Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis

The King County jail in downtown Seattle (Paul Kiefer/PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”

The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.

The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.

As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine. Continue reading “Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis”

Hospital Overcrowding Prompts Push For Guardianship and Informed Consent Reforms

King County COVID data as of January 14, 2022

By Leo Brine

Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) is working on a bill to reform Washington’s informed consent and guardianship laws, which have prevented hospitals from discharging some patients who need long-term care at a time when hospitals need as many beds as possible to handle the latest spike in COVID cases.

Washington’s guardianship and informed consent laws have prevented hospitals and family members from transferring some patients who cannot make decisions for themselves into long-term care facilities even when a family member has given consent. Macri has a bill cued up which will address the problem, she said.

While the state’s informed consent laws empower family members to make many decisions for incapacitated people, they don’t allow incapacitated patients to leave hospitals for long-term care without the consent of a court-appointed guardian. The reason? Money: Guardians are responsible for paying for long-term care.

It can take months for courts to establish someone as a patient’s guardian, so Macri wants to amend the state’s informed consent laws to make it easier for patients to move to long-term care facilities while allowing courts to establish guardianship for the patient’s long-term financial management later.

Right now, hospitals have patients occupying hospital beds that could be used to treat people with acute needs because they don’t have a paper saying who’s going to front the bill.

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As of January 12, Washington state has 2,062 COVID patients in hospitals with 172 on ventilators, according to state data. In King County, hospitalizations more than doubled between January 2 and January 9, county data shows.

Hospitals in Washington have said they are in “a state of crisis” after operating for months at high capacity and now with omicron sending more people to the hospital than ever before.

The Washington State Medical Association sent Governor Jay Inslee a letter last week saying that hospitals are in “a state of crisis” and asking the governor to change guardianship laws so that family members can agree to transfers. The letter included the draft of a proclamation that, if Inslee signed, would have that efect.

However, Inslee said last week that he does not have the executive authority to make the proclamation because, “you have to comply with federal law to admit someone to a long-term care facility. I cannot waive federal law.”

Instead, the governor—inadvertently highlighting the need for Macri’s fix—announced Thursday that he hopes to increase the number of social service workers who work on patient transfers. He also proposed create a program to expedite the process of establishing guardianships and increase the number of guardians, which could help reduce the backlog of patients stuck in hospitals. “[This] may involve more resources for the superior court,” he said. Additionally, to help long-term care facilities take on more discharged hospital patients, he’d add new health care workers to long term care facilities.

Macri says her bill is still necessary because establishing guardianship “can still take months even with the steps that [Inslee is] putting in place.” Her bill will change informed consent laws to allow family members, those with power of attorney, and other surrogate decision makers to consent to a patient’s transfer to a long-term facility.

Macri plans to meet with the governor’s team about her bill to hammer out how it fits in with Inslee’s plans and to address some concerns the governor’s office has around informed consent. One potential sticking point is that, according to Macri, Inslee’s team is sticking with their position that only guardians should be able to make these transfers happen.

Meanwhile, patients without guardians are not the only ones who are having a hard time getting out of hospitals. Often, there are no shelter beds available for homeless patients. And some patients came to the hospital from long-term care facilities but are unable to go back into their care because of understaffing.

Seattle Police Will No Longer Enforce Bike Helmet Law and Other Minor Traffic Violations

Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Friday that SPD will no longer stop people for four minor traffic infractions, including violations of the county’s mandatory bicycle helmet law. The announcement, which takes effect immediately, opens the door to additional future reductions in low-level traffic enforcement.

In addition to the helmet law, officers will no longer stop drivers for missing, expired, or improperly displayed registration; items hanging from rear-view mirrors; or cracked windshields. “These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote in a letter to the Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge announcing the decision. “We know there are also reasons for concern that these violations may disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet the financial requirements set forth by law.” Officers will still be able to enforce the underlying laws, but only if they stop a driver or bicyclist for a more serious violation.

The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Last fall, Diaz expressed an interest in introducing traffic stop reforms before the end of 2021. When the reforms hadn’t happened by December, some police accountability advocates who took part in the discussions between SPD and the OIG worried that the election of Bruce Harrell—and his decision to dismiss SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, an enthusiastic participant in discussions about traffic stop reform—would delay the reformsThe chief’s latest letter could help allay those concerns.

The list of violations SPD will decline to enforce could still grow, Diaz wrote, as SPD reviews Seattle’s traffic codes for other offenses that may not justify a stop. For now, he wrote, SPD will continue to stop drivers for other vehicle equipment violations, including broken taillights, which several civil rights groups urged the department to stop enforcing. “For pedestrian and driver safety, we cannot allow vehicles with safety equipment issues to just remain in that status,” he wrote.

Judge’s initial proposal to scale back the role of police in traffic enforcement triggered pushback from some law enforcement representatives, including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan, who called the recommendations “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claimed that they could spur an increase in crime. “Does this now signal people to stop registering their vehicles and completely disregard the rule of law?” he wrote in an open letter last summer.

According to SDOT data, the minor driving infractions listed in Diaz’s letter do not present serious risks to the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. The four leading causes of deadly or serious collisions in Seattle—speeding, distracted driving, ignoring pedestrians’ right-of-way, and driving while intoxicated—made up a third of all tickets given by SPD since 2015, and SPD has no plans to stop enforcement of those traffic laws.

The decision to stop enforcing the helmet law reflects more than a year of debate in King County about the disproportionate enforcement of the law against homeless people and people of color. After Crosscut reported in 2020 that nearly half of helmet law citations in Seattle went to homeless cyclists, the King County Board of Health, which oversees the helmet requirement, began discussing the possibility of repealing the law; the board is set to make a decision on the helmet law year.

In recent years, more than half of all cyclist citations were for helmet law violations, which typically involve a $100-$150 fine; according to Seattle Municipal Court data, 77 percent of those fines go unpaid. In addition to formal citations, a community stakeholder and bike advocate who contributed to the OIG’s discussions estimated that SPD officers may have stopped hundreds or thousands of bicyclists for not wearing helmets without issuing citations, sometimes as a justification to question the bicyclist about a different crime.

Diaz’s announcement does not necessarily spell a dramatic change in SPD’s day-to-day operations. After two years of very high attrition, SPD has dismantled its traffic enforcement unit and moved the officers to patrol shifts, triggering a dramatic decline in the number of tickets and warnings issued to drivers and bicyclists.

Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG

The Guardian, March 2015

By Paul Kiefer

The Guardianthe official newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), went out of print a few months into the pandemic. The paper’s disappearance was a sign of an important shift within Seattle’s largest police union, and one that closed a window into the guild’s interior life.

The print-only newspaper, which had a circulation of about 3,000 at its peak, was read mostly by police officers, retired police officers, labor organizers and city hall staffers. When articles from the paper did make it into the public eye, they were generally buoyed by controversy, like a 2011 opinion piece in which an officer called a training course on racial profiling an attack on “American values” and described Seattle’s elected leaders as a “quaint socialist cabal.”

Among SPOG members and retirees, however, The Guardian’s demise was a sign of a strategic and generational shift. The new guild president, Mike Solan, had recently defeated the incumbent, Kevin Stuckey, by promising to aggressively and publicly defend Seattle police officers against criticism from the public and elected city officials. Solan’s dramatic campaign video, featuring footage of riot police clashing with protesters, drew tens of thousands of views. Stuckey’s video, which focused on the guild’s stability and relationships with other unions, drew only a few hundred views.

After his victory, Solan began reshaping the guild’s approach to public relations. A few months after he took office in February 2020, Solan dismissed former SPOG president Rich O’Neill—who had retired from SPD and returned to SPOG to handle contract negotiations and media relations for Stuckey—and quietly shuttered The Guardian. In December of that year, he introduced a replacement: A bombastic monthly podcast called “Hold the Line with Mike Solan“, produced in the style of conservative talk radio shows.

“On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”—Former SPOG President Rich O’Neill

Typically, Solan uses his podcast to criticize the Seattle City Council, who he argues have sacrificed public safety and the well-being of police officers to appease an “activist mob.” The details of this criticism vary. In one 90-minute episode, Solan decried Seattle’s “Homeless Industrial Complex”; in another, he condemned the vaccine mandate for city workers as an ill-advised blow to SPD’s already shrinking ranks. In contrast to The Guardian, few other guild members have appeared on “Hold the Line”; instead, Solan relies on guests from outside the police department, ranging from former mayoral candidate James Donaldson to encampment removal activist Andrea Suarez.

While Solan’s allies pointed to The Guardian’s shrinking readership among younger officers as a reason to replace the paper with a podcast, O’Neill does not believe that younger officers were to blame for the paper’s demise. Instead, he said Solan made the change as “a way to give the president more control over the guild’s voice. On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”

SPOG published the first issue of The Guardian in 1970 as a venue for editorials about the state of SPD and city politics, announcements about deaths and retirements, updates on contract negotiations, and the occasional recipe. Although the guild appointed officers with writing experience to edit the paper, SPOG’s president had the final say on what made it into print. The paper was mostly written by officers themselves.

“It afforded officers a place to get their frustrations out,” Stuckey said. “If there was a training they didn’t like, they could write about it in the paper.” O’Neill said that he tried to strike a balance between allowing officers to air their opinions and avoiding direct criticism of elected officials or SPD command staff. He did, however, make some exceptions: The paper regularly criticized former city attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes did not return a call for comment.

O’Neill viewed The Guardian as a centerpiece of SPOG’s public relations strategy, and an opportunity for transparency. “It made officers more accessible,” he said. “The department has a policy that says you can’t speak to the press without permission, and if you try to talk to the press anonymously, you can get in trouble. But if you wrote something in the union paper, that was considered protected union speech.”

Some former readers outside the guild, however, believe publishing contentious articles actually harmed SPOG’s mission as a union. Continue reading “Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG”

Office of Police Accountability Director Joins Harrell Cabinet as Public Safety Advisor

Public Safety Director Andrew Myerberg

By Paul Kiefer

Andrew Myerberg,  the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, will join Mayor Bruce Harrell’s cabinet as the new director of public safety. In his new role, Myerberg will serve on the mayor’s bargaining team during contract negotiations with police unions, draft changes to Seattle Police Department policies, and advise other city departments as they stand up new civilian alternatives to policing.

Myerberg will report to Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell, who previously served as part of the monitoring team appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the Seattle Police Department. On Wednesday, Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell told PubliCola that she will share most of her “broad portfolio” of responsibilities with Myerberg.

Both the deputy mayor and Myerberg will also sit at the bargaining table as the city negotiates new contracts with Seattle’s two police unions. Bargaining with the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents police captains and lieutenants, began last year; negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents officers, detectives and sergeants, is expected to begin later in 2022.

The city’s most recent contract with SPOG expired in 2020, and police reform advocates see the next contract as the key to implementing a slate of oversight measures that the last contract blocked. After the departure of Ned Burke, the city negotiator responsible for bargaining with SPOG, in October, Myerberg is one of the few remaining city staffers with expertise on law enforcement union contracts. Myerberg was also heavily involved in the development of the city’s landmark 2017 accountability ordinance, which the most recent SPOG contract largely defanged.

At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Harrell said that he views Myerberg as “someone who knows police accountability, who knows police reform, [and] who knows how situations play out in real time.”

Myerberg faced criticism this week from the public and members of the Seattle City Council over his handling of an investigation into a disinformation campaign by a group of Seattle police officers during protests for racial justice in June 2020.

The OPA completed its investigation of the incident in September, finding a now-retired captain responsible for ordering the disinformation campaign, but the office did not release its findings until last week. During a presentation to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday morning, Myerberg faced questions from council members about the delay, as well as about his recommendation that SPD not discipline the rank-and-file officers who spread disinformation through SPD radio channels at the behest of their supervisors. One of those officers subsequently left the department only to rejoin SPD a month ago.

Police accountability advocates frequently criticized Myerberg for being too lenient, in their view, with officers accused of misconduct. Most of the criticism centered on his handling of excessive force cases, which Myerberg argued are rarely black-and-white enough to merit firing an officer. In an interview with PubliCola in February 2021, Myerberg said that he was reluctant to push for harsher consequences because he was wary of spurring officers to appeal their cases to an arbitrator.

“It’s difficult to jump up to termination or suspensions if you haven’t done that in the past,” he said, “because if I’m not consistent, the discipline could be overturned on appeal.” Myerberg sometimes had similar reservations about upholding bias allegations against officer, particularly when complaints center on the ways that officers’ unconscious biases manifest in their interactions with the public.

Myerberg’s efforts to avoid having discipline overturned on appeal may be one reason for the overall decline in the number of disciplinary appeals filed by Seattle police officers over the past five years. But Myerberg’s successor could reverse that trend, using the risky appeals process to attempt to stake out stricter standards for police conduct.

Harrell will be responsible for appointing the next OPA director, who will also need a confirmation vote from the city council. The mayor’s office has not yet named a temporary director for the office.

Woodland Park, Site of Seattle’s Largest Encampment, Now “Highest-Priority Site In the City”

Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.
Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.

By Erica C. Barnett

A large, longstanding encampment in Upper Woodland Park has now become “the highest-priority [encampment] site in the city,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, told PubliCola yesterday. Strauss and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said city officials are meeting weekly with outreach providers to come up with a strategy for the encampment, which includes about 70 tents and as many as 100 people, including some who had been living in a nearby encampment the city’s Parks Department removed late last month.

The encampment is on the city’s official “priority list” for January, a designation bestowed on encampments the city is about to sweep.

Ordinarily, when an encampment is on the priority list, a group of city outreach workers called the HOPE Team goes to the site and offers the people living there whatever shelter happens to be available. Although the HOPE Team has exclusive access to some beds that are not available to other outreach providers, there are often no more than one or two beds available across the city, and those beds may not be suitable for every person living at an encampment.

Practically speaking, it would be impossible to move everyone living in even a midsize encampment into shelter in the few days the HOPE Team usually spends doing outreach before a sweep, even if the shelter that became available that week happened to be appropriate for those specific encampment residents. As a result, encampment sweeps tend to earn their name—encampment residents describe being swept from one site to another and then swept again, moving around neighborhoods in an endless round robin of sweeps.

“The mayor is … acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.”—Jamie Housen, spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell

Strauss says the Woodland Park removal will be different. Like the recent successful effort to remove a smaller encampment at the Ballard Commons park, he said, the city will send service providers into the encampment to collect the names of everyone living there, assess their needs, and assign each person to appropriate housing or shelter as it becomes available. “Our ability to place people in shelter will depend on two things: One, throughput for people who are in shelter into affordable housing” so that existing shelter beds become available, “and then, secondly shelter expansion.”

Strauss acknowledges that the Ballard Commons was successful precisely because several brand-new shelter facilities became available all at once, creating temporary excess capacity in the shelter system so that people actually had places to go. With Woodland Park, the situation is different; it’s impossible to move people into shelter that doesn’t exist.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell is “acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.” Harrell, Housen added, “is committed to ensuring progress at the site and is doing so by engaging the City with community, providers, and stakeholders in a constructive, methodical, and effective approach that drives visible change and improved outcomes for encampment residents and Woodland Park community members as quickly as possible.”

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee said LIHI—the city’s primary tiny-house village provider—has not heard anything about a proposal for new tiny houses to shelter people living in Woodland Park. Typically, standing up a new tiny house village is a process that requires funding from the city through the budget process, which happens annually with “supplemental” budget changes every three months, followed by a request for proposals and selection process.

During a meeting of the King County Homelessness Authority’s governing board on Thursday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the biggest challenge to standing up new shelters and tiny house villages isn’t funding but staffing. Recently, they said, “we have had shelters operate overnight shifts with a single person, which is simply not advisable.” The authority’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the city of Seattle, includes funding to expand Camp Second Chance in West Seattle.

In the meantime, Strauss said during a meeting of the Greenlake Community Council Wednesday night, the city will begin working on “short-term supports like trash mitigation and hygiene mitigation. So if you see a port-a-potty go up, or a handwashing station, or a Dumpster, this does not indicate a sanctioned encampment. It is a temporary placement. It will go up and it will go down.” The specific timeline for this process, Strauss said, will be “based on shelter capacity.”

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”

SPD Staffing Hits Historic Low, Police Oversight Leader Addresses Protest Ruse, 911 Call Center Outage Explained

1. After a second year of high attrition, the Seattle Police Department now has about 950 officers in service, down from 1,282 in 2019. Meanwhile, the department’s efforts to boost recruitment haven’t produced results, leaving SPD with no clear path out of its staffing predicament.

The decline of SPD’s ranks to fewer than 1,000 active officers marks a new milestone for the department, which now has fewer officers than it did in 1970, when Seattle had two-thirds its current population. An additional 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department.

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

The shortage of officers has gutted SPD’s detective units, and “augmentation emails”—requests for non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements—have become a near-daily feature of departmental operations.

The department’s new hiring incentive program, which former mayor Jenny Durkan introduced in October, hasn’t resulted in “any uptick in applications,” SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik said. The bonus program offers up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments.

Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz maintains that the department needs at least 1,400 officers. During the city council’s budget deliberations last fall, SPD set a hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022. Although the council voted to accept that assumption when adopting SPD’s 2022 budget, some council members, including budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, expressed doubt that SPD will see a net increase in officers this year.

2. Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg offered more details about the Seattle Police Department’s policies on ruses during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee, responding to questions about a widely criticized disinformation campaign an SPD captain launched during protests in June 2020.

On the night of June 8, 2020, then-captain Brian Grenon instructed a group of his officers to transmit a series of radio messages that would give protesters listening in on police radio channels an inflated impression of the number of SPD officers patrolling the city. Some of the officers concocted a story about a group of far-right extremists wandering through downtown, possibly with weapons, in search of a clash with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The transmissions sparked anxiety among protesters gathered near Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, putting many on edge.

In September, Myerberg’s office determined that Grenon and a fellow supervisor were to blame for “improperly add[ing] fuel to the fire” during a tense month of protests. The OPA absolved the lower-ranking officers of wrongdoing, citing the lack of supervision they received from Grenon; on Tuesday, Myerberg commented that the officers were “set up to fail” by their supervisors. Higher-ranking SPD commanders, including Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey and then-chief Carmen Best, told OPA investigators that Grenon didn’t ask for permission to use the ruse. Grenon and the other supervisor resigned from SPD months before the OPA concluded its investigation, which didn’t become public until last week.

While SPD policy and Washington state law allow police officers to use ruses while working undercover or to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.”

Myerberg also pointed out that SPD policies don’t currently require officers to document ruses—a challenge exposed by the June 2020 ruse, which neither Grenon nor any lower-ranking officers documented. While Myerberg expects that SPD will soon update its policies to require officers to keep records of their ruses, he does not anticipate that the department will ban the tactic.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis took the opportunity to point out a pattern of the highest-ranking SPD commanders absolving themselves of responsibility for high-profile mistakes during the 2020 protests, citing the abandonment of the East Precinct—for which the OPA held Assistant Chief Mahaffey responsible—as a corollary example. “I’m tired of reading the news about the latest thing that came out of 2020, and everyone in the mayor’s office and the front office of SPD says they didn’t know about it, and everything gets dropped on some guy in the middle,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an effective way to run a hierarchical organization.”

Committee chair Lisa Herbold also raised criticisms of the investigation, questioning Myerberg’s decision not to rule that the lower-ranking officers violated department policy.

3. A series of technical failures and human errors snowballed into an hour-long 911 outage in Seattle last month, the interim director of Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) told the council’s public safety committee on Tuesday.

The outage began in mid-afternoon on December 9 when the company that provides an internet connection for Washington’s 911 operating centers was doing routine maintenance. For unknown reasons, the backup network failed, disconnecting 911 lines across the state.

According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, emergency calls automatically re-routed to his center’s alternative phone line. Responders didn’t realize initially that the flood of calls to the secondary phone number included emergencies; when they noticed the problem, supervisors instructed call-takers to treat calls on the alternative number as priorities.

The chaos intensified when the CSCC attempted to send a push alert to Seattle residents instructing people to call the alternative phone number for emergencies. Instead, Lombard said, the message went “well beyond” Seattle, reaching people as far away as Kitsap County. “Many, many” people misread the message, Lombard continued, and called the CSCC’s backup phone number to test if it was working. Within minutes, calls to the CSCC increased by more than 1,200 percent, overwhelming call-takers.

In the future, Lombard said that he would like King County’s 911 center to handle emergency alerts, and that he hopes emergency alerts will direct people to a website, not a phone number.

Even without unexpected outages, the CSCC is struggling to keep up with call volumes: According to Lombard, between December 20 and January 3, CSCC staffers were unable to pick up 15 percent of calls to their non-emergency line. The 911 call center has struggled to recover from two years of high attrition that left more than half of its call-taker positions empty, although Lombard reported that applications for call-taker positions have increased five-fold since the city introduced a hiring incentive program for the CSCC.

—Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month

King's Inn
King’s Inn in Belltown

By Erica C. Barnett

With less than three weeks remaining before their contracts expire, the organizations that run two hotel-based shelters the city funded last year are scrambling to find housing for more than 100 homeless clients. One, the Chief Seattle Club, needs to relocate about 60 people from the King’s Inn shelter in Belltown; the other, the Low Income Housing Institute, must find shelter or housing for about 90 people still staying at the Executive Pacific hotel downtown.

Under their current contracts, which the King County Regional Homelessness Authority took over and declined to extend late last year, both hotels must empty out on January 31. (The actual contracts last another month, to give the agencies time to clean and repair any damage to the properties.) Both agencies stopped accepting new clients last year, and LIHI started moving hotel guests into other properties it operates, including tiny house villages, shelters, and permanent housing. Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, made plans to move people from King’s Inn into two housing projects it had under development, including one, ?al?al, that was supposed to open in October.

Since then, however, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question. Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for Chief Seattle Club, described a cascade of delays that have pushed back the opening date for ?al?al again and again: Rescheduled fire inspections, the discovery of an underground conduit that upended the schedule to pour a sidewalk outside the building, interminable waits for utility hookups. “Every construction project in the city is facing delays,” Clark said.

Not every person at King’s Inn will move into Chief Seattle Club’s own housing; some will use federal emergency housing vouchers, and some will use short-term rapid rehousing subsidies; the same is true for those currently staying at the Executive Pacific, and those have stayed at both hotels in the past and moved into other shelter or housing.

Since last year, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question.

LIHI is facing similar challenges, its director, Sharon Lee, said; if several new projects where LIHI had hoped to move hotel guests aren’t finished by the end of January, “we may have to put some people in another temporary [shelter],” such as a hotel. “We don’t think that’s the best solution either—to move them from one hotel to another hotel.”

The problems LIHI and Chief Seattle Club are facing as they wind down their hotel-based shelters are only partly the result of housing construction delays. In fact, the biggest challenges were baked into the contracts from the very beginning. Former mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially resisted accepting federal COVID relief dollars to move people from the streets to hotels, agreed to a very limited hotel-based shelter program last year on the condition that the hotels would serve as way stations for people moving swiftly into housing, rather than long-term shelter. The idea was to move people from encampments to hotels to market-rate apartments, using “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between unsheltered, often chronic, homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Rapid rehousing is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds.

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is most effective for people with minimal barriers to housing and employment—those who can get jobs quickly and earn enough to afford an apartment in Seattle. It is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds. As a result, people did not tend to move from hotel rooms to apartments; instead, they ended up back on the streets, moved into other forms of shelter like tiny house villages, or stayed put. Continue reading “Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month”

Former Officer Fired For Punching Handcuffed Woman Sues SPD

In-car video from the June 2014 arrest.

By Paul Kiefer

Adley Shepherd, a former Seattle police officer fired in 2016 for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department in federal court on Friday alleging that the department punished him disproportionately to appease the public and the federal court monitor who tracks reforms to SPD.

In June 2014, Shepherd arrested 23-year-old Miyekko Durden-Bosley after stepping into an argument between Durden-Bosley and her daughter’s father, Robert Shelby. When Shepherd handcuffed Durden-Bosley and pushed her into the back seat of his patrol car, she kicked him in the jaw. Two seconds later, Shepherd retaliated by punching Durden-Bosley in the eye, leaving her with two small fractures in her eye socket. After an investigation of the incident by the Office of Police Accountability, former SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for using excessive force.

Shepherd maintained that he had followed his training and appealed his case to an arbitrator with the support of his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). The arbitrator overturned Shepherd’s firing, ordering SPD to re-hire him and offer him back pay. According to Seattle’s contract with SPOG, the arbitrator’s ruling was final.

Former Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes decided to challenge the arbitrator’s ruling, arguing that reinstating Shepherd would violate the “public policy against excessive force in policing.” Both the King County Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals sided with Holmes, and Shepherd did not return to SPD. The courts’ rulings were a victory for police oversight advocates, who argue that arbitrators too often allow officers to go unpunished for misconduct; to SPOG and other police labor organizations, the decision raised the worrying prospect that law enforcement agencies will continue to chip away at the binding nature of arbitrators’ decisions.

Rather than appealing his case higher in Washington’s court system, Shepherd has now taken his case to the US District Court of Western Washington. In his lawsuit, he alleges that O’Toole fired him to appease the public and Seattle’s consent decree monitor—the eyes and ears of the federal judge who oversees reforms to SPD as part of 2012 agreement between the city and the US Department of Justice.

Since his firing, Shepherd argues in his lawsuit, “there have been several high-profile use of force incidents that have gone unpunished or only resulted in short suspensions,” which he views as proof that his firing was a disproportionately harsh consequence for his actions. In his lawsuit, Shepherd suggests that SPD’s commanders may have singled him out because he is Black.

Shepherd also alleges that SPD “improperly train[ed]” him and then punished him for following instructions. In his lawsuit, Shepherd’s attorney cites a training officer who, during Shepherd’s appeal to an arbitrator, testified that officers were trained to react to a punch or a kick by hitting back.

SPOG is no longer involved in Shepherd’s case, and he is no longer seeking to return to SPD. Instead, Shepherd is only asking the court to order SPD to compensate him for his firing and its aftermath.