Category: criminal justice

Council Tries to Protect Diversion Programs, ICE Contractor Ordered to Pay Minimum Wage, SPD Will Phase Out Minor Traffic Stops

1. For at least the past decade, the Seattle city attorney’s office has worked to replace punitive criminal-justice approaches with programs designed to reduce recidivism without involving police and jails. The office launched pre-filing diversion programs; supported an intervention program for domestic batterers; and took part in the launch of a new community court in 2020. The office still prosecutes misdemeanors—assault, theft and trespassing remain among the most common charges—but outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes frequently argues that Seattle’s public safety problems can’t be solved with jail time alone.

All of those new additions to the office’s workload are discretionary. A future city attorney could decide to repurpose all or some of the money that currently supports diversion programs and ramp up criminal prosecutions, for example. Ann Davison, a Republican who could become the next city attorney, seems poised to do something along those lines. In Davison’s view, Holmes has failed to adequately pursue misdemeanor charges for “quality of life” crimes like property destruction and shoplifting.

The prospect of an incoming city attorney who might cast aside years of reforms prompted some members of the Seattle City Council, which has supported the office’s diversion programs since 2017, to consider setting some of those reforms in stone.

On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs.  Her amendment notes that the council is also working on legislation that would make diversion a permanent duty of the city attorney’s office, in an attempt to deter future city attorneys from discontinuing these programs. That bill will likely go before the council in December.

On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs

Public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold introduced her own amendment to add four new positions to the city attorney’s diversion team, to support LEAD and other pre-filing diversion programs run by Choose 180, Gay City, and Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing (LELO).

While a future city attorney could sidestep the proposed proviso by simply not spending the dollars earmarked for diversion, failing to spend money allocated for a specific purpose comes with some political risk. Another looming risk for the city attorney’s office—the departure of staff from its civil division, which works with the council to develop new policies, in response to the change in leadership—is out of the council’s control.

Despite the obvious allusions to Tuesday’s election, no council member mentioned Davison by name.

2. A federal jury determined on Wednesday that the for-profit firm that operates the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma violates Washington’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees only $1 per day for their labor. The jury also ruled that the Florida-based GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison and immigrant detention center operators in the country, will need to pay all workers the state’s $13.69 hourly minimum wage, or more, immediately.

Next, U.S District Court Judge Robert Bryan will decide how much the company profited from more than a decade of underpaying detainees to perform most non-security labor in the detention center. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is requesting that the court order GEO to reimburse detainee workers for years of underpaid wages, as are a group of private plaintiffs in a separate class action lawsuit.

During the two-and-a-half-week trial, several former and current staff at the detention center said GEO also replaced civilian workers with detainees to cut costs; Ferguson also asked the court to require GEO to reimburse civilian workers for wages they lost when they were replaced by detainees.

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The ruling comes four years after Ferguson initially sued GEO for minimum wage violations. In that time, detainees at the facility have held multiple protests and hunger strikes to raise concerns about overcrowding, inadequate meals, and a lack of access to medical care.

GEO has owned and operated the facility—the fourth-largest of its kind in the country—since 2005, but when the company’s current contract expires in 2025, the facility will likely close because of a new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this past spring, banning most private detention facilities. GEO is currently challenging that law in federal district court, arguing that it undercuts the federal government’s authority to detain immigrants and that the closure would mean moving hundreds of detainees far away from their families and attorneys.

The nearest detention facility that can hold ICE detainees is a jail in Yuba County, California, which can hold up to 220 people for ICE.

Though the ramifications of Wednesday’s ruling are tremendous for current and former detainees at the Northwest detention center—according to earlier estimates by GEO, the center generated some $57 million in annual profits—those ramifications won’t extend to the much larger incarcerated workforce in Washington State’s prisons, Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho said. Nearly 2,000 people in state custody produce furniture and medical gowns, cook and package meals, and clear trails, among other jobs; after the state deducts victim compensation, incarceration costs, and other fees, inmate workers earn far less than minimum wage.

3. In a memo to the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office last week, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz endorsed a plan to phase out traffic stops for minor infractions by the end of the year.

The memo comes five months after Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who co-signed the letter, asked SPD to bring an end to traffic stops for infractions that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public. Continue reading “Council Tries to Protect Diversion Programs, ICE Contractor Ordered to Pay Minimum Wage, SPD Will Phase Out Minor Traffic Stops”

Lambert’s Colleagues Denounce Racist Mailer, Cops Debate Use of Projectile Launchers, and a Provider Recounts Street Sink Frustration

1. Six members of the King County Council—all Democrats—condemned Republican County Councilmember Kathy Lambert yesterday for a campaign mailing to some of East King County constituents that implied Lambert’s opponent, Sarah Perry, is being controlled by a shadowy cabal made up of Jews, socialists, and people of color.

The mailer showed three unrelated elected officials of color—Vice President Kamala Harris, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, and Lambert’s own colleague, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—along with US. Sen. Bernie Sanders, looming above a Photoshopped image of Perry as a marionette, a classic anti-semitic trope. Harris, Sanders, and Sawant appear to be laughing while Zahilay pulls Perry’s strings.

The message to white Eastside voters is as clear as an “OK” hand sign: If you don’t reelect Lambert, brown, Black, and Jewish Democrats will take over the Eastside and impose their left-wing values on you and your family. But just in case the dog whistles were too subtle, the mailer is emblazoned: “SARAH WOULD BE A SOCIALIST PUPPET ON THE EASTSIDE PUSHING THEIR AGENDA. SARAH PERRY IS BACKED BY SEATTLE SOCIALIST LEADER GIRMAY ZAHILAY WHO WANTS TO DEFUND THE POLICE.” The flip side calls Perry an “ANTI-POLICE PUPPET.” 

Lambert is currently fighting for her political life in a diversifying East King County district where 60 percent of primary-election voters supported one of two Democrats over the 20-year Republican incumbent.

“Put simply, this is a racist piece of political mail. It has no place in any public or private discourse here in King County,” the six council members said. “Planning, authorizing and mailing a communication like this betrays ignorance at best, deep seated racism at worst. Regardless, it demonstrates disrespect for the fundamental duty that the residents of King County give to all of their elected representatives—the duty to respect and serve everyone who resides in King County, regardless of race or ethnicity.”
The council members—Zahilay, Claudia Balducci, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Dave Upthegrove, Joe McDermott, and Rod Dembowski—demanded that Lambert apologize to Zahilay and Perry “for subjecting everyone, especially our friends, families and constituents of color, to this hurtful and painful communication.”
PubliCola first posted the full mailer on Twitter Wednesday morning.

“Although it’s led and orchestrated by the city, the city is not interested, really, in bringing anyone to help us… They’re looking for partners like nonprofit organizations that have direct access to water that would be able to make their water available. So it’s like—now you’re relying on us.”—David Sauvion, Rainier Beach Action Coalition

2. The Rainier Beach Action Coalition, which works to promote affordable housing and equitable development in Southeast Seattle, was one of many organizations that expressed an interest in setting up a street sink to help prevent the spread of communicable diseases, particularly among people experiencing homelessness.

But, according to RBAC Food Innovation District strategist David Sauvion, the organization decided against installing a sink after the city informed them that they would be wholly responsible for providing water to the location, making sure it was ADA compliant, and maintaining the sink, all without any direct support from the city.

“Although it’s led and orchestrated by the city, the city is not interested, really, in bringing anyone to help us… They’re looking for partners like nonprofit organizations that have direct access to water that would be able to make their water available. So it’s like—now you’re relying on us.”

Sauvion said RBAC wouldn’t have minded paying for the water; the problem was that RBAC wanted to install a sink where it would actually get some use, next to a bus stop on the southeast corner of South Henderson Street and MLK Way South, rather than directly in front of their office, which is in a house on a quiet corner across the street. “It’s just not a place where we see a lot of homeless people,” Sauvion said.

As for the city’s insistence that nonprofit groups should be willing to provide ongoing maintenance, including graywater disposal, without help from the city, Sauvion said, “why don’t we do that? Why don’t we just rely on everybody else to provide the services the city should be providing?”

The founders of the Street Sink project, Real Change, spoke to about 100 organizations about hosting a street sink. Of those, just nine met all of the city’s requirements, and only five told the city they were interested in moving forward. Since the Street Sink project started in May 2020, just one sink has been installed.

3. During Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) meeting Wednesday, Mark Mullens—the sole police officer on the commission—revisited an ongoing point of tension between the Seattle Police Department’s command staff and its rank-and-file.

“Is it not true that the 40 millimeter launcher is banned?” he asked Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz, referring to a gun that fires large rubber projectiles as an alternative to live ammunition.

“That is not true,” replied Diaz, who was attending the meeting to answer questions from the commission. Continue reading “Lambert’s Colleagues Denounce Racist Mailer, Cops Debate Use of Projectile Launchers, and a Provider Recounts Street Sink Frustration”

King County Superior Court Wants to Make Virtual Jury Selection—and Trials—Permanent


King County Courthouse
Image via King County.

By Paul Kiefer

The instructions that accompany a jury summons in King County changed dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic upended court operations: instead of directions to a courthouse, jurors now receive an email from a bailiff with a video link. Now, King County Superior Court judges say that the switch to virtual jury selection—originally adopted as an emergency measure—is too useful to abandon once the pandemic winds down.

In a bid to make the change permanent, King County Superior Court staff are petitioning the Washington State Supreme Court to continue using video calls for jury selections once the state’s emergency order expires.

For Judge Sean O’Donnell, the shift to virtual jury selections is a matter of efficiency. Before the pandemic, he said, the response rate to jury summons was abysmal; as a consequence, the court had to delay trials until it had enough qualified jurors to fill a bench. “When you got a summons, you had to make the trek to a courthouse, wait in a hallway in case your name was called, file into a courtroom and go through questioning—it could take a full day,” he said.

Online jury selection, he added, only takes an hour. “I think for judiciary, this has to be the future,” O’Donnell said. “The convenience factor is huge. The physical safety benefits, in comparison coming down to the courthouse on Third Avenue with all the chaos nearby, are huge. If we can just reduce the footprint of citizens who have to physically come down, we can make performing your civic duty more attainable for more people.”

The virtual hearing, O’Donnell added, also gives attorneys more time to question prospective jurors. “We’ve been able to increase the quantity of information we collect from jurors, and that helps attorneys make calls about who is or is not appropriate to serve on a jury,” he said.

But for some attorneys navigating virtual jury selection, the new setup isn’t perfect. “I’ve found it a bit more difficult to get people to open up,” said Brent Hart, a Seattle defense attorney who recently took part in a virtual jury selection. “For some reason, it seems like it’s harder to get people to unmute than it is to get them to raise their hand in a courtroom.”

And while Hart agrees that the virtual jury selection process can streamline court proceedings, he added that attorneys have a harder time reading potential jurors’ behavior through a computer screen. “If someone’s doing legal research, looking up stuff about a case that they shouldn’t be looking up, we can’t tell,” he said. “We don’t actually have eyes on them—only the illusion of eyes on them.”

But both O’Donnell and Hart agreed that a more efficient jury selection process will play an important role in working through the superior court’s looming backlog of criminal cases. “We have thousands and thousands of criminal cases—some very serious—that have stacked up during the pandemic,” O’Donnell said, “and being able to select juries faster has helped.”

For now, jurors selected for criminal trials usually need to attend court hearings in person, but the superior court is also petitioning the state to make virtual civil trials a permanent feature of King County’s judicial system. The supreme court won’t rule on the two requests until next year.

Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More

1. The Seattle City Council’s budget committee heard presentations on Thursday about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2022 public safety budget, which would increase the Seattle Police Department budget by $2.8 million and add 125 new officers, for a net gain, after projected attrition, of 35 officers compared to current staffing levels.

The meeting helped clarify the mayor’s decision to move the nascent “Triage Team” unit (previously, and briefly, known as Triage One) to the Seattle Fire Department instead of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, his fledgling department is underprepared to take on the new crisis units. “It would take us at least six months to get the teams off the ground,” he said, “and I recognize that there’s an urgent need to get this program running sooner than that.” 

In her presentation, SPD budget director Angela Socci said most of SPD’s proposed budget increase would pay for paid family leave and a standard annual wage increase. The rest of SPD’s spending plans come from re-shuffling the department’s existing budget. Even with 125 new hires and slower attrition, Socci predicted that the department may have as much as $19 million in unspent salaries next year to repurpose.

After a brief report on a plan to add staff to the City Attorney’s Office to expand a pre-filing diversion program for young adults, Councilmember Andrew Lewis floated the possibility that the council could make the program a “permanent fixture” of the office instead of “an elective program”—alluding to the impending change in leadership at the City Attorney’s Office, which could place the future of the office’s pre-filing diversion program in question.

2. Three people in custody at the King County Detention Center in downtown Seattle lost consciousness on Wednesday after ingesting a still-unidentified substance. The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) would not confirm on Thursday whether the three people had suffered overdoses, but department spokesman Noah Haglund noted that jail staff and medics were able to resuscitate all three before transporting them to Harborview Medical Center along with two other people who had ingested the same substance. All five people were housed in the same section of the jail; after the incident, guards emptied the nearby cells and moved inmates to a different unit.

3. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) will no longer use disciplinary segregation—solitary confinement as a form of punishment—in any of the agency’s jails across the state.

The DOC made the change after reviewing data collected in Washington prisons between 2019 and 2020 that showed that more than half of the 2,500 people subjected to disciplinary segregation were punished for non-violent infractions. Additionally, the data showed that most people held in disciplinary segregation had already waited in administrative segregation—another type of solitary confinement, ostensibly for the safety of the incarcerated person—while awaiting a disciplinary hearing. The average stay in disciplinary segregation during the one-year study period ranged from 11 days for non-violent infractions to 16 days for violent ones.

According to a news release issued on Thursday afternoon, the DOC officially ended its use of disciplinary segregation on September 16.

4. A Seattle Police Department commander demoted in May filed a lawsuit against the city on Wednesday alleging that Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz unfairly blamed him for the department’s handling of a protest on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More”

Advocates Propose “Solidarity Budget,” LEAD Seeks Funding, Posters Protest Candidate’s Anti-RV Action

1. On Saturday,  a coalition of Seattle-area police abolitionist groups and community nonprofits debuted the city’s second “solidarity budget,” a set of spending proposals for Seattle’s 2022 budget that would shift dollars away from police, prosecutors and the municipal court to pay for mental health services, education and housing programs. The coalition released their plan two days before Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed her own 2022 budget—the fourth and final budget of her term.

The coalition, which includes Decriminalize Seattle, the Transit Riders Union, and Columbia Legal Services, among other advocates, released the first solidarity budget last year, lobbying the council to decrease the Seattle Police Department’s budget by half and to launch a city-wide participatory budgeting program to re-distribute public safety dollars. Ultimately, the council chose to reduce SPD’s 2021 budget by 11 percent and set aside a participatory budgeting program; that project was subsequently delayed  until at least next year.

This year’s solidarity budget also calls for a 50 percent cut to the criminal legal system, largely by cutting the total number of SPD officers to 750—roughly 300 fewer officers than the department currently employs. The proposal calls for eliminating SPD’s narcotics unit, cutting the special victims unit budget by half, eliminating the department’s public affairs unit, and moving the civilian Community Safety Officer program out of the department and into the new Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC).

The coalition also recommended cutting the budgets of the Municipal Court and the criminal division of the City Attorney’s Office by 50 percent. “While the Municipal Court and City Attorneys have begun to embrace non-incarceration and conviction approaches to misdemeanors,” the coalition wrote in their budget outline, “court and prosecutors are not social service agencies, and should not be the gateway to housing and treatment.”

The solidarity budget would shift the money saved through all these cuts to nonprofits that can run civilian crisis response teams, mental health and harm reduction programs, and domestic violence victim support. It also calls for setting aside $60 million for participatory budgeting (the mayor’s budget sets aside $30 million for this purpose), as well as roughly $3 million to support members of the Duwamish tribe in the absence of federal recognition—including free transit passes, funding for inpatient drug rehabilitation, and rental assistance.

2. Earlier this month, PubliCola reported that Fremont Brewing, owned by Seattle City Council candidate Sara Nelson, had apparently placed “ecology blocks” in the public street around its Ballard production facility to prevent people living in RVs from parking there.

The story appears to have sparked outrage: Over the weekend, someone put posters saying “Sara Nelson Hates Poor People” on the blocks. As of Sunday, both the eco blocks and the posters remained in place, although at least some of the posters now say simply, and enigmatically, “Sara Nelson,” after someone (presumably a supporter) came by and removed the bottom half of the message.

Eco blocks, which are enormous, heavy, and hard to move, have popped up in industrial areas around the city as business owners have sought new ways to keep people living in vehicles from parking on public streets near their properties. Obstructing public rights-of-way in this manner is illegal, but the Seattle Department of Transportation has, so far, thrown up its hands, pointing to the difficulty and expense of removing hundreds or thousands of multi-ton blocks from streets around the city.

3. Throughout the Durkan administration, the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) has frequently struggled to convince the mayor’s office to release funding for the program, a diversion program for people whose criminal legal system involvement stems from behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. This year has been no different: In June, the council appropriated $3 million to expand LEAD’s budget by third, but the Human Services Department hasn’t gotten the dollars out the door.

During a presentation at the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee outlining the costs and logistics of expanding LEAD program into a citywide service, council member Andrew Lewis asked HSD staff for a “status update” on the funding. Instead, HSD deputy director Tess Colby said that her department is “actively working” to get the dollars out the door. If HSD doesn’t get the $3 million into LEAD’s hands before the end of the year, the money will go back into the city’s general fund. Continue reading “Advocates Propose “Solidarity Budget,” LEAD Seeks Funding, Posters Protest Candidate’s Anti-RV Action”

Report Criticizes Municipal Court “Records Checks” That Can Result In Perpetual Probation

By Paul Kiefer

At any given time, the Seattle Municipal Court is keeping tabs on the criminal records of hundreds of people who successfully passed out of the court’s probation program, effectively prolonging probation for more than a thousand people in the past five years, according to a newly released report by the city auditor’s office. The court routinely monitors former probationers to see if they have any new criminal charges; if they do, they can be put back on probation.

The report also outlines a pattern of missteps by court administrators and probation staff that may have exacerbated racial disparities and undercut the court’s efforts to phase out burdensome fees that fall most heavily on homeless defendants—and makes some suggestions for correcting course.

According to the auditor’s office, the court didn’t monitor the impacts of these “records checks” on people released from probation because it didn’t consider the monitoring part of the probation system. While the auditor’s office only recommended that the court begin tracking records checks as part of the probation system, municipal court spokesman Gary Ireland wrote in a response to the report on Thursday that the court has already discontinued records checks when they aren’t legally required—since the beginning of the year, the court has stopped monitoring 1,640 people.

As is the case across Seattle’s criminal legal system, the 741 people currently on probation through the municipal court are disproportionately Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, low-income, and/or homeless. As recently as 2019, nearly 70 percent of people on probation in Seattle qualified for a public defender; Black and Native American people are overrepresented by a factor of three or more compared to the demographics of the city as a whole.

The auditor’s staff used outside sources to determine the extent of racial disparities in the probation system. Historically, the report found, the court has relied on incomplete racial, ethnic and gender information provided by the Seattle Police Department, not the probationers themselves. Without reliable demographic information about the people on probation, the auditor’s team wrote, the municipal court couldn’t keep track of the disparities in its probation programs.

Those disparities extend beyond the makeup of the probation programs themselves. For instance, the court assigns varying levels of surveillance—ranging from the most intrusive, which involves in-person check-ins, to the least intrusive, which involves no contact with probation staff—based on a “risk assessment,” which could include judgments about a probationer’s housing stability, employment, or educational background. The court assigned Black and Native American probationers to the most invasive forms of monitoring more often than their white counterparts.

The auditor’s office also found that court staff were less likely to pursue an early end to probation for Black people than for white people.

The court started making adjustments ahead of the report’s release. According to Ireland, the court has begun collecting self-reported racial, ethnic and gender information from probationers, has eliminated all probation-related fees, and a new court policy requires probation counselors to close a case once a person has reached every benchmark set by the court.

Court Approves City Attorney’s Motion to Clear Outstanding Prostitution Warrants

Seattle Municipal Courthouse
Seattle Municipal Court image via SMC Facebook page

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, a Seattle Municipal Court Judge approved a motion by Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to quash all outstanding warrants for misdemeanor prostitution, including some issued well over a decade ago.

The motion, which Holmes’ office filed last Friday, requested that the court dismiss 37 warrants involving 34 people arrested for selling sex between 2001 and 2019; the office also asked the court to dismiss cases or vacate charges against the individuals named in the warrants, on the condition that a future city attorney cannot refile the cases at a later date. The warrants represent less than one percent of the outstanding warrants issued by the municipal court.

The City Attorney’s Office hasn’t prosecuted anyone for selling sex since 2019, when the Seattle Police Department ramped up arrests and sting operations targeting both sex workers and buyers in response to public pressure driven by an increase in the presence of sex workers along Aurora Avenue North—an uptick partially driven by the federal shutdown of Backpage, a website sex workers used to find clients. Because Seattle’s pre-arrest diversion programs were stretched to capacity, officers booked dozens of sex workers into the King County jail; the City Attorney’s Office opted not to file charges against most of them, though eight of the warrants quashed on Thursday stemmed from charges that the office filed in 2019.

Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defender Association and co-founder of Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), previously known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, told PubliCola on Thursday that public criticism of SPD’s arrests in 2019 likely prompted the department to reverse course. The change in police department leadership (from Carmen Best to interim chief Adrian Diaz), the COVID-19 pandemic, and SPD’s ongoing staffing challenges also played key roles in curtailing low-level arrests in general, Daugaard added. SPD officers have made 55 prostitution arrests this year, compared to 78 in all of 2020 and 175 in 2019.

The City Attorney’s Office has also seen a sharp decline in the number of sex buyers the police department refers to the office for charging. Because of a delay between arrests and filings, the office received 88 referrals in the first two months of 2020—sex buyers arrested during SPD sting operations the previous year—but only a single case between early March and the end of the year. In 2021, SPD has only referred four sex buyers to the office for charging. SPD has also made fewer arrests of sex buyers in the past two years: seven in 2021 and nine in 2020, compared to 76 in 2019.

The City Attorney’s Office did not attempt to contact the people subject to outstanding prostitution warrants before filing the motion; Holmes spokesman Dan Nolte told PubliCola on Wednesday that his office planned to wait until the court accepted their motion before reaching out.

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”

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”

New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners

A cell (left) and recreation area (right) in the Intensive Management Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Photo: Office of the Corrections Ombuds)

By Paul Kiefer

A new report from Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) raises concerns with the consequences of a shortage of mental health staff and treatment options in the state’s prison system, including the increased risk of suicide, self-harm, or placement in solitary confinement for inmates with unmet mental health needs.

The report, which the OCO released on Wednesday, is based on a review of roughly 335 complaints about alleged shortcomings in the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) handling of mental health care, as well as interviews with incarcerated people and DOC staff and administrators.

In its review of mental health care options at state prisons, the OCO found that many problems hinged on the dearth of treatment providers available to the roughly 15,000 people in DOC custody. Facing overwhelming demand for mental health treatment and screenings, the DOC’s current providers handle overwhelming daily caseloads, sometimes without a designated work space to offer privacy to their patients. For people in custody, the shortage of treatment providers translates into long wait times for therapy appointments. Residents of the state’s 12 work release facilities, as well as inmates in some smaller prisons, have even fewer options for mental health care—in fact, the DOC doesn’t offer mental health treatment to work-release inmates at all.

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But the report also outlined other problems in the DOC’s response to the mental health needs of incarcerated people, including multiple instances in which prison staff did not properly document inmates’ risk of self-harm or suicide. The OCO has highlighted the same problems in earlier reports, including an April 2021 review of two deaths by suicide in DOC facilities last year that connected mishandled mental health screenings as a to both deaths.

The OCO’s review also raised concerns that prison staff rarely consider inmates’ mental health when punishing them for breaking rules. The investigators were particularly concerned about the use of so-called Intensive Management Units—solitary confinement—as a punishment for inmates with diagnosed mental health conditions, pointing out that placing those people in isolation can lead to “destructive or self-harming behaviors, often resulting in infractions and sanctions, causing time in solitary confinement to be repeatedly extended or increasingly harsh.” Continue reading “New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners”