Police Accountability Office Dismissed Widespread Mask Violations as “Cultural Issue”

Photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr; Creative Commons license

By Erica C. Barnett

A new report from the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, routinely dismissed complaints from the public about officers refusing to wear masks as required, viewing noncompliance as a “cultural problem” rather than individual insubordination. A spokeswoman for the OPA said the office “does not investigate systemic issues, which are the sole purview of the OIG.”

The OPA did not sustain (uphold) any of the 98 complaints the OIG reviewed about officers ignoring the mask mandate. These complaints included a highly publicized incident in which an officer refused to wear a mask inside a hospital; that officer was disciplined for violating SPD’s professionalism policies, but the OPA said mask noncompliance was a “systemic issue that needs to be remedied” by the department, not a matter for individual discipline.

The report also found that SPD supervisors rarely disciplined officers even for third, fourth, and fifth violations of the mask mandate, using “supervisor actions” (training or coaching by a supervisor, usually reserved for minor policy violations) in lieu of formal discipline.

“Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.”—Inspector General report on widespread mask violations at SPD

The OPA spokeswoman declined to comment on the OIG’s conclusions.

“I think what you see with the frustration expressed by OPA and the tone of this report is an acknowledgement that such widespread non-compliance with policy, and even direct orders, can’t be adequately addressed by piecemeal, individual discipline or external policy recommendations,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “Issues like this that have a strong underlying cultural or philosophical root require action on the part of leadership to shift that culture to change behavior.”

According to the report, both the OPA and SPD treated officers’ refusal to comply with mask mandates as a “minor nondisciplinary issue,” even after the state Department of Labor and Industries penalized the department on two separate occasions for “serious” violations of state law requiring work sites to be “free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, serious injury or death.”

For the first violation, from February 2021, L&I fined SPD $5,400 and outlined a course of disciplinary action, including progressive discipline (discipline that becomes more severe with additional violations) for officers cited for failing to follow mask rules more than twice. L&I ultimately closed that complaint because officers were using various tactics to slow down disciplinary proceedings against them, making it harder for the OPA to investigate and punish officers who wouldn’t wear mask.

L&I’s second citation, from July 2021, involved multiple complaints that officers weren’t wearing masks while responding to public demonstrations. Although the agency couldn’t interview any of the officers involved in this second complaint because they were all on furlough or refused to cooperate, L&I issued a $12,000 fine.

According to the report, then-OPA director Andrew Myerberg, now a public-safety advisor to Mayor Bruce Harrell, “noted that it seemed procedurally unjust to sustain an insubordination allegation against an individual officer when others higher in the chain of command might also not be wearing masks.

“Director Myerberg stated that no one in headquarters wore masks and related that someone had sent OPA a photo of multiple lieutenants, captains, and chiefs celebrating an event at headquarters without any masks. Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.”

A spokesman for Harrell’s office referred questions about Myerberg’s role in dismissing mask complaints to the OPA, saying, “Public Safety Director Myerberg does not comment on his past role and previous OPA work.”

Since Myerberg left the office, the OPA has continued to dismiss cases about officers refusing to wear masks. Earlier this month, for example, the office declined to sustain a complaint about an officer who pulled someone over for expired tabs and then allegedly retaliated against the driver by ticketing him after the driver asked the officer repeatedly to put on a mask and requested his name and badge number.

The report says SPD had a large stockpile of masks available to officers and that officers received “a clear set of directives” about wearing masks over the course of 2020 and 2021, including an explicit order from interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz and a warning from an assistant chief that violating the state mask mandate was a misdemeanor.

“These explicit orders were accompanied by many email reminders from supervisors sent throughout the year,” the report says, including emails from one captain who grew increasingly frustrated with officers’ refusal to comply. “Please, please, please…I know these are a pain in [the] butt but can we remind our officers to wear their masks in public?” the captain wrote.

However, the report also suggests that SPD managers didn’t do enough to combat SPD’s anti-masking culture. “SPD management should reframe how the department views matters of public health including COVID-19. … Setting the precedent that mask orders do not need to be followed establishes a culture in which future, unrelated orders may be ignored as well.”

“Policy can only go so far to regulate officer behavior if there is not support for that policy at leadership levels, and the corresponding will to hold all SPD members accountable to the policy,” Judge said.

Mask refusal, Judge noted, is far from the only widespread day-to-day “cultural” issue SPD needs to address from the top down. “For example, SPD has made strides in reducing the use of profanity by officers, but this has mostly been reinforced at the middle management level,” Judge said. “Although there has been some recognition that it is unprofessional, unnecessary, and often detrimental to public perceptions of officer professionalism, the policy remains broad and there is not strong support at the necessary level to make this shift in culture.”

Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the statewide mask mandate on March 12.