Category: public safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PubliCola Questions: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy

Credit: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy campaign website

By Erica C. Barnett

When public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy decided to run for city attorney in May, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, one fueled by her frustration that there were no candidates in the race who believed that the current criminal legal system is not just flawed but broken.

Thomas-Kennedy didn’t expect to end up with more votes than incumbent Pete Holmes, or that she’d be facing off against Ann Davison, a three-time candidate who joined the Republican Party during the Trump administration and whose spotty record as an attorney dried up around 2010. Davison ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket, led by far-right conspiracy theorist and gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, in 2020, after running for Seattle City Council the previous year with a platform that included plans to confine unhoused people in large warehouses.

Now, the unabashed abolitionist—Thomas-Kennedy argues that we can eliminate the need for police and prisons by “developing programs and support systems for our communities to decrease the need for police”— is in the spotlight. Critics, including some former elected officials and the Seattle Times’ ill-informed editorial board, have created a cartoon version of the candidate, claiming she wants to unlock jail doors and end all criminal prosecutions. Cable news, social media, and—again—the Seattle Times’ ill-informed editorial board have also shown an almost pathological obsession with tweets Thomas-Kennedy posted during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, turning them into endless #content while soft-pedaling Davison’s hard-right views and her lack of qualifications.

The tweets, which cheered property destruction and violence against cops, look bad when taken out of the larger context in which they were posted (the 2020 protests against police violence; Twitter) and splashed across cable-news websites and Facebook feeds; if they were someone’s campaign platform, they would be disqualifying. But they aren’t a political platform; they’re tweets —tweets expressing a growing mainstream consensus in the summer of 2020 that the criminal justice system was beyond repair.

Nonetheless, the tweets seem to be all anybody wants to talk about. That’s a shame, because Thomas-Kennedy’s plan for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is far more nuanced and thoughtful than the hysterical headlines suggest. Those who say they disagree with her ideas should be willing to actually listen to what they are.

PubliCola sat down with Thomas-Kennedy last week. We talked briefly about the tweets before jumping into her plans for the city attorney’s office, what it means to stop prosecuting misdemeanors, and how she would defend legislation that she personally finds abhorrent.

PubliCola: Can you tell me a bit about where your mind was at when you were posting on Twitter in June 2020? I know was a time of really heightened emotions.

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: I was outraged. People went out to protest racist policing and the Seattle Police Department responded with a level of retaliation that I was not expecting, including tear-gassing the neighborhood I live in 11 times. And, you know, I had to buy a gas mask for my nine-year-old daughter. And, yeah, I was really upset, and I feel like I had every right to be. They’re not private citizens, they’re out here as a group, making these decisions that affect other people—that kill people. I remember the guy that called into the city council meeting saying, “My infant was foaming at the mouth from tear gas,” and it kept happening. So that’s kind of where my head was.

PC: What has the fallout been like for you in the campaign and how has it impacted your ability to focus on the issues in your race?

NTK: Initially, we were just like, “This is dumb.” Like, let’s not give any heat to this. But it’s just being pushed so heavily now that I have had to address it in the media, which to me is just an utter waste of time. Because my opponent is so deeply unqualified for this role and doesn’t understand what the job is. And my platform is backed by evidence, by stuff that’s happened in other places that have shown to be effective. We’re all, I think, pretty aware of the fact that mass incarceration is a failed social experiment. And we are not the safest country in the world even though we lock up the most people.

“At the end of the day, the job is to be the defender for the city of Seattle. And so if there are elected officials that make these crappy laws, I don’t really get to say, ‘I don’t want to do that.'”

I’m here to make things better. And if people have to hate me for it, then I’m fine with that. And  the unfortunate thing about the tweets is that it gave [Davison’s supporters] something to distract with. I think that’s the worst part, because I do think that my knowledge, my plan is very tight. I’m specific about what I’m going to do. I know what needs to happen, and it’s really hard to speak back to that. I mean, my opponent really doesn’t talk in specifics, ever.

PC: If you win, what are your top priorities for your first weeks and months in office? Do you plan to shake things up at the office itself?

NTK: I’m going to leave the civil division largely as it is. I do think Pete was doing a great job in the civil division defending the JumpStart tax and [prosecuting] the lawsuits against Monsanto over polluting the Duwamish. I would like to call in a couple progressive, more aggressive lawyers over there. But I don’t intend to make huge changes over there because it is working.

In the criminal division, I’m going to come in with my policies laid out: This is how they’re going to be implemented, this is how we’re going to do things from now on. There’s a huge backlog of cases, which is I think a great opportunity to really turn the corner with how we’re doing things, prosecution-wise.

I anticipate having maybe one or two more attorneys making the direct decisions about which cases to file, because my policy on filing is going to be much more nuanced. It’s not just going to be like a prosecute-or-not type situation. And then also, what can we do to make sure [unnecessary prosecutions aren’t] happening again moving forward? Because, you know, putting somebody to jail for sleeping under an awning doesn’t make them less likely to need to sleep under an awning.

PC: Are you concerned that there’s going to be a brain drain, either on the civil or the side? A lot of people who have worked for Pete for a long time are leaving, because they have concerns if you win, and they have concerns if Ann wins.

NTK: On the civil side, I think that’s a much bigger danger, just because there is a lot of institutional knowledge there. So one of the responsibilities that I will have going in, if I get elected, is to start talking to people in the civil division and letting them know that I want the work that they’re doing to continue and to see if they will stay under me.

In the criminal division, I’m not so concerned about that because there is no shortage of lawyers that want to do things the way that I am proposing. And because it is pretty different than what they’re doing now, I do anticipate a lot of people leaving. But there’s a lot of lawyers in this town that have reached out to me that would want to work in that division.

PC: If you have a mayor and potentially a city council who are proposing and passing laws that you personally consider abhorrent, are you going to be able to defend those laws, or would you feel the need to farm that work out to private attorneys?

NTK: I think that the city attorney has to work with the council and the mayor to craft defensible legislation and defensible policy. So that would be the role of the city attorney—not necessarily directing where policy should go or how it should go, but really making it as defensible as possible.

PC: What if someone living in their car sued to strike down the law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours and you had to defend that law. How would you go about doing that?

NTK: Unfortunately, I think that’s part of the job. I was a public defender, and I did not agree with everything that my clients were accusing doing, yet I was their defense attorney. I don’t see it as any different than that. At the end of the day, the job is to be the defender for the city of Seattle. And so if there are elected officials that make these crappy laws, I don’t really get to say, “I don’t want to do that.”

“The goal is to end misdemeanor prosecution. Do I think that I can get there in four years? I don’t know. I don’t know if it can happen in eight, 12 years. But that is the goal, because ultimately what we know is a lot of the prosecutions don’t result in actual repair or safety.”

I do think that a bigger issue is implementation. So when it comes to the criminal realm, it’s not like a prosecutor files every time a law is broken. We know that only some people are criminalized. There is a recognition within the criminal system that it would be impossible to prosecute every single person for everything. So I would have to probably defend the legitimacy of the law, but if it’s a criminal matter, that doesn’t mean it has to be enforced.

PC: On the flip side, the city attorney can push an agenda from within their limited scope, and they can help the mayor and the council draft laws that reflect the city’s values. What kind of legislation would you be excited to work on and defend?

NTK: I’m really excited to defend the JumpStart tax and fair housing—all of our tenant protections. I’m really excited about that, which why I think the developers are really angry at me. Any sort of progressive revenue would be the thing that I would be most excited about, along with anything related to climate change. I think those two things are really intertwined in a lot of ways, because climate change is here, and we’re going to need revenue to deal with and to survive this crisis.

PC: How would you approach criminal prosecutions against people accused of misdemeanors? Is your plan to stop prosecuting certain laws on day one, and how realistic is that, given how slow the city has been to fund things like alternatives to arrest and prosecution?

NTK: The goal is to end misdemeanor prosecution. Do I think that I can get there in four years? I don’t know. I don’t know if it can happen in eight, 12 years. But that is the goal, because ultimately what we know is a lot of the prosecutions don’t result in actual repair or safety. I mean, prostitution—I’m never, ever going to prosecute that. Drug possession—not gonna prosecute that either. But for most things, it’s going to take a really nuanced approach to see what is really going on. Sometimes people think of criminal cases as if they’re really this very straightforward thing, and it never, ever is. And so that’s why I’m really hesitant to say that there are specific crimes that I wouldn’t prosecute, because there’s always going to be some weird fact pattern out there. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Nicole Thomas-Kennedy”

Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors

1. The City Council voted on Monday to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department after another year of abnormally high attrition.

The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing—updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.

Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis response unit tentatively called Triage One.

SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program,” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD—as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”

A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.

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Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.

“Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left.”— City Councilmember Alex Pederesen

Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5-4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.

In an email to PubliCola Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”

Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.

2. Upcoming changes to the Department of Justice’s rules for court-appointed consent decree monitors are unlikely to impact Seattle’s own agreement with the police department, according to Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, because they only apply to new consent decrees.

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a consent degree—an agreement that the department will adopt reforms to address its history of racially biased policing and use of excessive force—administered by the Department of Justice and overseen by a monitor appointed by US District Court Judge James Robart. The proposed changes are an attempt to reform the monitoring system to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest or financial improprieties. Continue reading “Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors”

County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack

Seattle - City Hall Park & King County Courthouse 05
Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

1. The King County Council added $248,000 to the county’s budget last week to hire a new recruiter for the King County Sheriff’s office in response to two years of unusually high attrition. The council eliminated the position last year.

In the past two years, the sheriff’s office has seen roughly 15 percent of its sworn officers resign or retire. Fifty deputies have resigned from the department in 2021, setting the county on pace to surpass the 69 deputies who left in 2020. Last year’s attritions marked a 42 percent increase from 2019. “Because these aren’t vacancies we planned for,” council president Claudia Balducci said, the sheriff’s office should be able to restore its ranks while the county considers whether to downsize the office in the future.

The council’s 2021-2022 budget included funding for 41 sworn positions in the sheriff’s office that are currently unfilled, but few qualified candidates have applied for those positions. Of the 351 applicants to entry-level positions in the sheriff’s office since January, only 79 have met basic hiring criteria, including a clean criminal record and bill of health.

But not every member of the council thought that funding the recruiter position should be a priority for the council. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, cautioned his colleagues against dipping into the county’s general fund until the council can look at its budget with fresh eyes after American Rescue Plan Act dollars dry up. “If I looked all around county government looking for one more position we could fund,” he said, “it wouldn’t be this one.” Upthegrove, along with council members Joe McDermott, Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay, voted against funding the position.

In the same meeting, the council also voted to set aside $5.6 million to provide refunds for King County residents who have paid legal financial obligations for drug possession convictions that the Washington State Supreme Court rendered void with the landmark Blake decision in February. The state will reimburse counties for any spending on Blake-related refunds.

2. In response to complaints about public safety at the downtown King County Courthouse—including, most recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself—the city is reportedly planning to remove an encampment in City Hall Park next door. A sweep could happen as early as this week. Although the alleged courthouse assailant has no known connections to the park, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn and other officials have made the connection; in a statement about the attack last week, Dunn called for “the immediate closure of City Hall Park and the danger it poses to our employee[s], residents, and the community.”

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REACH has been doing outreach in the park for the past several weeks, with the goal of moving people from encampments into hotels through JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, case management, and services to people living unsheltered in Pioneer Square and the International District. Last week, the city signed a contract with the JustCARE alliance to fund 89 more JustCARE slots, which the PDA had hoped to use to shelter the people living in the park.

In a statement Sunday, the alliance, which includes the Public Defender Association, the Urban League, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Alliance, among others, said that “many of the people in the park arrived there after being removed from other locations without offers of non-congregate shelter that matched their situation”—a reference to ongoing encampment sweeps by the city. “Those who are rightly upset about conditions in the park should join the many voices opposing shuffling people around the city—that practice contributed significantly to this situation,” the letter says.

“Moving people out of the park to no clear destination will not solve courthouse or neighborhood safety, or address the situation of anyone currently living there,” the letter concludes. “It feels like action—but it actually makes matters worse.”

For years, the city has presented unsheltered people with “offers” of shelter that are less appealing than sleeping outdoors, including beds in congregate shelters that lack the privacy or security of a private room, and dispersing them to other locations when they “refuse” these offers. Sweeping people from City Hall Park will only displace them to new locations—which is how many of them ended up in the park in the first place.

3. One of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s most senior cabinet members, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong, is leaving the city later this month for a new job as Chief Recovery and Resilience Office for Snohomish County.

Durkan, who announced she would not seek reelection in January, is leaving office at the end of this year after a single term. She currently has two deputy mayors, both appointed after their predecessors left for new positions. Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s homelessness division, replaced Shefali Ranganathan, and David Moseley, a former deputy mayor, came out of retirement to replace Casey Sixkiller, who quit to run for mayor. Continue reading “County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack”

Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Usually Keep Their Jobs. Advocates for Survivors Say That’s a Problem

Seattle Police Department West Precinct; image by Adbar, Creative Commons license

By Paul Kiefer

Last November, a small team of Seattle police officers parked near the home of one of their colleagues, Officer Amy Jean Branham. They were responding to a 911 call from Branham’s estranged (now ex-) wife, who told dispatchers that Branham had attacked her during an argument about their pending divorce.

Branham’s wife told the responding officers that Branham was drunk. She pointed to red marks on her neck and chest, claiming that Branham had placed her in a headlock. But Branham told the officers that the fight began when her wife tried to force her way into the house. She showed her colleagues a red mark on her jaw—evidence, she said, that the fight wasn’t as one-sided as her wife claimed.

Washington law requires police officers who respond to domestic violence calls to arrest the person they determine was the “primary aggressor.” The responding officers decided to arrest Branham’s wife, reasoning that Branham was only trying to prevent her wife from entering the house; the Seattle City Attorney chose not to file charges. Meanwhile, Branham’s wife obtained a protection order, alleging that Branham was prone to violence and stalking.

As part of the protection order, a King County judge ordered Branham to turn over her service weapon, prompting Interim Chief Adrian Diaz to place her on administrative leave. Meanwhile, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) conducted an investigation of the allegations against Branham. In findings published last month, investigators concluded that Branham violated the department’s professionalism policies by hitting her ex-wife, as well as by following her ex-wife off-hours in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security cruiser, which she had access to as part of a joint task force. She received a written reprimand.

Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

The issue of intimate partner violence by officers tends to fly under the radar; the last case that drew significant local attention was in in 2003, when then-Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife, Crystal Brame, at a Gig Harbor shopping center. In the past five years, SPD has fired three officers for domestic violence or harassment, including Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2019 for beating his former girlfriend and repeatedly using racist slurs to describe his coworkers, and Daniel Amador, a North Precinct sergeant arrested in 2016 for raping and abusing his daughters.

Officers accused of domestic violence or harassment can be found on nearly every level of the department’s hierarchy. Officer Todd Harris, a member of the department’s gun violence reduction squad, was charged by a Snohomish County prosecutor with domestic violence assault in 2012; Sergeant Alfred Warner, whose ex-wife obtained a protection order against him after he allegedly pointed a gun at her during an argument in 2006; and Sergeant Brian Rees, whose ex-wife—at the time, a fellow SPD officer—sought a protection order against him after he allegedly punched her and spent his off-duty time stalking her inside the department’s north precinct building.

Domestic violence allegations are notoriously difficult to prove in court, which survivor advocates say has allowed some Seattle police officers with a history of abuse to avoid accountability and remain in positions of authority within SPD. Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

For some survivor advocates, allowing these officers—especially those who received criminal charges—to remain in positions that can involve handling domestic violence calls raises questions about the department’s respect for survivors. A record of abuse, advocates say, could impact the way an officer interacts with people seeking help, including victims of domestic violence, and could reflect on the officer’s ability to control their temper and exercise good judgment.

“Survivors and advocates end up wondering how much weight is given to our voices if we’re dealing with officers who work alongside these people who have been accused of abuse,” said Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, the director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, which provides legal assistance to victims of sexual violence.

Advocates like Mukhopadhyay are especially concerned about officers who’ve risen in the ranks after facing domestic violence charges. Sergeant Domingo Ortiz faced domestic violence-related charges twice before he reached his current rank: in 2000, he received a deferred sentence after punching a man who took his estranged wife to lunch, and in 2004, Pierce County prosecutors charged Ortiz with domestic violence harassment for threatening to hurt his estranged wife “permanently.” (Ortiz was not convicted of the 2004 charge).

Similarly, now-Captain Scott Moss was charged with assault in 2009 for allegedly cutting his then-wife’s hand with a kitchen knife. Ultimately, a King County Superior Court jury acquitted Moss after his attorneys attributed his wife’s injuries to her history of mental illness and self-harm; Moss’ wife chose not to cooperate with the prosecution. It’s fairly common for victims to decide not to cooperate in domestic violence cases, which typically prompts courts to dismiss the charges against the alleged abuser.

Since his acquittal, Moss has received a series of promotions, including a recent stint as the acting captain of SPD’s Special Victim Crimes section, which includes the department’s domestic violence unit.

Most of the officers accused of domestic violence have run into other types of legal trouble during their careers with SPD. Ortiz, for instance, was one of three officers named in a 2010 excessive force lawsuit stemming from a violent arrest at the department’s evidence warehouse; and in 2014, a US district court jury found Rees guilty of excessive force for pepper-spraying a woman while another officer detained her at a May Day protest two years earlier.

Continue reading “Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Usually Keep Their Jobs. Advocates for Survivors Say That’s a Problem”

Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution

Washington Department of Corrections Work Release Center in Pioneer Square (Google Street View)

By Paul Kiefer

Last Friday, Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO) released the final recommendations from a nearly two-year-long review of the state’s work release program that found an alarming pattern of retaliation and arbitrary discipline by contract staff at work release centers across the state.

Work release centers are housing facilities for people in DOC custody; residents stay for less than a year, transitioning back into normal life by working civilian jobs, visiting family members, and attending counseling sessions.

Since the state legislature created the OCO as the oversight agency for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2018, the office has repeatedly investigated allegations about work release staffers responding to criticism or complaints by returning residents to prison for minor rule violations.

In 2018, a resident at a work release facility in Spokane attempted to file a sexual assault and harassment complaint against a guard, only to be arrested and returned to prison for allegedly threatening her harasser—an allegation that the OCO later called “hearsay.” In 2019, staff at a work release center in Beacon Hill allegedly conspired to return a resident to prison after she criticized the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. And in 2020, an OCO investigation concluded that staff members at a work release center in Pioneer Square may have sent a resident back to prison in retaliation for a protest by his family members outside the center.

“When people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”—Prisoners’ rights advocate Melody Simle

Many other incidents of alleged retaliation by work release administrators flew further under the radar. One work release resident returned to prison after staffers found a small drill bit, which she said belonged to her boyfriend, in her backpack; in other cases, work release staff disciplined residents for returning to their centers late after missing a bus.

“Those centers are supposed to be a bridge back into society,” said Melody Simle, a prisoners’ rights advocate whose brother spent time in a Snohomish County work release center. “But instead, the centers have been really focused on punishing people for the smallest things. In the two years I’ve been doing this work, the number one complaint is that when people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”

And a negative experience in work release can be the difference between thriving on the outside and repeatedly returning to jail, said Milo Burshaine, who recently left a work release center in Seattle. “Work release can make or break you,” he said. “If someone’s going to do well on the outside, it’s important that work release staff pay attention to their needs—to their mental health, to their stress. A work release that’s too punitive doesn’t help someone adjust to independence.”

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In response to advocacy from incarcerated people and their families, OCO Director Joanna Carnes asked the department to convene a work group in 2020 to discuss short- and long-term changes to the department’s work release program. Most of the work group’s members were DOC staff, including the department’s Assistant Secretary for Re-Entry, Danielle Armbruster. The group didn’t include staff from the work release centers named in complaints about retaliation.

The group also did not include any formerly incarcerated members, though it did include two people whose relatives had spent time in work release centers—including Simle, who helped organize meetings with residents at work release centers in Seattle and Tacoma to gather feedback.

Because the work group wasn’t tethered to a particular misconduct complaint, its focus quickly expanded well beyond the issue of retaliation. For example, the OCO report recommends work release residents receive consistent internet access and orientation packets. The work group also provided an opportunity to push through longstanding changes to the work release system, including an agreement by the DOC to allow residents at work release facilities statewide to have personal cars to commute to and from their jobs; previously, residents at work release centers in Seattle and some other cities could only commute by public transit.

But arbitrary or excessive discipline in work release centers remained at the core of the work group’s conversations. Drawing from those discussions, the OCO recommended that DOC create a standardized training for staff members who preside over disciplinary hearings; that incarcerated people accused of breaking work release rules receive copies of the evidence against them; and that the DOC identify less-severe alternatives to returning people to prison for minor slip-ups. Continue reading “Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution”

City May Relinquish Control Over Homelessness Contracts; Surveillance Law May Not Cover Facial Recognition; No Plan Yet for Complaints Against 911 Dispatchers

1. After insisting for more than a year that the city needs to retain full authority over homeless outreach and engagement programs, the city has changed its mind, and will reportedly hand outreach over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority along with all the other homeless service contracts currently managed by the Seattle Human Services Department.

KCRHA director Marc Dones told outreach providers that their contracts would move to the new authority at a meeting on Wednesday, several who attended the meeting confirmed. Derrick Belgarde, the director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the belated change makes sense: Outreach “needs some separation from the HOPE team and their efforts.”

Previously, as we’ve reported, Durkan and HSD have argued for keeping outreach, and only outreach, at the city, on the grounds that the HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) needs to have direct access to outreach workers who can connect people in encampments the city removes to shelter and services. The connection between the HOPE team and outreach workers was at the heart of the larger dispute over this year’s contracts, with providers arguing that the new contracts would place them at the “beck and call” of a team that serves as the vanguard for encampment sweeps.

The meeting, led by deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, was called to discuss changes to a set of proposed 2021 contracts that providers said were unacceptable; among other changes, the contracts the city originally sent providers would have required them to do outreach at encampments that the city planned to remove, regardless of whether the community or clients they serve (young adults or Native people, for example) were present.

The new contracts will revert to essentially the same language as the contracts providers signed in 2020. Provisions requiring outreach workers to be on site on the day of encampment removals will be stripped from the new contracts, and the city will greatly reduce the data reporting requirements that some providers found objectionable—eliminating the need, for example, for providers to give the city detailed daily reports on the people they encounter living unsheltered.

Belgarde said he was heartened by Dones’ and Washington’s emphasis on progressive engagement at encampments—focusing first on outreach, and then on more intensive case management, which is the point at which asking more personal questions is appropriate. “They seem to understand why you don’t do it” the first time you meet someone living at an encampment, he said. “It’s traumatizing. You can’t go out there with a pen and pad like you’re a lawyer or the police making notes.”

An HSD spokesperson would confirm only that the department is “in ongoing conversations with providers on a number of items, including what coordinated outreach looks like for both city and county shelter spaces and investments. Additionally, the City is already in conversations with the KCRHA about logistics for the transfer of contracts to the KCRHA. Our primary goal is supporting the ramp up of the authority. HSI will maintain outreach contracts through the end of 2021.”

2. After an investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) into a Seattle police detective’s use of a controversial facial recognition software, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg sent a letter to SPD Interim Chief Adrian Diaz concluding that while the detective used the unapproved technology without permission, it’s unclear whether facial recognition is covered by the surveillance ordinance the city adopted in 2018.

The OPA launched an investigation into South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes’ use of Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in November, when a civilian watchdog obtained emails showing that Kartes had used the software several times since 2019. At the time, Myerberg told PubliCola that the investigation would hinge on whether Kartes used the software during a criminal investigation, which he said would constitute a clear policy violation and seriously undermine public trust in the department.

In his letter to Diaz on Wednesday, Myerberg wrote that Kartes used Clearview.AI’s search function roughly 30 times since 2019, including for an unclear number of criminal investigations; Kartes didn’t keep records of cases in which he used the technology, so OPA investigators weren’t able to assemble a complete list. According to investigators, Kartes did not inform his superiors that he was using the software. The OPA hasn’t said whether Kartes will face discipline for his use of the unapproved technology.

However, in his letter to Diaz, Myerberg wrote that the city’s surveillance ordinance, which requires city departments to seek the council’s approval of any surveillance technology it intends to use, defines “surveillance” too narrowly to include facial recognition—because software like Clearview.AI does not allow SPD to “observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals,” Myerberg argued, it may not be addressed by the law.

To deal with the gray area surrounding facial recognition technology, Myerberg recommended that Diaz either create a new surveillance policy that explicitly forbids the use of facial recognition software; he also suggested that Diaz could ask the city council to modify the 2018 surveillance ordinance to clear up any confusion about whether it applies to facial recognition software.

Myerberg’s letter to Diaz came just over a week after the Metropolitan King County Council voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by county departments, becoming the first county in the nation to pass such a ban.

3. When Seattle’s 911 dispatch center left the Seattle Police Department last week, the OPA lost its jurisdiction over the roughly 140 civilian dispatchers who work in the center. And the new department—the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which the Seattle City Council hopes will eventually hold other civilian public safety agencies—hasn’t yet outlined a plan to handle misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Though complaints against 911 dispatchers made up only a small portion of the OPA’s caseload, the unit faced roughly 30 to 40 complaints annually over the past five years. Among the most notable recent cases was a dispatch supervisor fired last year for assigning herself overtime to supplement her income despite being unqualified to answer emergency calls, and another dispatcher whom Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz fired in April for telling a Black caller that “all lives matter” during a call about a car break-in.

The OPA’s jurisdiction is set by city law; according to Myerberg, that law—Seattle’s Accountability Ordinance—only authorizes his office to investigate “potential acts of misconduct perpetrated by SPD employees,” which no longer includes 911 dispatchers. While Seattle’s Human Resources department could take on complaints for an additional 140 employees, Myerberg said that if the council or mayor want his office to continue handling complaints against dispatchers, the council will need to expand the OPA’s jurisdiction, which may also require bargaining with the dispatchers’ union.

PubliCola has reached out to CSCC Director Chris Lombard about his plans for handling misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People

Just a few of the many headlines “Seattle Is Dying” station KOMO News has posted about a single encampment in North Seattle in recent weeks.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sinclair-owned KOMO TV, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment and its followup, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” has posted at least 11 pieces in recent weeks whipping up fear about a homeless encampment on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. The latest, by reporter Kara Kostanich, began: “A drug overdose at a homeless encampment on the property of a local school has parents and neighbors asking when will something be done?”

However, according to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure. And the encampment is not “on the property of a local school”; it’s on school district property next door to Broadview Thomson K-8, separated from the school itself by both a tall fence and a steep hill.

The incident KOMO characterized as a “drug overdose” happened past the bottom of that hill, on the shore of the lake that forms the encampment’s northern boundary. On a recent weekday, the area was quiet and almost bucolic, more like a large recreational campground than a homeless encampment.

According to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” at the center of KOMO’s story occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure.

A man named Tony, who was there when encampment residents found the man, whom I’ll call A, lying unconscious, said several people quickly gave the man Narcan “as a precaution” before paramedics arrived. Narcan works by quickly reversing the effects of opioids, such as fentanyl or heroin, and putting a person into instant, extreme withdrawal.

“I’ve seen people get Narcan and they usually come out swinging,” Tony said. “They’re usually really sick and upset. He didn’t seem anything like that—he just jumped up and took the oxygen mask off and said he was okay. He ended up leaving and going back to his tent. It was definitely not drug-related.”

Two other encampment residents said they didn’t think A used drugs, and said that he had mentioned having infrequent seizures in the past.

But We Heart Seattle leader Andrea Suarez, whose group started as a one-person encampment cleanup effort last year, is convinced what she saw was an overdose, no matter what the people who live at the encampment say. “It certainly looked like a duck smelled, like a duck and was a duck,” Suarez said. “Now, I’m not an expert, but… if I were to give it Vegas odds, I’d say sure that seemed like a classic OD.” Suarez told me she has seen other people overdose at encampments in the past, so it was “it was extremely traumatizing for me to witness the whole process.”

We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property“—Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower

Suarez said she called 911 while “eight people were on top of [A] arguing about whether to give him a fourth dose of Narcan,” and that once paramedics showed up, “everybody took off—they all fled the scene quite quickly and I was still front and center.”

Encampment residents dispute nearly every aspect of Suarez’s account, but agree that she was “front and center”; she stood nearby shooting videos and photos on her phone as paramedics administered to the man, which she posted a couple of hours later on Facebook. Suarez said she took A to her car after he recovered and tried to convince him to go to the hospital, invoking the “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who seek medical assistance for overdoses from criminal prosecution.

Paige, a woman who has lived at the encampment off and on with her boyfriend, Chris, for about a year, said Suarez comes around the encampment frequently offering “help” that consists mostly of offers to bus people to places they used to live or to “some kind of three-month camp [in Oregon] that you have to pay $250 for,” Paige said. “They’re not offering people places to stay.”

Support PubliCola

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.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Suarez, along with a drug counselor named Kevin Dahlgren who instituted a “tough-love” approach to homelessness in Gresham, Oregon, acknowledges that she has offered encampment residents rides to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a clean-and-sober housing program located in a former jail in Oregon that charges people $250 a month and requires them to do 10 hours of unpaid “community service” work every week. She says she has also offered to take people to Uplift Northwest, a nonprofit labor agency formerly known as the Mlilionair Club.

Paige and Chris said what they really need is a permanent place to stay—somewhere where they can take a shower—”not having a shower makes you feel kind of crazy; it’s no bueno,” Chris said—wash their clothes, and do dishes without having to beg for water and haul it down to their campsite. But the city hasn’t offered services, and the only useful assistance the camp receives is weekly trash pickups—one reason the encampment, unlike others in the city, is neat and tidy. Continue reading “Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People”

Police Accountability Leader Asks SPD to Phase Out Routine Traffic Stops

Image by Erik Mclean via Unsplash.

By Paul Kiefer

Citing concerns from community members and police officers about the dangers of police traffic stops, Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge sent a letter to Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz on Tuesday asking him to start phasing out traffic stops for “civil and non-dangerous violations”—violations that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public.

Judge, whose office conducts audits of systemic problems within SPD and issues policy recommendations, cited half a dozen well-known examples of traffic stops that turned fatal. Her list included a traffic stop for a suspended license on Aurora Avenue North that led to an SPD officer fatally shooting 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo on New Year’s Even in 2018; Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in March.

“Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Judge also noted that even non-fatal traffic stops can undermine public trust in police officers. Traffic stops are the most common type of encounter between police and civilians—SPD issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions in 2019 alone—and Black and Latino drivers are far more likely to be injured or killed during routine traffic stops.

SPD isn’t required to act on Judge’s letter, nor is the letter a fully formed policy proposal. Judge’s office will need to conduct more research into best practices for phasing out low-level traffic stops.

However, Judge told PubliCola that she believes the issues she raised in her letter require an urgent response. “Rather than taking to time for a painstaking audit, we have a practice of sending an ‘alert letter’ to SPD to get the ball rolling quickly.” This isn’t the first issue Judge has flagged for SPD: In February, her office sent letters to Diaz urging him to clarify his department’s vehicle pursuit guidelines and to reconsider how his officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises while carrying knives.

Judge is not alone in pressuring police departments to scale back the use of traffic stops: during the final weeks of this year’s state legislative session, state senator and King County Executive candidate Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a long-shot bill that would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for eight minor civil violations. Nguyen told PubliCola in April that he hopes the issue will return to the surface during next year’s session.

If SPD follows Judge’s recommendation, Seattle would join a growing number of cities across the country—both small and large—taking steps to reduce the risks posed by traffic stops to both officers and civilians. In 2020, the New York State attorney general recommended that New York City’s police department phase out traffic stops for minor violations after officers shot and killed a driver in the Bronx whom they had stopped for a seatbelt violation in October 2019. More recently, after Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop last month, Brooklyn Center’s city council voted to prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions and non-felony offenses or warrants, instead assigning that responsibility to a new civilian department.