Category: labor

Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes

Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro
Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro

By Erica C. Barnett

[Content note: Misogynistic slurs]

As members of the Northwest Carpenters Union began an indefinite strike at work sites across the Puget Sound region on Thursday, union leaders raised questions about potential interference in contract negotiations—and the strike itself—by city council member Kshama Sawant and her political organization, Socialist Alternative.

Sawant and SA, they charged, encouraged people to vote against the union’s proposed contract with the Associated General Contractors and have subsequently encouraged wildcat strikes—pickets and walkouts that occur without union authorization, often on sites where project labor agreements prohibit workers from walking off the job.

“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians,” the union’s executive secretary-treasurer, Evelyn Shapiro, said Thursday.

“We don’t need outsiders coming in and agitating our members in a direction that’s going to get them in trouble or put them in a bad situation.” Unions have strict rules dictating how they can strike and where, Shapiro said; picketing at a site where the union has agreed not to strike because the union and contractor have signed a project labor agreement, for example, can lead to lawsuits and internal charges against union members.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, told PubliCola, “Our job as elected officials is to support union members, period, not to influence how they vote or to try to whip votes in a certain direction. … We’re there to show solidarity when they vote and to make it possible for the wages and benefits that people are negotiating to go even further.”

“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians. We don’t need outsiders coming in and agitating our members in a direction that’s going to get them in trouble or put them in a bad situation.”—Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro

Much of the agitation against the contract, and in favor of wildcat strikes, has come from a group of union members who are active on Facebook, including some self-identified Marxists who believe the contract doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect workers’ wages, health care, and pensions. Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council, said she’s “never seen anything quite this serious in the course of my career, where a small faction of Marxist extremists, with the backing of an elected official, have been able to not just wreak this much havoc inside of a union but been this undermining.”

The contract, which union members rejected last week, included a 20 percent raise over four years and an increase in parking reimbursement to $1.50 an hour, among other conditions. Key points of contention included the size of the wage increase, the length of the contract, and the parking reimbursement, particularly for carpenters who work in Bellevue and downtown Seattle, where people are being “taxed to go to work,” Shapiro said.

Arthur Esparza, a union member (and a Marxist who is unaffiliated with Socialist Alternative) who runs a public Facebook group opposing the contract, confirmed that Sawant’s office did send “liaisons” to support his group but added, “They have no control over our rallies and we’re very independent from Socialist Alternative.” Sawant’s longtime staffer, Jonathan Rosenblum, said her only involvement in the negotiations was a Labor Day “solidarity letter” decrying the carpenters’ working conditions and the “millionaires and billionaires” who profit from union members’ labor. “I am committed to fight alongside you for a good union contract for all carpenters,” the letter said.

However, Sawant also promoted a rally held by contract opponents the week before the final vote, calling the proposed contract terms “substandard” and “insulting.” Rosenblum also opposed the contract publicly on Twitter, calling the terms “lousy” and praising the carpenters’ union for rejecting it after four successive votes.

Rosenblum told PubliCola that Sawant, her staff, and Rosenblum personally played no part in organizing  or rallying against the contract. “Now that the union members have democratically voted to strike, we will of course be supporting them,” he added.

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Commenters on Esparza’s Peter J. McGuire Facebook page—named after the founder of the carpenters’ union— have spent days debating whether to engage in wildcat strikes (for which Esparza received a cease and desist demand from an attorney for the union yesterday). At times, the discussion has devolved into misogynistic personal attacks against Shapiro—the first woman to lead a United Brotherhood of Carpenters regional council in US history.

Men posting on Esparza’s page have called Shapiro, a carpenter who came up through the union apprenticeship program, a “dumb bitch out there trying to take credit for our work,” a “fucking cunt,” and other slurs. One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”

Another man, posting on the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters’ page, wrote, “FUCK YOU SHAPIRO YOU IGNORANT CUNT!!! HOW ABOUT YOU DO THE FUCK WHAT WE WANT OR GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY?”

Monty Anderson, executive secretary for the Seattle Construction and Building Trades Council, told PubliCola that “in 30 years I have never seen this kind of division and sexism until Facebook gave a place for a few on the fringe to be seen and heard. They do not represent labor,” he added; “some just want to watch the world burn.”

One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”

But Grant, from the King County Labor Council, said she has experienced similar treatment as a female union leader. “I feel it strongly when I see a union member calling  somebody from their union, one of their union sisters, a cunt, especially when it’s a member of standing who’s serving the union in elected leadership,”  Grant said. “It’s heartbreaking and scary—the hate crimes on job sites are absolutely real and more frequent than probably anybody would believe. So when I see somebody just being like, ‘she’s a cocksucker, she’s a cunt’, I feel it myself because I’ve had really similar experiences.” Continue reading “Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes”

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.

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”

Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board approved a bare-bones initial staffing plan for the agency on Thursday, but not before a lengthy conversation about the future of labor unions at the new agency—and the future of city employees who currently do the work that’s supposed to move over to the authority next year.

The city’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division, which is part of the Human Services Department, is currently represented by the PROTEC17 union, which also represents county human services workers. KCRHA director Marc Dones has said that they want to hire a whole new team for the agency, and that anyone at the city who wants to keep doing their current work will need to apply for the open positions just like everyone else. Dones has also said that although they support unions in general—saying on Thursday, for example, that “we would be delighted to have one or more unions represent our staff”—union reps and at least one city council member want more reassurances.

On Thursday, Seattle City Council president Lorena González told Dones that the law the city passed agreeing to join the new authority requires “a plan for transitioning staff positions to the new authority.” 

Shaun Van Eyk, the labor representative for PROTEC17, told PubliCola that the union wants any succession plan (an agreement that gives the union the right to represent anyone at the new authority who job falls within the “body of work” that existing union-repped employees are already doing) to include a right of first refusal for employees who remained at their city jobs even as the city repeatedly pushed their layoff dates forward. Although permanent HSI employees have been assured jobs elsewhere in the city, many of the jobs in the division are currently filled by long-term temporary workers, who have no job guarantee once the division shuts down.

“Marc has the ability to not only acknowledge PROTEC17 as the exclusive bargaining representative for those bodies of work, but to offer a right of first refusal for those folks doing that work currently,” Van Eyk said. “Part of my duty in this role is to advocate for our members [who have been] keeping the work going, especially with the delays.” The authority is currently about seven months behind schedule, and it’s far from clear that it will be prepared to take over hundreds of contracts from the city’s homelessness division in January as planned.

The larger question is how the new authority, and Dones in particular, will work with organized labor. King County Executive Dow Constantine appeared unnerved enough by the conversation about succession to add, “If I could just be completely frank, it is unlikely, approaching a zero likelihood, that the county or the city would fund a non-union successor to its union operations. That seems inconceivable.”

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2.  A flyer promoting mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell that arrived in voters’ mailboxes last week included what looked like an unusual disclaimer: “No corporate money paid for this mail piece. Hundreds of local residents gave their own personal money to send you this message.” The mailer, produced by an independent expenditure group called Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, says Harrell, who played for the Huskies, will “go on the offensive to move Seattle forward.”

The claim is a stretch. While Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future is funded by individual donors, the top donors to the IE are employed by, or in charge of, corporations with billions in assets and a huge vested interest in pro-business policies. Among the biggest contributors: Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie and his wife, Alyssa ($100,000); Hunters Capital owner Michael Malone and his wife, Barbara ($25,000); and retired seventh-generation banker Joshua Green III ($10,000).

In fact, the top seven employers of people who contributed to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future (after “not employed”—people who listed their occupation as “retired” or “homemaker,” many of them formerly in real estate or married to real estate bigwigs, made up $98,000 of the group’s approximately $300,000 in contributions) were real estate firms, accounting for $117,750 of the group’s total contributions. So while it’s true that the people who gave money to the pro-Harrell group are “individuals,” their interests could hardly be more corporate if they were writing checks from their company accounts.

Finally: The IE campaign doesn’t have contributions from “hundreds of local residents”; it doesn’t even have 100 contributions, much less 100 from Seattle. About a third of the 79 donors listed at the Public Disclosure Commission live outside city limits, mostly in Eastside suburbs.

3.  An odd new online poll goes far beyond election questions, asking respondents about everything from their support for a future Seattle-only light rail measure to earthquake safety along I-5 to detailed questions about the city’s tree canopy. It’s unclear who’s behind the poll, but the specific issues it highlights dovetail with priorities articulated by council members Lisa Herbold (using bonds to fund bridge maintenance over bike lanes and sidewalks) and Alex Pedersen (bridge money, plus restricting development by preventing tree removal on private property.) Continue reading “Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence

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

By Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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

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

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

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

By Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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

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

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

Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack

1. The city’s removal of a small encampment near Reuben’s Brews in Ballard, part of several scheduled encampment sweeps this week, cleared a sidewalk in front of one business while, less than a block away, other people living in other tents were left alone for now. The city, as we’ve reported, is increasing the pace of encampment sweeps to previous, pre-COVID levels, using a reconfigured and renamed Navigation Team (now known as the HOPE Team) to do outreach and tell people about available shelter beds before they have to leave.

The city prioritizes encampments based on a number of factors, but one is “emergent complaints” from businesses and housed neighborhood residents who contact the city.

Ballard is full of encampments, because Ballard is full of people who have nowhere to live. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the city “requested that outreach efforts… intensify this week with the goal of getting all who are onsite situated into shelter and on a path towards a permanent housing solution,” which suggests that the city has sufficient, desirable shelter and “permanent housing solutions” for everyone who is willing to accept its help.

This, of course, is not true. Although the city has now separated the work of the renamed Navigation Team from actual encampment sweeps (which are performed by Parks cleanup crews), the effect of doing outreach (or, controversially, directing nonprofits that serve specific subpopulations to do the work for them) prior to a sweep, the result is still that people pack up and leave because they know a sweep is coming.

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill.”

Some do go into shelter (the HOPE Team has exclusive access to a large number of beds that aren’t available to other outreach teams); according to the mayor’s office, the outreach provider REACH offered shelter to eight people remaining onsite, and two “accepted shelter referrals.” (Referral “acceptance” is not the same thing as checking in to a shelter.)

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill. A referral indicates that an individual experiencing homelessness has accepted an offer of shelter and they have been connected to an open shelter resource. The majority of these referrals have been into new hotel-based shelter resources.” 

Those resources consist primarily of about 140 beds at the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel. (Another hotel, King’s Inn, is for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and is currently full.) As of January 2020, there were at least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County.

The actual selection of a new Public Health director, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

2. King County Public Health Department director Patty Hayes announced her retirement this week after seven years in the position; Dennis Worsham, the director of the department’s Prevention Division, will be her interim replacement. The county also announced an advisory committee of stakeholders that will “inform the process for recruiting and selecting the next permanent director.”

The actual selection, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

Constantine has been lauded for the county’s timely, prudent public health response during the pandemic, thanks in huge part to the now nationally-recognized leadership of public health officer Jeff Duchin.

The same can’t be said of Durkan, who spent millions renting a hotel for first responders that stood empty while homeless people languished in encampments and crowded shelters; belatedly rented two shower trailers at an astronomical cost while King County deployed similar units at a fraction of the cost; closed restrooms throughout the city and replaced them with unsanitary “sanicans”; delayed the deployment of sinks for people to wash their hands, arguing that “Purell on a pole” could serve the same purpose at lower cost; and resisted providing hotel rooms for people living unsheltered, despite ample evidence that private rooms improve public and individual health for people experiencing homelessness.

PubliCola asked the health department about the timeline for choosing a new director; James Apa, a spokesman for the department, said that’s up in the air, but that the committee should interview finalists “by the end of the year.” Since the mayoral election is November 3, I asked whether the mayor-elect will have a role in the selection process between their election and when the new mayor takes office next January. Apa responded, “We’ll have a better sense of timeline when recruitment begins, and that will determine who’s involved in decision-making.”

3. The Freedom Foundation, an anti-union, anti-government, anti-tax group whose tactics include lawsuits, public relations campaigns, and pressure tactics to convince workers to leave their unions, has turned their sights on MLK Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Nicole Grant, urging union members to “stop supporting Nicole Grant” by opting out of their union membership. Continue reading “Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack”

Weekend Fizz: Capital Gains Tax Moves Forward, Council Staffers Unionize, and Echohawk Challenged on Initiative Support

1. The Senate Democrats weren’t ready to sign off on the version of the historic capital gains tax legislation (SB 5096) that House Democrats passed earlier this week. So the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett) and Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) met with House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47, Covington) to hammer out a compromise version.

On Friday evening, Democrats sent the revised version to the Senate. Both of the House’s referendum protections remain intact in this new version: The Democrats preserved language that says the tax is “necessary” for the government to function and dedicated the first $500 million in revenues from the tax to fund the Education Legacy Trust Account, which locks in the “necessity” clause (under the state constitution, education is the “paramount duty” of the state). Any excess revenue from the tax will be dedicated to an account that funds public school construction.

The new tax is expected to bring in about $445 million during the 2021-23 biennium, $981 million in the 2023-25 biennium, and $1.06 billion between 2025 and 2027.

The bill now includes a new tax deduction for people who donate to charity—a GOP idea that had not made it into any version of the bill until now.

After the meeting, Pedersen told PubliCola his Democratic colleagues added the deduction to get enough votes to pass the bill, saying, “Now it looks like we will be able to get it through both chambers.”

2. After more than a year of negotiations, the Seattle City Council’s central staff—a group of about 30 legal, economic, and policy wonks who draft and analyze legislation for the council—have joined the city’s PROTEC17 union.

Among other guarantees, their new contract increases their pay retroactively for 2019, 2020, and 2021 by 4 percent, 3.6 percent, and 2.9 percent, respectively, and bumps up the minimum maximum pay for their positions by the same percentage. Going forward, the minimum pay for a central staffer will be $42.20 an hour, or $87,776, and salaries will max out at $157,060.

3. Last week, mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston subtly tweaked one of his competitors, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk, for supporting a proposed charter amendment on homelessness sponsored by a group started by former council member Tim Burgess, Compassion Seattle.

“A few people have asked, so we wanted to clarify that, no, Ace has never been formally or informally involved with the organization Compassion Seattle. We cannot speak for other candidates,” Houston tweeted. In response, a Houston supporter pointed out that the Echohawk campaign had apparently taken down a blog post supporting the initiative.

Asked why they took down the blog post, an Echohawk campaign spokesperson responded that the statement featured in the blog post is “all over social media and we’re hosting it on our Adobe Document cloud.” (True.) “So yes, the answer is we had it up on the blog, but took it down because we decided as a campaign to focus communications on social media as it is much more accessible and more people engage with the campaigns social accounts.”

The Chief Seattle Club works to shelter and house homeless Native people in Seattle. Echohawk’s campaign tweeted and did a Facebook post linking the full statement on April 3.

Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

Protesters gather at Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020 (Bruce Englehardt via Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

As protesters began to trickle away from a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, an unmarked Seattle Police Department cruiser waited at an intersection near  department headquarters while a small crowd of demonstrators crossed the street. “God, I fucking hate these people,” said one of the officers in the cruiser as the crowd passed.

A small gap opened in the crowd as the traffic light switched to yellow. The cruiser’s driver—a sergeant, and the most senior of the four officers in the car—flashed the car’s warning lights and accelerated towards the protesters in the crosswalk. A few marchers dove to safety, barely escaping the cruiser as it passed. Onlookers watched as the cruiser sped away. Inside the car, an officer laughed.

Now, misconduct allegations against the sergeant, and how the city handled them, help illuminate how the last year’s protests have pushed the city’s police oversight bodies into uncharted waters.

The case of a sergeant who drove through a crowd of protesters is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

Within months of the incident, the sergeant took a new position as a misconduct investigator with SPD’s Office of Police Accountability. At the time of his transfer, the sergeant’s disciplinary record didn’t raise any red flags. While OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has a hand in deciding which officers transfer to and from his office, he said he wasn’t aware that the sergeant had driven through a group of marchers at the start of last summer’s protests, so he gave his approval to the new arrival.

Then a witness filed a complaint with the OPA about the near-hit-and-run, calling the sergeant’s actions “completely unprofessional and terrifying.” Although the sergeant wasn’t an investigator when he drove the cruiser into the crowd, his case is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

The OPA handed the investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct to a relatively new office: Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency that conducts audits of systemic or policy-based problems within SPD—and, in cases like that of the sergeant, investigates misconduct complaints against OPA staff.

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The OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff may help reveal some of OPA’s own vulnerabilities. As mandated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild—Seattle’s largest police union—nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers. The sergeant’s case revealed an inevitable challenge for the OPA: officers who transfer to the office from other roles in SPD may carry baggage, including a history of misconduct, that isn’t immediately apparent to the OPA director.

OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff relatively quickly could improve Seattle’s police oversight system, but only if the OPA director has the power to remove problematic investigators from their staff. Whether the OPA director can successfully exercise that authority remains untested.

The sergeant also argued that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators.

The OIG is not the first agency to investigate misconduct by OPA staff, but its creation by the Seattle City Council in 2017 vastly improved the efficiency of those investigations. Until 2017, Seattle’s Human Resources Department (or, in some cases, a private attorney) investigated most complaints against OPA staff. That structure was significantly slower than other misconduct investigations, in part because the investigators lacked significant experience in police oversight.

In findings released on April 7, Inspector General Lisa Judge ruled that the sergeant who drove through the crowd on May 30 had violated SPD’s standards for professionalism and safe driving. His decision to drive through a group of demonstrators, she wrote, “put an exclamation point on the community sentiment being expressed during [last summer’s] protests,” as did his failure to chastise his passengers for laughing as protesters dove to avoid their car. Continue reading “Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges”