Category: Cops

Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons

A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of thousands used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city
A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of hundreds used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city

1. A series of fake radio transmissions by Seattle police officers in June 2020 that described a group of armed, far-right extremists wandering through the downtown core “improperly added fuel to the fire” during a tense summer of citywide racial justice protests and clashes with police, according to Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, whose office released its investigation of the incident on Wednesday.

The transmissions were a part of a misinformation campaign conceived by Brian Grenon, then the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. The transmissions came only hours after officers evacuated the precinct at the instruction of Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey. In an interview with the OPA, Grenon explained that the ruse was intended to convince demonstrators that the department had “more officers out there doing regular stuff” at a time when SPD was stretched thin. Grenon didn’t seek approval for the campaign from then-police chief Carmen Best or Mahaffey, nor did he tell his subordinate officers what to say.

The lower-ranking officers chose to describe a group of armed Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for street brawls that featured prominently in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, gathered near Seattle City Hall. In interviews with the OPA, the officers said that they had never taken part in a disinformation campaign before.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, however, that SPD has faced scrutiny over disinformation in the recent past. In 2019, the OPA launched an investigation into an officer who lied to a driver suspected of a hit-and-run; though the incident only damaged a group of parked cars, the officer claimed that the crash left a person in critical condition. Less than a week later, the driver died by suicide after agonizing over the incident, believing he had killed someone.

While Washington state law allows police officers to use a ruse while undercover, to gather information for investigations and to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.” In the 2019 case, Myerberg ruled that the officer’s ruse was not necessary or appropriate, and that it likely led directly to the driver’s suicide. SPD suspended the officer responsible for the ruse for 6 days, and Myerberg recommended that SPD begin training officers on ruses, “including when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”

On Wednesday, Herbold noted that SPD has yet to fully implement Myerberg’s recommendation, and said she has asked Myerberg to issue a new recommendation, specifying that officers need to document any ruses so that investigators can review their appropriateness.

Although Myerberg noted that the Proud Boys ruse likely contributed to some protesters’ decisions to arm themselves, it appears that none of the officers involved in the ruse will face discipline. Grenon and another commander who supervised the effort have since left SPD, and Myerberg held that while the four lower-ranking officers who took part in the ruse exercised poor judgment, their supervisors were to mostly to blame.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson, in response to an email from Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Vehicle Residency Outreach program

2. When new Position 9 City Councilmember Sara Nelson took her oath of office Tuesday afternoon, she emphasized her experience as the co-owner of Fremont Brewing, referring to herself as “the first small business owner on City Council since 2009.” (Jan Drago, who owned a Häagen-Dazs franchise on the Ave, retired that year).

In an email responding to a homeless service provider’s concerns about Fremont Brewing’s use of large concrete “ecology blocks” to obstruct parking on the streets surrounding its Ballard brewing facility, however, Nelson said she no longer has anything to do with the business, which she co-owns with her husband, Matt Lincecum, and could not respond to any requests for Fremont Brewing to remove the obstructions.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election,” Nelson said in an email to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, head of the city-funded Vehicle Residency Outreach program. “This is why I haven’t spoken to any reporters about this matter and why I must decline to engage in discussion with you now. For current information about SDOT’s enforcement of complaints of street use violations, I have referred inquiries to [the public information officer] at SDOT (copied).”

Kirlin-Hackett’s initial letter asked Nelson to “now abide as a sitting Councilmember [with] what the law requires; that is removing the ecology barriers that surround your brewery.” In his response to Nelson’s email, Kirlin-Hackett wrote, “I know it is a very usual thing for those elected to want to wash their hands. But it’s clear by your response you know this is a problem and violation of the law. If you read the letter from SDOT I sent, you’ll know their very problem is their inability to have the support of the Executive or Council in how to apply the law.”

Many property owners in industrial areas, including several in the blocks immediately adjacent to Fremont Brewing, have placed ecology blocks in the public right-of-way to prevent people living in RVs (which, under Seattle law, can only park overnight in industrial areas) from parking on the street. The use of ecology blocks to obstruct parking is illegal, but SDOT has not enforced the law, opting instead to send warning letters to businesses, including Fremont Brewing, that use the blocks to deter RV parking.

SDOT’s laissez-faire approach to street use has not extended to RV owners themselves; shortly before the most recent snow and ice storm, the city showed up with tow trucks to remove a group of RVs from West Green Lake Way, part of a sweep that also forced people camping in the area to move their tents to a different part of the park.

Nelson did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about what her “formal separation” from Fremont Brewing entails.

3. A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a South Seattle home on Wednesday afternoon after the man killed a police dog and stabbed the dog’s handler, Officer Anthony Ducre, in the face.

The dog, named Jedi, was previously at the center of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle by a woman he attacked during a training exercise in a Tukwila parking lot in January 2020. At the time, SPD was using the parking lot as part of a training course for K-9 units. Ducre was leading Jedi through the course on a long lead and lost sight of him around a corner; there, Jedi found a woman taking a break from her job in a nearby building and—acting on training—bit her leg. The woman, Valerie Heffernan, later settled with the City of Seattle for $225,000. Continue reading “Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons”

Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case

By Paul Kiefer

More than three years have passed since a driver hit a Real Change vendor who was riding his bicycle near the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet in the SoDo neighborhood. At the time of the crash, the vendor, whom PubliCola is calling John to protect his privacy, was living in a RV in the neighborhood.

Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) finished its investigation into misconduct allegations against Evan Pitzner and Dane Hagan, the two Seattle police officers who arrived on the scene and, according to John’s account, targeted and mocked him for being homeless.

John didn’t file a complaint with the OPA himself, but several members of the public did after watching a viral video—edited and released by Real Change in 2020—that showed Pitzner and Hagan chuckling as John sat injured on the pavement nearby. Neither officer will face discipline for the incident. The OPA didn’t sustain any of the allegations against Hagan, and while investigators concluded that Pitzner behaved unprofessionally, he resigned from SPD before investigators could interview him about the incident.

At the heart of the complaints against Pitzner and Hagan, were allegations of anti-homeless bias—allegations that the OPA dismissed as unprovable. For John and the Real Change staffers who first took issue with the officer’s comments, the OPA’s ruling raises questions about how Seattle’s police oversight system defines and punishes bias—especially bias against people experiencing homelessness.

“In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo, I once had an officer walk away from a [traffic stop] to stop me for not wearing a helmet. They just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

Although he never spoke with the OPA, John says he has no doubt that Pitzner and Hagan treated him differently because he was homeless. “It was obvious,” he said.

Pitzner and Hagan were among the last responders to arrive at the scene. A team of field officers from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) witnessed the crash and had stopped the driver nearly a block away, and paramedics from the Seattle Fire Department were assessing John’s injuries when the officers showed up. When paramedics told Hagan that John described feeling pain “everywhere,” he repeated “everywhere” out loud while pretending to write on his notepad. His pen never touched the page.

The DOC officers told Pitzner and Hagan that both the driver and John were at fault for the crash. The driver left without a citation, though the state later revoked his driver’s license; Pitzner reasoned that the driver’s advanced age, not “malintent,” was to blame. He cited John for not wearing a helmet.

Then, as a sheriff’s deputy dragged John’s bicycle—a Lime Bike—out of the street, Pitzner wondered aloud whether the bike was stolen. “Do you really want to know?” the deputy asked. “Yes, because it’s a felony,” Pitzner replied. (Stealing an item worth more than $750 is a Class B felony in Washington state.) John claims that he borrowed the bike from a friend who used the Lime app to rent it.

Hagan and Pitzner set off to a nearby store to find security camera footage of the crash. Inside, the officers struck up a conversation with a customer and a cashier about rising crime in SoDo. “We keep this area pretty thick with officers anyways because there’s a lot of crime that happens down here, associated with people—we don’t like to draw correlations,” Hagan commented. “There’s also not a drug and housing status correlation either, apparently… as I’m told,” he added, apparently referring to the concentration of homeless people in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, John was sent to Harborview Medical Center, where he says he underwent surgery on his knee. He left the hospital a few days later with a walker, three fractured ribs, and an unrelenting pain in his neck. “I couldn’t raise my head—I had to look at the ground for two years,” he said.

“I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle, because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”—OPA Director Andrew Myerberg

From John’s perspective, Pitzner and Hagan didn’t conceal their bias against him. “Why did they automatically categorize me as suspicious?” he asked. “Why would they automatically assume I stole that bike?” The officers didn’t ask John directly whether he had stolen the bicycle, and they didn’t pursue the issue further.

John added that police officers had stopped him more than a dozen times in SoDo, including nearly a half-dozen times for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. “It was hard to avoid in that neighborhood,” he said. “In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo… they just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

OPA investigators disagreed. “The fact is that he wasn’t wearing a helmet while crossing an intersection and got into a collision,” said OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “Given that fact, I can’t see how we could ever prove that the citation was biased.”

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, pushed back on this interpretation. “We had a person injured on the pavement in a crash, and the driver didn’t stop. A hit-and-run is a felony, but the officers took a more respectful tone with the driver and let him go without a citation—he just lost his license. Instead of worrying about [John’s] injuries, they focused on whether he was wearing a helmet. Why is that the priority? Why did they show him so little respect and care?” Continue reading “Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case”

Sawant Recall Down to the Wire, No Charges for Cop Who Rolled Bike Over Protester, Long Waits for Non-Emergency Calls

1. The results of a second day of vote-counting in the Kshama Sawant; recall election substantially closed the gap between pro- and anti-recall votes, leaving Sawant within 250 votes of victory. On election night, with an unusually high number of ballots counted, Sawant was behind by 6.4 percentage points. Ordinarily, that would be an easy margin to make up, since later ballots tend to strongly favor left-leaning politicians and issues, but in this instance, the election-night vote represented far more ballots than usual, meaning that some of the “late” ballots that would typically be counted in the days after an election were included in the Tuesday tally.

On Wednesday, as King County Elections counted more last-minute ballots from drop boxes, the tide turned strongly in Sawant’s favor. About 62 percent of more than 7,100 votes counted Wednesday favored Sawant. Despite this trend, the election remained too close to predict, for a couple of reasons. First, King County Elections said it expects to count just 1,200 more ballots, total. Assuming that estimate is correct, Sawant will need to win around 60 percent of those ballots to narrowly prevail. That’s lower than 62 percent, but there is one potential reason for caution: Many of the ballots that will be reported Wednesday are ballots that were mailed in before election night, which could end up favoring Sawant by a smaller margin than the ones reported Wednesday.

The second reason for caution is that, according to the elections office, the signatures on 656 ballots have been challenged, which can happen when a signature does not match the one the elections office has on file or if a voter fails to sign the envelope when they submit their ballot. The next “drop” of votes arrives at 4pm today.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz ordered an officer to serve a seven-day unpaid suspension for rolling his bike over a prone protester’s head during a protest on Capitol Hill in September 2020. The suspension came in response to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that found the officer used unreasonable force and violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

The protester, Camilo Massagli, was wearing a hard hat and lying in the street to create a barrier between a line of police officers with bicycles and a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. A widely circulated video of the incident shows the officer, Eric Walker, rolling his bicycle over Massagli’s head without attempting to lift his wheel. Massagli was not injured, and officers later arrested him for failure to disperse and obstruction.

In interview with the OPA, Walter insisted that he did not intend to run over Massagli’s head. “Such a belief, even if convincingly articulated and strongly held,” the OPA investigators wrote in their findings, “cannot serve to overcome the clear video evidence in this case.” Ultimately, investigators ruled that Walter had no justification for rolling his bicycle over Massagli, and that he did so intentionally.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg and Walter’s superiors recommended the seven-day suspension, both because of Walter’s misconduct and the damage the incident did to SPD’s public image. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents Walter, is appealing his suspension. Walter also may be able to break his suspension into smaller portions to serve over multiple weeks.

The incident spurred a criminal investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office, which didn’t find probable cause to charge Walter with assault; the Seattle City Attorney’s Office also did not bring charges against Walter. The sheriff’s detective assigned to the case reasoned that Massagli—a well-known figure during last summer’s protests—might have lain down in the street in hopes of provoking police officers to use force, and that the incident was not a clear-cut case of excessive force because “rolling a bicycle tire over someone would not necessarily be expected to cause someone pain.”

Massagli also chose not to pursue charges, telling the sheriff’s office that he does “not recognize the legitimacy of any U.S. court or police department” and doesn’t believe in using the criminal legal system as punishment.

The OPA also recommended that SPD supervisors reprimand another officer for hitting a protester with his bike during protests on Capitol Hill last fall. 

3. Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center, which houses the city’s 911 dispatch center, is struggling to answer calls to its non-emergency line, prompting more than a quarter of callers to hang up after long waits. Non-emergency calls range from noise complaints to reports of suspicious activity. The call center, which moved from the Seattle Police Department to the CSCC in June, has struggled to manage call volumes while short-staffed; in November, the center had 30 vacancies on its roughly 130-member staff, including 10 positions left vacant by dispatchers who lost their jobs in October when the city began firing employees who refused to get vaccinated.

In the final week of November alone, nearly 30 percent of callers to the non-emergency line didn’t reach a human being, waiting an average of five minutes before hanging up. Callers transferred from 911 operators to the non-emergency line were even more likely to give up before reaching a person: 35 percent of transferred callers hung up, waiting an average of 7.5 minutes.

The CSCC has reported that Seattle’s temporary hiring incentive program, which offers $10,000 bonuses to new police officers and 911 dispatchers—and $25,000 to officers and dispatchers who transfer from other agencies—doubled the number of applications they received to fill vacant positions. For now, callers to the non-emergency line will hear a pre-recorded message suggesting alternative ways to seek help during the center’s peak hours.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting

Charleena Lyles (Courtesy of the Lyles family)

By Paul Kiefer

After a grueling 13-hour mediation on Monday night, the family of Charleena Lyles reached a $3.5 million settlement with the City of Seattle and two Seattle police officers, ending a four-year-long wrongful death lawsuit that began when the officers shot and killed Lyles in her Magnuson Park home in June 2017.

“This has been a horrible case. Shameful,” said Karen Koehler, the lead attorney representing Lyles’ family, during a press conference at the Stritmatter law firm on Tuesday afternoon. On a television behind her, Lyles’ eldest daughter—watching from her aunt’s house in California, seated in front of a Christmas tree—leaned off-screen to cry.

Lyles, who was 30, called 911 from her apartment on June 18 to report a burglary. She was known to the Seattle Police Department—and to Seattle’s criminal legal system in general—both as a survivor of domestic violence and someone struggling with mental illness. At times, her illness escalated into full-blown crises. Only two weeks earlier, for instance, officers arrested Lyles in her apartment after she brandished a pair of scissors and threatened to transform into “the wolf” while reporting a domestic violence incident. After pleading not guilty to harassment and obstruction charges in Seattle Municipal Court, Lyles appeared in Seattle’s mental health court on June 13, where a judge ordered the county to release her from jail.

Lyles did not know officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who appeared at her door on June 18 to respond to her burglary report. On his way to the low-income housing complex where she lived, Anderson received an alert on his in-car monitor about Lyles’ recent mental health crisis; he called for backup from McNew, who had received crisis intervention training. But when they arrived at her apartment, Lyles’ family said, the officers were woefully unprepared.

In the family’s original lawsuit, attorneys argued that Anderson and McNew failed to perform their duties by entering Lyles’ apartment without a de-escalation plan. McNew, the more experienced officer, allowed Anderson to take the lead; at times, McNew turned his back to Lyles.

Anderson looked up from his note pad and saw Lyles holding a knife. From her family’s perspective, she was spiraling into another crisis. The family argues that the officers should have cleared the knives from Lyles’ kitchen counter to reduce the chance of a confrontation.

Anderson immediately drew his gun and pointed it at her. McNew, snapping to attention, told his partner to use a Taser to subdue Lyles. “I don’t have a Taser,” Anderson replied.  Although all SPD officers are required to carry a “less-lethal” alternative to their gun, Anderson had left his Taser in his locker because its battery was dead. According to Lyles’ family, both officers then escalated the confrontation by shouting at Lyles to “get back.” When she didn’t, the pair shot her seven times. As she lay dying, her infant son crawled onto her chest. Three of her four children were only feet away when she died.

The Office of Police Accountability ultimately suspended Anderson for two days as punishment for not carrying his Taser, but SPD determined that the shooting was justified, in part because Lyles’ bulky coat might have deflected a Taser, but especially because Lyles was carrying a knife—a reason, the department argued, for the officers to believe their lives were in danger.

Lyles’ family’s lawsuit didn’t focus on whether the officers were in danger. “We went to state court and brought a negligence allegation,” said Edward Moore, another attorney for the Lyles family. “That allowed us to look at the officers’ actions leading up to [the shooting.] We were allowed to make allegations that they didn’t plan properly … They had been trained on de-escalating knife attacks with tasers. It would have required an additional officer, and it would have required a Taser.” Continue reading “Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting”

SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet

SPD Community Service Officers
SPD Community Service Officer Kevin Hendrix and sworn officer Hosea Crumpton; image via SPD Facebook.

By Paul Kiefer

The re-launch of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Service Officer (CSO) unit at the end of 2019 was quickly overshadowed by a global pandemic. In the two years since, the unarmed civilian team has mostly remained under the radar, handling non-emergency calls, connecting runaway kids and domestic violence victims to service providers, and doing meet-and-greets at neighborhood events.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2022 budget proposal would add six new officers to the CSO program, making it the only police department program to gain new full-time positions next year. Durkan’s plan would bring the total funded positions to 24; the team is still waiting to fill 10 existing positions that have been vacant since the beginning of the summer, so bringing the program to full strength would mean hiring 18 more people.

In some ways, the city council’s vocal support for scaling up alternatives to traditional (armed) police puts the CSO program in an advantageous position: instead of bulletproof vests and a gun belt, the CSOs wear light-blue polo shirts and walkie-talkies. But the unit is still part of SPD, and despite pressure from some activists to move the program to a civilian department, the CSOs themselves have been clear that they want to stay put. At the same time, some of the unit’s responsibilities seem increasingly redundant in a growing ecosystem of civilian-led public safety services.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

For the police department, the CSO program serves both as an in-house patrol support team and a community relations tool: A friendly, approachable face for a department that is desperately trying to regain public trust. As Seattle shifts its energy toward civilianizing public safety, the CSO program is the department’s most saleable asset—and one that could, according to program leaders, play a key part in reconnecting the city to SPD.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

Inaba was one of the first people the department hired when the city finally reassembled the CSO program in 2019. Before joining SPD, he spent three years working for the Downtown Seattle Association as a safety supervisor and outreach case manager.

Though the current CSO program is still finding its footing, the concept isn’t new to Seattle. The department originally launched the program in the early 1970s in a bid to de-escalate tensions between SPD and Black residents of the Central District—tensions driven by allegations of racist policing and excessive force by the department’s officers—and to create a recruitment pipeline for Black police officers. For 33 years, the unit handled everything from landlord-tenant disputes to reconnecting homeless youth with their families. But after a series of budget cuts under then-mayor Greg Nickels, SPD disbanded the original CSO program in 2004.

Over one week in September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

When SPD and then-City Councilmember Mike O’Brien announced plans to revive the program in 2017, SPD was entangled in allegations of racially biased policing and excessive force—and, as a result, five years into an oversight agreement with the US Department of Justice known as the consent decree. Even before the department assembled a new CSO team, some community activists had already raised the possibility of moving the program out of SPD. But department leadership stood firm, arguing that the CSOs should act as a supplement to patrol, not an autonomous team of social service workers providing wraparound care.

With SPD’s ranks stretched thin after more than a year of high attrition, the CSOs have frequently served in this supplementary role. Over one week in late September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

Right now, Inaba said, the CSOs are among the only responders who have time to handle those tasks. “What we have is time, so we can help free up sworn officer to deal with other things while we help someone figure out where they can find what they need,” he said. In the past year, SPD patrol officers have called CSOs for support on more than 500 emergency calls; Inaba hopes that the city’s 911 dispatch will eventually be able to send CSOs directly to emergency calls, which be believes would add to their usefulness. Continue reading “SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet”

Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing

SPD East Precinct, June 2020

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. Continue reading “Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing”

Seattle’s Newest Department Aims to Change the City’s Response to Crisis Calls

Health One, a Seattle Fire Department program that responds to low-acuity crisis calls, is a relatively new alternative for 911 dispatchers.
Health One, a Seattle Fire Department program that responds to low-acuity crisis calls, is a relatively new alternative for 911 dispatchers.

By Paul Kiefer

The last time Seattle launched a new department—Seattle Information Technology, which brought IT staff from across the city under one roof—the consolidation took years. “In contrast, we had about eight months,” said Chris Lombard, who leads the city’s newest department: the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which began work at the beginning of June.

In some ways, creating the CSCC involved fewer moving parts than the infamously messy set-up of the massive citywide IT department. When plans to move the parking enforcement unit to the CSCC fell through this spring, Lombard was left overseeing a single, crucial, service: Seattle’s 911 call center. The center, historically a civilian unit inside the Seattle Police Department, will play a key role in the city’s efforts to shift away from a police-centric approach to public safety, and the city’s decision to house the 911 call center in the department was one of the first concrete steps in that effort.

On the surface, the 911 call center hasn’t changed much since it left SPD. The dispatchers sit in the same cubicles in the same unmarked office. On one side of the room, call-takers try to draw out the most pertinent information from people in distress while racing the clock; on the other, dispatchers direct police officers to high-priority calls; and in the middle, a team of supervisors watches from a raised platform.

When a call-taker thinks that an emergency would be better handled by the Seattle Fire Department—an agency with more response options than SPD—they reach out to the fire department’s internal dispatch center, which was Lombard’s turf before he joined the CSCC. “Right now, [the fire department] is the gateway to a lot of resources, like mental health care or clinical referrals,” Lombard explained. “On our end, we’re still trying to figure out how we can connect people to more resources.” Last year, the 911 center transferred 17 percent of calls to the fire department.

Brandie Flood, the director of community justice for REACH, cautioned that housing and health care providers who can offer long-term support to people in crisis are already overstretched. “We could add a bunch of other response teams, but if there aren’t new or expanded pathways to get people in crisis the kind of back-end services they need, we just have too many cooks in the kitchen,” she said.

But the city’s goal in transferring the 911 call center to the CSCC wasn’t merely to reduce the role of the police department on paper. Practically every elected official and candidate for city office has voiced their support for scaling back SPD’s responsibilities by diverting more emergency calls to non-police responders. As new options become available to respond to emergency calls, the 911 dispatchers will be responsible for deciding who arrives on the scene first—police, the fire department, or civilian mental health specialists, for example.

For now, dispatchers are still limited to two options: police or fire. The city’s big plans for the CSCC are still on the horizon, and in the meantime, Lombard and his staff are sorting out the basics. The center hired its first human resources staffer within the past month, but other vacancies have been hard to fill. “Even though 911 operations were a civilian section within SPD, a prospective applicant had to go to SPD’s website to find job listings,” he explained. “It’s no secret that the police department has been struggling to get recruits, and [the 911 center] got caught downwind and fell victim to the same trend.”

At the same time, Lombard added, the existing CSCC staff are still processing the significance of their departure from SPD. For some long-time employees who were loyal to SPD, Lombard said that the shift has been “almost like a divorce.” But for other employees who felt taken for granted by SPD, the prospect of eventually taking a more active role in the city’s public safety system is a welcome change. “This is exciting for a lot of the staff,” said Lombard. “For the first time, they feel like the focus will be on us and what we can add to emergency response.”

The other potential game-changer in reducing the number of calls the 911 center refers to police is the rollout of the state’s 988 system next year. During the last state legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan to stand up a new statewide crisis hotline for mental health emergencies

One of the first chances for dispatchers to play a larger role in the crisis response system could come with the eventual launch of a program tentatively known as “Triage One,” a team of civilian responders who the 911 center could dispatch in lieu of police to respond to low-acuity, non-medical crisis calls. The Triage One proposal is modeled partially after the fire department’s Health One units, and the city council is still considering whether to house the program in the fire department or the CSCC.

If the Triage One units become part of the CSCC, 911 dispatchers would be able to communicate directly with the units, giving dispatchers a third option (in addition to police and the fire department’s internal dispatch system) when deciding where to direct an emergency call.

The other potential game-changer in reducing the number of calls the 911 center refers to police is the rollout of the state’s 988 system next year. During the last state legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan to stand up a new statewide crisis hotline for mental health emergencies. The 988 hotline will have three dispatch centers across the state, including one that covers all of King County; among other responses, the dispatchers will be able to send civilian mental health specialists to respond to emergencies. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Department Aims to Change the City’s Response to Crisis Calls”

Durkan Won’t Sign Crowd Control Weapons Bill, Raises Specter of Court Challenge

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan refused to sign the city council’s recent ordinance restricting the Seattle Police Department’s use of crowd control weapons, allowing the bill to become law while the city awaits a federal district court’s go-ahead to implement changes to SPD’s tactics and arsenal.

In a letter to the council during their August recess, Durkan heaped criticism on the bill and the year-long process that produced it, calling it a “kneejerk reaction” to last year’s protests that overstepped the council’s authority, undercut SPD policy change procedures enshrined in the city’s agreement with the US Department of Justice, and made promises that the city can’t keep.

Durkan has routinely allowed legislation to take effect without her signature, though not always because of a difference of opinion: Certain land use ordinances, for instance, don’t necessarily go to the mayor for a signature before becoming law. The mayor can also return legislation to the council unsigned when she has concerns about a bill’s impact or legality but believes that the council would vote to override a veto.

The council’s bill, which passed unanimously in early August, bans officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It also allows officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. The legislation is supposed to replace a June 2020 ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other “less-lethal” weapons for crowd control.

In her letter, Durkan criticized the council for passing a law that can’t go into effect without the court’s approval—an arrangement, she wrote, of “doubtful legality.”

Shortly after the 2020 ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order that stopped it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using “less-lethal” weapons against crowds might lead officers to use more extreme forms of force.

When reworking the crowd control weapons bill to respond to the DOJ’s criticism, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold sought feedback from both the DOJ and the federal court-appointed monitor—the court’s eyes and ears in police reform matters. During a hearing on the status of Seattle’s consent decree on August 10, neither Robart nor representatives from the DOJ or monitoring team raised new concerns about the bill.

In a statement to PubliCola, Herbold’s office said that the new bill was “developed in compliance with, and respect for, the Consent Decree process.” Herbold also noted that she met informally with the court-appointed monitor and DOJ while re-working the bill and made adjustments based on their suggestions.

The bill doesn’t directly rewrite SPD’s policy manual. Instead, the department has 60 days from the bill’s passage to draft new crowd-control weapons policies that reflect the new law; the federal court will then consider whether those policy changes should move forward. If Robart concludes that SPD should not change its crowd control weapons policies, the law is effectively dead in the water.

But while Durkan assumes that the DOJ and federal court will take issue with the ordinance, that outcome isn’t a given. SPD will bring its draft policy revisions before the court in mid-October. If the DOJ believes the changes would violate the terms of the consent decree, it can ask the court to enjoin the city from implementing the new policies.

In her letter, Durkan criticized the council for passing a law that can’t go into effect without the court’s approval—an arrangement, she wrote, of “doubtful legality.” And the requirement that SPD rewrite policies that reflect the new law, she wrote, places the department “in the unfair and untenable position of proposing, and defending, to the DOJ and the Court, now-codified provisions of City law that it cannot support as best practice.” The Seattle City Attorney’s office reviewed and approved the legality of the bill.

But while Durkan assumes that the DOJ and federal court will take issue with the ordinance, that outcome isn’t a given. SPD will bring its draft policy revisions before the court in mid-October. If the DOJ believes the changes would violate the terms of the consent decree, it can ask the court to enjoin the city from implementing the new policies.

In Durkan’s view, the ordinance is unlikely to survive a court challenge. Continue reading “Durkan Won’t Sign Crowd Control Weapons Bill, Raises Specter of Court Challenge”

Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives

1. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the court will not consider former Seattle police officer Adley Shepherd’s appeal of an earlier Court of Appeals decision that upheld his termination from the Seattle Police Department in 2016. The ruling ends a protracted legal battle with the city of Seattle that has loomed over the past half-decade of police accountability reform efforts in the city.

Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car during a late-night arrest in June 2014. Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator, who sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The city prevailed in both superior Court and the Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a longer-term struggle with the city’s police unions to limit arbitrators’ power to overturn disciplinary decisions made by police department leaders.

2. In an unusual move, the executive committee of the Sound Transit board decided to delay approving a one-year contract extension for agency CEO Peter Rogoff Thursday. The committee went into closed executive session for more than an hour before coming back into public session and bumping Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. Rogoff makes a base salary of around $380,000 a year.

Sound Transit has spent the past 17 months debating the best way to cut costs in response to budget shortfalls and higher-than-anticipated cost estimates for key components of Sound Transit 3, the regional light rail and bus system expansion voters approved in 2016. After a number of tense public meetings, which included Rogoff, the board ultimately adopted a compromise plan spearheaded by King County Council member Claudia Balducci that would accelerate projects in order of priority if more funds become available in the future.

Because the discussion happened in executive session, no one is talking about what the committee discussed. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick, speaking on behalf of board chair (and a University Place council member ) Kent Keel, said, “following the committee’s discussion in executive session today, the full Sound Transit Board will continue discussion of the contract at its September meeting,” on September 23.

“Chair Keel emphasized his responsibility to honor the confidentiality that always surrounds the contract review process prior to when the Board discusses its action in open session, and that nothing further can be shared at this time,” Patrick said.

3. Mark Mullens, the only police officer on Seattle’s Community Police Commission, was unusually vocal during a question-and-answer with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg during Wednesday’s commission meeting. Myerberg came to the meeting to address the OPA’s investigation into the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Terry Caver by Seattle police officer Christopher Gregorio last May. After the OPA concluded that Gregorio failed to de-escalate during his confrontation with Caver, Interim Seattle Police Chief suspended Gregorio for 20 days and transferred him out of the department’s K9 unit—a rare outcome for police shootings in Seattle, which typically end without discipline. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives”

Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Police officer Christopher Gregorio is currently serving a 20-day suspension for failing to follow his department’s de-escalation protocols before fatally shooting 57-year-old Terry Caver last May. While an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) concluded that Gregorio’s recklessness exacerbated an already volatile encounter on a Lower Queen Anne sidewalk, OPA Director Myerberg ultimately ruled that Gregorio couldn’t be disciplined for the shooting itself, only the decisions that led to it.

Matthew Milburn, who also fired at Caver during the confrontation, is no longer with SPD; he refused to give an interview to OPA investigators, and the case against him remains open.

On May 19, 2020, a half-dozen officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West to respond to a series of 911 calls about a man—Caver—carrying a knife and threatening passersby. When they arrived, Caver stood alone on the sidewalk, his knife concealed under a coat; the officers demanded that he drop to the ground.

Gregorio arrived on the scene with a police dog and parked close to Caver. “Don’t park right near him, guys, are you crazy?” another officer shouted.

Caver broke into a run, shouting, “You’re going to have to kill me!” as he passed Gregorio. While other officers kept a distance, Gregorio and Milburn chased Caver down the sidewalk; Milburn fired a Taser at his back to no effect, and Caver turned to face the officers with his knife hand outstretched. Both Gregorio and Milburn opened fire, killing Caver. From the moment Gregorio stepped out of his car, the entire incident lasted just 17 seconds.

Caver’s cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, says Gregorio’s suspension is hardly enough to hold him accountable for her cousin’s death. “It’s just awful,” she said. “Terry really mattered to us, and that officer shouldn’t be able to put his badge back on.” 

Members of Caver’s family often worried about his wellbeing. “We knew he was always afraid, always paranoid that somebody was after him—that the police were after him,” his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, said on Tuesday. Caver had faced legal trouble since his teenage years, and his mental health took a serious turn for the worse after he survived a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles soon after leaving prison in 2010. After his sister brought him to Washington to undergo surgery at Harborview Medical Center, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Taylor believes that the LA shooting triggered her cousin’s mental illness.

The accounts of Caver’s final moments, gleaned from 911 calls and officers’ body-worn cameras, were painful for his family members, who said his behavior was similar to earlier paranoid episodes. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him,” his sister, Vanessa, said in August. “He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared.”

In the OPA’s view, the shooting was a clear example of how an officer’s failure to approach a volatile situation carefully and patiently can devolve into a shooting. According to OPA investigators, officers had an opportunity to leave space between themselves and Caver, who was “almost certainly suffering from a mental health crisis” or intoxicated. The closest bystanders “were either across four lanes of traffic or were hundreds of feet away,” Myerberg wrote in the summary of the case.

Myerberg found that Gregorio “failed to engage in any planning or tactical discussions” before firing his weapon, in large part because his decision to park next to Caver “set up a situation where he had just seconds to prepare” for the encounter. Investigators also found that Gregorio gave little consideration to Caver’s mental health before stepping out of his car, and that shouting at Caver to drop to the ground only increased the tension. Without time or space to prepare or a plan or to wait for backup from officers equipped with crisis intervention skills or a less-lethal weapon, Myerberg wrote that Gregorio gave himself few options besides using force. Continue reading “Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension”