Tag: 2020 protests

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”

Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?

Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety

By Paul Kiefer

A Seattle police oversight office released a report on Tuesday revisiting controversial Seattle Police Department actions during protests in June 2020 and urging the department to find ways to build new public trust. The report from the Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG) is the second in a series drawn from panel discussions between oversight officials, community members and representatives from SPD, including some commanders who led the department’s protest response.

On its surface, the report’s narrow focus on nearly two-year-old controversies comes across as old news; most of the incidents described in the report were already investigated by the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, however, says that the reports point to a persistent lack of trust between SPD and a notable portion of the general public—distrust that escalated during the protests and that remains relevant as SPD embarks on new projects, including crackdowns on visible drug use and shoplifting in the downtown core.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless. Many of the report recommendations address protest response tactics, use of force, and weapons, but the larger recommendations regarding trust and legitimacy translate to every aspect of SPD’s operations within the community.” What remains unclear is whether SPD will do anything to address the persistent distrust the report identifies—and whether that distrust can still shape the department’s future.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Inspector General Lisa Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless.”

The first of the OIG’s Sentinel Event Reviews, released last July, focused on the first three days of the protests and concluded that SPD should aim to “facilitate” protests, rather than controlling or directing them. That report also suggested some basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests.

The latest report centers on the second week of protests, when clashes between police and demonstrators shifted from the downtown core to SPD’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. Two of the panel’s members—Lieutenants John Brooks and James Dyment—were instrumental to SPD’s decision-making during that phase of the protests, including the use of tear gas and blast balls against demonstrators.

The panel reviewed five key moments in the second week of protests, including the impacts of tear gas on residents of an apartment building next to the East Precinct and an incident in which the brother of an SPD officer drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot a man who tried to stop him before surrendering to police.

As the group discussed the tactics behind and public perception of each incident, a pattern emerged: While SPD representatives could often explain the policy and tactical thinking behind a controversial decision, the community representatives on the panel remained critical of SPD’s motives.

When discussing the allegedly retaliatory arrest of a man who filmed a widely circulated video of an officer pepper-spraying a child at an earlier demonstration, for example, SPD representatives said officers were unaware of the man’s identity when they detained him a day later for shining a laser pointer in their eyes. Community representatives on the panel were skeptical; according to the OIG’s report, the panelists argued that “law enforcement agencies sometimes justify illegitimate actions after-the-fact and have not been historically forthcoming about misconduct.”

Some of the panel’s discussions, the report says, “highlighted the loss of trust in SPD by a wide cross-section of the Seattle community. Improvements in tactics and communications are only part of the necessary solution. SPD will also need to find effective approaches to fostering transparency, education, outreach, and accountability when officers violate the rules, to rebuild community trust.”

“SPD wants the community to trust them so they can expand their budget and more easily apprehend people, but SPD doesn’t trust community members when we say that defunding the department is what would actually make us safer.”—2020 protester and Seattle Abolition Support volunteer Peter Condit

In its report, the OIG offered two dozen recommendations for changes to SPD’s protest response planning. Many of the recommendations—including a proposal for SPD to conduct a public education campaign on the dangers of laser pointers, ostensibly to reduce the risk of clashes between officers and protesters—address panel members’ criticism of specific SPD decisions in 2020.  Others, like a suggestion that SPD reserve tear gas for “full-scale riot situations,” addressed changes to department policies that could remain relevant in the long term.

Some of SPD’s critics say 2020 taught them another lesson that remains relevant today, especially as SPD sounds the alarm about a rise in gun violence while attempting to rebuild its ranks after two years of high attrition. “SPD is now trying to make use of crime statistics to regain public support,” said Peter Condit, who regularly took part in protests in 2020 and now volunteers with an organization called Seattle Abolition Support. “But the protests were a galvanizing moment for a political movement that is still alive. They created a body of people in Seattle who are immune to SPD’s propaganda because they witnessed how the department treated community members, and that group of people has stuck around and continued to organize in creative ways.” Continue reading “Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Paul Kiefer

SPD Officer Demoted for Protest Response Claims Discriminatory Treatment

Former Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department commander demoted two months ago for his role in the department’s handling of a protest last June filed a discrimination and retaliation claim against the city on Thursday.

Captain Steve Hirjak, whom Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz demoted from Assistant Chief after deeming him responsible for SPD’s widely criticized use of tear gas and blast balls against protesters on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020, argued through his attorney that Diaz unfairly shifted blame for the incident away from Lieutenant John Brooks, who was the on-site commander during the protest.

In a letter accompanying the claim, Hirjak’s attorney criticized Diaz’s decision to demote Hirjak instead of Brooks, pointing to findings by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) that held Brooks responsible for violating SPD policy on June 1. When Diaz unexpectedly diverged from the OPA’s findings in May, he drew criticism from members of the Community Police Commission and city council member Lisa Herbold, who questioned what evidence the chief had to hold Hirjak responsible for the protest response; Hirjak included a letter from Herbold to Diaz in his claim.

In a subsequent letter to Herbold, Diaz wrote he “must have confidence that each and every member of this department’s sworn Command Staff… be able to step into an incident command position as circumstances may require.” Hirjak’s demotion, he added, was “a reflection of my lack of confidence in [Hirjak’s] ability to do so.”

But in his claim, Hirjak contends that Diaz—and his predecessor, former SPD Chief Carmen Best—treated him unfairly because of his race (Hirjak is Korean-American) while allowing white commanders who made mistakes during the department’s protest response to avoid accountability or rise in the ranks. Hirjak became SPD’s first Asian-American assistant chief in 2018.

His attorney’s letter points out errors by an array of Hirjak’s colleagues, including the decision by Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey to abandon the department’s East Precinct without informing Best, as well as Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette’s “failure… to gather or understand relevant intelligence” ahead of the protests, which he cited as a reason for SPD’s inadequate preparations for large-scale demonstrations. Neither Mahaffey nor Nollette faced discipline.

The letter also notes that both Brooks—who was the subject of 14 misconduct investigations in 2020—and Bryan Grenon, who was the captain above Brooks on June 1, both received promotions within the past year: Brooks is now the acting captain of a unit that leads SPD’s protest responses, and Grenon replaced Hirjak as assistant chief.

According to his attorney, the demotion has done serious damage to Hirjak’s reputation and career opportunities, as did the two months he spent without a unit assignment after his promotion. While Diaz recently appointed Hirjak to lead the Special Victims Crimes section, which includes the domestic violence and elder crimes units, Hirjak’s attorney argued that his new assignment “lacks visibility or significant contact with outside agencies and only serves to perpetuate the damage associated with his demotion.”

Meanwhile, his attorney added, “the more prominent position of Captain with the Force Review Unit remains open and Mr. Hirjak, who helped create the unit, is the most qualified person for the job.”

The city has until early August to agree to a mediation before Hirjak can file a lawsuit.