consequences for some types of misconduct, such as excessive force or reckless driving, the auditors warned that police unions would likely challenge stricter discipline by appealing to an arbitrator: a tactic that frequently works in the union’s favor.

According to Judge, police departments have to find a balance between a uniform, transparent set of disciplinary standards and having the flexibility to handle the unpredictable moving parts in many police misconduct cases. “There probably isn’t a ‘right’ system for deciding how to discipline officers,” Judge said. Even departments that set well-defined standards for how to discipline officers run into problems, she added. “If the system involves classifying an officer’s misconduct on some kind of severity scale, you still wind up with supervisors finding a way to classify their officers’ misconduct as more- or less-severe.”

Of the 50 officers promoted to sergeant within SPD in the past three years, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct, including several who had recently been suspended.

The OIG refrained from suggesting any changes to SPD’s disciplinary system, citing the imperfections in other models the department could adopt. “We run into a challenge when we make recommendations,” Judge said. “Our job is to identify systemic problems within the department, but once we cross the line by telling them how to remedy it… We would just be grading our own work.”

The OIG’s audit also discovered that officers with histories of misconduct rarely have trouble rising through the ranks. Police chiefs promote officers based on their scores on a competency exam, and the auditors found few signs that Diaz or his recent predecessors—including acting chiefs—chose not to promote officers based on their disciplinary records. Of 50 officers promoted to sergeant between 2018 and 2021, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct when they were promoted, including several with recent suspension at the time of their promotions.

Some small policy violations may never appear on an officer’s record. The OIG’s auditors found that the OPA, with support from SPD commanders, frequently opts not to uphold misconduct allegations against officers for technical or inadvertent errors—failing to turn on a body-worn video camera, for example. Instead, the OPA often requires such officers to go through retraining, allowing the officer to walk away without the policy violation on their record. Until 2019, the OPA also had the option to hold officers responsible for minor misconduct without recommending any discipline; the office abandoned that strategy after SPOG overwhelmed the city with grievances about the OPA’s decision to mark officers’ records for minor misconduct. Continue reading “New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct”

Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting

Charleena Lyles (Courtesy of the Lyles family)

By Paul Kiefer

After a grueling 13-hour mediation on Monday night, the family of Charleena Lyles reached a $3.5 million settlement with the City of Seattle and two Seattle police officers, ending a four-year-long wrongful death lawsuit that began when the officers shot and killed Lyles in her Magnuson Park home in June 2017.

“This has been a horrible case. Shameful,” said Karen Koehler, the lead attorney representing Lyles’ family, during a press conference at the Stritmatter law firm on Tuesday afternoon. On a television behind her, Lyles’ eldest daughter—watching from her aunt’s house in California, seated in front of a Christmas tree—leaned off-screen to cry.

Lyles, who was 30, called 911 from her apartment on June 18 to report a burglary. She was known to the Seattle Police Department—and to Seattle’s criminal legal system in general—both as a survivor of domestic violence and someone struggling with mental illness. At times, her illness escalated into full-blown crises. Only two weeks earlier, for instance, officers arrested Lyles in her apartment after she brandished a pair of scissors and threatened to transform into “the wolf” while reporting a domestic violence incident. After pleading not guilty to harassment and obstruction charges in Seattle Municipal Court, Lyles appeared in Seattle’s mental health court on June 13, where a judge ordered the county to release her from jail.

Lyles did not know officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who appeared at her door on June 18 to respond to her burglary report. On his way to the low-income housing complex where she lived, Anderson received an alert on his in-car monitor about Lyles’ recent mental health crisis; he called for backup from McNew, who had received crisis intervention training. But when they arrived at her apartment, Lyles’ family said, the officers were woefully unprepared.

In the family’s original lawsuit, attorneys argued that Anderson and McNew failed to perform their duties by entering Lyles’ apartment without a de-escalation plan. McNew, the more experienced officer, allowed Anderson to take the lead; at times, McNew turned his back to Lyles.

Anderson looked up from his note pad and saw Lyles holding a knife. From her family’s perspective, she was spiraling into another crisis. The family argues that the officers should have cleared the knives from Lyles’ kitchen counter to reduce the chance of a confrontation.

Anderson immediately drew his gun and pointed it at her. McNew, snapping to attention, told his partner to use a Taser to subdue Lyles. “I don’t have a Taser,” Anderson replied.  Although all SPD officers are required to carry a “less-lethal” alternative to their gun, Anderson had left his Taser in his locker because its battery was dead. According to Lyles’ family, both officers then escalated the confrontation by shouting at Lyles to “get back.” When she didn’t, the pair shot her seven times. As she lay dying, her infant son crawled onto her chest. Three of her four children were only feet away when she died.

The Office of Police Accountability ultimately suspended Anderson for two days as punishment for not carrying his Taser, but SPD determined that the shooting was justified, in part because Lyles’ bulky coat might have deflected a Taser, but especially because Lyles was carrying a knife—a reason, the department argued, for the officers to believe their lives were in danger.

Lyles’ family’s lawsuit didn’t focus on whether the officers were in danger. “We went to state court and brought a negligence allegation,” said Edward Moore, another attorney for the Lyles family. “That allowed us to look at the officers’ actions leading up to [the shooting.] We were allowed to make allegations that they didn’t plan properly … They had been trained on de-escalating knife attacks with tasers. It would have required an additional officer, and it would have required a Taser.” Continue reading “Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting”

Fremont Brewing Is Still Using Concrete Blocks to Prevent RV Parking. So Are the City of Seattle and the US Postal Service.

Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light's substation in Ballard
Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light’s substation in Ballard

By Erica C. Barnett

After at least one formal complaint, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued a warning—but no penalty—to Fremont Brewing, the company co-owned by city council member-elect Sara Nelson, for obstructing the public right-of-way around its Ballard brewing facility with massive concrete “ecology blocks.”

As PubliCola reported last summer, eco blocks—so called because they are a byproduct of concrete production that uses waste that would otherwise occupy landfills—are an inexpensive way for business owners to prevent people living in their vehicles from parking on the street next to their properties.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city stopped enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every three days, the blocks have proliferated throughout Seattle’s industrial areas, which are the only places where people living in oversized vehicles can legally park. Business owners say that the presence of RVs and other types of large vehicles, such as box trucks, discourages patrons, and that large concentrations of RVs can lead to health and safety problems that impact their customers and employees.

Obstructing public streets is illegal, but SDOT has treated eco-blocks differently than other street obstructions; instead of penalizing business owners for taking over public space that belongs to everyone, as they might if a random person set up a tire fort or craft fair in the middle of the street, the department has responded to the proliferation of eco-blocks by essentially throwing up its hands.

Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing's production facility in Ballard.
Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing’s production facility in Ballard.

This is true not just of Fremont Brewing, which received a written warning, but of many other businesses around the city’s industrial areas as well as the US Postal Service, which surrounded its Ballard sorting facility with eco blocks way back in August 2020.

At the time, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told PubliCola that “USPS got the OK from the city to put in the concrete barriers” in response to a proliferation of RVs in the area. The Seattle Department of Transportation disputed this, calling the road-blocking barricades “unpermitted,” but took no action. They’re still there today, graffiti-covered and looking dingy compared to their more recently installed counterparts in front of a Bevmo!-anchored strip mall across the street. 

Contacted for information about why the blocks are still in place more than a year later, Swanson said, “The concrete blocks were placed in front of the Ballard PO as well as other neighboring businesses as a response to a proliferation of needles, human waste and other hazardous materials being discarded on the property. As of this date, the blocks remain not only in front of the PO but also other businesses in the area. We have no knowledge that a permit was ever required.”

"Eco-blox matta": Graffiti on an ecology block in Ballard.

The city’s process for dealing with Fremont Brewing’s ecology blocks was typical. After someone filed an anonymous complaint about the blocks in September, SDOT performed an inspection “and observed ecology blocks” in the street around Fremont Brewing, according to a notice SDOT sent to the company September 17. “We do not allow this type of use in public right-of-way due to traffic safety concerns as well as transportation and utility access needs. Please remove these unpermitted encroachments from public right-of-way by the compliance date indicated below”—November 10.

November 10 came and went; the blocks remained. About a week later, the case was closed.

SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson told PubliCola the department followed “standard procedure” in responding to the complaint. “The first step in the enforcement process is to mail a letter to the adjacent businesses or property owners notifying them of their responsibilities to remove the concrete blocks,” Bergerson said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate a conversation with the responsible party so that we can find a path forward leading to their removal of the unpermitted concrete blocks. To date, we have sent letters of this nature to property owners and businesses adjacent to concrete blocks left in about a dozen locations around Ballard, SoDo, and Georgetown. … Our approach [with Fremont Brewing] has been consistent with the other locations.”

A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light's Canal substation.
A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light’s Canal substation.

Fremont Brewing owner (and Nelson’s husband) Matt Lincecum, who runs the company day to day, declined to comment for this story, as did Nelson.

SDOT has the authority to take enforcement action against any business (or government entity) that obstructs the public street with eco blocks or other objects that make it impossible for the public to access streets, sidewalks, or parking strips. To date, it has not done so, beyond warnings like the one it issued to Fremont Brewing.

As if to emphasize the city’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement, Seattle City Light has installed its own anti-RV fortifications at its Canal Substation, located two blocks away from Fremont Brewing and the rest of the eco-block-littered Ballard brewery district. In addition to eco-blocks in the street, the north side of the substation is walled off by two layers of fencing that completely obstruct the public sidewalk. A review of historical Google Maps reveals that the eco-blocks were installed sometime after this past August, when several RVs were parked along the south side of the substation. The fence, too, is new; as of June 2021, per Google Maps, several RVs were parked on that side of the substation, too. Since then, the RVs appear to have moved around the corner, to a narrower residential street on the east side of the building.

We’ve reached out to City Light as well as SDOT about the obstructions around the Canal Substation and will update this post when we hear back.

Old and new ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.
Old and newer ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.

From the point of view of a property owner, ecology blocks solve an immediate problem—people living in RVs or parking large vehicles indefinitely in front of their business—that the city has failed to address. But the fact remains that even if the city continues to turn a blind eye to vigilante street obstructions, nothing will really change until the region stops ignoring the needs of people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of King County’s homeless population. In the absence of “safe lots,” social services, and affordable, permanent housing, people sleeping in their vehicles will continue to take up space in public,

But no amount of semi-sanctioned street and sidewalk obstruction will fix the underlying problem: The city and county have dedicated virtually no resources to people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of the region’s unsheltered homeless population.

 

End-of-Year Ask: Help PubliCola Expand!

As the editor and publisher of PubliCola, I’m reaching out to you, our readers, with a big ask: Help us expand our coverage in 2022 by making a generous one-time year-end contribution of $200, $500, or whatever you can give to help independent local journalism continue to thrive in Seattle.

Throughout 2021, PubliCola has been the city’s must-read site for political analysis and election news. We’ve provided skeptical, nuanced coverage of Seattle(and failures) to help, house, and provide for the basic needs of people living unsheltered during the pandemic; documented the ways in which efforts to “defund” the city’s police department collapsed under political pressure and a lack of oversight; and covered efforts by state legislators to pass a statewide capital gains tax and other progressive measures. We’ve also focused our wonky lens on the still-ongoing debate over Sound Transit’s punitive fare enforcement policy; published in-depth features that illustrate the need for police accountability; and helped frame the debate around the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment.

We’ve even expanded our opinion coverage, adding Josh Feit’s urbanist Maybe Metropolis column to the mix alongside guest opinion pieces from local thought leaders like the Transit Riders Union’s Katie Wilson (and, of course, my own periodic column The C Is for Crank.)

And we’ve done it all with a small and scrappy staff—reporter Paul Kiefer, 2021 legislative reporter Leo Brine, a rotating set of freelancers and interns, and me—from our tiny office in Pioneer Square. We’re tremendously proud of the work we do to keep the region informed and engaged. But there’s much more we would like to cover in the coming year, and with your help, we will. Specifically, we’re seeking contributions to help us:

– Increase existing staff capacity to cover the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff’s Office, and the courts;

– Hire a reporter to cover the upcoming state legislative session;

– Double down on City Hall coverage during the Harrell administration by increasing our freelance budget; and

– Expand our coverage of transportation, growth, and displacement in the post-COVID era.

Our work is supported, primarily, by ongoing subscriptions—recurring donations—through Patreon and Paypal. Subscriptions are literally what pay the bills around here month after month, and we’re so grateful to everyone who helps us keep the lights on. For this year-end request, we’re asking you to make a special one-time contribution of $200, $500, or whatever you can give to fund the kind of journalism you can’t get anywhere else. Your generous support keeps this reader-supported website going and growing. Please make a generous contribution to independent journalism today on Paypal, Venmo, (Erica-Barnett-7) or by sending acheck to PubliCola at PO Box 14328, Seattle, WA. 98104. We truly appreciate your support.

—Erica C. Barnett 

A Sexual Misconduct Investigation at a Rural Sheriff’s Department Highlights Gaps in State Police Oversight Laws

An Okanogan County Sheriff's Truck
An Okanogan County Sheriff’s Vehicle (Flickr: Diamondback Covers)

By Paul Kiefer

Maddesyn George spent much of the past year sitting in a cell in the Spokane County jail, awaiting her sentencing in an increasingly visible federal murder case. George, a 27-year-old from the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, says she shot and killed her rapist in July 2020. After Colville tribal police took her into custody, she elaborated, telling prosecutors that the victim—Kristopher Graber, a man who sometimes sold her methamphetamine—had raped her at gunpoint at his house in Omak a day earlier. She stole his gun and fled, but she did not call 911 to report the rape to police in Omak: a detail that became relevant to her case, when prosecutors challenged her rape allegations. A day later, Graber caught up to her on the reservation, where George shot him with his own gun.

When tribal and federal prosecutors asked George why she hadn’t called the police to report her rape, she mentioned that she had reasons not to trust law enforcement in Omak. At the time, her reasoning seemed obvious: George is a Native American woman with a record of substance abuse, and she did not trust the county sheriff’s office to treat her fairly. But in late September, with her sentencing hearing approaching, George revealed another reason why she did not initially report her rape to local law enforcement: An Okanogan County Sheriff’s detective named Isaiah Holloway.

In purely geographic terms, Okanogan County is the largest in the state. But in many ways, the county is a small place. The remote stretch of mountains and plateaus along the Canadian border has a population of just 40,000; the largest town, Omak, is home to 5,000 of them. And the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols most of the county, has only three dozen sworn officers. In an agency as small as the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, a single case of misconduct can escalate dramatically. And Isaiah Holloway, at the center of two sexual misconduct complaints, is a prime example.

A fundamental lack of oversight on nearly every level in Washington leads to situations like the one that is still unfolding in Okanogan County, which highlights shortcomings in state rules about police officers and consent—and the power of law enforcement and prosecutors to decide whether misconduct matters.

George first recalls meeting Holloway during a traffic stop on a hot summer day in 2014, when Holloway stopped the car driven by a friend of hers to arrest the driver on a warrant from the Washington Department of Corrections. After placing her friend in handcuffs, Holloway began flirting with George, who was sitting in the passenger seat. When he asked to keep in touch, she gave him a fake phone number.

“A couple of days later, he tracked me down at a friend’s house,” she wrote in her statement to the federal court. “I still don’t know how he found me. He came to the door and said that it was ‘f—-d up’ that I gave him a fake number.” From that point on, she couldn’t avoid Holloway. For months, she wrote, Holloway regularly messaged her on Facebook, at one point telling her “that if [she] didn’t go out on a date with him,” she would “face greater scrutiny from police.” On other occasions, she added, he asked her to “get a room” with him. Increasingly uncomfortable with Holloway’s attention, George moved to a new town to avoid him. So when Graber allegedly raped her in Omak—a town within Holloway’s jurisdiction—George argues that she had a reason not to call 911.

George’s statement to the court didn’t include any evidence of Holloway’s alleged harassment. But she isn’t the first person to accuse Holloway of sexual misconduct; in fact, the detective admitted to another inappropriate sexual relationship last spring. However, because of holes in Washington’s laws about oversight for police and prosecutors—and about police officers and sexual consent—Holloway’s confession remained buried for nearly a year.

Washington state law is mostly silent on the question of consent between police officers and vulnerable people they meet in the course of their law enforcement work, which makes it easy for officers to pursue dubiously consensual sexual “relationships” without facing consequences. And one of the few potential long-term punishments for committing sexual misconduct—inclusion on a so-called “Brady List” of untrustworthy officers, which can make it harder to perform some key duties of a police officer—is entirely up to local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, who get to draw their own conclusions about what makes the cut.

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A fundamental lack of oversight on nearly every level in Washington leads to situations like the one that is still unfolding in Okanogan County, which highlights shortcomings in state rules about police officers and consent—and the power of law enforcement and prosecutors to decide what kinds of misconduct matter.

The pivotal investigation into Holloway began with a phone call to Deputy Rochelle Cline, the department’s communications manager, in March 2020. According to the caller, Holloway was having a sexual affair with a woman—who, for privacy reasons, PubliCola will refer to as B—whose history of addiction often landed her in the hands of the sheriff’s department; the caller also alleged that Holloway helped the woman “get out of her charges.” The caller was B’s brother.

The following afternoon, Holloway texted Cline unprompted, admitting to his relationship with B. He told Cline that his father’s death in 2017 and a 2019 incident in which he shot and injured a murder suspect had sent his mental health into a downward spiral. “I have tried to cover it all up for this ‘tough guy’ cop job I thought we had to be,” he wrote. “Instead of seeking help, I fell into a world of porn addiction, sexting and now an affair. I need help and I’m not sure where to turn to.” Cline, along with Sheriff Tony Hawley, drove to Holloway’s house to put him in touch with a counselor. Later that night, the department placed him on administrative leave.

Holloway did not respond to PubliCola’s requests for comment on the investigation and George’s allegations. 

The ensuing investigation provided only a little clarity. B herself denied having any intimate relationship with Holloway—a claim Cline quickly dismissed. Holloway told Cline that his “affair” with B began when he caught B with stolen property in December 2019. Instead of arresting her, Holloway relied on B to find the suspected thief; he also passed her his personal phone number. While he admitted to having sex with B twice while off-duty, he denied that he had helped her avoid arrest, pointing to an incident in which he ticketed her for driving with suspended license.

B’s family, on the other hand, insisted that Holloway was not simply having an affair; in their view, he was taking advantage of a woman struggling with addiction. B herself was unavailable to comment, but her brother told Cline he that suspected Holloway helped his sister avoid arrest. B’s sister made similar allegations when she spoke to Cline during the misconduct investigation, recalling that B was frustrated when Holloway didn’t intervene to stop a fellow officer from arresting her for theft. In her investigation report, Cline claimed that other sheriff’s officers had booked B into custody 12 times between April 2019 and March 2020 alone—evidence, she wrote in her report, that Holloway was not protecting B from his colleagues in exchange for sex.

A state law passed earlier this year specified that law enforcement officers can’t engage in consensual sex with a “person incarcerated or detained,” and provides an avenue for proving that an officer coerced a person into sex without formally detaining them, although this can be challenging to prove after the fact.

In May, the sheriff’s office concluded that Holloway had violated a half-dozen department rules, including policies prohibiting officers from using their positions for personal gain and from developing close relationships with “practicing criminal[s].” As punishment, the department suspended Holloway for three days without pay. Less than a year after this brief suspension, the office promoted Holloway from deputy to detective, assigning him largely to sex crimes cases.

Holloway’s disciplinary record at the Okanogan Sheriff’s Office doesn’t mention the possibility that he took advantage of B’s addiction and criminal record to coerce her into sex. Washington law prohibits officers from having sex with people in custody—doing so would constitute sexual assault—but according to Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, the director of the Seattle-based Sexual Violence Law Center, state law is less clear when it comes to officers’ sexual relationships with informants, drug users and others in vulnerable positions.

Aside from a state law passed earlier this year to improve Washington’s civil protection order system, which specified that law enforcement officers can’t engage in consensual sex with a “person incarcerated or detained,” state law is silent on the issue of police officers and sexual consent. State law does not address scenarios in which officers coerce a person into sex without formally detaining them: an encounter than can be challenging to prove after the fact.

The same is true for a quid-pro-quo exchange of sex for leniency: if an officer offers not to arrest someone in return for sex, the arrangement might not leave any paper trail. Even if a police officer did coerce a vulnerable person into sex, the victim might not feel safe enough to blow the whistle. “Based on the power dynamics of sexual violence,” Mukhopadyay said, “we know that predators in positions of power will target and victimize someone who is particularly vulnerable and could be easily dismissed—a victim with a criminal history, a victim who may have mental health issues, a victim in a subordinate position.” Continue reading “A Sexual Misconduct Investigation at a Rural Sheriff’s Department Highlights Gaps in State Police Oversight Laws”