1. The Seattle police officer whose refusal to wear a mask inside Harborview Medical Center in January prompted public outcry and a misconduct investigation received a one-day suspension for the incident.
According to a investigation report released by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) on Tuesday, Officer Eric Whitehead violated SPD’s professionalism policies when he brushed off requests that he put on a face mask. Whitehead was part of a team of officers stationed at the hospital to escort a person who had been detained.
But because Whitehead believed he had obtained an exemption from SPD’s mask mandate, the OPA did not determine that his refusal to wear a mask constituted a violation of department policy.
In a letter sent to SPD’s Human Resources division last June, Whitehead requested an exemption on medical grounds, including “mental and physical strain, as well as increased respiratory distress”; he added that requiring him to wear a mask violated his civil liberties. Though Whitehead did not include medical records in his request for an exemption, he later provided OPA investigators with letters from two medical practitioners detailing a “dermatological condition in and around his face that was exacerbated by facemask wearing and shaving.” Whitehead did not, however, object to wearing other types of masks—during last summer’s protests, for instance, Whitehead confirmed that he wore a gas mask.
Though SPD’s Human Resources lieutenant never expressly approved or denied Whitehead’s request, OPA investigators concluded that he could have reasonably believed that he was exempt based on an email from the lieutenant confirming that SPD allowed for medical exemptions to the mask mandate.
However, the investigators also pointed out inconsistencies in Whitehead’s stated reasons for refusing to put on a mask. While at the hospital, Whitehead told nurses that he could not wear a face covering because it would present a safety risk if the detainee attacked him—”I don’t want to be choked with this fucking thing,” he told a nurse after she handed him a mask. He did not mention his medical condition to hospital staff, though he later told OPA investigators that his initial confrontation with the nurse left him “less willing” to explain his behavior. Investigators also pointed out that the letters from Whitehead’s medical providers don’t mention any mask-related respiratory problems, contrary to his claims in the letter to SPD’s human resources lieutenant.
OPS Director Andrew Myerberg wrote in the investigative report that the case demonstrated the risks of SPD’s lax approach to medical exemptions for its mask mandate. “While SPD is required to approve exemptions when supported by evidence and when warranted,” he wrote, “this does not mean that SPD must continue to allow officers to engage in duties where they have close contact with the public.”
As a remedy, Myerberg recommended that the department keep records of any officers who request exemptions from the mask policy, as well as department supervisors’ reasoning for approving or denying the request. He added that SPD should not allow officers with exemptions to work in close proximity with members of the public, which would involve re-assigning officers to non-patrol positions. The department has already moved Whitehead to a non-patrol position.
2. A long-delayed tiny house village in the University District that was originally supposed to open in April could start moving forward again this month, city council members said this week. Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis walked on legislation Monday approving a lease between Sound Transit, which owns the land where the village will go, and the city, which will hold the lease. The council had to pass legislation approving the lease because Sound Transit increased the size of the property the city will take over. Both Sound Transit and the city still have to sign the lease.
For months, Sound Transit and the city have been mired in negotiations over the extent of the city’s legal liability if anything goes wrong at the site. Sound Transit (which has declined to discuss the negotiations and didn’t immediately return a call for comment Tuesday) sought and received indemnity from any injury, death, or property damage that takes place at the encampment, which is basically what the lease provides.
Although Seattle is supposed to hand all its homeless service contracts over to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority at the end of 2021, the lease is for up to three years, meaning that the city could be responsible for a tiny house village even when it no longer has a homelessness division.
As we reported last week, KCRHA director Marc Dones has expressed hesitation about funding tiny house villages as part of a comprehensive solution to homelessness.