Category: Health

Mayoral Candidates Spar on Public Safety, Being “From Here”; Anti-Vax SPD Exodus Averted

1. Seattle Mayoral candidates Lorena González and Bruce Harrell faced off once again on Sunday during a public safety-focused forum hosted by the ACLU of Washington and moderated by Sean Goode, the director of the Seattle-area youth diversion nonprofit Choose 180.

The forum was a chance for the two candidates to get into the weeds on issues like police oversight, union contracts, and the logistics of civilian emergency response.

But anyone looking for detailed, specific responses to questions about these issues—not to mention the city’s use of the King County Jail, plans to increase or decrease SPD funding, and under what circumstances police should use lethal force—might have come away disappointed.

During this and earlier debates, Harrell pointed out that he sponsored a 2017 ordinance requiring officers to undergo anti-bias training. González, who voted for the legislation, said that “passing the ordinance didn’t result in a less biased police force,”

Still, the forum did highlight significant differences between the candidates’ overall approach to public safety and policing, and their level of comfort grappling with thorny issues like police defunding. While Harrell has said he would hire more officers and González has said she would cut the size of the force, neither gave many specifics about how they would reach those goals.

González said she has no interest in a “carte blanche increase in SPD’s budget,” adding that her plans for funding alternatives to police aren’t about “hiring more officers of a different kind”—a slap at Harrell’s statement that he would “build a new kind of officer” at SPD and field new teams of unarmed officers, similar to SPD’s existing Community Service Officers.

Both candidates said they would support additional officer training—in González’ case, “increased training around deescalation to prevent violence in the first place,” and in Harrell’s,  “extensive retraining” to “change the culture in the police department.” González described Harrell’s training plan as “having officers watch a video of George Floyd’s murder and sign a pledge to do better”—a reference to his campaign promise to ask “every sworn police officer in Seattle to watch the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and voluntarily sign an open letter stating: The Inhumane Treatment of Fellow Human Beings Will Not Be Tolerated In Seattle.”

Harrell seemed to suggest that because he grew up in Seattle (unlike González, whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington), and because he has Black sons (González has a mixed-race daughter), he has “skin in the game” that his opponent lacks.

Harrell’s belief in anti-bias training runs deep—during this and earlier debates, he pointed out that he sponsored a 2017 ordinance requiring officers to undergo the training. The law, he said, also required the collection of data on showing “who was stopped, who was frisked, who gets tickets, [and] if there’s racial profiling occurring.” González, who voted for the legislation, said that “passing the ordinance didn’t result in a less biased police force,” and argued for shifting funds toward alternatives she argued will lead to “true community safety,” like programs that focus on early intervention, youth employment, and neighborhood economic development.

The two also differed strongly on whether the consent decree—a decade-old agreement between Seattle and the US Department of Justice that places a federal judge in charge of overseeing reforms to SPD—is an “obstacle” for elected officials trying to divert money from the police department to alternative public safety programs.

From González’ perspective, the federal court’s oversight has become more onerous and less useful. “The city is now required to send most of our police budget changes to the court for approval, and I don’t believe that’s what the consent decree was originally intended to do,” she said. Harrell initially offered a one-word answer to Goode’s question about the consent decree—”nope”—but when pressed to elaborate, he commented that he doesn’t “see it as a barrier or a strength—it’s just the letter of the law.”

2. Harrell began the virtual forum by showing viewers a black-and-white photo of his childhood baseball team, saying, “These men… are the fathers and mentors of the Black community.” He followed up during the forum with two more photos—one of himself and his friends in college, including one who “became a Seahawk,” and one of his father “in the 1960s, when I was born right here in Seattle.”

In several instances, Harrell seemed to suggest that because he grew up in Seattle (unlike González, whose parents were migrant farmworkers in Eastern Washington), and because he has Black sons (González has a mixed-race daughter), he has “skin in the game” that his opponent lacks. “While I appreciate my opponent’s answer, this is this is personal for me and my family. I have two Black sons that have been in the city their entire life. And so when I hear this information [about police brutality], it is not anecdotal for me.”

González didn’t counter this suggestion directly, but pointed to her work as a civil rights lawyer working on behalf of victims of police violence and the fact that “I have lost family to police violence. … And I want to work towards having a city [where] parents don’t have to fear if their black or brown babies are going to come home tonight.”

2. As of Monday, only about two dozen SPD employees had not turned in proof that they are fully vaccinated, indicating that most of the 140 holdouts left on Friday were making a point. Continue reading “Mayoral Candidates Spar on Public Safety, Being “From Here”; Anti-Vax SPD Exodus Averted”

SPD’s 2022 Budget Proposal Relies on Optimistic Hiring Projections

SPD hiring projection chartBy Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department’s staffing goals for 2022 are extremely ambitious and could leave the department with millions in unspent salaries, according to a staff presentation to the city council’s budget committee on Friday.

More than 300 sworn officers have left the department since January 2020. In 2022, SPD hopes to begin replenishing its ranks, starting with the restoration of 31 paid positions that the council eliminated last year. That proposal would leave SPD with a total of 1,357 funded officer positions, but the department can’t realistically fill all of those positions in a year; instead, SPD estimates that it would end 2022 with 134 vacancies.

Even that goal is ambitious. The department anticipates that roughly 94 officers will leave the department this year, so to reach its goals—a net add of 35 officers—SPD will need to hire a record of 125 new officers. To hit that mark, the department would have surpass the past decade’s average annual hires by more than 25 percent.

During last year’s budget deliberations, for example, the council deemed SPD’s plan to hire 114 new officers in 2021 “not achievable.” As of the end of September, SPD had hired only 57 new officers.

SPD argues that it can accelerate hiring by making the application process more efficient. The department moved hiring exams online in a bid to improve accessibility for applicants, and instead of conducting time-consuming background checks in-house, SPD is now relying on an outside contractor to speed up the process.

Other variables are outside the department’s control. Washington’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA), which provides a mandatory five-month training to new recruits, can’t increase class sizes without approval from the state legislature. Currently, new recruits have to wait an average of four months after SPD begins the hiring process to start basic training at the academy.

During Friday’s presentation, budget chair Teresa Mosqueda reminded her colleagues that the council has previously asked SPD to scale back its hiring goals. During last year’s budget deliberations, for example, the council deemed SPD’s plan to hire 114 new officers in 2021 “not achievable.” As of the end of September, SPD had hired only 57 new officers, though the department estimates it will reach 85 hires by the end of the year.

If SPD can reach its hiring goal next year, the department estimates it will still have an extra $19 million from unspent salaries by the end of 2022. SPD plans to use its salary savings to pay for a slew of technology updates, contracts, and operating expenses that aren’t otherwise covered in their budget. Those include familiar necessities—separation pay for officers that leave, for instance—as well as longer-term projects like the expansion of the department’s public disclosure unit. SPD also plans to spend some of its unspent salaries on projects outside the department, including $1.5 million on Seattle-area violence prevention nonprofits.

The largest portion of SPD’s salary savings—$6.4 million—would cover the department’s overtime expenses, driven largely by the return of in-person attendance at sports games, where off-duty officers provide security. While event organizers pay SPD for those costs, council president Lorena González questioned the wisdom of using already officers to staff “for-profit special events,” commenting that the department “need[s] the time these officers have to work on patrol.” Unlike last year, SPD isn’t at risk of overspending its overtime budget: Out of a nearly $25 million budget for overtime, the department has only spent $15.5 million to date.

In all, SPD has a plan to spend all but $1.1 million of its projected salary savings in 2022. Relying on SPD’s salary savings as the funding source for dozens of other expenses and projects is a risky long-term strategy, a council staffer warned.

Other council members expressed frustration with SPD’s plan to spend $1 million of its salary savings on software that is supposed to predict which officers might need mental health support by collecting their biometric data and monitoring the length, type, and outcomes of calls they respond to. “That seems like a lot of money to spend on technology that tells us that officers have high-stress jobs,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales. Instead, Morales suggested, the department should direct those dollars to mental health counseling for officers. To the council’s frustration, however, SPD has already begun signing contracts for the development of the predictive technology, with plans to pay for it using salary savings.

In all, SPD has a plan to spend all but $1.1 million of its projected salary savings in 2022. Relying on SPD’s salary savings as the funding source for dozens of other expenses and projects is a risky long-term strategy, warned city council central staffer Greg Doss. If the department can eventually fill its vacancies, he said, the council will face a dilemma: Find millions of new dollars to add to SPD’s budget or cut back on salaries to keep other projects alive.

Meanwhile, the October 18 deadline for the city’s vaccination mandate could force SPD to rethink its hiring plan. On Friday, at least 138 SPD officers had not yet submitted proof of vaccination—a figure that does not include more than 100 officers who are currently on leave for various reasons, including military service, misconduct investigations, and medical treatment.

The city hasn’t yet reached an agreement with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) about how the city will enforce its mandate on police union members, and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office maintains that the city will start firing unvaccinated officers who haven’t applied for exemptions from the mandate by Tuesday. And the 97 sworn officers who applied for exemptions from the vaccine mandate aren’t necessarily in the clear: If SPD decides that it can’t safely accommodate these officers, they, too, could lose their jobs. SPD’S 2022 staffing plan doesn’t account for the loss of unvaccinated officers.

Though the department acknowledges that its projections are optimistic, SPD strategic initiatives director Chris Fisher told the council in late September that he’s confident they can make the adjustments needed to push a record number of recruits through the hiring process—even if it means holding SPD-only basic training classes at the state academy. The obstacle that concerns them most, he said, is simply getting enough people to fill out an application.

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”

As Vaccine Deadline Nears, Negotiator In Charge of Police Bargaining Leaves City

By Paul Kiefer

The window of opportunity for the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to negotiate a deal with the city about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy, which takes effect on October 18, is closing.

And this Friday, those negotiations will hit another snag: Ned Burke, the city negotiator responsible for bargaining with SPOG, is leaving Seattle’s labor relations unit. Jeff Clark, the interim head of the labor relations unit since the departure of former director Jana Sangy in March, has few options to replace Burke at the negotiating table, so Burke’s exit poses a challenge for the city as the deadline to reach an agreement with SPOG approaches.

Because SPOG represents public safety employees, the guild has an option that other public employee unions lack: as a last resort, the guild can bring its disagreements with the city before an arbitrator. After hearing arguments from both SPOG and the city, the arbitrator would unilaterally decide how the city will implement the vaccine requirement for police officers, including whether officers will get a grace period after October 18 to get vaccinated instead of facing immediate termination.  Burke would have been responsible for presenting the city’s argument to an arbitrator; instead, the city may need to find someone new to take on that high-stakes role.

As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs.

With negotiations stalled, arbitration appears to be the most likely end to the standoff. And as the October 18 deadline approaches, SPOG is isolated. When the Coalition of City Unions reached an agreement with the city about the mandate last month, the Seattle Police Management Association—the union representing SPD lieutenants and captains, which initially bargained alongside SPOG—split with the guild and joined the larger coalition, foregoing its right to arbitration.

While SPOG and other public safety employee unions often prefer to take the gamble of arbitration instead of reaching a compromise with the city—in the past, arbitrators have often sided with police unions—the guild is in a challenging position this month. As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs. Continue reading “As Vaccine Deadline Nears, Negotiator In Charge of Police Bargaining Leaves City”

Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks

1. For weeks, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been involving herself with a strike by members of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters’ Union, joining a group of militant carpenters in encouraging “wildcat” strikes at work sites where legally binding agreements forbid walking off the job. The splinter group, called the Peter J. McGuire Group, maintains that union leaders aren’t asking for enough in ongoing negotiations with the Association of General Contractors.

Sawant has largely dismissed union leaders and members who have asked her to stop “interfering” in the ongoing strike, accusing “top union officials” of being the ones who are actually fomenting dissent by discouraging wildcat strikes. Now, a union that has historically supported Sawant, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says they may not contribute materially to her upcoming recall election because of her work to disrupt the carpenters’ labor negotiations. In the past, UFCW has contributed thousands of dollars to independent expenditure campaigns that have worked to elect Sawant. 

The union has endorsed a “no” vote on the recall, which UFCW 21 secretary-treasurer Joe Mizrahi calls an “undemocratic” effort they would oppose “no matter who the candidate was.” 

“[Sawant’s] treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”—UFCW 21 Treasurer-Secretary Joe Mizrahi

Mizrahi says Sawant is ignoring the ways in which “her involvement puts workers’ jobs at risk and their union money at risk. … Striking is a legal act—oftentimes, these contracts have a no-strike clause and if you violate that, the worker is not protected.”

Unions and workers can pay a stiff price if wildcat strikes disrupt a company’s ability to do business, Mizrahi says. For example, in Portland, secondary strikes by the longshoreman’s union (strikes against companies that were not party to the union’s contract) resulted in a judgment that bankrupted the union’s treasury. Such judgments send money directly from workers (whose dues make up the union treasury) to the companies that employ them. “The union treasury is employee money, so it’s transferring that worker money right back to the employer, which is the last place you want it to go,” Mizrahi said.

Mizrahi says it’s good to have union members pushing leadership for more favorable contract terms, but notes that Sawant isn’t the one who will suffer the consequences if the union is penalized because its workers violate labor law. “Her treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”

2. For the second year in a row, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed eliminating funding for the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a private program that works to keep people living in vehicles from losing their only source of shelter. And for the second year, Scofflaw Team founder Bill Kirlin-Hackett is trying to get the Seattle City Council to restore the team’s funding, arguing that the $80,000 the team receives is crucial because it helps people living in RVs and cars pay for repairs, parking tickets, and other expenses they incur as a result of city policies aimed at preventing people from living in their vehicles.

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Kirlin-Hackett says he has already spoken to council members about restoring funds for the program, “advocating, in large part, ‘if you cut this then you will have no one doing intentional outreach to vehicle residents when half the unsheltered population lives in vehicles.'”

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower notes that Durkan’s proposed budget includes a transfer of funds from the Seattle Department of Transportation to Seattle Public Utilities for trash pickup, sewage pump-outs, and property removal from RV sites, in order to “solicit voluntary compliance w[ith] removing belongings, debris from ROW.” The budget itself identifies these funds, which would pay for one new “field coordinator,” as “part of the City’s efforts to increase access to the [right-of-way].”

Hightower notes that the council paid for the scofflaw program last year with one-time funds, and says this year’s cut is in keeping with that intent. However, the city council actually first funded the program in 2019 with ongoing funds, adding it back to the budget in 2020 (and funding it with one-time dollars) after the mayor’s budget eliminated funding for the program.

3. Durkan’s budget also includes no new funding for street sinks, which the council funded in 2020 so that unsheltered people could wash their hands. Since most public restrooms in the city shut down or limited access in response to COVID, diseases like shigellosis, hepatitis A, and cryptosporidiosis have rampaged through communities of people living unsheltered, who have little access to clean water and soap.

“There is deep, deep resentment that [service providers] would be responsible for the sinks: ‘Why is the city not doing this? Why is it up to us, especially [when we’re] being overwhelmed during the pandemic?'”—Tiffani McCoy, Real Change

The mayor has consistently thrown up roadblocks to the sinks, ranging from concerns about “vandalism” to demands that SPU study alternatives to soap-and-water washing, such as a “Purell on a pole” idea that would substitute a quick squirt of hand sanitizer for a thorough cleaning with soap and water. The city finally allocated funds to two organizations, Seattle Makers and the Clean Hands Collective, with new requirements: The sinks have to drain directly into a storm drain, rather than a receptacle or planter as originally proposed, and they have to be fully ADA compliant, not just wheelchair accessible.

The city does not apply similar universal accessibility standards to its own portable toilets, many of which are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Continue reading “Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks”

City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday evening, a coalition of Seattle city employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy.  The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the city council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.

On Friday, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the city’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple city departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself, but wanted to give city employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.

“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”

Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department. One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the city. Public safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing public safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.

The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by October 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the October 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.

As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover city contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore three days of sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the city will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on city construction sites or in close proximity with city staff. Continue reading “City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come”

As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites

Kent isolation and quarantine facility
Screenshot: King County Youtube

By Erica C. Barnett

An alarming increase in COVID cases among people experiencing homelessness has been exacerbated in recent weeks, homeless service providers say, by rumors that if people enter a county-run isolation and quarantine site, they won’t be allowed to leave.

And even before these rumors began circulating widely, many unhoused people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to enter isolation and quarantine, for reasons that ranged from active substance use to the fear that if they left an encampment, they would lose everything they had—a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent uptick in encampment sweeps.

“The resistance, in my experience, has been across the board,” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, medical director for the Public Defender Association, said. “I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t have some fear and some resistance to go, and that’s mostly just because it’s overwhelming. It can feel pretty scary to think that you don’t know where you’re going or why, especially when you’re taking someone out of their own environment and their own community,” Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner on several efforts to move unsheltered people into hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.

Although early reports suggested that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in group quarters like congregate shelters, the more contagious delta variant could lead to more infections in both indoor and outdoor locations. During the week that ended September 10, King County counted 41 people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID—an undercount, since it only accounts for county testing events.

According to King County Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole, as of last week, there were 22 active COVID cases associated with encampment outbreaks, defined as two or more people who have tested positive at an encampment—an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments.” A review of the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that began in early August and hasn’t abated.

“The facilities are not secure, and staying is totally optional. When people come in, we say, ‘Your isolation period is this long, your quarantine period is this long. If you do not want to stay the whole time, let’s talk about it.'”—Hedda McClendon, King County

The increase in COVID cases has impacted every part of the county’s service system. The county’s public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched thin, with long waits for transportation and even testing. According to Cole, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E Team, one of two teams that performs testing at homeless encampments, can be as long as five to seven days. When someone living in an encampment tests positive, an outreach provider often must wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to take them to isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they’ll give up and decide not to go. 

Just getting someone on the phone, outreach workers say, can be a challenge. “You call in and they take your number, but if you call back, it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to,” Dawn Shepard, the south district outreach coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or unsheltered person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and by that point the person’s just losing interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It’s taking us about eight hours from coordination to pickup.”

The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has handed out about 500 cell phones for outreach providers to distribute to clients, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, along with rapid COVID tests so that people don’t have to wait for days to get tested. Currently, rapid tests are hard to come by and expensive when they are available.

Meanwhile, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, has increased from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” King County COVID Emergency Services Group director Hedda McClendon said, stretching resources thin. If all the rooms fill up, the county will have to start triaging people based on test results, exposure, and other qualifications, turning people away if their cases aren’t severe.

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Shepard said that in the early days of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see folks that were living outside contracting the disease…  largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. Now, though, I think it’s safe to say that with the delta variant, our clients don’t have the same protection, because we’re seeing it all over the city.”

Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm that they’ve seen an increase in cases; according to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID “is ripping through many, many homeless programs and communities,” including WHEEL’s women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases in the past few weeks. “We’ve had to stop doing intakes now because of this outbreak,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization is seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet the immediate need during this current crisis.”

Charlene Mitchell, the program manager at the Compass Housing-run women’s shelter Jan and Peter’s Place, said that the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed area” while they wait to be taken to the site in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving people living unsheltered. (Currently, the county uses Yellow Cabs for this purpose). She can remember one recent case when a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed outside in the streets and at the bus stop” after family members refused to take her in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who all she infected” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.

Shepard says that she’s encountered an increasing number of unsheltered people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to leave. “There was this big push, when isolation and quarantine opened, that they were not going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories coming out about that happening to people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt—when I’ve asked who has had that experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'”—but says they’ve had an impact nonetheless. “The big thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me leave.'” Continue reading “As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites”

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”

Vaccination Resistance at SPD Continues Amid COVID Spike; Harrell Turns Down Police Accountability Debate

1. The highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in Washington, including within the Seattle Police Department. In the past three weeks, 29 officers tested positive for the virus, marking the highest increase in cases within the department since the beginning of the pandemic. SPD also saw cases spike in April, when roughly 20 officers tested positive for the virus.

The new spike also spurred a sharp increase in the number of officers in quarantine. At the beginning of August, only one officer was in quarantine; on Monday, 33 officers were isolating themselves. The number of officers in quarantine reached its peak in late November of last year, when 80 officers quarantined after exposure to the virus; those figures plummeted at the beginning of the year, routinely falling into the single digits.

This month’s increase in infections among police officers comes on the heels of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to require all city employees to receive the COVID-19 before October 18, 2021 or risk termination. The city’s vaccination mandate sparked outcry from the coalition of city unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, who argued that any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule.

In a letter to interim Labor Relations unit head Jeff Clark, coalition co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the October 18 timeline won’t leave enough time for the city to “bargain in good faith”; instead, his coalition demanded that the city not enforce the mandate until it completes negotiations with the unions.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is among the loudest critics of the vaccination mandate. In a letter published on his union’s blog on August 9, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest.

“SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?” A week later, Solan clarified on his podcast that his objection to the mandate “isn’t about whether the vaccine works. That isn’t our lane.”

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules, but the city’s vaccine mandate could provide a chance for the department to start collecting this data.

Van Eyk said Monday that intransigent conservatives aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting jabbed; some employees of color are hesitant, too, because they mistrust a medical system that has historically exploited African Americans and other BIPOC individuals.

2. The state auditor’s reported Monday that the city council’s controversial contract with the nonprofit Freedom Project to oversee the Black Brilliance Research Project last year was built on questionable foundations.

While the council’s decision to award the $3 million no-bid contract to the same organizations that lobbied for the funding didn’t technically break any state rules, state auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a press release on Monday that “the city exercised only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” while handling the contract.

The city council initially set aside dollars to pay for research about public safety spending priorities last fall at the urging of a fledgling coalition called King County Equity Now (KCEN); according to the auditor, the council decided long before awarding the contract that KCEN would receive city dollars to lead the research. But because KCEN wasn’t technically a nonprofit at the time, the council turned to South Seattle-based restorative justice nonprofit Freedom Project to handle finances while KCEN led research teams.

The arrangement allowed the council to award the contract to Freedom Project without a bidding process; in turn, KCEN hired Freedom Project as a sub-sub-contractor. But the collaboration between Freedom Project and KCEN collapsed shortly before the contract’s end in February of this year, driven partially by disputes about late payments to researchers.

In the review, the auditor’s office criticized the council for shaping the $3 million contract to fit KCEN’s proposals before awarding the contract. McCarthy also argued that the council agreed to accept deliverables that were too broad to be meaningful, leaving room for questionable spending and a final research report that didn’t provide a clear blueprint for launching the highly anticipated participatory budgeting process. “The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan last week.

McCarthy’s letter included recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the widely criticized Black Brilliance Research Project contract, including improving how the council documents its decisions about awarding contracts.

Meanwhile, budgetary and administrative disagreements about how to move forward with participatory budgeting have delayed the project—originally intended to begin in the spring of 2021—until next year.

3. Mayoral candidate and former city council member Bruce Harrell turned down an invitation from the Community Police Commission to participate in a general election debate that was supposed to happen in September, prompting the CPC to cancel the debate. The CPC is one of the city’s three police oversight bodies; among other duties, it recommends reforms and weighs in on policy proposals related to policing and police accountability.

Jesse Franz, the spokesman for the CPC, told PubliCola Monday that the CPC had planned to focus specifically on the mayoral election this year, and had no current plans to host debates in the races for city attorney and City Council positions 8 and 9.

As we reported last month, the CPC held a spirited debate over whether to host a candidate forum at all. Some members, including the Rev. Harriett Walden, contended that elections are outside the commission’s scope, while others, such as commission co-chair LaRond Baker, argued that the CPC’s role includes informing the public about potential leaders’ positions on public safety issues.

In a statement issued after PubliCola reported on Twitter that the debate was canceled, the CPC said that although “Bruce Harrell has declined our invitation to participate,” the commission “still hopes to find the best ways to educate and facilitate a community dialogue about the critical issues Seattle’s future mayor will face regarding public safety and police accountability. We hope to share those plans with you at a future date.”

Harrell’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.

City Unions Balk At Vaccine Mandate, Durkan Proposed Asking Homeless Where They Came From, González Moves Ahead

1. A coalition of city employee unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, issued a letter to the interim head of Seattle’s Labor Relations unit on Monday demanding to bargain the effects of the city’s newly announced requirement that all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine before October 18, 2021.

In the letter, Coalition of City Unions co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the vaccine mandate—which would give the city grounds to fire employees who refuse the vaccine without an exemption, and which could open the door for phasing out remote work—will have a “direct impact on working conditions.”

In an email to PubliCola on Monday, Van Eyk clarified that while his coalition generally believes that the mandate is legal, any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule. The areas for debate, he said, could include accommodations for employees who obtain a religious or medical exemption from the mandate, as well as additional protections for employees who have already received the vaccine, such as personal protective equipment or HVAC improvements to ease the transition back to in-person work, for instance.

In a separate letter published on the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) blog on Monday, union President Mike Solan also called for the city to come to the bargaining table to discuss the new mandate, adding that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not consult with SPOG before issuing the mandate.

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules; officers became eligible for vaccination in mid-March. In his letter, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest. “SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?”

PubliCola has reached out to the King County Police Officers Guild, which represents most of the sworn employees in the King County Sheriff’s Office, for their response to the county’s parallel mandate.

2. An email obtained through a public disclosure request confirms that Mayor Durkan’s former homelessness advisor, Tess Colby (now deputy director of the Human Services Department’s homelessness division), asked HSD to require outreach providers that contract with the city to collect information about where every client they work with first became homeless, and to withhold contractors’ funding if they refuse to do so.

In the email to HSD staff, dated January 11, Colby wrote that for “ALL contracts the Mayor wants data collected on prior place of stable housing. This is a question in [the Homeless Management Information System, a database used by the city and county] (although not mandatory) that has a lot of null responses. She wants it replied to by everyone enrolled in HMIS. A way to ensure this happens is through a minimum data quality standard, below which invoices are held until the provider brings the data quality up. There may be other ways. The Mayor will want to see this in each contract prior to execution.”

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The order was never implemented, in part because of objections from service providers, who reportedly said collecting this information from every client would be invasive and unnecessary. Durkan, as we’ve reported, has taken to citing an older statistic suggesting that 40 percent of people who are homeless in Seattle became homeless somewhere else, suggesting that Seattle is a “magnet” because of its homeless services.

Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower confirmed that the city never made the data collection a requirement contractors would have to meet in order to get paid. “Collecting basic data shows the regional nature of homelessness and the degree to which, due to lack of local shelter or services, people are forced to leave their communities and social support systems to seek services elsewhere,” Hightower said. “For example, we know that the City is currently supporting hundreds of individuals who were last stably housed in Kent, Renton, Auburn and Federal Way.”

3. On Monday, city council president Lorena González continued to gain ground in late results from last Tuesday’s mayoral primary, closing the gap with her former council colleague Bruce Harrell to just 2 percent, or 4,051 votes. While she probably won’t quite close that gap—with fewer than 8,000 votes uncounted, González would have to win more than half of all outstanding votes in the 15-way race to top Harrell’s count—the results suggest that pundits who’ve written González off should rethink their casual dismissals.

Meanwhile, city attorney candidate Nicole Kennedy-Thomas, a police abolitionist, contained to widen the lead between herself and second-place finisher Ann Davison, a Republican who has advocated for literally warehousing homeless people. Still, the race is wide open, with 30 percent of voters (those who voted for incumbent Pete Holmes) up for grabs. Holmes has won his last three races by wide citywide margins, so the makeup of his support base (Status quo liberals? Left-leaning realists? Establishment centrists?) is hard to characterize.