Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.”

Treatment is obviously better than jail, but coerced treatment isn’t the panacea Nelson seems to think it is, and the study is far more limited than she suggests. The people in the study were mostly young, single men who got jobs as part of their treatment; it’s unclear if any of them were homeless. The study also screened out anyone with “unstable psychiatric disorders”—the kind of disorders that are often at the root of complaints about visible homelessness. The primary drugs people in the study used were marijuana and alcohol; opiates ranked last and meth wasn’t even on the list.

Even with all those caveats, only about 45 percent of the people in the study finished the six-month program.  Those who did well were those who had more social supports, such as a close-knit family and supportive friends—things unsheltered people often lack.

Not surprisingly, this cherry-picked study contradicts many other studies concluding that forcing unsheltered and mentally ill people into treatment is not an effective long-term strategy and can harm vulnerable people (not to mention violate their civil rights.) In general, housing first—as opposed to treatment first—works better for long-term recovery, because people need to have their basic needs met before they can stop using and get sober, if that’s their goal.

Although Nelson obviously had a positive experience with treatment, anecdotes shouldn’t be the basis for public policy. Most housed people who go to abstinence-based treatment don’t get and stay sober right away, and treating treatment like a substitute for housing sets unhoused people for failure.

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