Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave.

In Tuesday’s report, Gydé recommended that the DOC prepare for the next heat wave by developing methods for covering the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows from the outside, offering more access to ice and personal fans, and lowering the temperature of the water in the prison’s showers to serve as a cooling station.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units. According to a statement release by DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange on Monday, those closures will include two minimum-security units at Monroe.

3. The King County Council hosted a community meeting on Tuesday night to introduce the two finalists to lead the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which is the police accountability agency for the King County Sheriff’s Office. The permanent director will replace Adrienne Wat, who took over after the council opted not to renew the contract of the office’s last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, last September.

One of the candidates—Eddie Aubrey, the manager of the Office of Professional Accountability in the Richmond, California police department—is a familiar face: In February, he was one of three finalists to run Seattle’s Community Police Commission. Aubrey began his career as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, later working as a prosecutor for both King County and the City of Renton, and as the first director of the Office of Independent Review for the Fresno, California Police Department. When Aubrey refused to re-write an audit that criticized a fatal police shooting and sparked a federal civil rights case, the City of Fresno shuttered the oversight office “due to lack of funding”; he then moved to his current position in Richmond.

Both candidates offered similar visions for the future of OLEO, focusing on increasing the office’s visibility and transparency and forging bonds with elected county officials and the sheriff to resist interference by the King County Police Officers Guild.

The second candidate, Tamer Abouzaid, is a civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. Before taking his current role, Abouzaid was an investigator with the Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois State Senate in 2020.

Both candidates offered similar visions for the future of OLEO, focusing on increasing the office’s visibility and transparency and forging bonds with elected county officials and the sheriff to resist interference by the King County Police Officers Guild. Both also promised to push back against any efforts by the guild to place limits on OLEO’s powers in their collective bargaining agreement during negotiations, which begin next year; Abouzaid also said he would support a state law prohibiting police unions from negotiating on issues of oversight, like the one proposed  by State Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32) this year.

Neither candidate directly addressed the fate of OLEO’s last permanent director, Jacobs, whom the county council ousted in a narrow vote last September after an investigation into allegations that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to OLEO staff. The King County Police Officers Guild later claimed that Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht offered to orchestrate Jacobs’ ouster as part of a quid pro quo arrangement to convince the union to support a pilot program to introduce body cameras to the department.

Jacobs’ scathing reports on a pair of shootings by sheriff’s deputies in 2017 had left her on bad terms with both Johanknecht and the guild, but the union’s president claimed to have declined Johanknecht’s offer. Jacobs’ predecessor also left OLEO after conflicts with the sheriff’s office and the guild.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.