Category: Cops

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”

Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree

By Paul Kiefer

For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.

Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.

Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.

Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.

The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.

“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart

During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.

Continue reading “Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree”

Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices

1. Last week, the Seattle Parks Department removed an encampment next to the Lake City Community Center without prior notice, removing tents and possessions in the middle of the day, when many residents were reportedly away. According to Mike Mathias, a volunteer who’s working to house about 50 people living on Seattle School District-owned land on the south shore of Bitter Lake, three miles away, the sweep has had spillover effects. When people are removed from one location, Mathias said, “they go into areas in the immediate vicinity and have conflicts with those people, and it trickles down. It’s almost like a wave, and we knew it was coming.”

Mathias’ organization, Anything Helps, has been out at the Bitter Lake encampment daily for more than a month, trying to connect residents with services, diversion, and housing, but more people keep arriving every day. Currently, despite Mathias’ efforts to prevent people from setting up additional tents, there are more people living at the Bitter Lake encampment, 56, than there were last month, when the school district set a goal of moving everyone off the property by September 1.

As we’ve reported, the city of Seattle has refused to send outreach workers to the Bitter Lake encampment, because the city doesn’t own the property; Mayor Jenny Durkan has suggested that the school district dip into its reserves to set up a parallel human services system to help the people living on its property. Recently, a large sharps container appeared by the restrooms at the city-owned park right next to the school district land, and residents said the city has started picking up their trash.

According to a Parks Department spokesperson, the department removed the encampment without providing prior notice to its residents because tents were “set up in parking spots,” and because someone had connected electrical wires through the roof of the Lake City Community Center, which is closed. “Parks stored property as per the City storage policy,” the spokesperson said. The parks department did not immediately respond to a separate request for information about the sharps container and trash pickup on Monday.

The community center sweep was the second in Lake City in less than a week; on July 29, the city removed a longstanding encampment at the Lake City Mini Park, prompting a protest by advocates for people experiencing homelessness. Unlike the removal last week, the city provided advance notice to the Mini Park residents.

2. A newly released audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) casts light on risky firearms storage practices at the Seattle Police Department’s training facilities that enabled an 18-year-old participant in an SPD program for young people interested in law enforcement to steal a handgun from a storage room in 2019.

The thief was a teenage participant in SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

The audit, which began in January 2020 but was delayed when the OIG shifted attention to SPD’s protest response, discovered that the department may have violated the city’s gun storage rules by failing safely store firearms at two training annexes.

The problems came to light when an officer leading a training for SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program—which offers courses on police procedures and tactics for 14- to 21-year-olds—discovered that his handgun was missing from the training facility’s storage area. The thief was a teenage participant in the LEEP program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

When the OIG eventually reviewed the gun storage systems in SPD’s training annexes, investigators discovered obvious shortcomings. In one annex, officers stored their guns in a metal cabinet secured with a single padlock; in the other, officers stored their firearms in room protected by a padlocked door. “If the padlocks are inadvertently not used, left unlocked, or the keys are not secured,” investigators wrote, “anyone accessing the [storage cabinet or room] would be able to access every firearm inside.” Even the padlocks themselves, investigators added, can easily be picked with common tools. Continue reading “Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices”

Police Chief Fires Two Officers Who Trespassed on Capitol Grounds During January 6 Attack

Image by blinkofaneye on Flickr; Creative Commons license.

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in a blog post on Friday that he has fired officers Alexander Everett and Caitlin Rochelle for violating department policy and federal law by trespassing on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020 while insurrectionists stormed the legislative chambers inside.

Using video evidence provided by the FBI, investigators from Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) were able to place Everett and Rochelle at the steps of the Capitol as rioters clashed with police nearby. Though Everett and Rochelle told investigators they didn’t know they were trespassing in a restricted area, neither the OPA nor Diaz were convinced; in his letter on Friday, Diaz wrote that “it is beyond absurd to suggest that they did not know they were in an area where they should not be, amidst what was already a violent, criminal riot.”

But Everett and Rochelle—a married couple—were only two of the six Seattle Police Department officers who traveled to Washington, DC to attend former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. OPA investigators were able to place three of the officers elsewhere in the city during the attack. Though the fourth officer told investigators that he was not present for the attack, neither the OPA nor the FBI could corroborate his claim; investigators didn’t rule out the possibility that he trespassed on federal property.

Though Diaz chose not to discipline the other four officers who attended the rally, some members of the city council and Seattle’s Community Police Commission argued being present for the rally constituted grounds for firing all six. “I don’t understand how we can derive any other decision other than they were there to spur what those people did to storm the Capitol,” CPC Executive Director Brandy Grant said during a commission meeting in January. Continue reading “Police Chief Fires Two Officers Who Trespassed on Capitol Grounds During January 6 Attack”

Evening Fizz: County Picks New Oversight Director, Report Recommends Shifting Half of 911 Calls Away from Cops, City Directory Disappears

1. The Metropolitan King County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to appoint Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator with Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, to serve as the next permanent director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which oversees the King County Sheriff’s Office. The sole vote against Abouzeid’s appointment was from Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn.

Abouzeid was one of two finalists for the position; the other candidate, Eddie Aubrey, is the head of the oversight office for the Richmond, California police department. During his interview last week, Abouzeid described an eight-year plan to develop OLEO’s role as a “mini-think tank” on police reform and oversight, as well as a player in the county’s negotiations with law enforcement unions; at a previous community meeting, Abouzaid also expressed support for future state legislation that would restrict counties from adopting law enforcement union contracts that limit oversight.

Currently, Abouzeid works as a civil rights attorney with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois state senate in 2020, though he withdrew before the Democratic Party primary.

Current interim OLEO Director Adrienne Wat has led the office since last fall, when the council narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, after an independent investigation found Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to her staff during her four-year tenure.

Both Jacobs and King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez later alleged that her ouster was partially engineered by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. According to Mansanarez, the sheriff attempted to persuade Mansanarez’s union—which represents most sworn employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office—to agree to wear body-worn video cameras in exchange for removing Jacobs, who often clashed with both Johanknecht and the union. Johanknecht denies the allegations.

OLEO’s first director, Charles Gaither, also left the office in 2014 after conflicts with then-sheriff John Urquhart. Following his departure, Gaither received a $84,500 settlement from the county after alleging that sheriff’s office staff harassed him based on his race. Jacobs also filed a discrimination claim against the county after her departure last fall; that litigation is ongoing.

Abouzeid will take over in September, only months before the county’s contract with the KCPOG expires and before the sheriff becomes an appointed position—a shift that will almost certainly bring a new sheriff into office.

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2. A team of city employees assembled by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last September presented a report to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that proposed shifting up to 12 percent of the calls for service currently handled by the Seattle Police Department to other responders in the near future—roughly 48,000 calls a year, or six percent of SPD’s officer hours.

Mayoral staffer Chrissie Grover-Roybal told the council that a portion of the calls 911 dispatchers can shift to non-police responders in the short term are so-called “person down” calls, which involve someone who is either asleep or unconscious in public, and other low-level welfare checks that present relatively little risk to the responders. Last Friday, Durkan appeared alongside council member Lisa Herbold and the heads of the city’s public safety agencies to announce a proposal to create a new unit to handle those low-acuity crisis calls—a new Fire Department unit tentatively called “Triage One,” which could call for backup from other responders as needed. 

But on Tuesday, Herbold pointed out that Triage One, as currently proposed, would only handle a small fraction of the 48,000 calls that the team concluded do not require a police response. Julie Kline, the mayor’s senior public safety advisor, responded that the Triage One proposal will only be an early step in shifting low-level 911 calls away from police.

In the long term, the report suggests that alternative, non-police responders could eventually handle as many as half the calls to which police currently respond.

The team’s estimates relied heavily on an analysis of SPD’s calls for service by the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). Researchers from the NICJR pointed to nearly 200 call types that could be low-acuity enough not to merit a police response; in their report, however, the interdepartmental team only proposed shifting 28 of those call types to non-police responders in the near future.

The team cast the proposals as an opportunity to transfer a portion of SPD’s workload to accommodate a smaller number of officers available to respond to emergency calls: since June 2020, more than 250 sworn officers have left SPD. “Offloading some of our service hours begins to make up for the people we’ve lost,” said Chris Fisher, SPD’s chief strategy officer.

3. The city of Seattle’s IT department quietly eliminated the online directory of city staffers that was the only place where members of the public (and journalists) could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city. The public-facing directory was replaced last week with a 404 error page; it has since been updated with links to contact spokespeople for various departments, as well as the generic public-facing pages for each department. However, anyone who wants to contact a city staffer who is not a designated point of contact for the department won’t find that information on seattle.gov.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office provided a statement from the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer, Jim Loter, who said the directory had to be taken down “because the underlying application code, database, and server were beyond ‘end-of-life’ and could no longer be supported, secured, or maintained at current levels.” Loter said the city is currently working on a replacement system and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year.

“This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution,” Loter said, adding, “I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City. However, I assure you that the change was made solely due to operational reasons and not to intentionally obfuscate public information.”

Even if all goes smoothly and the city restores the directory before the end of the year (a big if), that will still mean almost half a year in which ordinary citizens and journalists lack access to this basic public information. No one should have to file a public records request—or convince a gatekeeper—to find out how to contact the right person at the city.

Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech

1. When the city initially denied a permit for a June event celebrating the art of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (relenting at the last minute after the ACLU of Washington threatened to sue), the department said it did so because of an “emerging concern” that any event commemorating CHOP could be “disturbing or even traumatic” to community members.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department told PubliCola, “We will not be issuing a permit for this event as we have heard from community members expressing concerns that any events celebrating or commemorating the events that occurred at Cal Anderson in summer of 2020 would be disturbing or even traumatic to the community.”

But emails PubliCola obtained through a Parks Department records request reveal that this “emerging concern” consisted of emails from a relative handful of individuals, mostly people suggesting that an anniversary event would lead to graffiti, vandalism, and crime in the park. Three of the emails from members of the public mentioned trauma as a concern.

The emails also suggest that the mayor’s office wanted to deny the permit from the beginning, and landed on a number of different justifications for doing so before the city ultimately landed on “community concerns” as the official reason. (The mayor’s office has not provided records yet in response to a similar request.) In addition to the concern about community “trauma,” the mayor’s objections, as Parks staffers described them, included, at various time, concerns about COVID-19 protocols, the impact of closing down a street for the event, and the “safety and security” of people in the area.

According to the emails, Durkan’s office began raising concerns about the CHOP Arts event as far back as early May, and met with high-level staff in several departments on May 20 to discuss the event. Parks staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that the mayor’s office wanted them to deny permits for the event, and any event related to the anniversary of CHOP, because of the association with last year’s protests alone.

Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, confirmed that she convened the meeting. Her message to department leaders, Formas told PubliCola, was “We’re not permitting an official city event that violates the Governor’s order, shuts down multiple blocks of the City for a block party celebrating CHOP, and could be a security and safety concern if there’s permitted and unpermitted events occurring at the same time with thousands of people.”

Organizers did change their plans for the event several times, but the final version of the application, which Parks had received by June 4, did not propose blocking off any streets.

Formas suggested that COVID protocols were the mayor’s primary concern at the time.

“In mid-May, we were in the midst of planning for special events permits for May and June and planning for expected unpermitted protests around downtown and Cal Anderson,” Formas said. “We understood that there would likely be many unpermitted protests and marches downtown and on Capitol Hill, which did in fact occur, and we were planning for allowing permitted events that met the Governor’s restrictions. So ultimately the question was how do we balance COVID-19 safety and security of both planned and unpermitted events.”

Emails between parks employees, however, suggest that Durkan’s main concern was that the city shouldn’t appear to be acknowledging or commemorating the anniversary of CHOP, a long-term protest zone that formed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct after SPD abandoned the precinct amid protests against police violence last summer. The incident became a significant embarrassment for Durkan and the police department, which refused to say who gave the order to abandon the precinct; reporters at KUOW unravelled that story earlier this month.

The Parks Department came away from the meeting with Formas believing that the mayor’s direction was clear: Avoid permitting any event associated with CHOP, period.

For example, on May 20, the Parks Department’s recreation division director, Justin Cutler, wrote in an email to Parks staff that “the Mayor’s Office has given direction that we are not to permit events at Cal Anderson at this time. More specifically any event that would be celebrating CHOP.”

In a May 20 email to parks staffers about upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park, Parks Commons Program director Randy Wiger described the CHOP Arts event as “canceled as per mayor.”

In a Powerpoint distributed on May 23, the CHOP Arts event is “X”d off a list of upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park; the document cites ‘New direction from Mayor’s Office’ as the reason.

And on June 3, Wiger reiterated on a different email chain that “the direction from the Mayor’s Office is ‘no celebration of the CHOP zone.'”

The CHOP Arts event, which organizer Mark Anthony described as a kind of “Black renaissance fair,” went ahead as scheduled on the weekend of June 11. It did not result in a new protest zone.

2. On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a clerk file—a type of clarification for earlier legislation—that would designate facial recognition as a form of “surveillance technology,” closing a loophole in the city’s surveillance regulations that came to light after a Seattle police detective used an unapproved facial recognition software in at least 20 criminal investigations.

The bill would augment Seattle’s three-year-old surveillance ordinance, which requires the council to approve surveillance technologies before a city department can put them to use. When the council passed the ordinance in 2018, they defined surveillance as any method of tracking or analyzing the “movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals.”

In November 2020, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigated South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes for using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview.AI without his supervisors’ knowledge. In his defense, Kartes argued that the surveillance law does not cover facial recognition. Continue reading “Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech”

Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park

The Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park on Thursday. Photo by Paul Kiefer

1. Restrooms at three Seattle Public Library branches—Ballard, Capitol Hill, and the Central Library—that have will be open to the public fewer hours beginning July 21, a loss of access that will largely impact people experiencing homelessness in those neighborhoods. Most library branches have reopened on a limited basis, in many cases just two or three days a week.

In response to widespread restroom closures during the pandemic, the city’s library system opened restrooms at five branches from 10am to 6pm seven days a week last April; the goal, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan, was to provide “additional vital hygiene resources to people living unsheltered.” Now, restrooms will only be available when the libraries themselves are open; currently, all three libraries are open limited hours, meaning that restrooms will be closed at times when they used to be available.

The parks department confirmed that police do routinely accompany them to encampment removals “any time there are safety concerns during their work.”

The impact will be the greatest at the Capitol Hill branch, where people will no longer have access to restrooms on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday mornings from 10 to noon. In Ballard and at the central library downtown, restrooms will now be closed on Sundays and Mondays. 

Library spokeswoman Laura Gentry said daily access to library restrooms “was always meant to be a temporary standalone service until we could provide more restroom access through reopening libraries. Now that city and state COVID-19 restrictions are being dropped, more restroom options have become available to the public, and many more Seattle libraries are reopened, we believe it’s important to focus Library staffing efforts on reopening the last of our closed neighborhood libraries and supporting pre-pandemic service levels and hours.”

To library users who haven’t been able to go to their local branches in more than a year, accessing local libraries even two days a week will be an improvement. But to people living unsheltered who rely on regular restroom access at the three branches where hours are shrinking, the existence of open restrooms in other neighborhoods is surely a cold comfort.

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2. Signs that appeared around Jimi Hendrix Park near the Northwest African American Museum announcing that the city planned to come in and remove any belongings that remained on site yesterday morning had nothing to do with the longstanding protest encampment in front of the museum, a Seattle Parks Department spokeswoman said Thursday. Protesters showed up at the museum and blocked the entrance after word went around on social media about a potential sweep.

Instead, Parks showed up Thursday morning to dismantle a garden shed and remove a garden planted by Black Star Farmers, a group of land activists who established their first garden in Cal Anderson Park during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Continue reading “Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park”