Morning Fizz: As the City Debates Police Accountability and Homelessness, Brutality Allegations and Encampments Proliferate

Seattle Police Department officers and other members if the Navigation Team watch as a person experiencing homelessness gathers their possessions during an encampment removal at the Ballard Commons earlier this year.

1. Last Wednesday, acting Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a new partnership between his department and the Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which specializes in producing “analyses to identify and reduce the causes of racial disparities in policing.”

In a press release, Diaz said the CPE will spend the next several months studying SPD’s “functions, training, policies, accountability measures and impacts on communities of color”; the researchers will then “convert” their findings into “strategies to ensure [that] SPD eradicates public safety inequities moving forward.”

In her September executive order launching an assessment of SPD’s functions and possible areas for civilianization, Mayor Jenny Durkan also included the CPE as a source of “subject matter expertise” alongside the city’s own accountability partners, including the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Policing Commission (CPC).

This is not the CPE’s first time in town. In 2015, after the CPC asked SPD to review its crowd control policies in the wake of that year’s Black Lives Matter protests, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole included the CPE on a panel of experts tasked with reviewing the department’s crowd control tactics and presenting recommendations for improvement. The CPE did not release its 23-page report until 2017, and the panel never presented their recommendations publicly. The CPE’s recommendations were generally unremarkable: for instance, the analysts suggested that “SPD should further pursue explanations of the elevated severe use of force during demonstrations.” 

Diaz’ announcement gave no indication that the new CPE study will be any more transformative than its last one, not least because he did not name any accountability mechanism attached to the analysts’ recommendations (some accountability mechanism may exist, but a CPE representative didn’t respond to a request for comment on that front). 

Moreover, the scope of work that Diaz described suggests that the CPE’s study could easily overlap with the work of the city’s existing accountability bodies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, whose office is currently working on a sentinel review of SPD’s protest response, told PubliCola that the CPE analysts should “engage with the current accountability structure and assess whether they’re actually doing anything different and whether there is value added.” There could be room for the analysts to collaborate with her office, she added, so long as they respect “the ongoing work of accountability partners.”

2. As the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan continue debating what will will replace the Navigation Team, which Durkan formally dismantled in September, encampments have continued to proliferate around the city. Although one could argue that encampments are merely a symptom of a longstanding crisis Seattle has failed to adequately address, the city’s decision to temporarily stop sweeping people aggressively from place to place during the pandemic has exacerbated the visibility of the crisis. 

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Prior to COVID, the Navigation Team was conducting hundreds of encampment removals a year. Post-COVID, they dramatically scaled back this work, doing sweeps only at encampments that were the source of large numbers of complaints or that presented significant public safety issues, like the large encampment that was recently removed from a cracking, partially demolished pedestrian bridge downtown.

A large encampment at the Ballard Commons, across the street from the Ballard public library, was removed in May after neighborhood residents and community groups complained that it made the park feel dirty and unsafe. Like all sweeps, this one redistributed, but didn’t visibly reduce, the number of people living unsheltered in the neighborhood. Since then, not only has the Commons been thoroughly repopulated by unsheltered people, the people who were ordered to leave in May seem to have simply moved a few blocks away, a predictable outcome whenever encampments are swept.

In his newsletter to constituents this month, District 6 council member Dan Strauss—a near-lifelong Ballard resident—said it would take around $2.4 million a year to remove and adequately shelter the 60 or so people living in the Commons and an area near the Ballard Fred Meyer that has been dubbed the “Leary Triangle.” That might seem like a lot, Strauss wrote, but “the cost of not bringing people inside is far more expensive than funding the solutions and interventions necessary to remediate this crisis.”

To that end, Strauss said he would propose using federal CARES Act dollars to purchase (rather than just lease) motels that could be used as non-congregate shelter or housing. The mayor has proposed using one-time federal funds to lease up to 300 hotel rooms for ten months, with the goal of moving people rapidly into new permanent supportive housing units that will come online over the next two years, or into market-rate apartments using short-term rapid-rehousing subsidies.

“We need to have the appropriate shelter and housing available to bring everyone inside so that we can authentically say, ‘There is a place for you to come inside, so you can no longer live in our public spaces,’ Strauss wrote. “I continue to be frustrated by the inadequate response to homelessness throughout this year and leading up to this year because we could have already brought people inside and out of our public spaces.”

3. On Friday morning, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released the latest round of completed investigations into misconduct complaints lodged against SPD officers during this summer’s protests. 

Notably, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg chose to sustain two improper use-of-force findings against SPD officers: one against an officer who “forcibly pushed” a demonstrator’s head into the street while conducting an arrest on Capitol Hill in June, and another against an officer who repeatedly punched a demonstrator in the torso during an arrest in the International District on May 29th.

In the latter case, Myerberg did not sustain a use-of-force complaint against a second arresting officer who also punched the demonstrator. In an interview with PubliCola, Myerberg said the distinction between the two officers came down to timing and the number of punches; the officer Myerberg sustained a complaint against punched the demonstrator six to eight times over roughly ten seconds, whereas the other officer punched the demonstrator twice in rapid succession after the demonstrator hit him with a water bottle.

“There is no case law that says when you can punch or can’t punch,” Myerberg said, “but since we’re ruling based on what can be considered reasonable and what’s within department policy, we have to say that an officer is allowed to use force, up to and including a punch, to stop someone from continuing to hit them.”

Myerberg does not expect SPD’s sworn leadership to readily accept his findings. “There’s definitely concern within the chain of command about these sustained findings because of how quickly the incidents took place,” he said. “I think officers will be irritated. They will probably say that we’re Monday morning quarterbacking, but that’s just the reality of the cases we’re dealing with. We have the chance to look at them with more time.”

In recent exit interviews with officers who left the department in September, multiple officers pointed to Myerberg’s investigations of “small policy violations” as a drain on officer morale, insinuating that the OPA director was scrutinizing officers unnecessarily for errors that would be resolved better by a commanding officer. 

Myerberg said that in reviewing officers’ exit interviews, he noticed several officers who are currently under OPA investigation among the names of those transferring to other law enforcement agencies this year, though he could not name the agencies to which they’re transferring. Many of those officers would have been suspended or terminated if they had stayed with the department, he said, “but not all agencies are as stringent. Though people criticize SPD, there aren’t other agencies in Washington that have the accountability structures we do. There are, however, agencies who will look at a sustained OPA complaint and say, ‘well, Seattle investigates everything, so we’ll hire you anyway.’”

In addition to the two sustained use-of-force complaints, the OPA also released three investigations where the office did not sustain complaints, including multiple allegedly inappropriate uses of force. Once the OPA decides not to sustain misconduct findings against an officer, its decision is final.

While his office remains overwhelmed by the volume of protest-related complaints—more than 19,000 complaints resulting in 126 investigations so far—Myerberg said investigations into the killings of Sean Fuhr and Terry Caver by SPD officers last spring have not fallen off his radar. While under ordinary circumstances his office would have 180 days from the time of an incident to conduct an investigation, Myerberg said that the OPA “requested extensions from the unions that they agreed to,” buying his office extra time while they continue to sort through protest complaints.