2020 In Review: Following Up on the Year In Police Accountability

By Paul Kiefer

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Today, we’re focusing on several stories about the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office, and police accountability.

Police Shootings

The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) won’t complete its investigations into the killings of Shaun Fuhr and Terry Caver by Seattle police officers in April and May, respectively, until early 2021. City law and the current city contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) give the OPA 180 days to investigate misconduct allegations. However, because of delays related to the COVID pandemic and police actions during recent protests, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has received two extensions. Myerberg added that the OPA won’t complete its investigations into the two shootings until SPD’s Force Review Board completes its own reviews of the incidents.

SPD officers shot and killed 24-year-old Fuhr on April 29 after his girlfriend called 911 to report that he had beaten her and taken their child at gunpoint. Fuhr was holding their one-year-old daughter when officers fatally shot him in a Columbia City driveway after a short chase on foot; SPD reported finding a handgun nearby, but the department hasn’t said whether Fuhr was holding a gun when officers fired at him. His daughter wasn’t hurt in the shooting, but Seattle-King County NAACP President Carolyn Riley-Payne issued a statement after the killing criticizing then-SPD Chief Carmen Best for claiming that the officers were concerned for the child’s well-being. The King County Sheriff’s Office is also investigating the shooting.

Less than a month later, officers shot and killed 57-year-old Terry Caver on a mostly empty sidewalk in Lower Queen Anne. As PubliCola reported in August, Caver had moved to the Seattle area after a 2010 drive-by shooting in California triggered the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. He initially lived with his older sister in Everett, who told PubliCola that her brother regularly carried a knife to defend himself during bouts of paranoia. She believes that Caver was experiencing a schizophrenic episode when Seattle police officers responded to 911 calls about a man waving a knife at passersby along Elliott Avenue West.

At least five officers surrounded Caver with their cruisers and shouted at him to drop to the ground, prompting Caver to break into a run, shouting, “you’re going to have to kill me.” Less than a minute after the officers arrived, two of them—Christopher Gregorio and Matthew Milburn—opened fire.

Though the OPA reviewed the shooting in May, the office didn’t begin a formal investigation into Caver’s death until August, after PubliCola published Caver’s name, which SPD didn’t release after the shooting. According to Myerberg, the investigation will focus primarily on whether officers followed SPD’s de-escalation policies.

Both Fuhr and Caver were Black, as were roughly a third of the people killed by SPD in the past decade.

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The Seattle Police Contract

Though the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild expires on December 31, the city won’t begin negotiating a new contract until 2021 at the earliest, leaving the union to work under an expired contract until the city council ratifies a new agreement. At the moment, the Labor Relations Policy Committee—which includes five council members, the mayor’s policy director, the Budget Office director and the director of Human Resources—is still hammering out the city’s bargaining agenda, including the subjects of bargaining, the length of the new contract and the amount of money the city is willing to spend to meet the terms of the new contract.

In early November, Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold announced that the all three of the city’s police oversight agencies—the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Policing Commission (CPC)—would advise the LRPC ahead of negotiations with SPOG.

While the OPA has taken an advisory role in the past, the CPC (which represents the interests of the public, not a branch of city government) has never previously had an official role in police contract negotiations. Nor has the city council, which will now have a representative—likely council central staffer Greg Doss—at the table.

Appointing the New Sheriff

In November, King County voters approved a trio of amendments to the county charter that turned the county sheriff from an elected an appointed position, gave the County Council power to determine the duties of the sheriff’s department, and granted subpoena power to the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), the agency tasked with monitoring and investigating the King County Sheriff’s Department. Champions of the reforms claim that giving the council the power to appoint the sheriff and determine the scope of their duties is a step towards greater accountability for the office, which has been an elected position since 1997. The changes come in the wake of well-publicized investigations into the killings of teenagers Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens and Tommy Le, both killed by sheriff’s deputies in 2017 while unarmed; the sheriff’s office pushed back against the release of those investigations.

Council member Rod Dembowski told PubliCola that the council will take up legislation in early 2021 to create an advisory panel to guide the council while it considers possible appointees to the sheriff’s office; he did not provide a timeline for the appointment. Before the November election, Dembowski and other council members said that the charter amendment was not a referendum on current sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s job performance; Johanknecht, who defeated her then-boss and former sheriff John Urquhart in 2017, will be one of the candidates for the appointed position.

Before the OLEO can exercise its subpoena powers, the county will have to bargain those powers with the King County Police Officers Guild. Past negotiations with that union have lasted as long as three years, so the OLEO’s oversight capabilities will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

One thought on “2020 In Review: Following Up on the Year In Police Accountability”

  1. The OPA can’t be taken seriously as an oversight body. It is completely run by the SPD and has no transparency, so it can’t be objective. The “investigator” who called me for my interview was an SPD Sergeant with a history of brutality, so he had an incentive to make the department look good.

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