Category: Police

Ruling Orders UW to Reinstate Police Patrols at Dorms, COVID Hits Home at SPD and City Hall

1. The state Public Employee Relations Commission, which arbitrates labor disputes within state agencies, reversed a decision that allowed unarmed “campus responders” to provide public safety services at University of Washington residence halls and ordered the UW to restore police patrols, represented by a different union, at the dorms. The ruling orders the UW to reassign campus cops to patrol its residence halls.

The university decided to eliminate armed dorm patrols in 2020 after protests against police violence prompted calls to divest from police across the city and nation.

The divided decision, signed by Commissioners Marilyn Sayan and Kenneth Pedersen, found that the university had failed to bargain in good faith with its campus police union when it eliminated unarmed patrols to the dorms in response to student demands for a “more holistic approach to public safety” in 2020. PubliCola broke the news about the latest PERC decision on Saturday, and covered the original decision, which was issued by a PERC examiner, last year.

The case centered on the question of whether the UW and its president, Ana Mari Cauce, had the authority to replace campus police with civilian responders without negotiating the change with the union representing the officers. The university argued that it had the authority to choose its own campus public safety model, without bargaining the changes with the union; the union argued that the issue was a matter of mandatory bargaining, and that the UW was “skimming” work away from the police department—effectively taking away an opportunity for officers to make money and giving it to new employees represented by a different union.

Although no campus police lost their jobs as the result of the shift in duties (the dissenting opinion by Commissioner Mark Busto notes that the police union “did not present evidence that the CPOs suffered any financial impact from the transfer, such as the loss of overtime”), the PERC ruling orders the UW to “make any eligible bargaining unit employees whole, with interest, by paying them wages and benefits lost as a result of the skimming found in this unfair labor practice complaint.”

2. In COVID news, PubliCola has heard from several sources that Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson recently had COVID but failed to inform her coworkers, including at least some council colleagues, about her diagnosis, as the city’s COVID protocols require for all city employees who work outside their homes. Nelson, who often appears on the council dais without a mask, did not respond to a request for comment.

Legislative staff routinely receive exposure notices from Human Resources when someone in their department tests positive and reports it to the city, but there have been significantly more informal reports of COVID than formal notices, meaning that others in the legislative department are not following the policy either. At least two other council members have had COVID, including Councilmember Tammy Morales, who mentioned her diagnosis in a recent public council meeting.

3. Additionally, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’ brother, acting Lieutenant Avery Jaycin Diaz, is on extended leave and reportedly plans to retire after refusing to get vaccinated, which SPD policy requires. Although neither SPD nor Chief Diaz would confirm that nonvaccination was the reason for his brother’s departure, an SPD spokesman did confirm that he has not been on active duty for some time. The spokesman said Avery Diaz had not submitted his official retirement paperwork as of mid-July.

PubliCola was unable to reach Avery Diaz, and the police chief declined to comment on the record about his brother’s departure. Property records show that he sold his house in August 2021.

As of mid-July, SPD had only fired four officers for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates, although some have retired or resigned inton lieu of termination. The department has lost around 400 officers since 2020, most due to resignations or retirements, and Mayor Bruce Harrell recently announced a $2 million “recruitment and retention” plan that would providing hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 to new SPD officers.

Harrell Shakes Up Top Staff, Police Accountability Office Clears Officers Accused of Extortion

NewPhoto of Deputy Mayor Greg Wong
Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Greg Wong

1. Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell informed his cabinet that he had replaced Deputy Mayor for external relations Kendee Yamaguchi, the former executive director for Snohomish County, with Department of Neighborhoods director Greg Wong, a former Pacifica Law Group attorney who took over at DON in February. PubliCola broke the news of Yamaguchi’s departure, and Wong’s promotion, on Twitter Monday morning.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for Yamaguchi’s departure, and an email sent to her city of Seattle address bounced back with a message containing Wong’s contact information.

A press release set to go out today said simply, “Kendee Yamaguchi served an instrumental role during our transition to office and in our early efforts to establish sincere and enduring relationships with stakeholders, organizations, and local leaders,” said Mayor Harrell. “We are grateful for her service and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”

Wong, who lives in southeast Seattle, was the head of the Schools First campaign for the Seattle school levy elections in 2013 and 2016. According to the mayor’s office, he will focus on economic development, community relations, and arts and culture.

2. The Office of Police Accountability declined to sustain, or uphold, any of ten separate allegations in a 2017 case in which two police officers accused another officer of running a “mini-mafia” to prevent new companies from entering the market for off-duty work. The two officers were the founders of called Cops for Hire, since rebranded as Blucadia, that also connects businesses with off-duty officers.

The OPA complaint, which attracted significant attention at the time, accused officers working for Seattle’s Finest, a security company started by a retired SPD officer, of colluding to increase the pay of off-duty officers by intimidating and extorting the companies that contract with the firm, including the owners of Columbia Tower downtown. The OPA wrapped up its investigation in October 2018 but did not release the summary of its findings until last week.

The investigation found that the officer expressed his frustration by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which the officer said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience.”

Police officers can make thousands of dollars in additional income by taking off-duty jobs in security or directing traffic through companies like Seattle’s Finest and Seattle Security, which is affiliated with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.  In some cases, police are paid for a certain number of hours even if they work less—four hours, for example, for two hours’ actual work.

According to the investigation, the officer with Seattle’s Finest, identified by the Seattle Times as MacGregor Gordon, said one of the company’s bargaining tactics was to name a high price for their services, and then—if a building owner balked—withhold their work as parking garage flaggers and force the owners to bear the consequences until they finally gave up and paid the price Seattle’s Finest demanded.

Investigators said they were “hindered” in investigating the claims of extortion because the business owners “refused to discuss the matter unless OPA could guarantee full confidentiality

The investigation also found that Gordon expressed his “frustration with garage management’s attempts to modify his contract” by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which Gordon said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience” with his inflammatory comments

Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole referred the case to the FBI, which decided not to prosecute. We have a call out to OPA for information about why it waited until now to release the summary of its investigation.

Report on Police Oversight Office Recommends Changing Process for Reviewing Misconduct Decisions

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; Reproduced with a Creative Commons license).

By Erica C. Barnett

An external report commissioned by the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) after an investigator was caught approving, or certifying, investigations into police misconduct without proper review found multiple issues that led to poor oversight and communications within the office. But the report also concluded that most of the issues have been addressed since the incidents that prompted the review.

“Nobody likes to get a bad report card,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “I believe that audits and reports like this that highlight areas for improvement and change make people and organizations better. This is the work that OIG does, so if I believe in it to help other organizations be better, I have to believe in it for myself and my organization.”

The OIG—a city office established by Seattle’s 2017 police accountability ordinance—is one of three entities charged with overseeing police accountability in Seattle; the others are the Community Police Commission and the Office of Police Accountability, an independent office inside the Seattle Police Department.

When someone files a complaint alleging police misconduct, the OPA reviews the complaint and decides, based on interviews and evidence, whether the complaint is valid and if it merits discipline; the police chief is in charge of deciding whether and how to discipline an officer. The OIG’s role in this process is to oversee the OPA and make sure their decisions are fair and valid.

The report, conducted by Los Angeles-based OIR Group, makes two substantive recommendations, along with nine recommendations that deal with management practices, employee wellness, and communications between the OIG and OPA.

According to the report, OIG moved Finnell out of what was then a two-person investigations unit in response to the complaint, “but no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations. Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

First, it recommends that the office return to its previous practice of investigating reports the OPA closes without investigation by designating them as “Contact Log”—a determination that indicates that no officer was involved in an incident or that OPA doesn’t have enough information to investigate—individually, rather than doing quarterly audits of a sample of cases. This year, the OIG began reviewing individual contact log determinations after the fact, and will begin doing these reviews in real time next month. On Monday, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold praised this new policy in her committee.

In 2021, the OIG’s annual report said that the office agreed with OPA’s “contact log” determinations 81 percent of the time, although that average reflected a dramatic drop, to 49 percent, after it switched to doing quarterly samples instead of individual reviews midyear. Many of the cases that were classified this way involved allegations of “serious misconduct,” including charges of bias and use of force during widespread protests against police brutality in 2020. The OIG made no judgment about whether the complaints themselves were valid or would have led to discipline.

Second, it recommends that OIG should have the authority to weigh in on OPA’s decisions before they go to SPD and to  what kind of discipline is appropriate for cops who violate policy or the law. “[I]nvolving the OIG in this process and requiring regular reporting on what it is finding would result in a level of transparency regarding this aspect of SPD’s accountability system that currently does not exist,” the report says.

The report itself came out of a series of complaints involving an investigator who was signing off on cases without reviewing them thoroughly. In 2020, an OIG investigator raised unspecified issues about another investigator, Anthony Finnell, and he was reassigned to another function that did not involve reviewing OPA investigations.

According to the report, after Finnell moved out of investigations, “no formal action was taken to investigate or address the allegations.  Most significantly, there was no formal ‘course correction’ with the identified employee to ensure that Office expectations would be met for any future case reviews.”

Later, apparently without Judge’s knowledge, Finnell was moved back to the investigations unit and started certifying cases was certifying OPA cases—determining that they were “thorough, timely, and objective,” as required by the 2017 ordinance—without looking at all the evidence.which eventually prompted a review of the unit that revealed a “broader problem” with investigations.

The South Seattle Emerald reported on Finnell’s certification of cases without reviewing evidence, and the fact that he continued to work in the investigations unit, last year.

Those issues surfaced in 2020 and 2021, but they were not the first time investigators had been discovered improperly certifying cases. In fact, another former employee was fired by OIG in 2019 after certifying cases without fully reviewing evidence and changing dates to meet certification deadlines, multiple sources say.

“The buck does stop with me when it comes to the credibility of OIG,” Judge told PubliCola. “To the extent somebody working in my office wasn’t carrying out their duties in a way that fosters trust, [that] is not acceptable, so that’s why it was important to me to have an external person looking at this.”

The report refers repeatedly to “personality” clashes within the office between investigators who had very different approaches to the OPA and its work, ranging from adversarial to accommodating, and tremendous burnout and pressure to issue judgment on the OPA’s decisions in cases filed during the 2020 protests. “Within the office, tension among the Investigations team was palpable, with members hardly speaking to each other and accusations about one member’s work ethic and integrity being raised with management,” according to the report.

Many of these conflicts reportedly arose over whether to approach OPA with suspicion and confrontation—an approach that may turn up issues others miss but can foster ill will—or trust and accommodation, an approach that builds respectful working relationships but can lead to laxer oversight. At least four of the people who were involved in various iterations of this conflict, including Finnell, are no longer with the office.

Retired judge Anne Levinson, who served as the civilian auditor overseeing OPA before the OIG was established in 2018, said the report reveals the need for oversight agencies to continually examine their work and change their policies in response to new information and evolving expectations.

“Just as the oversight system works to ensure that police leadership regularly examine their policies, systems, and training when incidents, complaints, audits, or other indicators flag a need for improved practice, oversight officials too must adapt, examine, and improve,” Levinson said, pointing to recent legislation addressing complaints naming the police chief, the use of body-worn video, and reforms to the county’s inquest process. “I view this kind of report not as indication that the sky is falling, but rather as a good thing—OIG leadership recognized they could do better, and they asked for outside review and guidance.”

“In addition, with the appointment by the Mayor of the next OPA Director, the report is well-timed as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations.”

In addition, Levinson noted, Mayor Bruce Harrell just appointed a new OPA director, Gino Betts, to replace former director Andrew Myerberg, who is now a public safety advisor to Harrell. “The report is well-timed, as the agencies can level-set and refine approaches to best follow through on these recommendations,” she said.

Most of the staff mentioned in the report are no longer with the OIG, and the investigations staff has grown from two investigators to three investigators plus a supervisor.

Council IDs Funds for 911 Alternative Pilot, Prosecutor Won’t Pursue Charges Against Police Who Killed Lyles

1. City council members Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who have advocated for creating an alternative response system for 911 calls that do not require police, sponsored a change to the city’s 2022 budget that sets aside $1.2 million originally budgeted for former mayor Jenny Durkan’s “Triage One” program to pay for a future “alternative response model” for these calls.

Although the money is currently frozen—Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office wants to reserve it to help backfill an anticipated budget shortfall next year—the amendment moves the money out of the Seattle Fire Department in case the council and mayor’s office can agree on a pilot proposal this year.

As we’ve reported, the city has backed away from its initial commitment to quickly fund alternatives to traditional police-based 911 response, made in the immediate aftermath of citywide protests against police violence sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and recently outlined a process for standing up a new public safety department in 2024. Council members have expressed frustration about the slow timeline, arguing that the city could create a pilot program now and see how it goes, rather than waiting years to start.

Using the cost estimates for Triage One, Lewis had council staff create a spreadsheet with a very rough estimate of what a pilot civilian response program, along the lines of CAHOOTS in Eugene, OR or the STAR program in Denver, would cost. The total for a three-person pilot—”basically one van,” Lewis said—came out to about $940,000, or about one-quarter of one percent of the $355 million the city budgeted for the police department last year.

Lewis noted that the cost could be lower if, for example, the new team used existing city cars instead of buying a $100,000 new custom Ford F150 (Durkan’s Triage One budget called for three) or if they found space that cost less than the previous estimate of $20,000 a month.

Ultimately, it will be up to Harrell’s office to decide whether they want to spend the money on a pilot program for new responders, or to help fill the city’s budget gap, which could total well over $100 million. The city budget office will release its latest revenue forecast next month.

2. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced Thursday that he would not prosecute the two police officers who shot and killed Charleena Lyles in her apartment in 2017, citing the fact that the law in place at the time effectively exonerated officers who acted “without malice and with a good faith belief that [a shooting] is justifiable.”

In a memo explaining his decision not to prosecute, Satterberg cited testimony during the inquest from experts who agreed “that the use of deadly force was necessary given the circumstances.” Hearing similar testimony, Satterberg wrote, “a criminal jury would likely conclude that the use of deadly force was necessary.”

An inquest earlier this month found that the officers did not violate the law or SPD policies on use of force when they killed Lyles, a 31-year-old Black woman whose history of mental illness was known to both officers, in 2017.

After voters passed Initiative 940 in 2018, the state legislature removed the “malice” standard and required officers to go through additional training in de-escalation and mental health.

In a memo explaining his decision not to prosecute, Satterberg cited testimony during the inquest from experts who agreed “that the use of deadly force was necessary given the circumstances.” Hearing similar testimony, Satterberg wrote, “a criminal jury would likely conclude that the use of deadly force was necessary.”

The inquest process itself is designed to make very narrow determinations about responsibility; in Lyles’ case, the six-person jury was only instructed to answer “yes,” “no,” or “unknown” to a list of 170 factual questions. King County reformed its inquest process in 2018 to give families access to an attorney and to give inquest juries more latitude in deciding whether officers followed department policy. The inquest into Lyles’ shooting was only the second inquest, and the second to find a police shooting justified, since the state supreme court allowed inquests to restart under the new rules last year.

New Police Accountability Director Gino Betts Has His Work Cut Out for Him

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell announced this week that he was appointing Chicago prosecutor Gino Betts as head of the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. Betts served as the Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney; before that, he was an attorney at Chicago’s OPA equivalent, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

During a public forum in June, Betts emphasized his support for transparency into the disciplinary process, including when officers are  lose their certification to work as police officers from the state Criminal Justice Training Commission. (The state legislature expanded the list of potential reasons for decertification earlier this year.)

“We shouldn’t have officers floating from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, looking for employment” after being decertified, Betts said, “and I think [the list of officers who have been decertified] should be expanded to a national database. If you were SPD and you were disciplined or terminated, you shouldn’t be able to go to Chicago and become an officer.”

Betts also expressed support for taking accountability measures off the table during collective bargaining with police unions. Officers’ most recent contract, for example, allows officers to appeal the police chief’s disciplinary decisions to an outside arbitrator, a process that has led to several high-profile reinstatements, including a parking enforcement officer who expressed support for lynching and a police officer who punched a handcuffed woman in the face.

“I think police [unions] have done a masterful job, not only here in Seattle but nationwide, of turning what has historically been a labor negotiation [that] would consist of salaries, benefits and vacation days, things of that nature, and making it into a legal shield against police accountability,” Betts said.

The OPA has been without a permanent director since January, when former director Andrew Myerberg became Harrell’s public safety director. The office faces a significant backlog and sustains (upholds) allegations against officers infrequently.

Last week, the office declined to sustain one complaint against an officer who fired a 40mm launcher at a man who was apparently having a mental health crisis; the officer shot the weapon, which uses “less-lethal” projectiles, at the man after he tossed something in the officer’s direction from inside his apartment.

The OPA also declined to sustain any allegations against an officer who worked nine hours of overtime during two days when he was suspended without pay for a separate incident; although the summary of the case notes that this same officer had previously claimed excessive overtime (turning in timesheets indicating he worked over 90 hours a week) at least 15 times, the OPA determined that the issue was a lack of “sufficient supervisory oversight,” not the officer’s actions.

On Twitter, DivestSPD identified this officer as Joel Nark, a now-retired officer who had previously been suspended for claiming overtime he did not work. Although Nark retired from SPD (and was not interviewed by OPA in this latest case), he still serves on the three-member Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), which hears certain appeals from police and firefighters who were fired, demoted or suspended; PubliCola covered his most recent election for the position last year.

Harrell’s Police Hiring Plan Looks Awfully Familiar

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Mayor Bruce Harrell
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Mayor Bruce Harrell at SPD headquarters Wednesday

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell and Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a $2 million “recruitment and retention plan”  for Seattle police officers that would provide bonuses of up to $30,000 to trained officers from elsewhere who join the department and up to $7,500 to new recruits, putting Seattle’s hiring incentives roughly in line with those in other nearby cities. The city has lost 109 officers this year, according to Diaz, about two-thirds of them to retirement.

To make up for those losses, Harrell wants to hire about 500 new officers over the next five years, increasing the number of officers  from less than 1,000 to at least 1,400—the same number SPD has been saying it needs since at least 2020, when attrition first hit record-breaking highs. The $2 million investment would include about $1 million the city council released for recruitment incentives earlier this year, plus an additional $1 million that would require council approval.

Entry-level police officers start out making around $84,000 a year. That figure doesn’t not counting overtime and off-duty work, like directing traffic at parking garages and construction sites, which can bump officers’ take-home pay well into the six figures.

Despite the fact that experienced officers are still leaving the department in large numbers, Harrell’s proposal does not include retention bonuses for people already working in the department—a seeming oversight that Diaz said would be rectified during negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which are ongoing.

“It’s been nearly two years since the Council requested an analysis of what types of 911 calls could be responded to without police involvement. … Despite consistent requests from myself and other Councilmembers to act with urgency, we have not received a favorable response from the executive.”—Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold

“Mayor Harrell’s proposal includes a competitive economic package to focus on retention,” Diaz said, but “we can’t highlight a dollar amount.” In addition to more money for officers, Diaz said, “We’re hoping to get a little bit more time off for officers, because, you know, in this line of work, there’s a lot of stress” from responding to calls and dealing with traumatic situations. The retention proposal also includes incentives for higher education, more predictable shifts, and “a comprehensive wellness program.”

None of the proposals Harrell rolled out this week are particularly unique, and some are already in the works, such as the potential transition to four-day work weeks with ten-hour shifts. Nor have hiring incentives been particularly effective at recruiting qualified officers, particularly experienced “lateral” hires from other police departments, in the past.

A Seattle Department of Human Resources review of two different hiring bonus programs from 2019 and 2021 found that hiring bonuses had little or no effect on actual hires, although 18 percent of people who applied for SPD jobs in 2019 said the bonus was one reason they put in an application. Cities across the country are struggling to recruit and retain police officers, and Diaz has noted that officers who leave the department often cite working conditions and morale as reasons for quitting.

When existing employees see new hires walking through the door with tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets, that can create its own strain on morale. Meanwhile, many other departments are facing similar recruitment and retention issues, but have not inspired a similar level of attention and investment from the city—something council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold has pointed out on many occasions.

In a statement, Herbold said she agrees with Harrell that “hiring police officers is important,” but added that the city has taken few tangible steps toward setting up an alternative response system for situations that don’t require an armed response.

“We can’t keep asking police officers to direct traffic and help people in mental health crises when we don’t have enough officers to investigate sexual assaults or respond to 911 calls,” Herbold said. “It’s been nearly two years since the Council requested an analysis of what types of 911 calls could be responded to without police involvement. … Despite consistent requests from myself and other Councilmembers to act with urgency, we have not received a favorable response from the executive.”

Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?

Health One vehicle, 2019
Seattle rolled out its Health One program, part of the Seattle Fire Department, in 2019. Since then, progress on alternatives to traditional policing have been small-scale and ad hoc.Seattle City Council from Seattle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

More than two years have passed since the protests against police violence that erupted after George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020, and many of the changes the city considered in the aftermath of those protests have failed to materialize.  Beyond the demonstrable fact that the police have not been “defunded”—reductions in SPD’s budget have been modest, and most have come from shifting jobs into other departments, not actual cuts—the whole idea of “community safety” has been largely abandoned in favor of “reform,” an idea that has been around for decades.

In Seattle, initial reforms, which were supposed to be followed quickly by more meaningful changes, included a lot of administrative shuffling, with mixed results. Parking enforcement officers now work for the Department of Transportation, not SPD, a move that has prompted a complaint at the state Public Employee Relations Commission alleging unfair labor practices and that forced the city to refund millions of dollars in parking tickets.

Separately, the city’s 911 system moved out of the police department and into a new department called the Community Safety and Communications Center. Although reformers hoped the CSCC would be able to direct some calls, such as those involving a mental health crisis, to civilian responders, that process has stalled. Earlier this summer, SPD began explaining why.

According to a recent presentation to the city council’s public safety committee by SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey and senior research scientist Loren Atherley, a frequently cited SPD analysis concluding that 12 percent of 911 calls “can and should be explored for alternative responses starting now,” as a report from then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s office put, it was flawed. The 12 percent number was based on a report from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR)  that found that nearly 80 percent of 911 calls in Seattle were “non-criminal” in nature.

In fact, the SPD officials told the committee, the city should never have used the NICJR report as the basis for staffing recommendations in the first place, because it relied on “perfect,” after-the-fact information about how various types of calls were ultimately resolved. In real time and in advance, “it’s very difficult to tell what is being described over the phone what you are dealing with,” Atherley told the council.

SPD’s “risk matrix” locates different types of 911 calls on a grid with two dimensions: The severity of the outcome and the likelihood it will happen. Currently, according to SPD, the department responds to all calls as if they are in the red “extreme” zone.

“The NICJR report that called for the vast majority of our calls to be categorized as appropriate for civilian response— honestly and directly, we take issue with it,” Maxey added. “The 12 percent that we discussed last summer—I don’t want to call it a back-of-the-envelope analysis, but it was far less sophisticated than the approach we are taking right now.”

That new approach involves using a “risk matrix” to categorize every 911 call based on the likelihood of various outcomes if an armed responder is not present, ranging from “negligible” to “catastrophic”. The risk matrix is based on safety management systems in commercial aviation, which determines risk based on a complex analysis of past events to decide which kinds of risks are acceptable and which must be avoided at all costs. Currently, according to SPD, every call gets treated as if it’s likely to be catastrophic; the point of the analysis is to figure out which calls don’t require an “all-hazards” response.

At a followup committee meeting last month, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell said this analysis will enable the city to determine  “what is the consequence of not having an armed response a sworn response? And what is the likelihood that there will be a bad outcome without a sworn response?”

So far, SPD’s analysis has determined that there are about 42,000 different types of 911 calls—meaning that of the 400,000 or so calls the CSCC receives every year, each call type occurs an average of ten times a year. “Maybe that’s too granular,” Deputy Mayor Harrell said in an interview. “Maybe we can we can put those together. But there’s certainly themes, and there’s overlays to that in which we can in which we can say yeah, there are there are a significant number of calls that do not necessarily need a police response.”

The CSCC’s interim director, Chris Lombard, did not respond to requests for an interview.

City council members impatient for changes have questioned whether SPD and the mayor’s office are slow-walking the analysis on purpose to delay taking action. Pointing to cities like Denver, Eugene, Houston, and Albuquerque that have implemented alternative response models—including “co-responder” models that pair police and mental health professionals and triage models where low-risk crisis calls go directly to non-police responders—council member Andrew Lewis argues that there’s no need to wait for a lengthy analysis before starting to reroute some low-level calls.

I don’t know what is unique or special about our city that we cannot do this basic work, but I would like to… figure out how to put forward a very precise, efficient, and disciplined timeline to deliver on this critical body of work and not treat it like it is something that is unprecedented or obscure or difficult to do,” Lewis said at the council’s weekly briefing this past Monday. Continue reading “Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?”

Bike Board Member Asks for Encampment Ban Near Bike Lanes, Poll Tests Streetcar Popularity; Council Clarifies “Z-Disposition” for 911 Calls

1. Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Dr. Doug Migden wrote to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office earlier this year to complain about the homeless people he sees while riding his bike, and to suggest legislation that would ban people from sleeping within up to 200 feet of any bike facility or sidewalk.

“First, I voted for Mr. Harrell and the primary reason is that crime and encampment related filth in Seattle is now totally unacceptable,” Migden’s letter begins. “I have lived on the north end of Queen Anne, in a house I own, since 1997. Unfortunately I’ve never seen Seattle in such a mess.”

Council member Alex Pedersen installed Migden on the bike board earlier this year, rejecting a different nominee the board identified through a months-long recruitment and nomination process. The bike board advocates for and advises the city on policies to make Seattle safer and more welcoming to cyclists from all backgrounds, including low-income and homeless people.

Given that “bicycle commuters in West Seattle can’t even safely get to downtown because of encampments and illegal activity such as IV drug use on or adjacent to bicycle pathways,” Migden continued in his letter, “how about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces. This is not too much to ask and it’s certainly doable. Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.”

“How about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces.  Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Doug Migden

Yes, Migden wrote, it’s important to “take care of” truly “vulnerable populations,” but a lot of the homeless people he sees around are able-bodied men who “are not mentally ill,” are “in no distress,” and are well-off enough to “indulge” in cell phones. “[S]tratification and picking apart which illegal campers truly need assistance and which ones are basically freeloading off of responsible citizens who pay taxes etc., is crucial,” Migden wrote.

The mayor’s office, in a standardized response, told Migden they would forward the information about the encampments he reported (including “disgusting RVs” in Fremont and Ballard) to the city’s encampment cleanup squad.

2. A recent poll tested voters’ opinions about completing the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar project, along with various local funding options, such as increasing the commercial parking tax, increasing the local vehicle licensing fee, and increasing local sales taxes, already among the highest in the country.

The poll, conducted last week, seems to favor streetcar completion—stating, for example, that federal funding could cut the $350 million estimated cost of the streetcar almost in half, but is only available for a limited time. (Federal funding for the streetcar is far from certain, although, as the Urbanist pointed out earlier this year, a potential $75 million request for federal funding still gets a “high” rating from the Federal Transit Administration.)

“Connecting Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines just makes sense,” one of the poll’s test messages begins. (Many polls test messages that could be used for or against a proposal or person during a future campaign.) “This project will link our busiest transportation hubs serving people coming downtown by bus, light rail, ferry, Sounder, and Amtrak train creating a more seamless and convenient transportation system.”

Former mayor Jenny Durkan paused work on the downtown streetcar connection in 2018, citing cost overruns. Before and since then, streetcar skeptics have argued that the downtown line is redundant with existing bus and light rail service and would not serve enough riders to justify the ballooning cost. Last year, the city council gave the long-moribund streetcar a kickstart by providing $2.4 million in funding to resume work on the project.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll; local political consultants, transit advocates, business groups, and streetcar proponents all told PubliCola it wasn’t them.

3. During an update on the city’s efforts to established an alternative response system for 911 calls that don’t require an armed response, city council public safety committee attempted to clarify an issue that recently confounded a prominent local columnist: The so-called “Z disposition” the Seattle Police Department gives to certain low-priority calls.

Previously, committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, dispatchers would routinely put the 911 system into “priority call status,” meaning that calls that didn’t rank in SPD’s top two “priority” designations (which include violent crimes and crimes in progress) would not get any response at all. Now, an officer reviews lower-priority calls before deciding whether they merit a response before dismissing them. “In my mind, that’s that’s a better approach, because at least you’re having somebody on the ground with law enforcement expertise making that decision,” Herbold said.

In April, she added, the city’s Office of Police Accountability recommended establishing a clearer system for assigning low-priority calls, in response to a high-profile complaint about two officers who ate breakfast near the Ballard library rather than responding immediately to a call about a person asleep inside their car.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said that in her view, the new system is actually worse, because under “priority call status,” police would at least tell low-priority callers to call back or give them a general estimate of when they might hear back about their call. “There is a customer service issue going on with the call with the system right now with no communication and that’s why people are getting upset,” Nelson said.

Efforts to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls remain largely stalled, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain any changes to the SPD-centric 911 response system.

Times Columnist Wants Seattle To Have So Many Cops, They’ll Rush Across Town to Arrest IPhone Thieves

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote that the Seattle Police Department was recently forced to adopt a new policy to keep track of all the calls they’re no longer able to respond to. “It’s called the ‘Z protocol,'” Westneat claimed. “I don’t know why they picked the letter ‘Z.’ Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?”

Westneat’s characterization of the new police policy—as an acknowledgment that police are no longer able to do their jobs— was wrong. In reality, the new “z disposition” (not “protocol,” although that does sound more dystopian) means that more people will have eyes on low-priority calls before the police department decides not to show up. That’s because it replaces an older policy, known as “priority call handling,” that was in place for most days during each of the past three years.

Under that policy, most low-priority calls would never even get to the police department; instead, 911 responders would tell callers to report the incident online or call back later. Now, these low-priority calls get dispatched and screened by a police supervisor, who decides whether they merit a police response and what kind of response is appropriate. For people, like Westneat, who blame slow call response times at least partly on what Westneat calls a “political class hostile to the idea of policing,” this greater police involvement ought to be something to celebrate.

If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to his iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

Prioritizing calls by urgency isn’t some new phenomenon brought on by staffing shortages; it’s a basic part of policing in every city in America. In Seattle, the police have long deprioritized calls that fall into the “Priority 3” and “Priority 4” categories, largely because many of them don’t require an immediate police response.

Priority 4 calls are non-emergency calls that may not require any written report. Priority 3 calls include complaints about illegal parking, fireworks illegal bonfires, and off-leash dogs. Many Priority 3 calls are the kind of situations that tend to resolve themselves; others are crimes that don’t require an immediate response, like package theft and car break-ins. Overall, police response times for these kind of calls have been slow for many years, because the police have more important things to do—like responding to Priority 1 (risk to life or serious injury or crimes in progress) and Priority 2 (altercations or situations that could escalate) calls.

The two examples of “Z-Protocol territory” Westneat describes in his column are good examples of Priority 3 calls—calls the police have always responded to more slowly than higher-priority emergencies. Both involve iPhones whose owners (Westneat and “a guy I know,” respectively) decided to chase down the thieves using the “find my iPhone” function, and were annoyed to learn that police don’t drop whatever they’re doing to rush to the scene of a petty theft.

“Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system,” Westneat complained.

This privileged view of what police are for (“What has this city come to when the cops won’t even show up to arrest a perp I’ve tracked and collared myself?”) is easy to dismiss as a macho version of the Karen complex—the idea that the city should fund cops so lavishly that every low-level complaint would get an instant, in-person response.

But demands to have police respond in person to every emergency and nonemergency also serve as a counternarrative to the idea that not every situation requires or benefits from the presence of uniformed officers with guns. If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to their iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.

This has been amply debated. I would argue that the debate has even been settled—there is now broad consensus on the basic principle that not every call requires a police response. “Defund the police”—which never happened—was always about how to fill the gaps, by setting up and funding alternative systems for responding to situations that should never have fallen to police in the first place, like mental health crises.

Westneat called “z disposition” a “white flag” to criminals. In reality, it’s an acknowledgement that police resources, which will always be limited, have to be prioritized. Not everything is an emergency. The police, and political leaders, could do a better job of making this fact clear, by communicating transparently that the police will not show up for every kind of call, and by providing and promoting alternative options for resolving issues that aren’t actual emergencies. In the long run, many calls should be shifted away from police, and handed off to more appropriate responders at the point of dispatch.

Let’s keep Z disposition, though—and reserve it for people who treat 911 like their personal complaint line.

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”