Category: Cops

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”

Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters

1. The two hotels that the city belatedly rented out to serve as shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in service for a little over three months of their ten-month contracts with the city. In that time, they have moved a total of 15 people into some form of permanent housing, according to the city’s Human Services Department—about 6 percent of the 230 people the city planned to cycle through around 200 hotel rooms over the life of the contracts, primarily through rapid rehousing rent subsidies.

According to a spokesman for the Human Services Department, 13 people have moved into permanent housing from the 139-room Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by LIHI on a $3.1 million contract; 10 of those received rapid rehousing subsidies. Two people have moved out of the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club on a $3.1 million contract, into permanent housing .

In the context of homelessness, “permanent housing” refers to the type of housing, not the length of a subsidy; rapid rehousing subsidies, for example, can last up to 12 months, but the market-rate apartments they help pay for are called “permanent” to differentiate them from transitional housing or shelter. Permanent housing can include everything from long-term supportive housing to moving in with relatives.

Both shelters include rapid-rehousing programs, which the city is funding through separate 10-month contracts. Chief Seattle Club runs its own rapid rehousing program at the hotel, at a cost of just over $800,000, and LIHI is working with Catholic Community Services, which has a $7 million contract.

“We anticipate the number of rapid rehousing enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”—Human Services Department spokesman

According to the HSD spokesman, “Chief Seattle Club case managers are working with participants to identify the best housing solution. … As with any brand new shelter, it takes time for the program to ramp up, clients to stabilize, and for people to find housing solutions that work best for them. This is why the program was designed for 10 months to allow time for individuals to connect with the best resources–whether it is rapid rehousing, diversion, or the permanent housing solutions coming online. We saw this play out at the Navigation Center when it opened. We anticipate the number of RRH enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”

When the city started intensifying encampment sweeps earlier this year, it used COVID vulnerability criteria to move people from encampments into the Executive Pacific Hotel. This has resulted in a population that faces more barriers to housing than the unsheltered population as whole, and thus less likely to succeed in rapid rehousing, which requires participants to earn enough income to afford a market-rate apartment within a few months to a year.

As a last resort, the OPA assembled a 13-person panel for a blind study. None of the panelists heard the n-word after listening to the recording for the first time, and only five heard the slur after investigators revealed the allegations against Zimmer.

LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola last month that “the majority” of people living at the hotel “are not candidates for rapid rehousing.” The Chief Seattle Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. Neither an outside audio expert nor a 13-person panel could conclusively tell Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability whether an officer called a man the n-word during a 2020 DUI arrest.

The OPA’s investigation into whether Seattle Police Officer Jacob Zimmer used the racial slur hinged on a single, hard-to-discern word captured on Zimmer’s body-worn video during the arrest. According to the original OPA complaint, Zimmer commented that the man was a “tall-ass n—-r.” Continue reading “Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters”

Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office

1. In addition to shutting down the spray park at the Ballard Commons—a story first reported by My Ballard on Friday—the Settle Department of Parks and Recreation confirms that 11 of the city’s 22 wading pools will also be closed all summer due to “budgetary and staffing impacts from the pandemic,” according to a spokeswoman for the department.

The Ballard spray park is located in the middle of a large encampment that has persisted despite sweeps by the city and the repeated installation of hostile architecture designed to deter sitting and camping at the Ballard library branch next door. “Because of health and safety concerns of Seattle/King County Public Health and our own Safety Office regarding ongoing encampments and other activities at Ballard Commons Park, we regretfully decided not to operate the spraypark there this summer,” the Parks spokeswoman said. “No other SPR sprayparks are closed this year.”

During last week’s historic heat wave, city-run options for people living unsheltered to escape the weather were limited to some library branches, a handful of senior and community centers, and a cooling center at Magnuson Park. Amazon opened its own headquarters as a cooling center for up to 1,000 people last Monday, but required ID at the door—something many unsheltered people don’t have.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief issued a one-day suspension for a South Precinct detective who used an unapproved and controversial facial recognition technology to search for suspects in criminal investigations.

According to Office of Police Accountability investigators, Detective Nicholas Kartes opened an account with Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in the fall of 2019.

Over the following year, Kartes used the program to search for suspects in ten SPD cases and approximately 20 cases from other law enforcement agencies. His searches returned one match—a possible suspect in a case under investigation by a different agency—though Kartes didn’t keep records of his searches or inform his supervisors that he was using the software. Kartes told investigators that he had informed his counterpart at the other agency that the found the match using Clearview.AI; he did not know whether his counterpart used the evidence to bring charges.

In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos.

Kartes argued that facial recognition software like Clearview.AI doesn’t qualify as “surveillance technology,” as defined by the surveillance ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in 2018, because the ordinance only addressed technologies used to track the “movements, behavior or actions of identifiable individuals.” SPD policy doesn’t prohibit officers from using facial recognition technology; in fact, SPD’s policy manual is silent on the issues raised in the surveillance ordinance.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg concluded that Kartes hadn’t clearly violated any law or department policy, though he advised Diaz and the City Council to close the loophole as quickly as possible. Instead, Myerberg ruled that Kartes violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

This is not Kartes’ first brush with the OPA over the issue of surveillance. In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos. In that case, Kartes told investigators that he was unaware of the surveillance ordinance, though after he familiarized himself with the law, he argued that his use of a drone to photograph the outside of a house wasn’t technically “surveillance” as defined in the ordinance.

“We know that while many of you have grown accustomed to teleworking during this time, in-person interactions are important to our work culture and employees’ wellbeing by creating opportunities for relationship building, collaboration, and creativity,” Durkan wrote.

Instead of disciplining Kartes, Myerberg recommended that SPD send a reminder to officers about the contents of the surveillance ordinance and directed Kartes to receive re-training. By the time Kartes received retraining from his supervisor, the OPA had already begun investigating his use of Clearview.AI.

3. Now that the state is officially out of COVID lockdown, Mayor Jenny Durkan wants city employees to come back to the office. In an email to city staff on Friday, Durkan said that all employees will “return to the office in some capacity” by September 12, unless they get special approval for an alternative work arrangement (AWA, because everything has to have an acronym) from the city. Continue reading “Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office”

Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence

Disciplinary appeals by SPD officers dropped sharply in 2020 (Source: Office of Police Accountability)

By Paul Kiefer

This month, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is processing the first wave of challenges to Seattle Police Department disciplinary actions since last fall of last year—the longest stretch without a police disciplinary appeal since 2016, despite a spike in reprimands, suspensions and terminations of police officers since Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz took the job last September.

In May and early June, four officers who led an out-of-policy high-speed chase in South Seattle last year challenged the written reprimands they received from SPD leadership for the incident; the city attorney’s office didn’t make three of those appeals public until Tuesday afternoon. Although a written reprimand is a less severe type of discipline than other options like suspension or termination, a mark on an officer’s record can lead to a harsher discipline if the officer violates department policy again.

According to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation of the incident, the out-of-policy chase began when four pairs of SPD officers responded to a 911 call about a stolen pickup truck. Although the man who stole the truck hadn’t committed a violent crime—under SPD policy, a prerequisite for a high-speed pursuit—a South Precinct sergeant allowed the small convoy of cruisers to chase the suspect through a residential area, occasionally driving at more than 80 miles per hour. The officer in the passenger seat of the last cruiser was a 19-year SPD veteran and a field trainer; his driver was an officer-in-training. Six minutes later, a police lieutenant intervened and ordered the officers to end the pursuit; the South Precinct captain later referred the incident to the OPA.

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The OPA only held the four most senior officers—including the field training officer and the sergeant who approved the chase—responsible for breaking department policy; all four have appealed the written reprimands they received from Diaz with the support of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). Their cases will now go before an arbitrator: a type of attorney who reviews labor disputes and can determine whether to overturn or reduce the discipline.

The last SPD officer to appeal a disciplinary decision was Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2020 after an OPA investigation found that he had beaten his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, including calling his Black sergeant a “monkey,” calling a fellow officer a “lazy Mexican” and referring to a third officer as “that crazy SPD whore.” Continue reading “Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence”

Lawsuit Against SPD Highlights OPA Concerns with Police K-9s; Inslee Extends Eviction Moratorium

1. A woman who was attacked by a Seattle Police Department dog during a training exercise in January 2020 filed a lawsuit against the city last week. While the attack was accidental, the incident is the latest in a string of missteps by SPD’s K-9 units that have put the risks of using police dogs on display—including a 2018 incident involving the same officer implicated in the new lawsuit.

On a soggy Thursday last January, Valerie Heffernan spent her break under an umbrella in a nondescript Tukwila parking lot. Earlier in the day, SPD officers had set up a training course for K-9 dogs that ran through the same parking lot—unbeknownst to Heffernan.

Around a corner from where she sat, Officer Anthony Ducre led a police dog named Jedi along the track on a long lead, losing sight of the dog when it rounded a corner. There, Jedi found Heffernan and, acting on training, immediately attacked her. When medics arrived, they brought Heffernan to Valley Medical Center to treat a serious bite wound in her thigh.

Ducre’s record as a K-9 officer has raised eyebrows among Seattle’s police oversight in the past and had already prompted changes to the department’s police dog policies.

In 2018, Ducre tried to stop a pair who he suspected of stealing a car. The duo were walking up a driveway—away from Ducre—when he stepped out of his cruiser and ordered them to turn around, threatening to release his dog if they didn’t obey. When the two didn’t respond, Ducre shouted at them to drop to the ground.

By the time they complied seconds later, it was too late: Ducre set his dog loose, and it immediately attacked them as they lay on the pavement.

OPA DirectorMyerberg also took the opportunity to recommend two changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs.

In a subsequent interview with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigators, Ducre falsely claimed the pair had attempted to “escape” arrest and posed a threat to (nonexistent) bystanders; he also claimed that he had tried to de-escalate the encounter by standing behind the door of his patrol vehicle. In a ruling released in 2019, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg determined that Ducre had, in fact, spent almost the entire 13-second interaction running towards the pair while shouting commands and threatening to release a police dog—the opposite of de-escalation.

Myerberg also questioned whether Ducre had probable cause to conduct the stop in the first place, given the shaky evidence linking the two individuals to the car theft; regardless, Myerberg noted that, according to federal case law, unleashed police dogs are only appropriate weapons when pursuing armed suspects linked to a violent crime—not suspected car thieves.

Ducre received a two-day suspension for failing to de-escalate and using force inappropriately. Myerberg also took the opportunity to recommend changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs: among others, that “a fleeing subject does not, by itself, provide a justification to use a canine.”

But while investigating the first incident, Ducre’s sparked yet another OPA investigation after he released a police dog to attack another car theft suspect, who was hiding in a bush.

In that investigation, Ducre claimed that using his dog against a hidden suspect—who, he argued, could have been armed—was consistent with his training. Myerberg agreed, concluding that the K-9 unit’s commanders were to blame for training officers to use police dogs inappropriately, so Ducre could not be held responsible.

“It appears to OPA that the K-9 unit’s chain of command consistently falls back on the defense that their officers’ actions were consistent with the training provided to the unit,” he wrote. “However, if the unit is providing training that is inconsistent with law or that is resulting in out of policy uses of force, this is a significant problem.”

While SPD later adjusted its K-9 policies, a 2020 audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the department’s policy revisions included notable flaws, including ambiguity about whether officers can use police dogs at protests.

But Heffernan’s lawsuit points to additional problems in the training program for the police dogs themselves. According to the OIG audit, SPD doesn’t have a reliable, secure off-leash training area for police dogs; instead, handlers use ad hoc agreements with property owners to find places to train dogs.

Since 2015, the OPA has investigated 10 allegations of excessive force by K-9 officers involving dog bites, six of which led to discipline, re-training, or policy revision.

2. Governor Jay Inslee has extended the state’s eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of this month, to September 30, giving tenants more time to get back on their feet following the pandemic and allowing counties to get eviction protections in place.

The governor’s extension prohibits landlords from evicting a tenant for rent that went unpaid between February 29, 2020 and July 31, 2021. Under the extension, landlords will not be allowed to evict tenants until a rental assistance program and an eviction resolution program is in place.

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running.”—Governor Jay Inslee

Starting August 1, renters will need to start paying their full rents again unless they have previously negotiated a payment plan with their landlord or are in the process of getting rental assistance. Landlords will be able to evict tenants for non-payment beginning August 1, but will first need to offer a repayment plan.

To prevent a wave of evictions and a sharp increase in homelessness, the legislature passed several housing bills over the last session to ease Washington out of the original moratorium, including providing rental assistance to landlords and tenants and guarantying legal representation to a tenant in eviction court (SB 5160).

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running,” Inslee said at a press conference on Thursday.

The governor’s decision comes after President Biden announced he would be extending the federal eviction moratorium another 30-days and after the city of Seattle declared it would extend its eviction moratorium to September 30.

Over the course of the pandemic, tenants have accrued more than $1.1 billion in rent debt. The state has not outlined plans to cancel rent debt, only to distribute rental assistance. So if a tenant is unable to go back to paying their full rent on top of paying back their rent debt, they may end up evicted as soon as their county gets rental assistance and begins resolution programs. Roughly 220,000 Washington households predict they won’t be able to make rent his month, according to Census data.

Moving 911 From the Police Department Is Just a Start

Photo by Dimo Fedortchenko (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

Last year’s protests may not have resulted in the dismantling of the Seattle Police Department, but as of June 1, they have produced one small shift: Seattle’s 911 dispatch is no longer housed within SPD. Instead, the unit is now a part of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), a new, independent city department that will, in theory, eventually house other civilian crisis response and public safety programs.

The move isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on who responds to emergency calls; for now, elected officials and advocates for downsizing the police hope that it will leave the door open for more significant changes.

The Seattle City Council proposed moving the dispatch center as part of its plan to shift functions and funds away from SPD last year and “develop a crisis response that doesn’t rely on an armed police response,” as council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said in a statement last month. “911 dispatch has been called the gatekeeper for the whole criminal justice,” she said. Citing a 2015 statistic linking more than half of that year’s police killings of unarmed people nationwide by police to 911 calls, Herbold argued that when dispatchers are primed to refer calls to police, the public is at greater risk.

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The move to the CSCC is unlikely to prompt any immediate changes in how dispatchers handle 911 calls. “Right now, our move out of SPD is mostly a name change,” said Jacob Adams, the president of the Seattle Police Dispatchers’ Guild. His unit transferred to the CSCC almost intact; the only sworn officers in the unit were a lieutenant and a captain, and they did not move to the CSCC.

More importantly, Adams said, the emergency response options available to dispatchers haven’t changed. “Before the move, we could refer people to the police or animal control; we could transfer them to [the Seattle Fire Department], and we did a lot of referrals to service providers, too,” he said. “And right now, it seems like that will stay the same. We’re always going to be tied at the hip with police and fire.”

But despite their close relationship with the police department, Adams said that his union is eager for a more finely tuned approach to emergency response. “Among other things, it would be really great to have a system in place for us to reach the counselors of people with mental health challenges,” he said. “They could have a plan in place for what to do when their patient needs help, and they could become another entity we could dispatch. We would get to know them, learn their procedures and what they need from us.” Continue reading “Moving 911 From the Police Department Is Just a Start”

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”

Diaz Demotes Assistant Chief for June 2020 Protest Response

Former Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in a letter to Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold that he has demoted Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak for his role in the Seattle Police Department’s response to the first weekend of city-wide protests in the summer of 2020.

Diaz’s decision to demote Hirjak came two weeks after he overturned the findings an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that held a well-known lieutenant—John Brooks, a veteran officer who has lead SPD’s protest response unit since September—responsible for directing officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray against mostly peaceful protesters near the East Precinct on June 1.

At the time, Diaz argued that Brooks should not face discipline for decisions made by his superiors in the department; Diaz also claimed in a blog post on May 13 that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation” that cleared Brooks of responsibility for using excessive force against protesters.

However, the chief assured fellow city leaders and the public that he would discipline someone—likely a member of his department’s command staff—for the June 1 debacle. “I am committed to full accountability and transparency for all of our actions, but I am also committed to ensuring that I reach every decision correctly and fairly,” he wrote.

During a meeting of the Community Police Commission the following week, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg questioned Diaz’s claim to have uncovered new information about SPD’s response to the June 1 protest. “As far as we know, there is no new information,” Myerberg said to the CPC commissioners. “The new information may be the chief thinking that, given his view of the chain of command, that he wants to hold an assistant chief responsible.”

Hirjak, who was Brooks’ commander on June 1, was the most obvious choice, though OPA investigators who interviewed the assistant chief had previously determined that he did not directly order officers to disperse the crowd. As an assistant chief, Hirjak was not a member of a union, which allowed Diaz to demote him without an investigation or a legal challenge.

In his letter to Herbold on Wednesday, Diaz walked back his claims about “additional information” that could implicate Hirjak. “There was (and is) no separate investigation and no information that [the] OPA did not have access to,” he wrote. Instead, Diaz wrote that he based his decision on a broader review of command failures between May 29 and June 1, 2020, when large-scale protests began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers; Hirjak was the commander responsible for SPD’s protest response that weekend.

“My decision is based on concerns and observations regarding planning, logistics, communications, decision-making, and staffing analyses that in my view laid the groundwork for the escalation of tensions that followed,” Diaz wrote on Wednesday.  “Fundamentally, I must have confidence that each and every member of this department’s sworn Command Staff… be able to step into an incident command position as circumstances may require. This demotion is a reflection of my lack of confidence in [Hirjak’s] ability to do so.”

Per city code, Hirjak will return to his previous rank of captain within SPD.

Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown

1. The Seattle City Council voted Monday to keep the city’s parking enforcement unit in the Seattle Police Department until September, approving an amendment to legislation moving the 911 call center and parking enforcement from SPD to a new Community Safety and Communications Center. Their hope is that that the unions representing the parking unit’s management and rank-and-file will use the next three months to resolve their disagreements about which city department should absorb parking enforcement.

Last fall, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold proposed moving the unit to the CSCC in response to lobbying by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild, which represents the unit’s roughly 100 rank-and-file members. Nanette Toyoshima, the union’s president, told PubliCola in October that she hoped to give parking enforcement officers a larger role in the city’s efforts to civilianize public safety.

At the time, other council members didn’t oppose the move. But Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe, and parking enforcement unit management argued that parking enforcement would operate more efficiently in SDOT than the new community safety unit. In a letter to the council in April, Zimbabwe argued that transportation departments manage parking enforcement in other cities, including Denver and Houston, and said SDOT is better prepared to absorb parking enforcement than the still-untested CSCC.

Zimbabwe’s arguments, and lobbying by parking enforcement management, convinced Council President Lorena González, who is now the council’s most vocal supporter of moving the unit to SDOT. But Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who has communicated with leadership in both unions, urged the council to delay moving the unit out of SPD until parking enforcement management and officers can reach an agreement about which city department would make a better home for their unit.

“It is always hard for us as a pro-labor council when two members of our broader labor family have a disagreement,” he said during the council’s weekly briefing on Monday. “I think this would benefit from additional time to better understand a way to resolve this equitably and without dividing the labor community.”

The 911 call center will still move to the CSCC by June 1.

2. On Monday, Seattle Public Utilities provided responses to a list of questions posed by Councilmember Lewis about a long-delayed program to provide temporary handwashing stations while public buildings are closed due to the pandemic. The council provided $100,000 for public sinks last year in response to repeated outbreaks of communicable diseases among people living unsheltered, who have had little access to soap and running water since businesses and public buildings closed their doors in March 2020.

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

In the memo, SPU reiterated their many objections to a proposal by the Clean Hands Collective, including the fact that it is not technically ADA-compliant, uses hoses instead of direct sewer connections to provide water, and have hookups that are vulnerable to freezing in the winter. “These sinks cannot legally operate from approximately October through April,” the memo says, because they filter graywater through soil.

“The design requirements, considerations, City procurement requirements and technical challenges SPU discussed with proposers at technical assistance sessions and with the committee are the same standard SPU as a regulated and regulating agency must adhere to,” the memo continues. “They are also intended to ensure that public expenditure is geared towards ensuring quality functioning, healthful, and accessible solutions that meet the needs of the community they are designed to serve and the outdoor conditions into which they are deployed.”

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

Some of the diseases that have spread through homeless encampments during the pandemic include hepatitis A and B, shigella, and cryptosporidiosis; the latter pair of diseases can cause major gastrointestinal symptoms such as extreme and constant vomiting and diarrhea. Such diseases are spread mostly through fecal-oral transmission, which is easily preventable through handwashing.

The city has opened a handful of its own sinks around the city, some of which are operated by a foot pedal. Unlike the proposals the city has received, which are wheelchair accessible but not fully ADA compliant, foot-operated sinks are not usable by many people with disabilities.

3. As the Seattle Office of the Inspector General begins a new investigation into a surge of complaints about unmasked police officers, the Seattle Police Department’s compliance with public health recommendations is under a microscope.

But while SPD can require masks, they can’t track how many Seattle police officers are vaccinated; according to the department, unless the city requires all city employees to get vaccinated, SPD can’t ask its officers about their vaccination status. Continue reading “Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown”