After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree

New Consent Decree Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Photo via Leadership for a Networked World.

By Paul Kiefer

Merrick Bobb, who served for seven years as the court-appointed monitor for reforms to the Seattle Police Department mandated by the Department of Justice in a 2012 agreement between the city and federal government known as a consent decree, quietly resigned from his position on August 31.

In a letter explaining his decision, Bobb expressed dismay that SPD’s responses to this summer’s protests left him wondering whether “lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.” Looking beyond the department’s protest response, Bobb also pointed to SPD’s “‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems” (referring to the language of one of his team’s earlier reports on SPD) as another primary reason for the department to remain under federal oversight.

US District Judge James Robart appointed Dr. Antonio Oftelie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to replace Bobb as monitor. Robart appointed Monisha Harrell, the board chair of Equal Rights Washington and a (now outgoing) Community Police Commission commissioner, as deputy monitor. In a new order on Monday, Robart also appointed two associate monitors: Matthew Barge, a senior consultant at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, and Ronald Ward, a Seattle attorney who served as deputy monitor alongside Merrick Bobb.

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Oftelie is stepping into the monitor role at a time when the position demands a heavier hand than Bobb has provided since Robart ruled that the city was in compliance with the consent decree in 2018. After that ruling, Bobb said in an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on Thursday, he believed that his “job was done” as the monitor. “We’d brought the department to that point [of compliance].” But Bobb added that SPD’s protest response made it clear that “there needed to be a new monitor and new team to deal with new facts on the ground.” In that interview, Bobb did not mention that Robart ruled that the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May of last year because of accountability-related concerns.

Oftelie says that police accountability will be one of his priorities as monitor. In an email to the Seattle Times this week, Oftelie specifically said that his team’s focus will be on “SPD’s accountability and transparency structures”—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the CPC. But according to some local accountability experts, Oftelie’s proposal to reassess the city’s accountability structures will unnecessarily retrace the steps of longtime accountability advocates while real accountability reforms continue to languish. Continue reading “After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree”

Cuts to SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit Could Undermine DV Investigations, Experts Say

Image by zeraien via Wikimedia Commons.

By Paul Kiefer

As part of the staffing transfers that Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced last Tuesday, the Seattle Police Department is in the process of moving 88 officers to patrol duties, with more transfers to follow. Those reductions include 29 Community Policing Team members, five members of the department’s Intelligence Unit (used to identify crime hot spots and to determine where patrol officers will be deployed), and five members of the department’s Domestic Violence Unit—nearly a quarter of that unit’s staff.

Despite assurances from both Chief Diaz and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the department is working to ensure that the staffing transfers don’t limit the domestic violence unit’s efficiency and capacity, sources both outside SPD and inside the unit itself are raising concerns that the move will undermine domestic violence investigations.

“Of course I’m concerned,” said David Martin, the head of the King County Prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Unit, which works with the SPD unit on felony cases. “It’s hard to imagine this not increasing the caseloads for the remaining detectives, and that can take a toll on the thoroughness or speed of the investigations.” That increase in caseloads would have happened this year even without the staff transfers, he said, given the recent surge in domestic violence cases in the county.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.” – Judy Lin, King County Bar Association

According to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, as of the end of July, the county saw a 17 percent increase in domestic violence felony case filings compared to last year. So far this year, there have been 11 domestic violence homicide incidents in King County, accounting for 15 deaths (which include two murder-suicides and one incident with multiple victims)—twice as many as in all of 2019. Another eight murders were committed by convicted domestic violence offenders; because the victims in those cases weren’t intimate partners of the perpetrators, they aren’t counted as domestic violence homicides.

According to Martin, SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit plays a crucial role not only in investigating domestic violence cases, but in conducting follow-up with offenders, including serving protection orders and removing guns from offenders’ homes. In fact, SPD’s Domestic Violence unit was created specifically to shift those duties away from patrol and into a specialized unit trained specifically in managing domestic violence cases.

The SPD Domestic Violence Unit is also a part of King County’s Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit (RDVFEU)—a collaboration between county and city prosecutors, the sheriff’s office, and the SPD unit; the SPD detectives are responsible for serving protection orders and removing guns from the domestic violence offenders within city limits. The RDVFEU has recovered 30 percent more firearms this year than they had by the same time last year and has seen a 104% increase in Extreme Risk Protection Order filings, which mandate the removal of a firearm from domestic violence offenders.

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Retired judge Anne Levinson, who led the effort to establish the regional firearms unit, is worried that the cuts to SPD’s domestic violence unit will undermine the department’s commitments to their regional partners. “My concerns are both the ability to swiftly and strongly enforce the law and the importance of quickly serving protection orders and removing firearms when those orders are served,” Levinson said. “Both those are put at risk by those cuts.”

An officer who works in SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed the concerns of Martin and Levinson, saying they can’t fathom how their colleagues will be able to process ever-growing caseloads with fewer investigators. The officer said they are especially concerned about the unit’s Elder Crimes division, which will lose two of its three officers. The division is responsible for investigating physical abuse, neglect, or financial abuse involving senior citizens.

Mirroring the broader surge in domestic violence filings, the officer said, the elder abuse unit has also seen their caseloads increase during the past year, which they credit to pandemic-related isolation. “The elder abuse team’s numbers are always increasing,” they explained, “and during the pandemic, there’s less supervision of elders because people don’t want to infect them, so they can be hugely vulnerable to abuse.”

In his press conference last week, Interim Chief Diaz said that increasing the number of patrol officers will enable faster 911 responses;  that distributing patrol duties between a larger number of officers will reduce on-the-job stress and allow those officers more time to build relationships with community members; and that decreasing the number of officers assigned to special units—who Diaz said often work more overtime—will lower the department’s overtime spending.

Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said Durkan supports the transfers because they serve Diaz’s goal to “focus the culture of SPD— including patrol—on community and neighborhood policing” and “lay the groundwork to create a department that is less centered around individual, siloed specialty units and instead can handle a total collection of incidents.”

As for concerns about the ability of SPD’s Domestic Violence Unit to investigate cases, aid in prosecutions, and provide follow-up for victims, the mayor’s office doubled down on last week’s assurance that “SPD will be closely monitoring the data for any potential negative impacts and making data-informed decisions about staffing and allocation of resources.” Nyland added, “If SPD doesn’t have enough officers in patrol to be quickly dispatched to initial incidents of domestic violence, then the subsequent detective work loses much of its purpose.”

But according to Judy Lin, the Senior Managing Attorney for the pro bono family law programs at the King County Bar Association (which deals with domestic violence cases), improving 911 response times to domestic violence incidents does less to ensure the safety of victims than the follow-up work provided by the Domestic Violence Unit.

“A 911 response never resolves a domestic violence incident. What you’re dealing with are survivors who have a relationship with the abuser involving a pattern of coercive control,” Lin said. “Relying on police response to address domestic violence lacks understanding of what survivors experience when they encounter the legal system because neither the domestic violence nor the legal process ends with that 911 call.”  If the reduced Domestic Violence Unit struggles to keep up with casework, she said, “it is more likely that abusers will not be held accountable… Without [an efficient Domestic Violence Unit] there are so many reasons for survivors to not follow through with the criminal case when they assess the risks of doing so to their safety and that of their children.” 

Lin also added that patrol officers responding to domestic violence incidents can actually make victims less safe. “If survivors reach out to law enforcement who don’t have specialized training, it can increase the risk of harm and lethality,” she said.

And elder abuse cases often don’t involve a 911 call at all, said Nadia Armstrong-Green, a Senior Rights Assistance administrator with Sound Generations, a King County nonprofit that serves older adults and adults with disabilities. “A lot of elder crimes involve some form of financial abuse,” she said, “and I often advise people to get the police involved, but many of our clients are reluctant to do that. Most people don’t see fraud or identity as an emergency.”

According to the Domestic Violence Unit detective, problems may also arise from transferring detectives who haven’t been on patrol in several years without adequately preparing them for their new patrol positions. One of the domestic violence detectives who will be transferred, they say, hasn’t been in the field for nearly a decade. “I’d think [they] would need some kind of modified field training before [they] would be prepared to work as a single officer unit. There have been technological changes, policy changes… a lot has evolved for patrol officers.” Instead, they say, the transfers will receive only about a week of training before they are deployed on patrol on September 16.

In Reversal, City and County Will Open Smoke Shelter in SoDo

Image by Matt Howard via Upsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a reversal of their previous policy, the city of Seattle and King County now plan to open one temporary shelter for people living outdoors to escape from a “super massive” plume of wildfire smoke expected to roll in starting Friday, The C Is for Crank has learned. The shelter will be at a large warehouse in SoDo and will provide protection for up to 77 people.

UPDATE: Officials from the county and city officially announced the shelter this morning. “The building is large enough to create substantial physical distancing inside,” county executive Dow Constantine said. In fact, the building is so large that it could hold up to 300 people. The shelter, which will be open until at least Monday, will be operated by the Salvation Army with assistance from the county’s public health reserve corps.

According to the latest Point In Time count of the county’s homeless population, there were at least 5,500 people living unsheltered in King County last January.

Earlier this week, a spokeswoman from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said that the city, following guidance from Seattle/King County Public Health, did not plan at that time to open any new indoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness in response to unhealthy air conditions because the risk of COVID-19 transmission in congregate settings outweighed the health risks posed by prolonged smoke exposure. The spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said that “should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast,” the city has “access to a range of facilities.”

The city has not opened cooling centers this summer, arguing that the risk of COVID transmission outweighed the risk from high temperatures. Although advocates—and several city council members—have sought to move homeless people into hotel and motel rooms for the duration of the epidemic, the mayor has resisted such proposals. The city has contributed funding for a hotel in Renton that is being used as a long-term shelter through a contract with the county. On Friday, Durkan said the city was considering all options, but that hotels presented special challenges, such as the need to provide staffing for people in individual rooms.

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The city and county have been cautious about opening smoke shelters. As recently as Thursday morning, King County Public Health spokesman Doug Williams said the county would not recommend opening new emergency shelters specifically to provide protection from wildfire smoke. “The spaces that exist in Seattle with proper air ventilation/filtration”—five sites outfitted last year specifically to serve as smoke shelters— “are currently being used as distancing shelters for the homeless population,” Williams said.

This is only partly true—two of five such spaces, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall (both at Seattle Center) are being used for this purpose. One, the Seattle Center Armory, is partly open for business and is not serving as shelter, and the two remaining sites, Rainier Beach Community Center and the International District/Chinatown Community Center, are not being used as shelter. And the county and city have not previously disclosed their ongoing work to develop the SoDo site as emergency shelter.

At Friday’s press conference, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson said the city had discussed opening the Armory as a smoke shelter but that Seattle Center did “not have the staffing level to open that facility to a large number of individuals, nor did the provider comm unity have the capacity to help staff that facility.”

“The CDC has issued guidance against congregate cooling centers because of the increased risk of COVID transmission,” Williams continued. The CDC recommends that congregate cooling shelters include information about preventing COVID transmission, and that they include proper social distancing and as much air filtration as practical. Although the recommendation does note that congregate settings can increase the risk of COVID transmission, it consists mostly of advice for how to open congregate cooling centers as safely as possible, and is not blanket recommendation against providing temporary shelter from dangerous weather conditions. 

Amanda Richer, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness who was homeless until fairly recently herself, said Thursday that she contacted the city’s Human Services Department a month ago about the need to prepare for wildfires and hot weather in addition to the COVID crisis. She said she was glad that the city and county were taking action to help some people experiencing homelessness escape the smoke. But, she added, “I don’t know where the disconnect in foresight is happening. It’s an emergency that should have been dealt with when it started being an emergency.”

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke inhalation can damage lungs and make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID; it can also increase the risk of heart problems, cause asthma attacks, and other health problems. This is especially true of groups that have preexisting health conditions, which are common among unsheltered people, particularly those who are chronically homeless.

“This smoke will damage these unhoused [people’s] lungs so badly that it will make them so much more vulnerable to COVID,” Richer said. “I don’t know if we are as a city being honest about the level of need and what is happening. … If all of our smoke shelters are being used, then we need to know where else to put people, because we can’t let people die.”

I asked the city and county officials at the press conference why, if the advice for housed people is to stay indoors even though most people lack high-tech air filtration systems, the city and county aren’t opening temporary spaces so that more people experiencing homelessness can at least get out of the smoke. Durkan responded, “We have around 5,000 people living outdoors in the region. …  I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that we have a plan to bring 5,000 people in immediately for the next few days.” (I wasn’t.) “We don’t logistically currently have that ability, but we are trying to reach those people that are most vulnerable [and] to open up these facilities that are very large to get the people who are most vulnerable inside.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for King County, said that if the air continues to worsen, the county will reassess and could recommend opening additional buildings. “We’re trying to balance two situations which are fraught with uncertainty [COVID-19 and wildfire smoke], but as the air quality decreases, the motivation to bring people indoors and the need to do that will increase.”

Despite Ongoing Heat and Smoke, Seattle Has No Plan for Cooling Centers or Smoke Shelters for Homeless

Wildfire smoke along I-5 near Corvallis, Oregon, September 8

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.

On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.

According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.

This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.

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Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”

Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”

Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more

critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.

On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.

“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”

Interim Police Chief Diaz Explains Plan to Transfer 100 Officers to Patrol


By Paul Kiefer

In his first appearance in his new role, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz joined Mayor Jenny Durkan Wednesday to explain why he’s transferring 100 officers to the 911 response team within the month.

Diaz first announced the move in an SPD Blotter post on Tuesday afternoon, saying his intent is to “better align department resources with our mission statement and community expectations” by emphasizing patrol roles (officers responsible for responding to 911 calls) which he called the “backbone” of the department.

Diaz said today that his goal is to move “at least half” of SPD’s officers to patrol positions, as well as half of the supervisorial staff (lieutenants and sergeants). He explained that about 40% of the 100 officers who will transfer to patrol by September 16th will leave units that currently serve patrol-like functions, including officers in the anti-crime unit, traffic enforcement ,and community policing. The rest of the new patrol officers will come from a variety of the department’s other specialty units,. Those units, Diaz said, were adopted over the past several decades “at the cost of [SPD’s] 911 response,” adding that “considering current personnel and budgets, these specialty units are a model we can no longer afford.”

The dramatic move came just a week after Durkan issued a sharp rebuke of the council’s vision for downsizing SPD by vetoing their midyear budget rebalancing package. That council package included several ordinances that would have cut 100 positions from the department—largely through attrition, but also including targeted cuts in several specialty units, including the harbor patrol, the mounted unit, and the misleadingly named homeland security unit (generally assigned to provide security at large events).

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One of Durkan’s most consistent criticisms of the package was that the job cuts would lead to slow 911 response times to even the most serious crimes, including rape and home invasions. But the council responded by pointing out that 56% of all 911 calls in Seattle are for non-criminal situations; they recommended a more effective protocol for triaging SPD 911 response that would prioritize critical incidents and vulnerable populations, ensuring fast response times when they are most necessary. The council hasn’t yet voted on whether or not to override the mayor’s veto.

According to Durkan, the shift was largely spurred by demands she’s heard from “every neighborhood in the city,” both for faster 911 response times and for greater community engagement. “Officers don’t have the time they need to know the residents and businesses of the neighborhoods they serve,” Durkan said, “and many times it’s because they were responding from call to call.”

She and Diaz both said increasing the number of officers on patrol would allow officers to respond faster and respond to a wider array of calls—including “Priority 2” calls, which SPD defines as “altercations or situations which could escalate if assistance does not arrive soon.” 

Diaz said it would also give officers more time to “identify the underlying issues [on their beats] and start relationships with renters, homeowners, the neighborhood watch, the business owner, and the person living outside.” And while some of the transfers would come from the community policing unit, Diaz’s indicated the new patrol officers would be expected to shoulder some responsibility for community policing themselves.

Durkan brushed off questions from the press about the contrast between the increase in patrol officers and the concerns of the Defund SPD movement about  interactions between SPD and the public, arguing that she’s heard more consistent calls for efficient 911 response. “We know we still need police,” she argued. “We rely on them to provide public safety.”

Durkan and Diaz also said the shift will help cut the department’s overtime costs by scaling down the more overtime-heavy specialized units and increasing the number of patrol shifts.

Durkan pointed to this year’s spike in homicides—up 44% from last year in King County, according to the King County Prosecutor’s Office—as another justification for the reshuffling. She said the move will “help…officers arrive at scenes more quickly, give victims the help they need, help first responders and find perpetrators.” However, she acknowledged that “policing alone cannot and will not solve” the rise in gun violence. She said  “upstream” investments in education and diversionary programs were a key part of the solution, as well as “trusted community partners who can deescalate situations and provide alternatives to the criminal justice system.”

For the time being, Diaz said, he intends to move at most two detectives per specialty unit, such as Domestic Violence or Sexual Assault; those detectives’ caseloads will be transferred to the staff remaining on those specialized units. He said one of his goals is to minimize the effect of these transfers on the department’s case closure rate and the speed of investigations. (Patrol officers do not conduct investigations).

In keeping with the conditions of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract, Diaz said the first detectives to be reassigned to patrol will be those who most recently joined specialty units, and therefore those who have the most up-to-date training as patrol officers. However, Diaz added that detectives who haven’t been on patrol duty for several years will receive “updated” training during the coming two weeks to learn new patrol rules and procedures.

But Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg doesn’t think that last-in, first-out approach to transfers will last, and in fact, could exacerbate a potential officer shortage. “The OPA expects to see SPD staffing shortages for the next year, if not longer,” he said. “And we think we might see a rise in senior officers retiring instead of going back onto patrol,” he said.

That would mean more patrol vacancies, and potentially more transfers from the specialty units to fill those vacancies, which, in turn, would leave the remaining detectives in the specialty units with much larger caseloads. He said his office will play a role in retraining officers for patrol, “understanding that there are going to be officers who come onto patrol for the first time in years.”

Despite her recent veto of the council’s proposed 2020 budget revisions, the mayor said she thinks the council will “respond very positively.”

Lisa Herbold, the chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, told The C is for Crank that she had the chance to discuss the shifts with Diaz after his announcement. She said she supports his authority to make deployment decisions, and she “appreciate[s] that he wants to do more to improve 911 response time.”

However, she sees some bumps in the road ahead. For instance, Herbold said she supports the idea of increasing the number of shifts, but added that “it was [her] understanding that contract negotiations with SPOG will be necessary” to make those changes.

Herbold said she hopes Diaz’s yet-to-be-disclosed decisions about which specialty units will use officers align with the council’s proposals this year for downsizing some SPD units. “It would have been great to know more about whether the executive and Chief Diaz looked at the specialty units the council identified to be reduced,” she said. “And even if there’s disagreement between the Council and the Executive about whether the Navigation team should exist, I’d hope the mayor and the chief would consider moving some officers off that team.”

In the coming week, SPD is giving officers the opportunity for officers to indicate their preferred assignment before ultimately deciding which officers to reassign to 911 response.

In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director

 

By Paul Kiefer, with reporting by Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday afternoon, the Metropolitan King County Council voted by a narrow margin against renewing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs’ contract, which expired in June. (Jacobs was serving as de-facto head for the past two months). In her place, the council appointed OLEO’s current Deputy Director, Adrienne Wat, to serve as interim director.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci first proposed not renewing Jacobs’ contract two weeks ago. Her surprise announcement came a month after the council received the findings of an independent investigation into allegations by OLEO staff that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory remarks to them during her four-year term as director. For example, one staffer complained that Jacobs had commented (sarcastically, she says) that she could only see a white man as deputy director of OLEO, and, on a separate occasion, that she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade celebration because it was for women only.

OLEO community engagement manager Jenna Franklin praised Jacobs for hiring “people who are different and more diverse than her—that’s what a leader like that should do.” But she notes that “the ability to work with sensitivity in collaboration with diverse staff and communities is essential for public servants.” King County’s Equity and Social Justice rules state that “elected leaders and directors are ultimately responsible for ESJ,” Franklin notes, “including in regard to workplace and workforce.”

“In this case, she has acknowledged missteps and that impacts to staff did occur.  Missteps shouldn’t be the sum total of a person, a system, or those [they] represent.”

“There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”—Deborah Jacobs

In today’s hearing, Balducci explained that her push to not reappoint Jacobs was driven by  concerns about the OLEO work environment; an investigation into Jacobs substantiated five of the eight complaints against her. One of those sustained complaints stemmed from an incident in which Jacobs apparently commented that an employee’s weight and race made it easier for him to build rapport with sheriff’s deputies; the man, who has struggled with weight-related self-image problems, said he felt uncomfortable speaking to Jacobs directly about her comment.

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness,” Balducci said in an interview before the vote. “I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace. If we are going to be about investigating and calling out a lack of equity in one place it makes [the need to have equity and accountability within OLEO] even more compelling.”

The vote not to reappoint Jacobs was closer than the August 18 vote of the council’s Employment and Administrative Committee to recommend removing Jacobs. (That committee includes all nine members of the council.) In the earlier vote, the council voted 7-2 to not reappoint Jacobs; on Tuesday, the full council reached the same conclusion with a 5-4 vote. Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against the ouster both times; council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jim McDermott changed votes.

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The most vocal opposition to Jacobs’ ouster on Tuesday came from Dembowski and Upthegrove, Both expressed concern that Balducci and other colleagues are being too harsh and that replacing her is not in the best interest of police accountability in the county. “The assets that I’ve seen [Jacobs] bring to this office,” Upthegrove said, “particularly as it pertains to community engagement and the tenacity with which she’s represented our interests, and what we’ve seen to be a passionate commitment to racial and gender equity, leads me to believe that the mistakes she made aren’t enough to lead me to this conclusion.” He also said removing Jacobs was an example of a double standard: “I can’t help but thing of members of law enforcement who continue to have their jobs today in the face of mistakes and judgement calls that—in my mind—are much more serious.”

Dembowski echoed those concerns, adding that he saw the council’s approach to replacing Jacobs as legally dubious. “I’ve been very troubled by this process,” he said during the council meeting. “It’s generated a $2 million claim,” in the form of a tort Jacobs filed in Pierce County two weeks ago alleging sex and gender discrimination by the county. “I think that we mixed discipline from the report with reappointment, and I think they should have been kept separate.”

Local police accountability watchdogs also expressed their concerns about the council’s move to oust Jacobs, whom they see as a brave and determined force for greater oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Annalesa Thomas, a co-founder of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington and the mother of Leonard Thomas (killed in 2013 by Fife Police while unarmed and holding his son) appeared during Tuesday’s public comment period to voice her support for Jacobs; in an interview before the vote, Thomas said Jacobs “has brought to the forefront many of the issues that family members [of police shooting victims] raise. She didn’t go along to get along.”

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness. I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace.”—King County Council member Claudia Balducci

For her part, Jacobs acknowledges that she was sometimes reckless in her comments to coworkers and hoped for a chance to make amends, but she is also convinced that the council’s decision was driven by politics and a lack of support for accountability itself. “It’s been an unjust process and I wouldn’t wish this treatment on anyone else,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be really hard for anyone to survive because it’s a hostile climate, there is little support, and mistakes are seized upon.”

Jacobs also says her record as a fierce defender of accountability—and the resulting tensions between her and the KCSO—has left her constantly defending herself since she took the position in 2016. “They [KCSO] don’t trust me,” she explained. “There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”

Balducci denied that her proposal against Jacobs was intended to assuage the KCSO. “I cannot state in strong enough terms how important it is to me that we have a strong, courageous, diligent leader of our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Those things are not bad. Those are good things,” she said. “There is a kind of inherent tension and even conflict that can exist in the role itself, and you need somebody who isn’t intimidated by that and who need to go forward with what needs to be done.” Continue reading “In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director”

The City and County Keep Lists of Cops with Credibility Issues. Many of Them Remain on Patrol.

Image from SPD Detective Franklin Poblocki’s body camera

By Paul Kiefer

In early April, a pair of Seattle Police lieutenants from the West Precinct spotted a man rolling a bike and a garbage can down Main Street in the International District. Large coils of copper wire hung off the bike’s handlebars, and the garbage can was packed with more of the same wire. In their report, the officers noted that the wire appeared to have been torn or quickly cut; the officers concluded that the man had probably stolen it from a nearby construction site. When they stopped the man to question him, he quickly admitted that he had taken the wire from a site near Yesler Terrace. The officers then booked the man into the King County Jail.

By most standards, the arrest was unremarkable. But if one of the officers who arrested the man had been called to testify, her name—Lora Alcantara—would have triggered an alert that could have prompted prosecutors to drop the case.

Alcantara is one of 24 SPD officers on the so-called “Brady Lists” kept by the King County Prosecutor and the City Attorney’s Office. The lists, named after a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling called Brady v. Maryland that required prosecutors to present any evidence that might benefit the defendant, are formally known as Potential Impeachable Disclosure (PID) lists. They include the names of officers with sustained findings of dishonesty, evidence of racial bias, or criminal charges or convictions.

Alcantara was in added to the KCPO’s PID list in 2016 after a Seattle Office of Police Accountability Investigation found her guilty of misconduct for calling a Black driver a “fucking Negro” during a car chase in 2013. [UPDATE] A subsequent OPA investigation found that Alcantara also lied about her interaction with a KIRO-TV news crew she encountered during the chase when debriefing the incident with her supervisor, leaving her with an additional mark on her record for dishonesty. Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole suspended Alcantara for five days without pay for violating the SPD manual’s “prohibitions concerning derogatory language.” 

 

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In practice, those lists limit the ability of officers with a record of misconduct to testify. If a listed officer is the sole witness in a case, both prosecutors’ offices say they are far less likely to file charges, limiting the officers’ abilities to work alone. However, though listed officers are often unable to give testimony—a key responsibility of law enforcement officers, especially those working in patrol operations—salary and assignment data show that the department has continued to give the 24 officers annual raises and has left the vast majority in patrol positions. 

When a prosecutor from either office finds that an officer they subpoenaed to testify in a case is on their Brady list, their offices have to disclose that information (and additional details about the officer’s misconduct record) to either the defense attorney (if the officers are on the list because of a record of dishonesty) or the trial judge. Defense attorneys can use this information to impeach an officer’s testimony, and being on a Brady list “can be a factor in whether a prosecutor chooses to file charges,” Dan Nolte, the communications director for the city attorney’s office, said. “If a Brady List officer is on a case and no other officers can corroborate their account, we’re likely to seek additional evidence confirming the situation before choosing to file.”

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow.

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow. Most of the 75 SPD officers on the lists are no longer employed by the department: some, like 31-year SPD officer Ernest Hall (for whom the OPA found a lengthy record of dishonesty), the department fired outright; others, like former officer Alex Chapackdee (arrested in 2017 on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges) resigned in lieu of termination; and others, like former Detective Ron Smith (charged for shooting a rival biker gang member at a South Dakota bar in 2008), retired from the department.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg says it’s rare for officers who land on the lists to keep their jobs. Still, it is common enough that of the 75 SPD officers who prosecutors have added to their lists over the past 15 years, nearly a third remain employed by the department.

Four active SPD officers are on both lists because of dishonesty. One—Officer Christopher Garrett—landed on the KCPO list 15 years ago after lying about his availability to testify in a drug trial; he was among the first officers to be added to the list. Another, Detective Franklin Poblocki, somewhat famously spent forty minutes waiting outside a Black man’s workplace in the Central District in a rolling chair after the two exchanged barbs over a towed car in 2018. Poblocki told a passerby that he was waiting for an apology but claimed to his coworkers that he had merely been engaged in “community-oriented policing stuff.” In the wake of the incident, the OPA concluded that Poblocki had lied to investigators and now-outgoing SPD Chief Carmen Best demoted him from sergeant to detective for inappropriate behavior that “degraded” the department’s community policing efforts.

At least two current SPD officers on the CAO’s list have criminal charges on their records: Officer Caleb Howard was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2018 after punching a coworker and strangling his 17-year-old son at a backyard barbecue in 2018; 33-year SPD veteran (and one-time officer of the year) Officer Felton Miles was charged with felony harassment after bursting through the door of his ex-wife’s home and threatening to kill her and her boyfriend in 2007. SPD fired Miles, but a Seattle judicial board overturned Miles’ firing in 2008 and ordered the department to reinstate him.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime.

Several on the list are fairly high-ranking. Captain Randal Woolery, for instance, was placed on the CAO’s list in 2019 after an undercover SPD prostitution sting caught him soliciting a sex worker in North Seattle (he has been charged for the incident but not convicted). Seven others on either list hold ranks of sergeant or higher, including Lieutenant Alcantara.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the KCPO and CAO’s lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime. Based on the city’s 2020 wage data, two of those officers—Captains James Dermody and Randal Woolery—will make over $200,000 this year before overtime. Others, like Lieutenant Alcantara, were promoted after the events that landed them on the Brady lists.

Just as notably, though their presence on the lists renders them vulnerable to impeachment as trial witnesses, SPD have left most of the officers on the lists to roles in patrol positions. As patrol officers, they are more likely to interact with the public and make arrests; therefore, the prosecutors are more likely to need their testimony when filing charges against those they arrest. Nolte says the city attorney’s office would rather turn to security camera footage or not file charges than have a case fail because the police witness appeared on their Brady List. KCPO Communications Director Casey McNerthey, however, noted that his office has not yet seen a case dismissed because an arresting officer was on their Brady list — after they disclose that information to the defense council, the court can adjust as necessary.

But that hasn’t stopped the listed officers from making stops and arrests. Detective Poblocki, for instance, has continued to make so-called “Terry Stops“—stopping someone based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that the person is involved in criminal activity—for the past two years as part of the West Precinct’s burglary and theft squad, despite his dubious presence on the KCPO and CAO’s lists. In effect, the prosecutors (and police) have deemed Poblocki not credible enough to give testimony, but credible enough to conduct arrests, carry a gun, and earn a full salary.

Tenants Describe Worsening Conditions at Aurora Motel as Owner Signs Agreement with SPD

 

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, five days after the owner of a dilapidated Aurora Avenue motel, the Everspring Inn, left notices on tenants’ doors telling them they had to vacate their rooms immediately, the Seattle Police Department signed off on a “nuisance property” abatement agreement that the owner, Ryan Kang, used as justification after the fact for displacing his tenants, some of whom had lived at the motel for years.

The papers he taped on tenants’ doors were not official eviction notices, nor, attorneys for the tenants say, were they legal; even if Kang and SPD had both signed an abatement agreement when he began forcing his tenants out, he would have had to provide them with notice, relocation assistance, and sufficient time to find new places to live. Nothing in the law allows a landlord, even one who runs a dangerous or substandard property, to simply tell his tenants to get out.

Tenant advocates, and many of the tenants themselves, agree that the Everspring is not a good place to live. Black mold is visible in many of the units, and water sometimes drips from the ceilings. Fights are common. But attorneys for the Public Defender Association, which is representing some of the tenants, say even a justified nuisance agreement can’t provide legal cover for kicking tenants out without proper notice or restitution, and they argue that SPD Police Chief Carmen Best made a serious error of judgment when she signed an agreement after several local media outlets, including this site, reported that Kang was illegally evicting tenants, towing their cars, and shutting off their hot water in the middle of a pandemic.

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Lisa Etter Carlson, co-founder and director of women’s health initiatives at the Aurora Commons, a nonprofit that helps sex workers and people experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood, said she was surprised when media coverage didn’t jostle the city of Seattle into action. “I kind of assumed that surely, with all the press, with the absurdity and inhumanity of turning these precious people out during a pandemic, during an eviction moratorium, surely someone out there was doing  something,” she said. “And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.”

Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says SDCI is reviewing 16 complaints from Everspring residents—complaints that those residents could use as a defense against a formal eviction proceeding. At that point, the city would also begin issuing notices to the property owner, Kang, for violating the city’s just-cause eviction ordinance. Since the evictions have all been de facto and informal, it’s hard to see how this option is meaningful to the current and former tenants.

And, as Etter Carlson noted, no one from the city has showed up to inspect the site or stop the evictions from happening. For the past week and a half, the only city employees who’ve been consistently on site are members of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, bearing offers of shelter—a significant step down from even a crappy motel room, and one that many tenants aren’t willing to consider.

“It’s really challenging when people have had their own apartment for years to then, just all of a sudden, pick up and move to a tiny house or a shelter situation,” Etter Carlson said. “It’s not dignifying.”


Most of the people at the Everspring had nowhere to go; and so, many of them are still there. As of last weekend, nearly a dozen rooms in the Everspring were still occupied, with plywood sheets sitting just outside their doors as a reminder that if they leave their rooms, they will be considered unoccupied, and the security guards will board up their doors with all their possessions inside. As a result, tenants said, they have taken to sitting in each others’ rooms when one of them leaves so that their doors don’t get boarded up while they’re gone.

Stevens, from SDCI, says the department got assurances that Kang was only boarding up “unoccupied” rooms. He added that the city has no authority to order a property owner to open up rooms that are boarded up if no one is living there.

Tenants who were still living at the Everspring over the past weekend said that after he ordered them to leave, Kang hired security guards who roamed the motel’s hallways and locked the newly installed gate, preventing tenants from coming and going at will. “One of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” tenant Bruce Red recalled. Another tenant, Stephanie Lewis, said one of the guards claimed to be a US marshal, and was “walking around, all geared up with a Taser gun and a bunch of different kinds of mace and pepper spray.” 

Kimberly Harrell, a case worker with REACH, confirmed that one security guard was representing himself as a US marshal, and said, “The behavior of the security there is ridiculous. It’s almost like he’s taunting them or trying to provoke them.” She showed me a text message exchange between that security guard and one of the tenants. “Don’t say I didn’t warn no body,” the message said. The tenant asked him what he meant, and he responded, “U know what I mean. I’ll say this: I will be wearing police patches tonight.”

“I kind of assumed that surely someone out there was doing something. And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.” —Lisa Etter Carlson, Aurora Commons

Lewis, who worked 12-hour days at the front desk for $10 an hour, said that Kang ordered everyone to move their cars from the motel garage or he would have them towed. As a result, “we had to take our car out of the garage and park it on the street.” If they get kicked out, they’ll need to use that car as shelter. 

The Public Defender Association sent a letter last Thursday to Kang’s attorney, E. Chan Lee, demanding that Kang stop removing tenants from his property, turn their utilities back on, and allow people whose rooms were boarded up to get back into those rooms and retrieve their property.

They also wrote to Best and soon-to-be-acting police chief Adrian Diaz directly, expressing outrage that the department signed the order without telling them, after the PDA contacted the department two weeks ago to see if any of the people Kang was kicking out might be eligible for the Co-LEAD program. That program provides motel rooms and case management for people experiencing homelessness who are involved in low-level criminal activity—a description that fits many of the Everspring’s residents.

Their letter to SPD reads, in part:

Accepting for the sake of argument that a serious nuisance situation existed at the Everspring, you must know that (1) people not responsible for those conditions will be forced out onto the street and (2) those responsible for the nuisance conditions will not cease their problematic activity just because they lose their lodging. It is inconceivable, and inexcusable, for you not to have initiated planning with the community partners who could work with this population, and the various city agencies that can provide relocation assistance and homelessness prevention, before you took this action. The city’s departments appear to be working at cross purposes, with zero coordination, and at odds with stated city policies about sheltering/lodging high barrier individuals, finding space and avoiding unnecessary evictions to the street.

Tenants cannot be evicted because of criminal activity that happens on a property unless they were directly involved. A spokeswoman for SPD said the police department was not involved in or aware of the evictions when they began on August 13, and characterized them as requests to tenants that they “voluntarily leave.”

Prachi Dave, the PDA’s legal director, said that while the nuisance order cites “various kinds of criminal activity, there’s no allegation that the people are being removed from their homes right now have engaged in any kind of criminal activity. Having them bear the ramifications of that seems fundamentally unfair.”

Moreover, Dave continued, the police knew that Kang was already evicting tenants illegally when they signed the agreement with him—an agreement he is now using to justify the evictions that took place before it was signed. In his letter responding to the PDA, Lee, Kang’s attorney, said his client was “in fact required to remove all those residing at the property pursuant to our agreement with the Seattle Police Department.” The agreement does note that this should be the ultimate outcome, but it does not give Kang permission to simply tell everyone to leave without notice, due process, or relocation assistance. And, again, it was signed several days after notices went up on tenants’ doors and tenants were told they had to be out right away.

“The fact that SPD entered into this agreement, knowing this was going to be the outcome, and when that outcome was already already unfolding at the time they entered this agreement, is incredibly problematic,” Dave said.

Tenants say that in addition to boarding up rooms with tenants’ property inside, Kang offered some tenants a mere $100, in cash, to leave. Some have taken the money. One such tenant, Eric Border, said he sometimes worked for Kang under the table, “as muscle.” He said he took the money and left because he didn’t feel he had a choice. “He boarded up my door and told me to leave,” he said.

When I talked to Border by phone on Sunday, he said he was walking around, scared and with nowhere to go. He had been living at the Everspring for about three years. “I’m older now and I need a place to stay,” he said. “I have nowhere to take a bath. I just want a place to lay down and wake up so I can be normal.”

Harrell, with REACH, said she was especially appalled to learn, from a story in the Seattle Times, that Kang had received at least $164,000 in “rapid rehousing” assistance from the city of Seattle in 2018, making him the single largest beneficiary of the program. Rapid rehousing is supposed to provide temporary assistance to get people into safe, stable housing—typically in market-rate apartments—until they can pay the full rent themselves. Rent for a room at the Everspring ranged from $1,800 to $2,400 a month, and it was far from safe or stable.

“If the city is paying for something like that, then how come no one checked to make sure things were running properly?” Harrell said. “It’s not fair that he got all this money and didn’t run it the way it should have been run.”

The groups that are trying to help the Evergreen’s tenants, including REACH, the Aurora Commons, and the PDA, say they aren’t asking for anything extraordinary—just some relocation assistance and time to find the tenants a new place to stay and get them connected with case management and other support. The tenants, too, say that’s what they want.

“I hope I can wake up tomorrow and they’ll say, ‘Here’s your relocation money,'” Lewis said. “Basically, all we want is to be compensated, to be relocated so we can go on with our lives.”

What is Participatory Budgeting, and How Could It Shape the City’s Approach to Public Safety?

Annotation 2020-08-23 110400

By Paul Kiefer

When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her decision to veto the City Council’s midyear budget rebalancing package on Friday, she specifically called out an ordinance appropriating $3 million for the council to contract with community-based groups to create a “roadmap for future equitable participatory budget processes related to public safety” by gathering public input to shape the city’s public safety budget priorities.

Council member Tammy Morales, the sponsor of that ordinance, has said that the research would be the first step toward “participatory budgeting,” a process some cities use to guide public spending, often by allowing residents to vote on how to spend a designated pot of money (a federal grant, for instance).

The mayor’s office, the council, and the most prominent police abolitionist groups have all expressed various levels of support for participatory budgeting. If the city ends up using participatory budgeting to guide a significant portion of next year’s public safety budget next year, then Seattle will become the testing ground for participatory budgeting on an unprecedented scale. But whether those three parties see eye to eye about what participatory budgeting would entail—and how much weight public input would carry—remain open questions.

King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle

King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two of the most prominent voices in the push to cut the Seattle Police Department budget and invest in alternative public safety programs, were the first to call for the city to launch a participatory budgeting process to redirect the city’s public safety budget toward alternatives to policing and investment in BIPOC communities. The bill Durkan vetoed emerged out of those two groups’ demands.

In partnership with a nonprofit called The Participatory Budgeting Project, the two groups developed a detailed outline for how the city could lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process, called the’ “Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment.” That blueprint describes a $3 million “community-led research process to generate true public safety informed by community needs” which is the model for the research described in the vetoed bill.

The council would direct the money to a nonprofit, which would subcontract the work out to other groups—presumably, though not necessarily, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle. The two groups estimate that roughly $1 million of the $3 million would go toward hiring staffers, including researchers, many of whom they hope will be young people from BIPOC communities. The rest would go to recruit and compensate people in BIPOC communities to participate in the survey and for data collection and reporting, plus $500,000 for unspecified “cash assistance and direct support for community members” to “address economic and other urgent needs.”

In essence, those expenses would serve two purposes.  The first would be to provide jobs—in the form of researcher positions—and financial support to community members who participate in the research process. In their blueprint, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle write that “community members should not be expected to come up with solutions on a volunteer basis.”

“In part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.” —King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment

The second would be to prepare for a large-scale, accessible participatory budgeting process that would influence the 2021 city budget, starting with surveys and interviews of city residents (with a focus on BIPOC communities) about their public safety concerns and thoughts on how the process should be run: for instance, whether a steering committee should develop community proposals, and if so, who should be on that steering committee. Based on the findings of those surveys and interviews, the nonprofit contractor would then sort out the details of the participatory budgeting process: how the public could give input (in the form of budget proposals, for instance), how that input would be turned into budget items, and who would be responsible for reviewing and developing citizens’ proposals.

Technically, none of the $3 million would fund a full-scale participatory budgeting process; the closest the city would see before next year would be a small test run. However, according to King County Equity Now Research Director Shaun Glaze, the two organizations want to see a full participatory budget process come to fruition before budget discussions next year. More specifically, Glaze says her organization hopes that the participatory budgeting process will help determine how the city spends half of SPD’s 2021 budget— a figure in the range of $200 million, which would be an unprecedented use of the process both in Seattle and nationwide.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The City Council

The legislation the council passed says the contractor should produce a “community participatory budgeting process,” but it is silent on exactly what that process should look like.

When I asked Morales to clarify how the council planned to spend the $3 million, she pointed to the King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle blueprint as the model; the council also adopted $3 million figure itself from that blueprint. However, that blueprint doesn’t provide any details about how the participatory budgeting process would function, nor does either organization intend to have full control over the process themselves.

Participatory budgeting is nothing new in Seattle. After a push by former council member Nick Licata, the city’s first experiment with participatory budgeting began in 2015 with the Youth Voice, Youth Choice program. In 2017, the council renamed the program Your Voice, Your Choice, and opened it to input from all city residents. Like most participatory budgeting programs, Your Voice, Your Choice allows city residents to submit ideas for neighborhood-level capital projects.

The Your Voice, Your Choice program differs substantially from the research process proposed in the ordinance, not least because Your Voice, Your Choice is run by the city. Although KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle have said explicitly that they are not interested in controlling how the entire process plays out, they argue that the research portion of the participatory budgeting process for public safety should not be under direct city control.

The two groups explain why in their blueprint, writing, “in part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.”

The startup costs for the community-safety research process mark a significant shift in how Seattle uses participatory budgeting. The city spends roughly $2.2 million on the entire Your Voice, Your Choice program, of which $2 million funds the actual projects. In contrast, the council’s ordinance would spend $3 million on preliminary research alone.

Mayor Durkan

Near the end of Friday’s press conference, Durkan responded directly to a recent demand from King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle that the city use participatory budgeting to allocate $100 million that she has pledged to invest in BIPOC communities next year. In short, she said she wouldn’t be doing that, but that she supports the idea of participatory budgeting in theory.

“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that the community—and I mean community being larger than just one organization—will be at the table helping us decide what they need and how we get there,” Durkan said. “King County Equity Now wants to be the deciders in that.” (KCEN has denied this.) “We want those voices at the table, but we will have a broader process.”

“We need to have trusted community partners going into communities to bring information and proposals back,” Durkan continued, “whether it’s a task force or a joint group [created by the council and the mayor].” Continue reading “What is Participatory Budgeting, and How Could It Shape the City’s Approach to Public Safety?”

Durkan Will Veto Council Budget Over Cuts to Police Department; Council President Hopes for Compromise

As I first reported on Twitter this morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan will announce this afternoon that she will veto the city council’s midyear budget rebalancing package, a move that could effectively remove one co-equal branch of government from the city’s budget process by reinstating Durkan’s original budget proposal with no input from the council. The council could overturn the veto, as they did the mayor’s recent veto of a COVID relief package that relies on future revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax. Or—as seems likely—the council try to work with Durkan to come up with a rebalancing package that the mayor will accept.

“The bills I am vetoing today were passed without the level of collaboration that I think we need, and more important, that the city expects of us,” Durkan said at a press conference this afternoon, “but I am optimistic that we can continue to work together to bridge the gaps. I continue to believe that we can [reach] common ground on the vision for SPD that has been laid out by Chief [Carmen] Best and I.”

The objections Durkan raised were familiar to anyone who has been following the debate over police defunding: The mayor said that the council is attempting to change things “overnight,” “without a plan,” and that her budget proposals already contain large cuts to the police department. The vast majority of those cuts, however, come from transferring some current SPD functions, such as the 911 dispatch center, into other parts of the budget—not from transforming the city’s approach to public safety or reducing the number of SPD officers, as protesters have been demanding since May.

City council president Lorena González said in an interview that she is “incredibly disappointed’ in the mayor’s decision to veto yet another council spending proposal. “It is obvious that there is a significant difference of opinion between the City Council and the mayor and the chief on what can and should be achieved in 2020 in order to respond to the calls from community to reduce the Seattle Police Department’s budget this year and begin the process of investing in community safety programs,” González says.

The rebalancing proposal was necessary to deal with a midyear budget shortfall of around $300 million, a number that keeps getting edited upward as new revenue projections come in.

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The council’s plan included more significant, but still relatively minor, cuts. The version they adopted cuts SPD’s budget by 7 percent by eliminating the encampment-removing Navigation Team, reducing the salaries of SPD command staff (including Best, whose 2020 pay was reduced by $6,000) and cutting 100 positions at SPD through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council’s proposal also provided $3 million to start a participatory process to reallocate SPD to community-based public health and safety programs, plus $14 million to a combination of city and community programs, funded through an interfund loan that Durkan said was the main reason for her objection to that particular spending proposal.

“Look, it’s a loan that I’m not sure we can repay, and we know with the coming budget that we will have to do some interfund loans just to keep the city services that we have,” Durkan said.

Durkan mentioned the Navigation Team specifically at several points during her press conference, suggesting that the council wanted to cut the team “without a plan” to deal with dangerous encampments. “I’ve had open houses with a number of community and neighborhood groups in the last weeks, and the impact that some of these encampments are having are real— and they are also real for the people living in those encampments,” she said. “We have to have a way to bring people inside and address the public safety [issues], and the cuts did not allow us an opportunity to do that.” Since the pandemic began, the city has provided only about 100 new shelter spaces for the thousands of people living unsheltered in Seattle.

Under the city charter, the council must take a vote to overturn or sustain the veto within 30 days. Council president Lorena González says her hope is that, rather than simply overturning another mayoral veto, the council will be able to “come to some agreement  with the mayor around a rebalanced package, and that’s going to be a two-way street. We need her to make a good-faith effort to engage in order to meaningfully move this forward.”

Otherwise, González says, the council and mayor will likely stay stuck in “this constant back and forth” of vetoes and votes to overturn. “This mayor has made a historical number of vetoes. I’m not aware of any other mayor in the history of the city of Seattle who’s used veto power at this level, and I think that she is sending us a clear message that she will continue to do so,” González says.

It’s clear that there are still significant gaps between what the council wants and what the mayor will accept. In particular, it’s unclear what, exactly, the mayor would consider “on the table” when brokering a future “compromise” with the council. The Navigation Team, community spending, participatory budgeting research, command staff salaries, and SPD personnel cuts seem to be off the table.

But there is also now precedent for compromise between the mayor and the council. This afternoon, Durkan also announced an agreement on the COVID relief package that is much smaller than the council’s original proposal but that will, in the words of JumpStart sponsor Teresa Mosqueda, enable the city to “mov[e] forward jointly as we cannot wait another day” for relief to residents and small businesses impacted by the pandemic.