County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine

1. King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which audits King County Sheriff’s Office policies and reviews misconduct investigations by the sheriff’s office, is set to grow next year after the King County Council added two new positions to the office—a first step, OLEO Director Tamer Abouzeid said, in his long-term plans to expand the responsibilities and reach of the office.

County voters approved a charter amendment in 2015 empowering OLEO to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force by sheriff’s officers, but the county’s contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild—the union representing most of the rank-and-file sheriff’s officers—stripped OLEO of most of its investigative authority in 2020. The office is now mostly an advisory body.

Last year, OLEO flagged problems with objectivity or thoroughness in five of the 56 use-of-force investigations it reviewed. The office has only one designated staffer to review more than 100 investigations a year, out of hundreds of investigations by the sheriff’s office. This has meant “a lot of triaging to manage the workload,” Abouzeid said. For now, his office focuses its energy on investigations into alleged biased policing or excessive force.

One of the two new staffers will join OLEO’s investigation review team. The second will be on the office’s policy analysis team, part of Abouzeid’s push to expand his office’s role as a quasi-think tank on police oversight policy for Washington state. “We would like to see statewide policy to codify the roles of civilian oversight bodies, because otherwise oversight becomes a hodgepodge of what police unions negotiate into their contracts,” he said.

King County is preparing to negotiate a new contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild after the current contract expires at the end of the month, which could be a chance for the county to restore OLEO’s authority to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force. In October, the county council asked OLEO to submit suggestions for improvements to the next contract. “Our plan is to be able to do the job that voters wanted us to do,” Abouzeid said. “That takes a new contract, and it also means that we’ll need to keep adding staff in the near future.”

The council also approved some expansions of the sheriff’s budget, including more than $1 million for emphasis patrols around the county courthouse and $4 million to offer hiring and retention incentives to sheriff’s officers.

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2. City council members Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle, and Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, are reportedly both lobbying colleagues to serve as City Council President next year. Lorena González, the current council president, gave up her council seat to run for mayor, leaving the position open. The council selects its own president every two years, or when the seat becomes vacant because a council member leaves.

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. The job typically goes to a senior council member, but not every council member gets to be president; embattled Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has served on the council longer than any other current member, has never held the role.

Over the years, council presidents have interpreted the job, which is not clearly defined in the city charter, in different ways; while some have used the position to delegate work to other council members based on their colleagues’ interests and expertise, others have used it to raise the profile of the council as a whole, serving as a diplomat to or adversary with the mayor’s office, depending on the issue (and the mayor). Council presidents have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to present the council as a united group with shared interests—a quasi-fiction that has been harder to maintain as the council has become more fractured.

Neither Juarez nor Herbold responded to requests for comment. However, earlier this week, more than a dozen Native American leaders issued statements supporting Juarez for council president—an unusual instance of lobbying for an internal council position

One of the letters, signed by the leaders of Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and other Seattle-based Native groups, praised Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, for her work securing funds to address urban Native homelessness, establishing the city’s first Indigenous Advisory Council, and working on behalf of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

3. A facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County has left dozens of sick inmates in solitary confinement cells to quarantine. Although the state Department of Corrections announced in October that it would no longer use solitary confinement as a form of punishment, the department has repurposed the cells as quarantine facilities since the start of the pandemic.

Seventy-eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Monroe in the past 30 days, the highest number of new infections in any of the DOC’s twelve prisons across the state. As of November 27, prison administrators had begun moving anyone who tested positive but remain asymptomatic to a less-restrictive unit, but 64 people remained in isolation cells under medical supervision. Rachel Erikson, a DOC spokesperson, said that her department is using the isolation unit because it is better-suited to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

But according to one inmate currently held in the isolation unit, the DOC’s transition away from using solitary confinement as a punitive tool hasn’t transformed the unit itself. Sick inmates, he said, are held in a unit “designed for punishment,” watched by guards who “learned to look at people in isolation as dangerous,” and in cells that lack hot water or cleaning supplies.

The vaccination rate at the Monroe facility outstrips Washington’s overall vaccination rate by more than five percent, and the prison has avoided any COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. Overall, sixteen incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 in DOC facilities, including 62-year-old Michael Cornethan, who died at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on November 21.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett