Category: public safety

Proposal Would Grant Full Subpoena Power to Seattle Police Accountability Bodies

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council member Lisa Herbold announced a new proposal to explicitly grant subpoena power to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power would allow the two police accountability bodies to compel testimony from people who were involved in, or who witnessed, police misconduct but refused to testify. It would also allow the two offices to compel witnesses to hand over records and other evidence in police misconduct cases. If witnesses refused to testify or provide evidence, the proposed law would allow the OPA and OIG to turn to the City Attorney’s Office to obtain a court order enforcing the subpoena.

If passed, the legislation would fulfill a three-year-old promise to expand the powers of the OPA and OIG. The city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance explicitly granted the OIG and the OPA the authority to issue subpoenas during investigations if a witness refused to cooperate, but those powers were placed on the bargaining table during the 2018 contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).

During that process, which largely neutralized the 2017 ordinance, the city’s negotiating team agreed not to implement those elements of the accountability ordinance. Although the contract allowed the city to unilaterally bring SPOG back to the bargaining table to negotiate the OPA and OIG’s right to issue subpoenas, the negotiating team has not revisited the issue.

As a result, although SPD officers have been required to comply with OPA and OIG investigations for the past three years, the two offices have had no legal recourse if a witness decided not to testify. Neither office has needed to issue a subpoena to obtain testimony or evidence from an SPD officer, so the ordinance would be a proactive measure.

In a press release accompanying the announcement, Durkan said the proposal would “set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG,” which expires at the end of the month.

Herbold’s public safety council committee will take up the legislation on December 8.

ACLU Calls on Durkan to Ban Facial Recognition Software After Possible SPD Violation

Clearview AI Software Logo (Source: Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, a blogger’s public records request turned up evidence that a Seattle Police Officer has used a widely-criticized facial recognition software called Clearview AI for over a year, possibly violating Seattle Police Department policy and raising questions from privacy advocates about the use of prohibited surveillance technology within SPD.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Washington responded to the revelation by calling for Mayor Jenny Durkan to issue a specific ban on the use of facial recognition software by city agencies, as well as for a city council hearing to question SPD representatives about their use of surveillance tools.

As PubliCola first reported in November, the ACLU first sounded the alarm after the department released roughly 200 emails containing references to Clearview AI, a search engine for faces that enables law enforcement agencies to identify unknown people—protest participants, for example—by matching their photos to online images, allowing police to arrest or interrogate them.

Clearview AI has been the subject of harsh condemnation from privacy and police accountability advocates since it first drew national attention last year. The company’s business model relies on scraping billions of images from across the internet without permission; as a result, Clearview AI’s database of faces includes untold numbers of people with no criminal background whatsoever.

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Most of the emails SPD released were promotional offers sent from Clearview AI to SPD officers of all ranks, including former Police Chief Carmen Best. But one officer—Detective Nicholas Kartes of the South Precinct’s burglary unit—accepted the company’s offer, opening an account with his work email in September 2019. In the past year, Kartes corresponded with a Clearview AI representative about his experiences “experimenting” with the application, and login alerts sent to Kartes’ work email indicated that the account was used on at least two desktop computers. Both computers’ IP addresses place them in Seattle city government buildings, and one IP address belongs to a secure city network.

The revelation was alarming enough to prompt Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg to launch an investigation into Kartes’ use of Clearview AI. However, Myerberg told PubliCola in November that merely opening an account with Clearview AI might not constitute a policy violation, though using the account for law enforcement purposes would be a clear violation of department policy. He added that there is no precedent for that kind of misconduct.

But the city council’s 2018 surveillance ordinance that restricts SPD’s use of surveillance technologies might not cover Kartes’ use of an unapproved software. Mary Dory, a public safety auditor working with the Office of the Inspector General on the case, told PubliCola in November that the ordinance was designed to address the use of surveillance technologies by SPD itself, not the behavior of an individual officer using surveillance software without the department’s knowledge.

That dilemma is now at the center of the ACLU’s disagreement with Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz. Jennifer Lee, the manager of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, told PubliCola that her organization sees Kartes’ use of Clearview AI as a violation of the surveillance ordinance, and believes that SPD is liable for Kartes’ infractions. She cited Kartes’ use of his work email—and, possibly, his work computer—as evidence that the detective opened a Clearview AI account for law enforcement purposes.

Lee says that the ACLU of Washington is calling for Durkan to issue a targeted ban on facial recognition technology. “We have a surveillance ordinance which is supposed to prevent exactly what happened: SPD secretly using a surveillance technology,” she told PubliCola. “But it’s clear that without an explicit prohibition on facial recognition use, there are risks that remain.”

A press release from the ACLU sent out on Wednesday morning also called for council members Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen, the chairs of the council’s public safety and transportation and public utilities committees, respectively, to hold a public hearing to “get answers from SPD about its use of Clearview AI and other surveillance tools.”

In a response sent to the ACLU of Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Diaz categorically denied that SPD has sanctioned the use of Clearview AI by its officers. “We have no intention or interest in pursuing a partnership with Clearview AI or acquiring the use of any facial recognition technology,” he wrote. He also challenged the ACLU’s assertion—included in their press release—that multiple SPD detectives have used Clearview AI since September, pointing out that the emails only clearly point to Kartes’ use of the technology. (In November, Lee told PubliCola that the login alerts from multiple desktop computers point to the possibility of multiple detectives using Kartes’ account).

Diaz also made a passing reference connecting the Clearview AI promotional emails to a possible phishing attempt involving city of Seattle email addresses; PubliCola has reached out for clarification.

Because Diaz’s response dismisses the ACLU’s assertion that the department is liable for Kartes’ conduct, the ACLU’s call for Durkan to issue a specific ban on facial recognition software is effectively dead in the water.

More Details Emerge About Black Brilliance Project’s Research Plan

By Paul Kiefer 

PubliCola has obtained a copy of King County Equity Now’s (KCEN) work plan for the public safety research project that’s intended to lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process next year. About $30 million of the $1.5 billion general fund budget is supposed to be allocated using participatory budgeting—a process that enables the public to vote on which projects and priorities they want to fund—next year.

The Seattle City Council finalized a $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington, a nonprofit that offers programs inside and outside prisons to help with reentry and prevent re-incarceration, to fiscally sponsor KCEN’s research last week. With the contract finalized and the work plan submitted, Freedom Project Washington now has access to the first $250,000 of that total. Freedom Project Washington is allowed to subcontract with other groups to conduct parallel research. Currently, though, KCEN is the group’s only subcontractor.

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The work plan offers the most detailed glimpse yet into the workings of the Black Brilliance Research Project, which KCEN launched in mid-September. KCEN has hired more than 100 paid researchers—largely Black—who will work until at least next spring and present findings from their research to the council twice: once in December and again in the first quarter of 2021.

The work plan includes a step-by-step guide for the new researchers, for whom KCEN hopes the experience will be an “opportunity for personal and community growth.” The instructions give the researchers significant leeway in devising their own research areas, questions and methods.

Broadly, the researchers are responsible for studying the “community safety” and “community health” priorities of specific demographic groups; the work plan names “Afro-Latinx people who use wheelchairs” or “second-generation Somali youth” as examples of possible focus areas. The work plan also outlines possible methods for answering research questions: for instance, to study the effectiveness of community response teams as an alternative to 911 responders, the work plan suggests that researchers could measure changes in 911 use after the establishment of a community response team.

In September, KCEN launched an online survey, available in 15 languages, to determine what kind of barriers exist for potential research participants. Since September, 850 people have taken the survey: over half of the respondents have been Black, and a similar proportion have been younger than 34.  According to the survey’s findings, more than half of potential participants would need help paying for gas to attend research sessions, roughly half requested help paying for groceries, and more than a third requested access to high-speed internet, laptops or tablets.

Both the survey and the group’s tentative budget reflect an assumption that much of the research would take place at in-person community meetings and focus groups. According to the “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment” released by KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle last summer, the group intended to spend more than $200,000 on transportation and childcare to help research participants attend in-person meetings (though those dollars could also be used to provide childcare for participants taking online surveys).

In a conversation with PubliCola, a KCEN spokesperson noted that they intend to spend a sizeable portion of the contract dollars to improve internet and computer access for potential research participants, which would become essential if the Black Brilliance Research Project shifts to an online-only model.

The work plan does not include a clear explanation of how the research findings will inform the structure of next year’s participatory budgeting process, but it does include a list of preliminary recommendations for changes to the city’s budget priorities, based on feedback from respondents to the project’s surveys and from interviews with Black residents. These priorities include reducing the size of the Seattle Police Department, more investment in community-based alternatives to policing, and less spending on “government responses to harm,” such as social workers employed by the city.

Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out

1. On Tuesday morning, the Seattle City Council’s legislative department provided a copy of their newly finalized $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington to PubliCola. The Freedom Project will oversee King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance research project, which is working on a plan to allocate about $30 million in city funding through a participatory budgeting process next year. Freedom Project Washington is expected to subcontract with other nonprofits to run parallel research projects, but the city has yet to publish the names of the other subcontractors.

The contract has been months in the making. KCEN began laying the groundwork for a Black-led research project to determine the city’s public safety priorities before the council funded the work through its midyear 2020 budget balancing package passed in August. The group launched the Black Brilliance Research Project in September, spending their own reserves while waiting for the arrival of city dollars; since then, KCEN has fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys, and community meetings. KCEN has not responded to questions for more details about the community meetings and interviews.

Freedom Project Washington has close ties to KCEN—its executive director, David Heppard, has been a regular speaker at the group’s online press conferences—but it was not the city’s first choice of contractor. The council and KCEN originally planned to contract with the Marguerite Casey Foundation but decided to go with the Freedom Project because the Freedom Project, which has been a fiscal sponsor of other nonprofits in the past and has previously received city contracts, could get up and running more quickly. Freedom Project Washington will process payments and expenses on KCEN’s behalf; in return, KCEN will manage the “day-to-day operations” of the Black Brilliance Research Project.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

The only window into how KCEN plans to spend $3 million on community research is their “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document released last summer that includes KCEN’s own recommendations for city policy and budget priorities and a tentative budget for the Black Brilliance Research Project. As PubliCola reported in August, that budget allocated only around $1 million to pay research staff, though senior KCEN researcher LéTania Severe later said that the group intends to hire as many as 133 staffers over the coming year.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

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KCEN has not clarified how those resources would be allocated, nor whether and how their budget has changed to reflect tightening restrictions on in-person gatherings like community meetings. The contract with Freedom Project Washington does not include any directives about how to spend the contract dollars, so the project’s budget items will be decided by Freedom Project Washington and KCEN.

According to the contract, KCEN is expected to present their work plan and a preliminary report on their community research projects, including digital documentation of “community research that was presented as visual/performing arts, spoken word, etc.,” to the council in November, though the group’s opportunities to present at a council briefing before the end of the month are dwindling.

A final report on their “findings and recommendations for [a] participatory budgeting framework and mechanisms” informed by “community dialogues” is due in the first quarter of next year.

2. Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan will leave the city at the end of the year, to be replaced by former deputy Human Services Department director for homelessness Tiffany Washington. PubliCola broke the story on Twitter Monday morning. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out”

Black Brilliance Project Outlines Ambitious Public Safety Agenda That Includes $1 Billion Land Acquisition Fund

By Paul Kiefer

As the Seattle City Council wrapped up their 2021 budget deliberations, representatives from King County Equity Now’s (KCEN) Black Brilliance research Project held a press conference on Monday afternoon to announce an ambitious slate of potential city investments and social programming aimed at replacing police and improving community safety in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

The Black Brilliance Project, which KCEN announced in September, encompasses the preliminary research for next year’s proposed public safety-oriented participatory budgeting process. The project will be funded through a $3 million grant to the Freedom Project, which will subcontract with KCEN; the city has not yet finalized and published the contract.

The council is poised to adopt a 2021 city budget that allocates $30 million to participatory budgeting, and programs identified through that process, next year, including $18 million reallocated from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million Equitable Communities Initiative.

Despite the lack of a finalized contract, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said the organization has already fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys and community meetings to assemble a list of priorities for public safety spending. Based on the presentations on Monday, the research teams are using a broad definition of public safety—one that encompasses secure housing and land ownership, physical and psychiatric health care, and employment, in addition to emergency response services and crisis management.

Some of the concepts announced Monday include a proposal $2 million in “paid employment and mentorship opportunities” for Black youth, which could include positions for youth on advisory committees for city departments; a “Seattle Equitable Internet Initiative,” which Glaze described as a project to improve and expand internet access “city- and countywide”; and a $1 billion “anti-gentrification land acquisition fund to support the redevelopment of a Black cultural core in the Central District, including both housing and social services.

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Glaze said KCEN hasn’t identified a specific revenue stream for the $1 billion—an amount equivalent to two-thirds of the city’s general fund budget, and nearly one-third larger than the city’s budget for public safety.

The members of the Black Brilliance Project team also presented several more immediate public safety-related proposals, largely centered on emergency response teams and neighborhood-based community safety “hubs” in places like South Seattle and Aurora Avenue North. These hubs, Glaze explained, would require the cooperation of volunteers and nonprofits to provide food, COVID-19 testing, internet access and other essential services on a neighborhood scale. “While this doesn’t mean that every neighborhood would get its own hub,” they said, “it does mean that we are looking to build and fortify existing support networks.”

Continue reading “Black Brilliance Project Outlines Ambitious Public Safety Agenda That Includes $1 Billion Land Acquisition Fund”

Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake

by Paul Kiefer

A pair of amendments to the King County charter on the ballot next month open a door for significant reshaping of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). The measures have sparked two opposition campaigns — one closely tied to the King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG), which represents sheriff’s officers — that have cast the amendments as radical attacks on law enforcement, while the measures have received limited vocal support from the most prominent local police accountability advocates.

The first amendment, Charter Amendment 5, would make the King County Sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position. The second, Charter Amendment 6, would grant the King County Council the ability to set the structure and duties of the sheriff rather than relying on the duties specified in the state code. While the amendments’ sponsors, including council members Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay (who wrote a PubliCola op ed supporting it), crafted the ballot measures to stand independently of one another, their practical implications and political significance have bonded the two measures together. In fact, in a July 14th council meeting, council member Claudia Balducci called them the legislative equivalent of a “Reese’s peanut butter cup”: a natural pair.

For their most vocal proponents, namely Dembowski and Zahilay, the amendments are vital steps towards an accountable sheriff’s office with a more appropriate scope of duties and a sheriff that better represents the needs of the King County residents they serve. The opponents of the amendments, including the sheriff’s guild, cast the measures as part of the broader “defund” movement to undermine law enforcement and as a power grab by the executive and the council.

As contemporary as those arguments may seem, they’re part of a longstanding debate in King County. In November, voters will face a choice between two paths for KCSO; both have been tested in the county before, and neither has transformed the department in the ways the amendments’ opponents fear or the ways their champions hope.

Continue reading “Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake”

As Public Demands for Police Cuts Continue, Parking Enforcement Officers Could Take On Greater Role

Seattle Parking Enforcement Officer (Photo via Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

During a public safety budget hearing last Thursday, Seattle City Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold suggested a wider role for an agency that’s received relatively little attention during the recent debates about reducing the size and role of the Seattle Police Department: SPD’s Parking Enforcement Unit.

The idea of expanding the role of parking officers to include duties currently performed by armed police comes as the city council deliberates on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget, which includes only minor cuts to SPD’s budget. At a public hearing Tuesday night, dozens of residents asked the council to amend Durkan’s proposal to defund SPD by at least 50 percent, in line with what protesters and advocates have been demanding for months.  

After raising the issue of overtime spending for SPD staffing at special events, Herbold said she was “grateful to [parking enforcement officers] for signaling their willingness to take on that work.” She pointed to a letter written by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild to council members expressing interest in expanding their duties to include not only a greater role at special events, but also an array of other roles currently filled by more highly paid sworn SPD officers. As Herbold noted, SPEOG also said that they would prefer to move into the proposed new Department of Public Safety, rather than the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), as Durkan has proposed.

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The concept of the Department of Public Safety originates in a resolution the council passed in August recommending the creation of a “civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention to remove certain functions from the Seattle Police Department.” However, the absence of any concrete foundations for the department has become a sticking point in the ongoing budget discussions. The budget Durkan transmitted last week limited budget cuts to SPD on the grounds that the city has not yet developed alternatives to police, while the council contended that developing those alternatives will require shifting money from SPD’s budget.

In the letter to council, the parking officers offered to take over array of “services that were formerly provided by sworn SPD officers” ranging from managing red light violations to responding to car prowls, minor accidents, illegally parked RVs and abandoned vehicles. Currently, those types of incidents make up roughly 20 percent of the calls for service to which SPD responds; traffic incidents alone account for nearly 15 percent of all calls. While parking enforcement officers can’t replace SPD at to every traffic- or car-related incident, the guild argues that they can take on a sizable portion of SPD’s workload, which would in turn significantly reduce interactions between civilians and armed police officers.

Union president Nanette Toyoshima, who wrote the letter to council, said Durkan’s proposal to move parking enforcement into SDOT caught her unit off-guard. “We only learned of this potential move through Twitter and a press conference,” Toyoshima said, referring to Mayor Durkan’s July 13 announcement that she intends to move a variety of civilian units out of SPD, including parking enforcement and the 911 call center. “It was a bit of a rude awakening after over 50 years with SPD.”

She said the guild had no complaints about being housed in SPD, but that they were also responsive to the public push to civilianize some roles held by police. “No matter where we’re moved—to a new [public safety] department, to SDOT, or if we stay in SPD —we’re interested in being part of the solution,” she said. Continue reading “As Public Demands for Police Cuts Continue, Parking Enforcement Officers Could Take On Greater Role”

As Black-Led Community Research Project Kicks Off, So Does Mayoral Task Force Charged with Allocating $100 Million to BIPOC Communities

Screen Shot from King County Equity Now press conference

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that King County Equity Now says the group will hire some non-Black researchers for paid positions, in addition to volunteer researchers.

By Paul Kiefer and Erica C. Barnett

On Monday afternoon, members of the King County Equity Now (KCEN) coalition’s research team held a press conference to discuss their progress on a Black-led public safety research project they hope will be supported by a $3 million contract with the Seattle City Council.

Although their remarks revealed little concrete information about the Black Brilliance Project (as the undertaking is now known), one detail is clear: KCEN and its 14 Black-led nonprofit partners see the project as an opportunity to provide financial support and jobs for members of the city’s BIPOC communities, and Black communities in particular, as well as a way to lay the groundwork for a larger public safety-focused participatory budgeting process next year.

That process, said KCEN researcher LéTania Severe, began in earnest last week when the coalition behind the Black Brilliance Project hired 50 researchers, using their own resources to tide the project over until city funding begins to flow. The coalition expects to hire a total of 133 paid researchers representing “the diversity of Black peoples in Seattle,” most of whom will be Black youth. 

Severe added that KCEN hopes to provide those researchers “living-wage jobs”; in their email to PubliCola after the press conference, KCEN’s press team expressed hope that the researchers would remain employed past December 2021. Their first task will be figuring out what barriers exist to participation in participatory budgeting, and an online community needs survey focuses on identifying those barriers.

At Monday’s press conference, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze dismissed the mayor’s task force as “cherry-picked by white, wealthy people with access to power,” and therefore a reflection of the mayor’s pre-determined priorities.

The Black Brilliance Project’s outline comes from the “2020 Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document assembled in collaboration by KCEN and the Decriminalize Seattle coalition outlining a $3 million “community-led research” project that would be the first step toward participatory budgeting. (PubliCola wrote about this process last month.)  The city council allocated $3 million for the project in its rebalanced 2020 budget; the mayor’s 2021 budget proposal does not extend the funding beyond 2020.

Although the council’s research contract dollars have not yet reached their team, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said the coalition “moved forward with promises of seed money and [their] own funds” to pay the new staff. As of early September, the group’s primary source of funds was the Africatown Community Land Trust, although it’s unclear whether the group currently has funding from other sources. According to Severe, KCEN’s organizers have been working as volunteers since the group formed four months ago.

The 2021 city budget process is happening parallel to this work. On Tuesday morning, Durkan released her proposed 2021 budget, which includes $100 million in unallocated funds that will be spent in accordance with recommendations from a special “equitable investment task force” appointed by the mayor. (The money is parked in a budgetary waiting area called Finance General, where it will remain unallocated until the mayor decides how to spend it next year.)

This morning, Durkan called her task force—whose members she has not yet announced—”a form of participatory budgeting” and a “community-driven process” that will drill down on what BIPOC communities want to see in the city budget. Durkan provided several examples of areas where the task force may recommend improvements; none, notably, involved cuts to the police department, a key demand from Decriminalize Seattle, King County Equity Now, and other BIPOC groups during the budget rebalancing process this year.

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“Some time before the end of this year, the task force will come back” with recommendations, Durkan said. “They will be deciding those priorities with community—a broad-based community participation process.”

Durkan said she didn’t consider the work of her task force to be in conflict with the council-funded community research project. “I think those processes could be very complementary. Getting as many young people involved as possible, having community-driven research and the like, is complementary to having other voices coming in and engaging and making decisions collectively about what the future, and the future of that community, could look like with really broad-based investments,” she said. Continue reading “As Black-Led Community Research Project Kicks Off, So Does Mayoral Task Force Charged with Allocating $100 Million to BIPOC Communities”

“Out-of-Order” Layoffs at Center of Police Defunding Debate

Seattle police chief Carmen Best

By Paul Kiefer

For the past several weeks, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best have argued that the City Council’s plan to reduce SPD’s budget through targeted layoffs would be infeasible and potentially illegal. Council members say that isn’t true, and argue that the mayor and police chief are digging in their heels because they don’t want to do any layoffs at all.

The council’s proposal would use a series of provisos (legally binding restrictions on spending) to eliminate 70 sworn staff, although the council assumes some of this reduction would be through higher-than-normal attrition. The cuts would come both from specific areas—such the elimination of the Navigation Team—and SPD’s general budget. Council members have suggested that the police department prioritize officers with multiple sustained misconduct complaints when making discretionary layoffs.

The mayor and police chief have said labor rules require SPD to lay off its newest hires first. Those rules are the purview of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC): a three-member quasi-judicial body with one member appointed by the council, another by the mayor, and a third elected by the city’s civil service employees.

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Implementing the PSCSC rules as written would require laying off the youngest, most diverse group of recruits in SPD’s history—a group, Durkan said during a press conference Wednesday, who “joined the force knowing that [SPD was] under federal oversight” and are therefore “committed to reform.”  Conversely, doing layoffs out of order would require eliminating the jobs of more white men—a move that Durkan and Best argue could constitute racial discrimination against white officers.

“You can’t make layoffs based on race,” Chief Best said during a press conference Thursday. “I think the [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”

“The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”—Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

Best isn’t alone in this concern. In a council discussion of the proposal late last month, council member Debora Juarez said out-of-order layoffs could constitute “discrimination based on age and sex” and a violation of the 14th amendment. “The means doesn’t always justify the ends if it’s illegal,” Juarez said.

Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, and the other council members who support the proposed cuts, are counting on a rarely (if ever)-used clause in the PSCSC’s rules that allows the police chief to request the permission of the PSCSC director for out-of-order layoffs if they would serve the “efficient operation” of the department.

The problem, according to a letter that Office of Labor Relations director Bobby Humes sent to Durkan’s office on Tuesday, is that “[t]his rule has never before been cited or tested, and there is no definition of what the ‘efficient’ operation of the department looks like.”

However, it’s unclear that it’s true that the rule hasn’t been tested; on Wednesday, for example, Durkan said the rule has “historically been used” for individual layoffs. And Durkan’s assertion that Best would “have to justify every single” request for an out-of-order layoff is somewhat at odds with Humes’ memo, which only mentions a possibility that Best may have to justify each individual layoff.

“The [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”—Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best


A memo explaining the mayor’s position on out-of-order layoffs distributed to members of the media this week does not list legal precedents to back her statement that out-of-order layoffs would need to be argued individually.

In a press conference with council president Lorena Gonzalez and council member Tammy Morales on Thursday, Herbold responded to some of the mayor and police chief’s claims, starting with Durkan’s claims that out-of-order layoffs are impossible. “The rule exists, and thus it can be used,” said Herbold. “The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”

Herbold added that she and her colleagues hope to collaborate with Best to craft the requests for out-of-order layoffs to be sent to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. The question now, according to Herbold, “is whether [Best] will work with us in developing a request… that has the best chance to preserve the diversity of the police department in a way that is constitutional, legal according to labor law, does not choose layoffs by race, and preserves the efficient functioning of the department as the rule itself requires.”

Best has not yet said whether she would be willing to bring a request for out-of-order layoffs to the PSCSC. At Thursday’s press conference, she said that the council had not asked her to sit down with them (although the council has talked to other members of SPD’s command staff), and said “it definitely feels very personal to me.”

Herbold and her colleagues are still working with the city’s law department to review their options for arguing that out-of-order layoffs serve the “efficient operation” of SPD. She says one of the council’s proposed strategies– targeting officers with extensive records of complaints – would be based on the argument that the time and resources spent processing complaints, disciplinary actions, and appeals undermine the department’s efficiency. However, Herbold acknowledged that the council will have to grapple with the possibility that their strategy will be challenged on the grounds that it involves punishing officers twice for the same offense, which could be illegal.

At the front of Herbold’s mind, however, is convincing Best to bring requests for out-of-order layoffs to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. “She’s the one who has to make the argument,” says Herbold. “She runs the department, so she’s best placed to make the argument.”

Durkan, Best Decry Council’s Proposed SPD Budget Cuts as Too Fast, “Wrong Year”

By Paul Kiefer

In a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan responded to the City Council’s proposal to cut the Seattle Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget by about $3 million with backhanded praise, saying the council was “looking in the right places but in the wrong year.”

The majority of the council, with the exception of Kshama Sawant, has united around a plan that would cut 100 positions from SPD’s budget, relying on a combination of attrition and layoffs that would, if all goes according to schedule, start in November. The midyear budget discussions were sparked by an unanticipated 2020 budget shortfall of more than $300 million.

In her remarks, Durkan emphasized that any major reforms to SPD will take a year or more to implement because of the combined challenges of the pandemic, the West Seattle Bridge closure and (ironically) months of protests. “2020 is not the best playing field to discuss further reductions to SPD and reinvestment in community,” Durkan said.

The proposed layoffs, though they would only amount to about half the cuts, have been a point of contention for Best and Durkan, who maintain the council has no legal authority to propose “out of order” layoffs of more-senior officers.

Ordinarily, the least-senior police officers are subject to layoffs first. But this, Durkan and Best said, would “gut” the most diverse group of officers in SPD’s history and reverse progress on improving the diversity of the police department. (Best characterized this possibility as the council proposing “layoffs based on race.”) To get around this problem, the council has proposed “out of order” layoffs targeting officers doing functions the council wants to reduce or eliminate, like SWAT and the Navigation Team.

According to Durkan, while a Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC) rule allowing the police chief to request out-of-order layoffs has been used in the past for individual cases, doing so on the scale suggested by the city council would require Chief Best to “justify every single decision,” which would draw out the layoff process well past the end of the year. I have followed up with the mayor’s office for clarification about the legal reasoning behind this claim.

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Best also criticized the council for proposing that her department lay off dozens of officers “basically overnight,” arguing that there would be a “service gap” while the city researches and organizes alternative emergency response teams. This gap could mean, she claimed, that when someone called 911 at midnight to report a rape or robbery in process, an officer might not be able to respond right away. None of the specific positions the council has proposed cutting are patrol officers who respond to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best did not accurately characterize several of the council’s other proposals, including their plan to civilianize data-driven policing by transferring this division—which analyzes policing data and makes much of it available to the public— from SPD to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS). Although the council has said they proposed the move to put police data in more objective civilian hands, Best said the council believed that “we would be better off as a police department if we do not use data.”

In another instance, Best said the council’s proposed layoffs would completely eliminate SPD’s public affairs unit, forcing the media to submit all questions to the separate public records division. In fact, although one council amendment would result in the layoffs of all four sworn staff in the department’s Public Affairs Unit, that proviso would not affect the unit’s civilian staff, who also respond to press questions.

Similarly, Mayor Durkan accused the council of proposing the complete elimination of implicit bias training from the department. In reality, the council’s proposal would withhold funding for implicit bias trainings “until the Executive submits a report describing the effectiveness of shifting officer behavior through implicit bias trainings,” and would direct the department to look into online trainings as a cheaper option. 

Durkan has already proposed $76 million in cuts to SPD budget in 2021, but most of those savings would result from transferring some functions, like the 911 call center and the Office of Police Accountability, out of SPD. Only $20 million would come from cuts to the SPD budget, mostly through attrition, leaving positions vacant, and cutting the budget for security at special events.

The council will take up the budget proposals—including council member Kshama Sawant’s competing package, which calls for much deeper and more immediate cuts—tomorrow morning at 10am.