Police Management Contract, Which Includes Concessions, Could Serve as Template for SPOG Negotiations

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council is expected to approve a contract between the city and the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents about 80 police lieutenants and captains.

The contract would establish new restrictions on arbitration (a process through which police can appeal disciplinary decisions for misconduct), make it harder for SPD to “run out the clock” on investigations, and implement other key provisions of the city’s landmark 2017 accountability ordinance. The city effectively abandoned the new law when it signed a contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which represents officers and sergeants, the following year; that contract supersedes the 2017 law whenever there’s a conflict between the contract and the ordinance.

The SPMA contract only covers police managers, but has potential implications for the hundreds of police officers and sergeants who are represented by SPOG as well. SPOG is just beginning negotiations with the city for its own contract, which expired at the end of 2020.

Once the contract is signed, captains and lieutenants will receive retroactive wage increases of 2.7 percent in 2020, 1.9 percent in 2021, and 4 percent in 2022. (Retroactive increases are common in police contracts, in part because they generally take years to negotiate, which means police often operate under expired contracts.) In 2023, police managers would receive a pay bump equivalent to the consumer price index increase, up to 4 percent. Overall, the increase just for this relatively small group of employees will cost more than $6 million through the end of next year.

The most significant change in the contract—and the provision that could have the most direct impact on negotiations with SPOG, according to several people familiar with police contract negotiations who spoke to PubliCola on background—is in the section on arbitration.

Arbitration gives a police officer or commander who’s been accused of misconduct an opportunity to challenge the findings of the Office of Police Accountability and any discipline imposed by the police chief to an outside investigator. This process has been at the center of several controversial cases in recent years. In 2018, an arbitrator reinstated then-SPD officer Adley Shepherd, who was fired for punching a handcuffed woman who was sitting in the back of a police car; three years later, a state judge overturned the arbitrator’s decision, but such reversals are rare. Earlier this year, an arbitrator reinstated a parking enforcement officer (a position housed, at the time of the incident, in SPD) after Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz fired him for telling a coworker that he supported lynching.

Federal Judge James Robart, who oversees the decade-old consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the city, ordered the city to fix its arbitration process when he ruled the city partly out of compliance with the agreement in 2019.

The new SPMA contract would put additional bumpers around the arbitration process when a captain or lieutenant appeals serious forms of discipline, such as firing and demotion. Currently, arbitration is a kind of secondary trial: Officers are allowed to bring in new evidence and witnesses that neither the OPA nor the police chief have seen, and the arbitrator can use any standard of proof they want to decide whether a cop is guilty of misconduct. For example, arbitrators can require the city to present “clear and convincing” evidence that an person is guilty of misconduct that justifies the punishment they received—a difficult hurdle.

Often, arbitrators’ decisions can seem arbitrary: In the case of the parking enforcement officer who was reinstated, the arbitrator found that the officer had no disciplinary record or complaints about similar comments in the past.

The contract attempts to directly address many of those issues. First, it would prohibit police managers accused of misconduct from introducing entirely new information, or witnesses, during arbitration. Second, it would change the standard for the police department to prove the officer was guilty of misconduct to a “preponderance of the evidence” requirement, meaning that it’s more likely than not that the misconduct occurred. And third, it would require outside arbitrators to decide whether the discipline the police chief imposed for misconduct was arbitrary or capricious; if it wasn’t, the arbitrator will have to uphold it.

SPMA’s contract doesn’t directly impact SPOG or its ongoing negotiations with the city, but it does set precedents, of a sort, for the city to bring up during negotiations.

“This agreement creates a new discipline review system that marks a sea change in how discipline appeals operate,” the city council’s public safety committee chair, Lisa Herbold, wrote in a recent letter to a constituent. “It will help slow that backlog from growing by ensuring cases aren’t being entirely relitigated during arbitration as they currently are (de novo review). It will also ensure arbitrators, who are not generally experts on policing, don’t substitute their judgement for the police chief’s, undermining accountability as happened in the Adley Shepherd case.”

Advocates have argued for getting rid of arbitration entirely; legislation that would have done away with arbitration failed last year in Olympia. The ACLU’s People Power Washington project has demanded five specific changes to the contract; some, including subpoena power for accountability agencies looking into officer misconduct, are already in place. Continue reading “Police Management Contract, Which Includes Concessions, Could Serve as Template for SPOG Negotiations”

Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents

According to one city council member, this is all the data renters need to know whether they’re getting a good deal in a specific neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell has vetoed legislation that would have required landlords to report basic information about the units they own, including how much they charge for apartments of various sizes, to a research university. The bill, which the city council passed 5-4 last week, had support from council members across the ideological spectrum, including Alex Pedersen (who proposed the bill as a step toward preserving “mom and pop”-owned rentals) and Kshama Sawant (who argued that rent transparency would support more renter-friendly policies.)

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information about their rental units. Citing a constituent letter from the head of the University of Washington’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research, Harrell said any data the research university collected would be “unreliable” because landlords would choose to (illegally) opt out or provide inaccurate data on purpose, since providing accurate data might put their business interests at risk.

For years, the city (and public) did have access to accurate, frequently updated rent data through reports produced by a private company called Dupre+Scott. Since 2017, the city has had to rely on high-level Census information to keep tabs on rents and residential displacement rates. Harrell’s veto letter asks “private industry” to step up and voluntarily produce the kind of data Dupre+Scott provided—something that private industry has declined to do in the five years since Dupre+Scott shut down.

The legislation Harrell vetoed would not have enabled the public to see what rents specific landlords were charging. Instead, it would have improved transparency and access to general information that could have helped renters make informed housing decisions, leveling the information playing field between renters and house buyers, who have instant access to listing and sale prices through data collected by the Northwest multiple Listing Service.

Harrell also said in his veto letter that the legislation would have cost the city too much money—between $2 million and $5 million—at a time when the city is asking every department to come up with potential cuts. “I cannot support moving forward with an expensive new program that is unlikely to achieve its stated aims and has no clear source of funding to pay for it,” Harrell wrote.

“Rejecting this law seems to be a victory for landlords unwilling to share data and a loss for those seeking data to make informed decisions on preserving and expanding affordable housing in our city.” —City Councilmember Alex Pedersen

Contradicting that claim, Harrell also said it would be irresponsible to spend millions collecting data on rents when that money “could otherwise directly serve people suffering in the ongoing homelessness crisis.”

In a statement this afternoon, the bill’s primary sponsor Pedersen said he is “deeply disappointed our solution to collect housing data helpful for preventing displacement of economically vulnerable people was not signed into law. Similar laws to collect rental housing data are already in place throughout the nation, so the veto means Seattle is still behind the times.” Continue reading “Harrell Vetoes Bill That Would Have Provided Data, Transparency on Seattle Rents”

Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.” Continue reading “Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works”

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

Sound Transit Board Selects Mystery Candidate to Head Agency After Series of Closed-Door Sessions

File:Sound Transit Type 2 S70 LRV number 202 at SODO OMF.jpg
Image by SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, a Sound Transit committee voted to formally recommend an unidentified “Candidate A” as the new CEO of the regional transit agency and to authorize the chair and vice chairs of the committee to enter contract negotiations with the candidate, whom the board chose from a list of three finalists in a series of closed-door executive sessions.

The process for selecting a new leader for the regional transit agency has been shrouded in secrecy. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said anonymity “helps encourage qualified people who are currently employed to put their hat in the ring. Many of the more than 90 applicants likely wouldn’t have stepped forward if doing so was conditioned on their current bosses, employees and stakeholders potentially learning of their interest to move on.”

Patrick said the agency will reveal the name of the nominee in a press release before the final vote.

“We certainly need to just hold the name in confidence just for a little bit longer,” Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member, said at Thursday’s meeting. “We need to move forward with a couple more items, contract negotiations and such, and the hope is that once the chair and the two vice chairs can get through significant part of those further your conversations with the candidate a we will be in a place to put that name out.”

“If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”—Washington Coalition for Open Government

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act allows agencies to have closed-door deliberations to “evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment” as long as “final action hiring” takes place in public.  The committee’s action is fully consistent with the law,” Patrick said, adding, “our committee’s action recommending a candidate and directing next steps of contract negotiations took place in open session.”

However, many other governments in the region conduct high-profile hiring processes largely in public, identifying lists of finalists and conducting public interviews for positions as varied as city council member, county sheriff, department director, and law enforcement oversight office director.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government told PubliCola that in keeping the identities of the finalists secret, the board “snubbed the very people—the public—that it serves. … If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”

Sound Transit also confirmed that the dozens of community stakeholders who took part in the selection process agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements saying they would not speak about the candidate review process.

Sound Transit is currently facing significant challenges, including a budget shortfall, delays, malfunctioning escalators at its stations, and lagging ridership that will likely be exacerbated as the agency reduces service—increasing the time between train arrivals to 20 minutes—for construction this summer. 

 

Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!

1. When Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he planned to include information about homeless encampments in a public-facing dashboard about the state of homelessness in Seattle, advocates worried that the website would include a map of existing encampments, endangering the privacy of unsheltered people and making them more vulnerable to vigilantes. The dashboard Harrell rolled out this week does not include this information; instead, a map shows encampments that have been removed along with the number of “verified” encampments in each neighborhood.

On Thursday, King County Councilmember (and Republican Congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn proposed legislation asking King County Executive Dow Constantine to direct the Sheriff’s Office, Department of Parks and Natural Resources, and Department of Community and Human Services to identify and map the locations of every encampment in the county, along with the approximate number of people living at each site—a proposal that would put a virtual target on the backs of thousands of homeless people around the county.

The bill also asks Constantine to “develop a comprehensive plan to remove homeless encampments for unincorporated King County” by this October.

During a media briefing on Thursday, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said, “I do not and will not ever support the disclosure of information about where people are living or what the needs of those people are because that is protected information in a number of ways.”

The legislation—which, like Dunn’s vote against a resolution supporting abortion rights, serves largely as a statement of priorities for Dunn’s Congressional campaign, does not come with any cost estimate. The county, like the city of Seattle, is facing down significant budget shortfalls over the next few years. On Wednesday, county budget director Dwight Dively told a council committee that “right now, the [20]25-26 budget is horrendously out of balance.”

2. Earlier this year, responding to the Durkan Administration’s decision to permanently delete the city’s public-facing employee directory offline (a decision that has not been reversed by the Harrell administration), we created our own searchable city directory, with all the same public information that used to be available on the city’s website.

Now, we’ve updated and improved that original directory, adding more detailed contact information and consolidating the whole directory in one searchable database that includes phone and/or email contact information for every city employee. Continue reading “Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!”

New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.
Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing outside the  Dockside Apartments, a new Low-Income Housing Institute affordable housing project in Green Lake, Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out an online dashboard on Tuesday that includes high-level information about housing and shelter projects that will move forward this year, the location of encampments the city has removed in the last several months, and the number of people Seattle outreach workers have referred to shelter at those encampment removals.

“For the first time in the city’s history, this dashboard that we’ve created allows the public to follow expansion of accessible shelter and supportive housing development, from the initial planning phase to their eventual opening,” Harrell said. The dashboard includes a list of 1,300 housing units and shelter beds that are either open or underway. “My administration has pledged to identify 2,000 [housing or shelter] units by the end of the year. So far, we’ve identified 1,300 expected to open this year.”

During his campaign for mayor, Harrell told reporters he would “identify” 1,000 units of “emergency, supportive shelter” in his first six months in office, with another 1,000 units in the six months after that. At the time, this was broadly interpreted to mean 1,000 new units (or shelter beds), not a progress report on units that were already underway. But a review of the 23 projects highlighted on the mayor’s dashboard—all of them funded or partially funded by the city and opening this year—shows that all of them were underway before Harrell took office. In other words, Harrell could have compiled an almost identical list at almost any point during his 2021 campaign.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

For example: Chief Seattle Club’s 80-unit ?ál?al apartment building in Pioneer Square has been in the works since 2017, and opened, after many delays, earlier this year. JustCare, a program that provides long-term hotel-based shelter, has been around since 2020. And several Low Income Housing Institute-run tiny house villages have been in the works for years, but only opened recently because the previous mayoral administration repeatedly refused to spend funds allocated for the villages.

Harrell and two city council allies pushed back on the narrative that the housing and shelter in the dashboard was already in the works before he took office. Under previous administrations, Harrell said, “nothing was really identified because there was no plan. … I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss, comparing Harrell to his foot-dragging predecessor Jenny Durkan, noted during a press briefing that “the mayor has the ability to move quickly or slowly with deploying housing units once they’re funded; what I’m seeing here is that there’s an urgency in place.” In other words: It isn’t the number of units or shelter beds in the pipeline that counts, but the fact that the city is moving to get them open.

The mayor’s dashboard also includes a bar graph showing the number of “offers of shelter” the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach to encampments the city is about to sweep, has made to people living in encampments. The graph shows this data as a “running tally” over several months; Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Michael Bailey said he did not know if the cumulative number, 513 referrals over five months, included duplicates—people who had received a shelter referral more than once.

As we’ve reported, the majority of unsheltered people who get a shelter referral from the city don’t actually end up staying in that shelter, making referrals a poor measure of shelter effectiveness. Asked why the city is tracking referrals rather than enrollments (the number of people who show up at a shelter and stay there for a night or longer), Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said it was because the city is legally required to track referrals.

People have the ability to get to shelter if they want to go, she added. “They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”

Finally, the map includes a general estimate of the number of tents and RVs in various neighborhoods and the number of people who were on site at specific encampments when they were closed, according to the HOPE team. The total number of tents in the city in mid-May, according to the dashboard, was 763— an undercount, officials acknowledged Tuesday, because it only includes tents people have reported to the city.

They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington

Inside each general area, the map identifies encampments the city removed, along with (in some cases, but not all) the number of people who accepted shelter referrals from the HOPE Team. The purpose of this tracking, according to the dashboard, is as “a baseline to track progress” at removing encampments.

Washington said Tuesday that the city is seeking to apply an “equity lens” to encampments. What that meant, she explained was that the city will spend significant resources removing encampments in neighborhoods that have typically had fewer encampment sweeps, and where residents complaining about encampments may feel ignored. In the new system, complaints will “get more weight if you’re in places that are typically ignored. And so it’s not the squeakiest wheel. The squeakiest wheel way would mean that I live in North Seattle, and I got my whole neighborhood watch group to call 700 times,” it would elicit a response from the city, Washington said.

The data in the map does not appear to directly represent conditions in various neighborhoods. For example, according to the map, there were 183 tents in downtown Seattle as of mid-May—the most of any neighborhood—while there were only 15 tents in all of Capitol Hill. The map indicates there were no encampments at all in the University District, Madison Park, or Rainier Beach, and virtually none in most of North Seattle, including Lake City, while neighborhoods like Wallingford and Montlake reported dozens. Continue reading “New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps”

Despite Concerns, Homelessness Authority Approves Budget that Funders “Have No Realistic Ability to Pay For”

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, after a half-hour of discussion, the governing board of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority voted unanimously to move forward with a 2023 agency budget that would require Seattle and King County to come up with $209 million next year to fund the authority—$90 million more than its current “base” budget of $119 million.

Seattle, which provides about 60 percent of the authority’s direct local funding, just received a six-year budget forecast that includes cascading budget shortfalls after next year, including projected operating deficits of $146 million in 2024 and 2025. Seattle’s budget planners are currently discussing ways to reduce such shortfalls in the future, through better long-term financial planning, reducing the number of times departments can change their adopted budgets throughout the year, and making the budgeting process more transparent.

Seattle and the county are the only local funding sources for the regional authority, which also receives some federal funds, including short-term COVID dollars the authority is using to fund some ongoing programs. The Sound Cities Association, representing nearly 40 suburban cities, has voting representatives on the authority’s implementation and governing boards but does not contribute financially to the authority. The city and county agreed to this financial and power imbalance in 2019, when they signed off on a heavily amended agreement that also barred the authority itself from ever raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs.

My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who sit on the governing board, tried to pass an amendment to the budget clarifying that the proposal was unrealistic without additional funding and “that without such additional funding, the parties to KCRHA’s interlocal agreement will need to make adjustments to reduce” the proposal. The amendment, sponsored by Lewis, also asked the authority to list new spending requests in order of priority “when expenditures are anticipated to exceed current resources” in the future.

After representatives from suburban cities pushed back on the budget amendment—including Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, who said statements about funding required a “broader conversation—Lewis downgraded it to a nonbinding resolution, which passed. But Lewis said that in the future, the authority needs to stop sending the city and county budgets that it knows are unaffordable.

“My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans,” Lewis said. “If we’re going to pass a budget we know we have no realistic ability to pay for, it puts the city in the position where we draw regional criticism and criticism from the media for not fully funding requests that we were never in a realistic position to be able to do on our own.”

The KCRHA’s budget request includes funding for safe parking spaces for up to 130 vehicles; a wage supplement for nonprofit homeless service providers; a new “high-acuity shelter” serving up to 55 people with significant behavioral and physical health needs; and “emergency housing,” a kind of intermediate housing between shelter and permanent housing, for up to 345 people.

Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to “identify” 1,000 new shelter or housing beds in the first six months of his term, plus an additional 1,000 beds by the end of the year. On Tuesday, he plans to make an announcement about progress toward that goal, which could include housing and shelter that was already in progress before he took office. Harrell will also unveil a new “dashboard” that could include the location of encampments in Seattle—an idea that many homeless advocates oppose, because they worry it will open unsheltered people up to additional harassment.

Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)
City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)

By Erica C. Barnett

When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.

In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.

So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.

“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)

Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”

“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”

In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”

Sawant, a socialist, supports rent control; Pedersen, a former aide to onetime City Council member Tim Burgess, does not. Continue reading “Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents”

Police Monitor Praises Progress, But Does Not Recommend Ending Federal Consent Decree (Yet)

Seattle’s court-appointed police monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie

By Erica C. Barnett

As soon as next year, US Judge James Robart could lift the consent decree with the Seattle Police Department that has been in place since 2012, when the US Department of Justice concluded that SPD routinely used excessive force, engaged in biased policing, and lacked appropriate structures to ensure accountability for bad actors.

But the department still has to make significant improvements to its accountability and crowd control practices before seeking release from federal oversight, according to a report released last week by the court-appointed monitor who oversees SPD’s reform efforts, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, and his three-person team.

Overall, the monitor’s report found that SPD is in compliance with the consent decree in key areas, including crisis intervention, stops and detentions, and use of force, “except during the waves of protests over the summer of 2020, in which the serious concerns from both the community and the Monitoring Team described herein evidenced a need for further work in the area of policy and training around use of force, force reporting, and force review in large-scale crowd management events.”

The report does not deal explicitly with police accountability, which Oftelie told PubliCola is “still very much an open area” in the consent decree that will have to be addressed in the future; however, it notes that Oftelie’s team will conduct an assessment of Seattle’s entire accountability system as part of a larger monitoring plan that could wrap up as soon as the end of this year.

“The accountability system in Seattle is one of the best in the country, but it does have certain gaps or areas that could use improvement,” Oftelie said.

SPD has been under federal oversight since 2012, after the US Department of Justice determined that the department routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing practices, including bias and excessive use of force, and that it lacked meaningful oversight and accountability mechanisms to address unconstitutional behavior by officers.

Since then, the city has asked Judge Robart to release it from the consent decree on two occasions, both times unsuccessfully. The most recent request, from former city attorney Pete Holmes and former mayor Jenny Durkan, came in May 2020—just before protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, when police targeted large groups of demonstrators with blast balls, tear gas, and other “less-lethal” weapons, leading to more than 19,000 complaints.

Setting aside the protests, which the report addresses separately, the monitor concluded that SPD has sustained its compliance with the consent decree on use of force, stops and detentions, and how the department responds to people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

“SPD officers respond to nearly 10,000 people in crisis per year, and Crisis Intervention Teams have dramatically improved interactions and outcomes – with force used in only 1.5 percent of contacts with individuals experiencing crises and many improvements made in connecting individuals in crisis to supportive human services,” the report says. (Crisis Intervention Team officers have gone through special training to respond to behavioral health crisis.)

“And when officers stop or detain a person, they must now articulate the reason for a stop and provide justification for searches,” the report continues. “As a testament to this progress, policing organizations around the nation, to advance their own reforms, have come to Seattle to learn from SPD and adopt policies and best practices in crisis response, de-escalation, and critical decision-making models.”

In a letter to Oftelie shortly before the monitor released the report, City Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted that the report also found a sharp increase in the number of people contacted by SPD officers while in crisis more than five times, with the greatest increase among people contacted more than 16 times.

Chart showing police stops by race in Seattle

The report also notes that even when it’s impossible to prove officer bias, disturbing racial disparities persist in almost every kind of police contact the report covers. Black and Native American people “are disproportionately stopped, detained, subjected to force,” according to the report, which also notes that officers are more likely to frisk Black people than white people, even though “frisks of White subjects more consistently find weapons.” Officers are also more likely to stop and frisk people when they’re in a neighborhood with more people of a race other than their own, the report found, and more likely to point their guns at Black individuals than people of any other race.

“Significant and persistent racial disparities suggest that continued monitoring of implementation of biasfree policing could result in positive community outcomes,” Herbold wrote.

The report also notes a strikingly high percentage of people—23 percent of those subjected to force, 16 percent of crisis contacts, and 17 percent of people stopped by police—whose race officers recorded as “unknown.” (Excluding the 2020 protests reduces the proportion of “unknown” use-of-force subjects to 15 percent.) The percentage of people of “unknown” race SPD interacted with spiked dramatically starting in mid-2019, when SPD stopped recording “Hispanic” as a racial category, according to the report, and apparently started reporting the race of most Latinos as “unknown.”

The report incorporates findings from several preliminary assessments, which found that officers’ use of force declined 33 percent between 2015 to 2019 and 48 percent between 2015 to 2021, with a more significant reduction in the most serious types of force, such as shooting; that officers responding to people in crisis rarely resort to force, “a dramatic improvement from DOJ investigative findings that led to the Consent Decree”; and that although there are still troubling racial disparities in who gets stopped and detained by police, officers are generally able to articulate “sufficient legal justification” for their actions by establishing “reasonable suspicion” when stopping or frisking a person. 

“I would describe the challenge right now with the number of officers as a crisis from the consent decree perspective. Are officers being supervised, is data being analyzed, is force being analyzed at the right level? All those systems are near collapse.”—Seattle Police Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie

The consent decree, Oftelie says, does not define aspirational goals for SPD; it establishes a “floor,” not a ceiling, by setting minimum standards for constitutional policing. Although the city council has groused at times that the consent decree makes it hard for them to pass laws reforming the department—for example, by transferring some of its duties, and funding, to civilians outside the department—Oftelie argues that “the ceiling is relatively unlimited,” and that the city could impose new rules on SPD—requiring special training on how to deal with people who are walking brandishing knives, for example—without violating the terms of the consent decree.

“I don’t agree that the judge has put any limitations on polices and practice that the city can put in place,” Oftelie said. “It’s situational, but I think that issue has taken on a narrative in the city that’s overblown… I think the community, and maybe sometimes the council, has used the consent decree as an excuse not to innovate new things.”

The report cautions that that the final phase of the consent decree will be “challenging,” and notes that SPD still has work to do to build on the progress it has made and restore trust with Seattle residents, particularly when it comes to protest response and accountability.

“In the comprehensive assessment, we deemed SPD in sustained compliance with use of force exclusive of crowd management, stops and detentions, and crisis intervention—what I didn’t say is that I recommend that these paragraphs in the consent be closed out and terminated,” Oftelie said. “SPD will have to write a new policy for crowd management that takes into consideration state law and the less- lethal weapons ordinance, and that policy will need to be reviewed by the DOJ, the monitor, and ultimately the court.” Continue reading “Police Monitor Praises Progress, But Does Not Recommend Ending Federal Consent Decree (Yet)”