Two Bills on Cop Discipline Illustrate Limits of Labor Support for Police Reform

Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34) presents before the Washington State Senate’s Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee on Thursday

By Paul Kiefer

Labor leaders, police accountability activists and elected officials from across the state, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, testified Thursday in Olympia about two state senate bills intended to restructure or streamline the disciplinary process for police. The testimonies from the labor leadership revealed the sharp divide between Seattle’s labor movement, which distanced itself from police unions in June, and the statewide labor movement, which continues to defend police union membership—in their words, both out of solidarity and for self-preservation.

The first bill, sponsored by Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34) and a dozen of his colleagues, would streamline the arbitration process that police union members use to challenge disciplinary rulings by empowering the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to choose the attorneys who decide the outcomes of appeals. Under the current statewide system, both employers and police unions have to agree on an arbitrator from a pool of private attorneys; that system is rife with delays.

The bill would also prohibit police union collective bargaining agreements from including conditions that violate or nullify state or local laws; that clause would prevent a repeat of the 2018 contract between Seattle and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that nullified key elements of the sweeping police accountability ordinance the city council passed in 2017.

The second bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32) and five of his colleagues, would eliminate the arbitration process altogether and require officers to appeal disciplinary decisions to quasi-judicial bodies called civil service commissions, whose members are mostly appointed by mayors and city councils. Seattle already has its own Public Safety Civil Service Commission, but officers only appeal disciplinary decisions to that commission if their union has declined to support their appeal, which is rare.

The bill would also require departments to automatically fire any officers found guilty of a set of extreme offenses—including excessive force, hiding or falsifying evidence, and engaging in sexual contact with anyone in custody. And it would prohibit police union contracts from restricting accountability and oversight by, among other means, limiting the subpoena authority of civilian oversight bodies and allowing the sealing or destruction of officers’ misconduct records.

At their core, both Nguyen and Salomon’s bills would make law enforcement bargaining rules more distinct from the rules that govern any other employees. But to most of the labor representatives who testified at the hearing, the two bills are night and day. While Nguyen’s would limit the input of both unions and management in the arbitration process, Salomon’s would specifically limit the powers of police unions and the disciplinary appeal options for law enforcement officers.

Statewide labor leaders, including representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, argued Thursday that police accountability reforms that restrict the powers of police unions could have dire consequences for the power of organized labor in the state as a whole, threatening the due process and collective bargaining rights of all workers. Shaunie Wheeler James, the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 28 (and a member of the Port of Seattle’s Commission on Port Policing and Civil Rights), called the bill a “stalking horse for those with an agenda to undermine all workers.”

Several labor leaders dismissed the notion that the collective bargaining process and arbitration stood in the way of meaningful police reforms. State labor council president Larry Brown, for example, argued that the real barrier to reform is police management, who oversee training, hiring, and data collection about misconduct and use of force, rather than rank and file officers.

“Nothing in this bill addresses the police leadership—the chiefs, the sheriffs, and the training programs—that have allowed these culture problems to persist,” he said.

Only one labor representative testified in favor of Salomon’s bill: David Parsons, the president of UAW 4121—a union representing graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral student employees at the University of Washington.

Seattle-area labor leadership joined forces with police accountability advocates last summer, mostly notably in June, when the Martin Luther King County Labor Council expelled SPOG from their organization. That local shift was visible on Thursday, when representatives from the ACLU of Washington and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County joined Parsons in supporting the bill, as did prominent police accountability expert and retired municipal court judge Anne Levinson and Fred Thomas, the father of a man killed by police officers in Fife in 2013 who is now a leader in police accountability lobbying group Next Steps Washington.

In contrast, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement labor lobbyists seemed cautiously optimistic about Nguyen’s bill. Joseph Kendo, the government affairs director for the WSLC, only balked at the proposal to limit the pool of arbitrators to nine members, which he said was too few to meet the statewide need. Washington State Fraternal Order of Police president Marco Monteblanco said the bill would provide officers a more consistent, unbiased arbitration process.

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

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On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.

Police Union Head’s Refusal to Resign Raises Questions About Upcoming Contract Negotiations

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday evening, Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) President Mike Solan sent an email to members of his guild. “Connecting with you today to directly respond to the latest media frenzy surrounding our union,” he began.

The police union leader had been under fire since last week after posting a tweet that appeared to blame Black Lives Matter activists for the attempted pro-Trump insurrection at the US Capitol, and after he refused to condemn two officers—both SPOG members—for traveling to Washington, D.C. during the attacks.

Last Friday, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) opened an investigation into both officers. That same day, Mayor Jenny Durkan and former Seattle police chief Carmen Best called for Solan’s resignation. Since then, members of city council have added their voices to the chorus. Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz made clear that he will only fire the two officers if the OPA investigation finds that they took part in attacks on Capitol police officers or otherwise violated federal law.

“I am in communication with those two members and have provided SPOG resources to assist them during this process,” Solan wrote in his email on Monday. “As you can imagine, we are concerned for their safety, mental health and for what appears to be their guilt by association for merely exercising their constitutionally protected first amendment rights. We are in a scary time in our nation’s history as voicing a dissenting opinion can get you ‘canceled’.” SPOG’s resources likely include defense attorneys, paid for with union dues.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Solan made no effort to condemn the attack on the U.S. Capitol, nor did he endorse Diaz’s plan to fire the two officers if the OPA finds that they participated in the attack.

Pivoting to calls from city leaders for his resignation—which spurred a second OPA investigation into whether his tweets violated the department’s social media policy—Solan declared that he has no intention of stepping down. “I will never bend to cancel culture as I lead this union with conviction,” he wrote. He did, however, backhandedly admit that his comments on Twitter hadn’t helped SPOG’s public image, writing that his tweets have “been spun intentionally for political reasons to hurt SPOG and limit our influence” and that he will “definitely take this as a lesson learned in Seattle politics.”

Solan did not, however, back down from his claims that Black Lives Matter and left-wing activists bear some blame for the attack on the Capitol last week. “At no point did I blame one faction over the other, including BLM, Antifa or Proud Boys,” he wrote. “What I was trying to convey is that we as police are caught in the middle of two extreme political groups (left/right) whom [sic] are vying for political control via violence.” Continue reading “Police Union Head’s Refusal to Resign Raises Questions About Upcoming Contract Negotiations”

Unclear if Cops in D.C. During Riot Will Face Discipline; Council Weighs in on Cuba; Mosqueda Aide to Run for Mayor

1. Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz held a brief press conference on Wednesday afternoon to address both his announcement last Friday night that two SPD officers were present in Washington, D.C. on the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol and a spike in homicides in Seattle in 2020. As PubliCola reported on Friday, the department learned that two of its officers were in D.C. through a photo posted on social media; Diaz placed both officers on administrative leave while the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigates whether they were involved in the attack on the Capitol.

According to Diaz’s statement Monday, another officer reported the pair to their superiors, and the photos reached Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Tom Mahaffey and Diaz by last Thursday. Diaz said he didn’t immediately terminate the two officers because “participating in a political event on their own time, out of uniform, violates no policy or law.”

In response to questions Monday, Diaz said that he will immediately fire the officers if the OPA investigation finds that they “participat[ed] in altercations with Capitol Police” or violated federal law.

The OPA also opened an investigation into Solan’s tweets last Friday. SPD has disciplined officers for social media posts in the recent past; last January, then-police chief Carmen Best fired Officer Duane Goodman for Instagram posts attacking Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and “illegal immigrants.”

Diaz said he didn’t immediately terminate the two officers because “participating in a political event on their own time, out of uniform, violates no policy or law.”

Halfway through his prepared remarks, Diaz pivoted to the subject of the surge in homicides in Seattle in 2020. According to year-end statistics, homicides rose by 61 percent from from 2019—from 31 to 50, the highest number in 26 years. Of those, 60 percent involved a gun, compared to 66 percent in the previous year. Half of all victims were Black, and most were men between the ages of 18 and 49. According to Diaz, last year saw an increase in domestic violence homicides in the city and a decrease in homicides in which the victims were unsheltered.

2. During Monday’s city council briefing, several council members added their voices to calls for Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Mike Solan to resign after he took to Twitter last week to assert that members of the “far left” and Black Lives Matter activists were involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday. Mayor Jenny Durkan, former Seattle police chief Carmen Best and frequent department ally Scott Lindsay publicly called for Solan to apologize or resign on Friday evening.

In her comments at the start of the council briefing, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed to Solan’s lengthy record of inflammatory public statements and suggested that SPOG members should consider recalling or censuring Solan. “This is not the person I believe should be leading the guild during challenging times,” Herbold said, “and I hope members of SPOG agree.”

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Andrew Lewis made more direct calls for SPOG to remove Solan from its leadership, with Lewis arguing that Solan “has done nothing to advance the cause or the issues of that union or the quality of support of workers in that union.” And Councilmember Alex Pedersen connected Solan’s comments to the upcoming contract negotiations with SPOG, which will begin sometime in 2021. 

We will all agree that Officer Solan’s remarks and their implications are reprehensible and untrue, but also that there is a need to revamp an inflexible, expensive and unjust police union contract,” Pedersen said. “The current president of the police union has, in my view, disqualified himself to a fair partner to negotiate that contract.”

3. Also at today’s council meeting, council members Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant introduced a resolution calling for collaboration between US and Cuban scientists and urging Congress and the incoming Administration to end the United States’ economic blockade against its southern neighbor. Citing reports from Cuban authorities, the resolution reads, “Cuba’s free community-based healthcare system, unified government approach, and robust biopharmaceutical industry have enabled the country to effectively deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Continue reading “Unclear if Cops in D.C. During Riot Will Face Discipline; Council Weighs in on Cuba; Mosqueda Aide to Run for Mayor”

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

SPD Confirms Two Seattle Officers Were in D.C. During Wednesday Riots

By Paul Kiefer

In a Friday night post on the Seattle Police Department Blotter blog, interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz confirmed that two officers were in Washington, D.C. during the riots at the US Capitol on Wednesday, though he could not confirm whether the officers took part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol Building. Diaz wrote that SPD referred the two officers to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for further investigation; the OPA will review whether the officers violated SPD policy and whether their actions could merit criminal charges.

“If any SPD officers were directly involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” he added, “I will immediately terminate them.” For the time being, the two officers are on administrative leave.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg confirmed the news on Friday, adding that the department learned the officers had been in D.C. through posts on a social media account. The two officers already under investigation were not on duty on Wednesday; Myerberg told PubliCola that they were either furloughed or used vacation days; both are patrol officers. He also noted that the OPA is “looking into the identities of other SPD employees who may have attended,” though he did not confirm that more than two officers were present in D.C.

Despite claims from MSNBC contributor and former Seattle city council candidate Naveed Jamali that the officers were a couple, SPD has not confirmed any relationship between the two officers.

The announcement comes only hours after retired SPD Chief Carmen Best, Mayor Jenny Durkan and regular SPD ally Scott Lindsay joined calls for Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Mike Solan to apologize or resign in response to tweets in which Solan appeared to blame Black Lives Matter activists for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. “As someone who has fought for police reform and defended Seattle Police against defunding,” Lindsay wrote in a tweet on Friday afternoon, “I have a duty to call out when the head of their union spreads misinformation about the Capitol attack.” A subsequent statement from Durkan called Solan’s claims “wrong [and] immoral,” adding that they expect the OPA to investigate Solan for the tweets; the OPA will now treat the mayor’s statement as a complaint to be reviewed.

Both officers under investigation by the OPA are SPOG members.

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”

Spike In Cost Estimates Raises Questions About Future of West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail

By Erica C. Barnett

The estimated cost of extending Seattle’s light rail system to Ballard and West Seattle, as well as several other components of the Sound Transit 3 plan adopted by voters in 2015, has risen dramatically since last year, Sound Transit staffers told the agency’s executive committee Wednesday. The main factors driving the increase, according to the agency, are higher than anticipated property acquisition costs, higher costs for labor and materials, and unanticipated “soft costs,” including additional funding for contingencies.

Overall, according to the staff presentation, the estimated cost to build the West Seattle-Ballard line and other aspects of the planned expansion, including a planned Tacoma Dome extension and a new operations and maintenance facility in South King County has increased by $7.9 billion, with the bulk of that—around $4.4 billion at the midrange of Sound Transit’s new estimates—coming from increased costs to build light rail between West Seattle and Ballard.

Sound Transit provided PubliCola a more detailed breakdown of the West Seattle-to-Ballard cost increases. The chart below represents the best-case (lowest-cost) scenario from the range Sound Transit released yesterday, which ranged from the $12,103 shown below to $12,581. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment. We’ve asked Sound Transit for more detailed information about these numbers.

The main reason for the cost increases, Sound Transit deputy CEO Kimberly Farley said, was the cost of buying up property along the line. Property values have continued to skyrocket in Seattle and across the region despite the recession. Exacerbating that problem, Sound Transit will have to buy back an undisclosed number of buildings that are either currently under development or that have been developed since the ballot measure passed in 2015.

One of these is the Legacy at Fauntleroy mixed-use building, which will include more than 300 apartments and ground-floor commercial space. That building, and likely others, is on land that was upzoned in 2019 under Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. The upzone, to 95 feet, went into effect in April 2019, making the seven-story project possible, and construction began three months later. The building is still under construction. PubliCola has a call out to the owner of the property.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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During Wednesday’s meeting, board members and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff hastened to emphasize that these huge unanticipated costs should be viewed as a challenge, not a disaster. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” Rogoff said. King County executive Dow Constantine added that the one certainty is that light rail will only get more, not less, expensive to build in the future. “This system would have been a lot easier to build 50 years ago,” he said—an allusion to the frequently referenced Forward Thrust plan that Puget Sound region voters rejected in 1968 and again in 1970.

Staffers noted Wednesday that it was possible to make some “protective acquisitions” of property to prevent huge spikes in property values along the line, but agency spokesman Geoff Patrick told PubliCola their power to do so is limited. “While public agencies can secure federal approval for protective acquisitions in some cases, most property acquisition must occur after environmental review processes are completed and the Board has adopted the final project to be built,” he said. “This occurs after completion of the draft and final environmental impact statements that are required for most major projects.” Continue reading “Spike In Cost Estimates Raises Questions About Future of West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail”

Former Council Candidate Ousted Over Billing Irregularities, Fewer Seek Homeless Services, and More on Renton’s Shelter Saga

1. Wellspring Family Services, a homeless service provider that holds a $465,000 rapid rehousing contract with the city of Seattle, fired two of its housing specialists, Walter Washington and Jon Grant, after discovering that around $35,000 had been billed inappropriately to the wrong contracts—in effect overcharging some agencies that provide funding to Wellspring, with the money going into the nonprofit’s housing division. Washington was Wellspring’s senior director of housing services; Grant, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council Position 8, was the agency’s director of program development.

In a letter to agencies that fund the organization, including the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department, Wellspring president and CEO Heather Fitzpatrick described the discrepancy as a “billing error” in which “payroll expenses were erroneously billed to a contract for which the employee did not perform services.”

In an interview with PubliCola, Fitzpatrick said the “billing mistakes” were “predominately legitimate charges that should have been paid by the housing department but were billed to the wrong contract.” She said the agency acted quickly to address the problem. “We immediately reversed the charges and took immediate and appropriate action, including management changes, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Fitzpatrick would not identify the agency that got overcharged; nor would she confirm that $12,000 of the total came in the form of “severance pay” to a female employee who raised alarm bells and subsequently left the agency, as other sources indicated to PubliCola. A spokesperson for the agency said a thorough review of Wellspring’s finances found no evidence of outright embezzlement or misspending beyond the $35,000.

Neither Grant nor Washington responded to requests to talk on the record about their involvement in the discrepancies. According to Washington’s LinkedIn, he is now a team manager at United Way of King County. Grant, whose departure from a previous job as director of the Tenants Union involved allegations of “oppressive and tokenizing” practices, has not updated his LinkedIn bio.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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2. King County’s homeless population won’t be counted this year—as we reported on Twitter last month, the county agency that ordinarily conducts the street count and survey received a waiver this year because of the pandemic—but the number of people who are going unserved by the region’s homelessness agencies can be quantified by their absence from the homeless system.

According to the county’s homelessness dashboard, the number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available—declining from 13,343 households at the beginning of the pandemic to 11,053 three months later. This trend has held across all demographics, but was especially pronounced among single adults, according to county data.

The number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available.

Antonio Herrera Garza, a spokesman for the King County Department of Community and Human Services, says the county is exploring several theories for why the numbers have dropped, but a reduction in homelessness isn’t one of them. One possibility, he said, “is that households accessing the system during the pandemic show greater stability in services and longer lengths of stay, which means fewer households coming through the system during a given timeframe.”

Another possibility, Herrera Garza said, is that some people “more reluctant to access emergency services,” such as congregate shelter, because of the perceived risk of contracting COVID. Although there have been some outbreaks in tent encampments (including, contrary to claims in a recent Seattle Times piece, people living at Fourth and Yesler and Denny Park in downtown Seattle), most outbreaks have taken place in indoor settings. The county plans to release data through September sometime this month; Herrera Garza said they “expect to continue to see a decline in the numbers through September, although at a slower pace.”

3. Renton Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Dobson, an outspoken opponent of a Red Lion hotel-based shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, apparently threatened to revoke the membership of the Renton LGBTQIA+ Community, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in Renton, over advocacy by one of its board members in favor of the shelter.

The board member, Winter Cashman-Crane, has advocated in favor of the shelter and its residents, most of them former residents of the crowded Morrison Hotel shelter in downtown Seattle, since it opened last year. Cashman-Crane provided screen shots in which Dobson appears to say that Cashman-Crane has “flared up again” on Twitter, apparently referring to two tweets in which they noted that the city planned to give the Chamber a $150,000 grant after Dobson “personally spent this year advocating and inciting the community against the Red Lion shelter.” In the screen-grabbed conversation, Dobson says that if the LGBTQIA+ Community wants to stay in the Chamber, they will have to adhere to new “ground rules toward interaction and relationships.”

Dobson did not return an email seeking comment about her messages to the board member. In an email sent this past summer, she accused Cashman-Crane of “libel” for a private email expressing disappointment that the Chamber had opposed the shelter, which Dobson said was untrue.

Police Accountability Is On the Agenda in the Upcoming Legislative Session

Washington State Capitol (Credit: Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

On December 24, Washington State Reps. Debra Entenman (D-47) and Jesse Johnson (D-20) filed legislation that would set statewide restrictions on law enforcement tactics, including bans on chokeholds, tear gas and the use of unleashed police dogs for arrests. Less than a week later, state senators Manka Dhingra (D-45) and Jaime Pedersen (D-43) filed a related bill that would expand the jurisdiction of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), a group appointed by the governor that has the power to certify and decertify law enforcement officers—to give or revoke their license to work as a law enforcement officer in the state.

In the upcoming state legislative session, another half-dozen members of the house and senate Democratic caucuses plan to add their own bills to the pile of state-level reform proposals that, if passed, could dramatically reshape the role of the state government in law enforcement accountability.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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The Dhingra-Pedersen bill is the key to many of the proposed reforms. Under current state law, the CJTC has to wait until a law enforcement agency fires an officer before considering whether to decertify that officer, which allows officers facing misconduct charges to move to new jurisdictions before they can be fired. The proposed legislation would expand the commission’s powers, allowing it to decertify law enforcement officers at its own discretion, including officers who retire or resign in lieu of termination.

The bill would also require law enforcement agencies to report any serious use-of-force incidents to the commission, as well as any preliminary misconduct allegations or criminal charges of which their officers are found guilty. The commission would use that information to identify officers whose misconduct is bad enough to merit decertification.

“Tactical restrictions, a duty to intervene or report excessive force—those things become meaningful when you have a way to enforce a statewide standard.”—State Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43)

While the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the group representing the state’s law enforcement leadership, has not publicly opposed the expansion of the CJTC’s power, Pedersen told PubliCola that some in police leadership have argued that the proposal stifles their voice in police discipline. But Pedersen added that expanding the power of the CJTC might help break down some barriers to accountability posed by local police unions. “One of the big problems in the current system is that almost all policy enforcement happens on a local level, and therefore is subject to the collective bargaining process and the arbitration process,” he said. “But tactical restrictions, a duty to intervene or report excessive force—those things become meaningful when you have a way to enforce a statewide standard.”

The bill would also reduce those sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ roles in the CJTC itself, by increasing the number of commission seats reserved for community members from 2 to 5, while decreasing the number of seats reserved for law enforcement representatives from 10 to 6.

While some of the proposed restrictions, such as a ban on “hot pursuits” in police vehicles, could stir up resistance from SPD, the inclusion of a ban on tear gas could also place the department in a legal bind.

The police tactics legislation filed by Entenman and Johnson would create a new set of statewide standards that the CJTC could enforce. Three of the eight tactical and equipment restrictions included in the bill are already part of the Seattle Police Department’s manual—bans on neck restraints; firing at moving vehicles; and intentionally concealing a badge. But those policies have not spread to many other departments statewide, so the legislation would hold those departments to the same standards as SPD.

While some of the proposed restrictions, such as a ban on “hot pursuits” in police vehicles, could stir up resistance from SPD, the inclusion of a ban on tear gas could also place the department in a legal bind. In July, Judge James Robart, the federal district court judge who oversees police reform in Seattle for the Department of Justice in an arrangement called a consent decree, ruled that Seattle couldn’t forbid officers from using tear gas during protest response; if Entenman and Johnson’s bill is successful, Seattle could face a choice between following state law and following orders from a federal judge. Continue reading “Police Accountability Is On the Agenda in the Upcoming Legislative Session”