By Paul Kiefer
Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability released findings on Monday afternoon clearing former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey of wrongdoing in the evacuation of the department’s East Precinct last June.
Questions about the decision to abandon the precinct swirled for more than a year without any clarity from the department until KUOW published an investigation in July that identified Mahaffey—the commander in charge of managing the department’s protest response on June 8—as the person who made the call.
OPA director Andrew Myerberg criticized SPD for being silent about the decision to abandon the precinct, writing that the decision created “a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play.” In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, City Council President Lorena González echoed the same frustration, writing that the OPA’s report “shows how SPD treated responsibility as a ‘hot potato’ that no one wanted to get caught holding… You can’t always predict the outcome of key decisions—and mistakes will happen—but the damage to public trust is made much worse when high-ranking SPD leaders play games of hot potato and fail to be forthright with elected officials, the media and the public.”
However, Myerberg also concluded that Best had the authority to delegate decision-making to Mahaffey. Similarly, he determined that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate the precinct was based on the information available to him—including flawed claims from the FBI of a terrorist threat—and that his decision allowed SPD to temporarily de-escalate. “No one—including OPA—can say that [an] alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming,” he wrote, “just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct.”
Assistant Chief Brian Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.
The OPA’s investigation, which relied on interviews with Best, Mahaffey and other SPD employees and members of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff, largely mirrored KUOW’s version of events, with two exceptions. In early June, with the East Precinct at the center of nightly protests on Capitol Hill, SPD leaders were increasingly anxious about the risk of an attack on the precinct. Protesters in Minneapolis had burned a police precinct to the ground less than two weeks earlier, and SPD leadership worried that the same thing could happen in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the department’s initial protest response, which relied heavily on barriers, fixed lines of officers in riot gear, and weapons like tear gas and pepper spray, only escalated the conflict on the streets outside the East Precinct.
Under pressure to lower the temperature of the confrontations outside the precinct, Durkan convened a planning meeting with SPD on June 7. One of the department’s representatives at that meeting, Assistant Chief Bryan Grenon, drafted a document outlining four potential “courses of action.” The first three options, which involved keeping officers in or outside of the precinct with various kinds of barriers along the adjacent sidewalk, “involved risks of injury to both protesters and officers,” Grenon wrote. The fourth option—evacuating the precinct—would “very likely” result in the destruction of the precinct, the report claimed. During the meeting, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle Field Office re-emphasized the risk of an attack on SPD precincts. However, an incident plan distributed within SPD the following day made no mention of a specific threat against the East Precinct.
Later that day, after a man drove into the crowd and shot a protester outside the precinct, tensions spiked again; SPD responded with tear gas, and city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant called for Durkan’s resignation. The mayor called another meeting on the morning of June 8, and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong asked Mahaffey to draft a plan for removing weapons, ammunition and evidence from the East Precinct by the afternoon—and for removing the barricades around the precinct to allow protesters to pass by the building.
After the meeting, Mahaffey gave the order to evacuate the building entirely, planning to observe from a distance and return the next morning. Inside the precinct, Mahaffey’s order sparked chaos. Speaking to OPA investigators, Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.
The next morning, when officers attempted to return to the East Precinct, they claim that an armed person “ordered police off the protesters’ ‘sovereign land,'” and that they backed off, according to the report. Best later said the abandonment of the East Precinct was the spark that produced the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). Durkan Chief of Staff Stefanie Formas told the OPA that, when planning the city’s protest response, “no one ever considered the possibility of CHOP/CHAZ being established.”The department did not regain control of the precinct until July, when SPD cleared the area surrounding the precinct after a series of fatal shootings.
While KUOW’s initial investigation endorsed the conclusion that Mahaffey did not tell Best about his decision to evacuate all officers from the precinct—asserting that Best unsuccessfully tried to reach the assistant chief over the phone—the OPA found cell phone records indicating the opposite. Additionally, the KUOW investigation concluded that Mahaffey did not have permission to make a decision as drastic as abandoning a precinct without Best’s approval. The OPA’s investigation determined that both the mayor’s office and Best assumed that Mahaffey was in charge of decision-making and that evacuating the precinct was one of his options.
The goal of the OPA’s investigation was primarily to decide whether Best or Mahaffey had violated any SPD policies or city laws on June 8, 2020. Two of the complaints that sparked the investigation came from Capitol Hill residents who alleged that the abandonment of the East Precinct allowed conditions in the neighborhood to rapidly deteriorate into lawlessness. One blamed the decision on Durkan; the other on Best.
A third complaint came from Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who emailed the OPA on June 23, 2020 with a list of questions, including whether SPD’s policy manual outlines “procedures to authorize vacating a precinct” and what conditions might prompt a commander to do so. However, the OPA did not issue any recommendations for a new policy to dictate when and why SPD can abandon a precinct, nor did they interview Herbold as part of their investigation.