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City Unions File Complaint About Mishandling of Accommodations Process for Unvaccinated Employees, SPOG Weighs In

Seattle Police Department cruiser parked outside of Union Station in Seattle's International District

By Paul Kiefer

Several of Seattle’s largest public employee unions filed identical complaints with the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) on Tuesday about the rollout of the new vaccine mandate, less than a day after the deadline for public employees to turn in proof of vaccination.

The complaint, first filed by the PROTEC17 union, as well as a union representing electrical workers, focuses on the treatment of city employees who sought exemptions from the vaccine mandate on religious or medical grounds. The city first started notifying employees that their exemption requests were approved or denied on October 11.

Before Seattle’s vaccine mandate took effect on October 18, the city offered employees a chance to apply to be exempt from the vaccine requirement—on the condition that they reach an agreement with their department about how to continue working while minimizing their risk of transmitting COVID-19 to coworkers or the public. Of nearly 700 exemption requests, the city approved about 520.

According to the complaint, when the unions reached an agreement about the vaccine mandate in September, they expected city departments to adhere to their promise to meet with unvaccinated workers to come up with accommodations—working from home indefinitely, for instance—before the October 18 deadline. According to PROTEC17 negotiator Shaun Van Eyk, that didn’t happen: only two dozen employees with exemptions had a chance to meet with their supervisors to discuss accommodations before the mandate took effect, while another 500 employees landed on paid or unpaid leave. “It’s unfortunate that we had to resort to filing this Unfair Labor Practice in order to preserve union members’ rights as we agreed to, and as outlined in our contract,” said PROTEC17 Executive Director Karen Estevenin in an email on Thursday.

Since the agreement didn’t anticipate this delay, the unions argue the city needs to return to the negotiating table—and provide back pay or restore paid leave days for employees who keep their jobs.

On October 14, several departments—including the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities, among others—issued letters informing their employees with religious exemptions that their “individualized interactive process” to consider possible accommodations was over—according to the complaint, the letter came as a surprise to some employees, who didn’t know the process had started in the first place. While the departments hadn’t identified any accommodations for unvaccinated employees, the letters offered three options: comply with the vaccine requirement, come up with a proposal for accommodations, or leave.

The following day, the same departments backpedaled, issuing new letters offering employees with exemptions a chance to meet with human resources staff to discuss accommodations. In the corrected letter, the departments wrote that any employees with exemptions would need to use their own paid or unpaid leave if they weren’t fully vaccinated, accommodated, or fired by October 18.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) remains the only Seattle public employee union that hasn’t reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate. In a press release on Monday afternoon, SPOG President Mike Solan claimed that the police department planned to refuse accommodations for any officers who received exemptions on religious grounds; he also claimed that the department refused to accommodate officers who received medical exemptions, including an organ transplant recipient. According to Solan, nearly 100 of his union’s members have religious or medical exemptions.

Though the Seattle Police Department announced on Tuesday that it has just begun what will likely be a lengthy process of firing six officers for not complying with the vaccine mandate, that number could rise in the coming weeks if the department actually refuses to accommodate officers with exemptions, as Solan claimed it will.

SPD’s 2022 Budget Proposal Relies on Optimistic Hiring Projections

SPD hiring projection chartBy Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Plans Overhaul of Guidelines for Attorneys Who Represent Kids in Foster Care Cases

King County Children and Family Justice Center (Source: King County)

By Paul Kiefer

Last month, a new state law took effect that will guarantee legal representation for children facing dependency hearings, in which a judge considers whether they should remain with their family or go to foster care. For more than a decade, Washington lagged behind much of the rest of the country in expanding children’s access to attorneys during foster care cases, so when the legislature passed the law in April, most children’s rights advocates across Washington lauded the change as a step in the right direction.

Access to an attorney can make a significant difference in the outcome of foster care cases. A study conducted between 2017 and 2019 by Washington’s Office of Civil Legal Aid (OCLA), which provides financial support to low-income Washington residents in civil cases, found that children represented by attorneys in dependency cases are much more likely to reunite with their families. The study found that having a lawyer made an especially notable difference for older children and kids of color, who are also the least likely to be adopted if left in foster care.

The new law lays out a plan to introduce new children’s representation programs—a county-by-county network of independent contractors who OCLA will assign to cases—over the next six years. The state’s new program will build on an existing service of OCLA, which has provided attorneys to children in a narrow set of circumstances since 2014. First, though, a work group established by the legislature will spend a year revamping the state’s guidelines for attorneys who represent children—guidelines many advocates call outdated.

For example, lawyers who represent children in dependency cases are allowed to have as many as 60 clients at a time, a caseload that could leave children with a less-prepared attorney when a court decides whether they go to foster care. Erin Shea McCann, deputy director of the Legal Council for Youth and Children, argues that with a “cap that high, we run the risk that attorneys won’t be able to meaningfully engage with any of their clients. That could mean that attorneys go into court without having a really good sense of what their client wants. We need to set an expectation that attorneys take on a number of clients that gives them time to be attentive and careful with each case.”

“Given what we know about the science of leading questions, and children’s innate tendency to offer answers they perceive will please adults, it is especially hard to have frank and meaningful conversations with child clients.”—Tara Urs, King County Department of Public Defense.

Lisa Kelly, a law professor at the University of Washington who directs the school’s Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic, also suggested the work group could consider how OCLA solicits information and feedback from young clients about their attorneys. “We haven’t figured out how to ask clients to review their attorney’s performance, but honest input from the children themselves will be really key in making sure this program is serving its clients as it should,” she said. “One of the key problems up for consideration is figuring out how to be attentive to the needs of a client who is nonverbal or still learning to speak.”

Another major challenge will be ensuring that attorneys working for the state’s new children’s representation programs know how to speak for—and with—child clients, especially younger ones. “Arguably, attorneys for children require even more training and supervision than attorneys for parents because communicating with children is a uniquely fraught prospect,” said Tara Urs, the special counsel for civil policy and practice with the King County Department of Public Defense.

“Given what we know about the science of leading questions, and children’s innate tendency to offer answers they perceive will please adults, it is especially hard to have frank and meaningful conversations with child clients.” Without a clear understanding of what a child client wants, an attorney could risk unintentionally pushing a child to leave their family or remain in an unsafe home.

The legislature chose to rely on independent attorneys to provide representation for children. Urs disagrees with this decision, arguing that public defenders would be better equipped to represent new child clients because of the hands-on support their offices provide each attorney, particularly less-experienced attorneys. “Our supervisors walk side by side with our attorneys, co-trying their cases, staffing complex legal issues, providing coverage when necessary, helping to transfer cases when attorneys leave,” she said.

McCann believes that the workgroup and the OCLA will have to consider the challenges that counties may face in building out a program that has traditionally relied upon public defense agencies, including how children’s attorneys will be folded into existing work and how to address conflicts of interest. However, she isn’t opposed to public defenders representing children; in fact, McCann shares Urs’ concerns about the lack of oversight for independent attorneys. 

The work group won’t complete its revisions until next March, four months before OCLA’s program begins its staggered launch. Jill Malat, who leads the Children’s Legal Representation Program for OCLA, says that demand for attorneys could spike just as the program gets off the ground. “We’ve seen fewer dependency cases in the past year,” she said, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Because children haven’t been in school and caseworkers haven’t been visiting homes,” she said, “abuse and neglect aren’t getting reported as often.”

While the eventual return of in-person schooling might bring a surge of dependency cases, Malat said that she’s hopeful that OCLA’s ability to provide attorneys to more children will work in tandem with other state efforts to expand addiction treatment and mental health care options for parents. “The more we can help families repair themselves, the fewer kids we’ll need to represent.”

[This story was updated on September 2 to more accurately reflect the McCann’s perspective on the potential role of public defenders in the child representation program.]

Fizz: … And We’re Back!

PubliCola’s August recess is over, just as the City Council’s is beginning. Here are a few things that happened while we were out of town:

1. Jessyn Farrell, whose second run at mayor netted her fewer than 15,000 votes (a dropoff of more than 8,000 votes from her first attempt in 2017), endorsed Bruce Harrell for mayor. Progressives who supported her first campaign expressed consternation (on Twitter and elsewhere) that the former state legislator and ex-Transportation Choices Coalition director would pass over a fellow urbanist and progressive , Lorena González, in favor of Harrell, who has openly rejected the idea that density belongs in neighborhoods in favor of the ’90s-era belief that housing should be segregated to busy arterial streets, aka car sewers.

But Farrell’s decision not to support González, who wants to eliminate exclusionary single-family zoning, shouldn’t be too surprising; her campaign, aided by half a dozen political consulting firms from across the country, used homelessness as a wedge issue by aligning Farrell with the campaign for Charter Amendment 29, which would require the city to redirect existing funds to pay for shelter beds as a precursor to “clearing” encampments from parks and sweeps. Harrell is also a staunch supporter of the measure; González opposes it.

Farrell works at Civic Ventures, a political think tank funded by progressive billionaire Nick Hanauer, who also helped fund a small pro-Farrell independent expenditure campaign.

The Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future IE, in contrast, is funded primarily by wealthy downtown real estate and business interests who also support the pro-sweeps initiative. The largest contributors to the independent expenditure campaign, Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie and his wife, Alyssa, are major Republican donors, giving thousands to (among others) Donald Trump;  Marco Rubio; Mike Huckabee; failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp; the Republican National Committee; and the Draft Ben Carson for President committee, among many other Republican groups and candidates.

2. Former Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, the architect of Charter Amendment 29 (the “Compassion Seattle” initiative), spent the 2019 election cycle burning political bridges with a series of scorched-earth mailers blaming everyone from his former colleague Lisa Herbold to a young graduate student who ran for council against Burgess’ onetime aide Alex Pedersen, for crime, traffic, and homelessness. This year, he’s using similar tactics to go after another ex-colleague, mayoral candidate (and current council president) Lorena González, in a fundraising pitch for the pro-Harrell PAC.

In the post, Burgess—who often publicly bemoaned the lack of “civility” on the city council back when he was on it—says González’ vision for Seattle is a city where “many misdemeanors, including property crime, [go] unchecked.” He accuses González, who would be the city’s first Latina mayor, of being “hostile,” “antagonistic,” and confrontational—stereotypes so broad, they’re more like foghorns than dog whistles. And he mischaracterizes many of González’ positions, saying, bizarrely, that she would “completely wipe out single-family neighborhoods” if elected and claiming that her actions directly caused former police chief Carmen Best to resign.

Burgess also takes González’ early commitment to reducing the size of the police force out of context, suggesting she’s responsible for police rage-quitting en masse—in reality, a national trend started by protests against police brutality last summer. And González has recently argued (and voted) against cutting SPD’s budget, an act she believes could damage the city’s standing in federal court. Despite this, Burgess claims that electing González will put people’s personal safety at risk, “at a time when violent crime has surged to the highest it’s been in the past ten years.”

Besides this fundraising pitch, Burgess has no clear financial ties to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, although he has contributed to the Harrell campaign. His level of involvement in the mayoral election could be limited by his work on behalf of Compassion Seattle, where he is the top-listed campaign official.

3. The ACLU of Washington, the Transit Riders Union, and the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness sued King County and the Compassion Seattle campaign, arguing that Charter Amendment 29 is outside the scope of the initiative process because it would dictate homelessness policy for the city, a job the plaintiffs argue is reserved for the city and county councils. In response, Compassion Seattle sent out a fundraising plea accusing a “small group of activists” of mounting a “cynical and desperate” attack on initiative supporters “designed to maintain the status quo” of tents in parks.

Although the fundraising pitch asks for donations of $10, $25, or $50, the campaign is funded primarily by enormous contributions from downtown real estate owners and business interests, including developer Martin Selig ($50,000), the consultant who helped draft the initiative, Tim Ceis ($25,000), the Downtown Seattle Association ($22,000), and the aforementioned George Petrie ($50,000). Only 35 donors have given $50 or less to the campaign, which has racked up well over $1 million.

4. The HOPE Team—a reconstituted version of the old Navigation Team that coordinates shelter referrals for people living at encampments that are targeted for removal—touted new numbers last week showing that more unsheltered people agreed to go indoors between April and June of this year than in any previous quarter. People forced to relocate from encampments are often reluctant to go into shelters for any number of reasons, including privacy concerns, a desire to stay with their community, and worries about personal safety.

The report acknowledges that the new availability of about 200 hotel beds contributed greatly to the higher acceptance rates during the second quarter of this year. What it elides is that those beds filled up quickly and have stayed full, as plans to move residents swiftly from unsheltered homelessness to hotels to housing have stalled. Indeed, the numbers peaked in April, when the hotel rooms (belatedly) opened, and have continued to drop. The city currently plans to shut down both hotels early next year, but HSD is reportedly discussing whether to keep one or both open beyond the end of their ten-month contracts.

Fizz: SPD Asks to Spend $15 Million in Salary Savings; Council Okays Durkan’s Equitable Communities Contracts

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee heard a presentation on Tuesday morning outlining SPD’s proposals for spending more than $15 million in unspent salaries—a byproduct of skyrocketing attrition within the department, including 100 departures in the first six months of 2021 alone.

There are currently two pots of unspent money in SPD’s budget. Last November, the council passed a series of provisos preventing the department from spending roughly $9 million until SPD complied with some of the council’s reform goals; one of those provisos specifically captured $5 million of any salary savings SPD incurred as officers left the department in droves. But the department’s staffing woes have escalated, leaving the department with far more unspent salary dollars than anticipated—more than $10 million of which isn’t captured by the council’s provisos.

According to SPD budget director Angela Socci, the department needs to keep those savings to handle internal crises that arose over the past year—a proposal that counts on the council lifting provisos, and one that wouldn’t allow the council to redirect most the savings to newer, non-police public safety programs. In fact, SPD has already started using some of the $15 million to cover separation costs for departing officers, as well as to pay officers overtime to fill in gaps in patrol shifts. The department also began spending money on consultants, including a contract with the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform that determined the city could eventually shift half of SPD’s current emergency call load to other responders.

The department’s decision to spend salary savings without the go-ahead of the council raised some eyebrows Tuesday. “Is it an accepted budget practice to move forward on spending in areas that the council hasn’t authorized yet,” asked councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the committee.

According to council central staffer Greg Doss, who led the presentation, SPD is allowed to shift dollars in its personnel budget around as needed—from salaries to separation pay, for instance.

But SPD presented a much broader array of spending proposals that will need support from the council and mayor’s office, including a vote from the council to lift provisos on the department’s budget. The requests include $1.5 million to hire new civilian staffers, including community service officers and public disclosure staff, as well as $520,000 for “hiring and retention incentives”; in total, the department’s proposed spending would use $13.7 million of the salary savings. A much smaller portion—only $1.5 million—would shift out of SPD’s budget to fund programs like the “Triage One” civilian response teams proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan last month.

Council President Lorena González pressured SPD strategy director Chris Fisher to outline a plan for stemming the tide of officers leaving the department. “I think these numbers tell the story,” she said, “that SPD management have significant room for improvement for retaining the new officers and existing officers.”

Fisher responded that the solution to SPD’s attrition problems may lay outside of the department itself. “Many officers say that money helps, but if it were just about the paycheck, they could do something else that would make just as much with a lot less time away from family,” he told the committee. “They want to know that people are invested in the department, and that they are appreciated.”

But councilmember Teresa Mosqueda offered a more optimistic view of the situation, saying the council  “could create a chart that pairs a downward trend [in police staffing] with an upward trend in spending on community safety”—a goal, she said, that the council shouldn’t lose track of.

2. On Wednesday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation releasing $30 million from the city’s general fund to spend on racial justice-related programs recommended by the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force—a group assembled by her office last October that included representatives from an array of prominent local BIPOC community organizations.

“There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”

The city council voted unanimously on Monday to lift a proviso on the $30 million, raising no objections to the plan laid out by the task force earlier this summer. The proposed investments include nearly $9 million to be spent on affordable housing and land ownership program for Seattle’s BIPOC residents, as well as $7.5 million to provide capital and technical support to BIPOC-owned small businesses.

In earlier discussions of the plan, some councilmembers raised questions about the potential for overhead costs to consume an outsized proportion of the $30 million. Chris Lampkin, a task force member and political director with SEIU 1199NW, told the council’s finance meeting on July 20 that “most of the funding recommendations are intended to channel money directly to community through existing programs, as opposed to spending money to stand up new programs.”

The task force, which began as follow-up to Durkan’s ambitious promise last summer to invest $100 million in BIPOC communities, faced early public opposition from some activists, who argued that the group would butt heads with the council’s own participatory budgeting plan. The Seattle City Council also cut the project’s budget from $100 million to $30 million, directing the rest to the participatory budgeting process and other priorities that predated Durkan’s proposal.

But the council’s brief discussion on Monday suggested that most of the anticipated tensions surrounding the task force dissipated over the past half-year. “There was talk that certain groups were being pitted against each other,” said councilmember Deborah Juarez, who also served as a member of the task force. “Guess what? That didn’t happen.”

Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree

By Paul Kiefer

For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.

Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.

Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.

Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.

The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.

“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart

During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.

Continue reading “Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree”

Arts Leaders Say Mayoral Candidates Misunderstand the Creative Economy

Source: 2019 City of Seattle survey of creative economy workers

By Maryam Noor

After a mayoral candidate forum about the arts at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute last month, members of the local arts community said many of the candidates’ responses lacked concrete policy solutions that could help artists and institutions recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Lennon—the Executive Director of Langston, an independent nonprofit arts organization affiliated with the Langston Hughes Institute—said he was “constantly disappointed at a general lack of awareness that candidates have of the size and scope of not only our sector but particularly, this year, of the impact of the pandemic on our sector.”

Moderators Vivian Phillips and Marcie Sillman, co-hosts of the DoubleXposure podcast, asked mayoral candidates about housing affordability for artists, COVID-19 recovery for the sector, and strategies to increase funding for the arts in Seattle.

“A big thing that gets lost in these conversations about the arts is that the arts are not external to any other conversation around civic dialogue. It’s as large a sector as some of the other industries we lionize.”—Langston Seattle director Tim Lennon

“There were quite a few people who spoke to asking philanthropy to donate more or to match public  investment, but no clear policies on how they were going to make that actually happen,” Lennon said.

Five of the mayoral candidates––Andrew Grant Houston, Bruce Harrell, Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, and James Donaldson—agreed with the statement that a living wage for an artist in Seattle is $80,000 a year. But Lennon said they didn’t offer strategies for boosting artists’ wages.

According to a 2019 study published by the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, nearly 80 percent of “creative economy” jobs pay less than King County’s median wage, and almost a third of survey respondents whose primary occupation is creative earned less than $25,000 a year from that job. (The study’s definition of “creative economy” was broad, and included waitstaff and computer programmers in addition to traditional creative jobs such as visual artists and writers).

“The number is fine, but it’s about how you get to that number. That is what I’m really concerned about,” Lennon said. Continue reading “Arts Leaders Say Mayoral Candidates Misunderstand the Creative Economy”

Durkan Takes Credit for Funding She Vetoed, Police Chief Says Few Changes Needed to Comply with State Reforms, and More

Seattle interim police chief Adrian Diaz

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a press release on Wednesday touting her own success, along with that of her Human Services Department in handing out more than $10 million in grants, over 18 months, to 33 community-based groups and nonprofit organizations that work on upstream violence prevention and intervention strategies.

“Together, these investments strengthen community organization’s ability to address institutionalized inequities that result in BIPOC communities being underserved and unsafe,” Durkan’s press release said. 

What Durkan’s statement failed to mention is that her office spent much of the last year fighting not to spend this money. The city council first directed the mayor’s office to spend the $10 million last September, when they adopted a midyear budget amendment allocating $10 million “solely for community-led efforts to scale up organizations to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.”

At the time, the council hoped to get funds out the door quickly to respond to public demands for investments in alternatives to police that emerged during citywide protests throughout the summer.

Durkan vetoed the council’s adopted budget, specifically citing the $10 million expenditure, which the council’s budget paid for using an interfund loan, as a reason for rejecting the budget. The council narrowly overturned her veto, earmarking the funds for community organizations. The money was supposed to be spent this year.

When Durkan still failed to spend the money the council allocated—telling the council she planned to do her own request for proposals—the council acted again, amending Durkan’s 2021 budget to take the $10 million out of Durkan’s Equitable Communities fund (which the mayor established as an executive-branch parallel to the council-led participatory budgeting process) and allocating it to the same purpose as before.

This week’s announcement, which comes in the waning months of Durkan’s term, is a step toward finally getting the long-delayed funding out the door.

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2. In a Thursday afternoon blog post, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlined his department’s plans to comply with a pair of new state laws that place limits on police tactics and equipment, restrict when officers can use force, and require officers who witness out-of-policy uses of force to their supervisors.

Overall, Diaz wrote, he believes SPD is already complying with most of the new restrictions and requirements are already included SPD policy or local law, so the new statewide standards for pursuits, for example, won’t spur any changes in Seattle. Diaz added that the department would continue using 40mm “less lethal” projectile launchers, which police used on protesters last year, calling the launchers “an established tool that has allowed marked success in bringing about positive outcomes in dangerous situations.”

The new policies will prohibit police statewide from using force unless they have probable cause to make an arrest or they are responding to an “imminent threat” to themselves or another person; require police departments to empty their arsenals of “military equipment,” including some high-caliber weapons; and prohibit vehicle pursuits unless police believe they are chasing a suspect in a violent crime.

Diaz said the new rules will spur changes to how officers handle so-called “Terry stops,” or stops made without probable cause for an arrest. “If officers cannot articulate … a basis for a use of physical force with an uncooperative or resistant subject,” he wrote, “officers will be expected to disengage.” PubliCola has reached out to SPD’s legal department for details about the current bar for using force during Terry stops.

In addition, Diaz wrote, SPD will do away with its high-caliber rifles and shotguns. While some departments around the state have also claimed that the law requires them to turn over their high-caliber rubber bullet launchers, Diaz contended that he has “increasing confidence that it was not the intent of the legislature” to force departments to abandon weapons that can be used as less-lethal alternatives to guns during some crisis responses.

According to a department source, SPD expects that Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson may issue guidelines on whether departments can keep their high-caliber rubber bullet launchers before Sunday.

3. Erstwhile Human Services Department Interim Director Helen Powell has taken a job as deputy director of the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, a story PubliCola broke on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. Current HSD deputy director Tanya Kim will take over for the rest of the year, Howell said in an email to staff.Howell, the former executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Building Changes, was in the position for about seven months. Durkan appointed Howell last December to replace the previous interim HSD director, Jason Johnson, whose name the mayor withdrew from nomination when it became clear the city council would not confirm Johnson for a permanent appointment.

Howell’s departure comes at a shaky time for the department, which has not had a permanent director since early 2018, when Ed Murray appointee Catherine Lester left shortly after Durkan took office.

4. Earlier this week, PubliCola pushed our primary-election endorsements of Lorena González for mayor and Brianna Thomas for City Council Position 9. (If you’re wondering how to vote in Position 8, we encourage you to vote for past PubliCola Pick Teresa Mosqueda.)

Keep an eye out later this year for our general election endorsements, which will also cover the races for Seattle City Attorney, King County Executive, and potentially the Compassion Seattle and Sawant recall elections, depending on whether those proposals make it onto the November ballot!

Continue reading “Durkan Takes Credit for Funding She Vetoed, Police Chief Says Few Changes Needed to Comply with State Reforms, and More”

Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control”

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

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies, released the first round of recommendations for changing how the Seattle Police Department responds to protests. The OIG made its recommendations after a year-long review of SPD’s response to last summer’s protests by a panel of community representatives, including current and former members of the Community Police Commission, and SPD staff, including some who played key roles in the department’s protest response.

With the help of OIG staff and outside facilitators, the panel reviewed a series of widely criticized police actions during the first three days of protests in late May and early June of 2020—a period that accounted for two-thirds of SPD’s uses of force and arrests during the protests—and assembled recommendations that could help the department avoid similar missteps in the future.

The proposals range from basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests, to more unique suggestions, like loosening the department’s policies on neutrality to allow officers to express solidarity with protesters.

In general, the panel recommended moving SPD away from a “crowd control” approach, emphasizing that the department’s role should be to facilitate protests, not direct or manage them.

“We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.”—OIG director Lisa Judge

Inspector General Lisa Judge, who heads up the OIG, said some of the tactical recommendations—directing officers to minimize unnecessary arrests at protests, for example—are “no-brainers.” But at least one could be controversial. Responding to officers’ concerns about communication failures during the first few days of protests, the panel suggested that SPD could consider replacing radio communication with an encrypted messaging system, such as WhatsApp, during protests.

John Hollway, a consultant from the University of Pennsylvania Law School who helped design and facilitate the OIG’s review, said the change to encrypted messaging would give officers a reliable and better-organized channel for communications that can easily be shared with other law enforcement agencies providing backup during large-scale protests. Radio communications rely on a single channel that can only be used by one officer at a time—an obvious challenge for the department during frenetic protests. But shifting to an encrypted messaging system could also allow SPD to operate less transparently during and after protests. Messages sent using apps like Whatsapp are private and can be set to disappear, making them unlikely to show up in response to records requests. And unlike Whatsapp conversations, members of the public can easily tune in to SPD’s radio frequencies.

“There’s a tension here between transparency and tactics,” Judge said. “We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.” Though the panel’s recommendation doesn’t specifically suggest that SPD keep a record of its encrypted communications, Hollway said that ideally, the department should determine how to communicate discretely while archiving officers’ messages so that oversight agencies could review them as needed after-the-fact.

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The panel used the report to question Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to impose a citywide curfew starting on May 30, advising future mayors to exhaust other communication options before declaring a curfew. “If you’ve got 100 cops and 5,000 people who are very angry at policing in government and institutions, you are setting your police officers up for failure if you choose that as your strategy,” said Judge. “Even the police panelists said that they felt frustrated that the curfew pressured them to make arrests instead of focusing on more serious priorities.”

The panel’s recommendations for cultural change, Judge said, were about reframing the role of police at protests not as crowd control but protest facilitation. “The notion that [police] can command or manage a crowd is outdated, and it’s just not consistent with constitutional principles,” Judge said. “This report clearly states that they need to shift to an approach that’s about facilitating a protest, not directing it.”

As part of the shift in SPD’s approach to protests, the panel recommended that the department assemble a team of “dialogue officers.” This unit, based on a model launched in Sweden during large-scale protests in 2001, would act as a conduit for sharing information between protesters and police. “The whole point would be to have the dialogue officers spend the entire year building relationships with community members so that, when a protest happens, they pass information back and forth between the crowd and police.” Continue reading “Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control””

PubliCola Picks: Brianna Thomas for Seattle City Council Position 9

There are two candidates in this race who could fill progressive city council president Lorena González’ shoes— Brianna Thomas and Nikkita Oliver. There’s also a third candidate, Sara Nelson, who’s promoting a Silent-Majority agenda that makes us shudder. We’ll be voting for the highly qualified Thomas, and against Nelson. We encourage voters to send Thomas to the general election, where we expect reactionary forces will propel Nelson.

Thomas, a longtime aide to González who’s well-versed in the mechanics of City Hall, knows how to draft, negotiate, and pass legislation—critical institutional skills on a council where seven seats will be up for grabs in two years. She worked behind the scenes on 2017’s widely lauded police accountability ordinance, helped draft a law regulating the city’s use of surveillance technology, and worked closely with González on the secure scheduling law, which provides hourly workers with more predictability and a right to rest between shifts. As a former field director for the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund and tireless lead organizer for SeaTac’s historic, first-in-the-nation $15 minimum wage law, we’re not surprised González tapped Thomas as her chief of staff to run a progressive agenda through city hall.

Thomas’ familiarity with legislative sausage-making can make her more cautious than some advocates might prefer. Her plan to redesign the Seattle Police Department, for example, is long-term and methodical, showing patience that’s unlikely to satisfy activists who wanted the council to slash SPD’s budget by half last year. And her campaign pitch can veer into jargon—like when she answered a question about density by talking about her plan to maximize returns from the city’s Multifamily Housing Tax Exemption (MFTE) program, which exempts developers from property taxes for 12 years if they provide some affordable housing units for the same period. Her deep science is okay with us—we love a wonk, especially one as motivated and hard-boiled as Thomas.

Her idealistic commitment to good governance and city workers who “come to work every day for the city of Seattle because they do want to solve problems for their communities” (as she put it during a recent forum) is backed up by the yeoman’s dedication to service she has exhibited during seven years as a stalwart council staffer.

Thomas’ reverence for public service is unmistakable—and unusual. Her idealistic commitment to good governance and city workers who “come to work every day for the city of Seattle because they want to solve problems for their communities” (as she put it during a recent forum) is backed up by the yeoman’s dedication to service she’s exhibited during seven years as a stalwart council staffer.

Nikkita Oliver, the other progressive choice in this race, has an impressive history of community activism and a deep understanding of local issues. As an organizer, Oliver helped lead efforts to stop King County from building a new youth jail, and has advocated for defunding the police and investing in community-based alternatives; the organization they lead, Creative Justice, offers arts programming as an alternative to jail for young people. We’ve been impressed by Oliver’s commitment to addressing the root causes of violence, replacing a broken criminal-justice system with intervention and prevention programs that address those root causes, and ending exclusionary zoning rules that have excluded BIPOC communities from access to opportunity. Continue reading “PubliCola Picks: Brianna Thomas for Seattle City Council Position 9”