Tag: 2020 protests

No Charges Against Durkan and Best for Deleted Texts; Investigation Reveals Holes in City Records Retention Policies

Dan Clark, Mainstream Criminal Division Chief, King County Prosecutor’s Office

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Prosecutor’s Office announced yesterday that they will not pursue criminal charges against former mayor Jenny Durkan, former police chief Carmen Best, and other city officials who deleted thousands text messages during the 2020 protests against police violence. Officials from the prosecutor’s office said yesterday that they were unable to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officials intentionally deleted the messages with the intent of destroying public information.

“There’s no evidence that the involved individuals intended to permanently delete anything,” mainstream criminal division chief Dan Clark said. “And for most of the individuals, they were actually trying to recover access to their phones, when the deletions occurred.”

Six of the 27 records requests that involved texts that were deleted from the phones of Durkan, Best, and other city officials were filed by PubliCola—the most from any individual news organization. In these requests, we asked for communications about the use of encrypted messaging systems, demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists, the decision to use tear gas, flash grenades, and other weapons during the 2020 protests, and meetings between Durkan and community groups, among other issues we were covering at the time. PubliCola frequently relies on records requests for internal information from city officials, so the destruction of these messages harmed our ability to provide newsworthy information to the public.

In a civil case against the city filed by businesses in the vicinity of the 2020 protests, US District Judge Thomas Zilly said Durkan’s “various reasons for deleting her text messages strain credibility.” The city settled that case in February. Clark noted that the burden of proof for a criminal case is higher than the standard for that civil case, which requires only a “preponderance of the evidence” deo show that officials intentionally deleted text messages with the intent of destroying public information.

The investigation, conducted by King County Sheriff’s Office detective Joseph Gagliardi, included a review of thousands of pages of depositions with Durkan, Best, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and other city officials, all taken during previous lawsuits against the city. The investigators did not interview any of the individuals who destroyed city records during this investigation, relying on existing documents, including forensic analysis of city-issued phones.

In former police chief Carmen Best’s case, the investigation found that she, as well as other city employees, had a “reasonable belief” that her text messages were being backed up somewhere, based on the fact that city emails go to a central server even if people delete them on their city devices.

In his investigation, Gagliardi described two types of situations in which text messages were destroyed. The first, more common, type involved officials getting locked out of their phones, either temporarily or permanently, because they forgot their passwords or through other mishaps. In these cases, according to Gagliardi, the officials lost their messages either after doing a “hard reset” that deleted all their information, or because they, or some other unidentified person, changed the settings on their phone in a way that led to mass deletions.

The investigation concluded that Chief Scoggins, SPD Captain Eric Greening, SPD Chief Strategy Officer Chris Fisher, Seattle Emergency Operations Center coordinator Ken Neafcy, and Seattle Public Utilities manager Idris Beauregard all got locked out of their phones because of errors related to their passwords, usually because they made too many password attempts and their phones automatically reverted to factory settings. Fisher, for example, “stated that he’s had to reset his work phone multiple times, because the passcodes have to be changed frequently and he’s very bad at remembering them.”

Scoggins testified that he took his phone to the Apple Store after city IT employees couldn’t get it to work again, and store employees performed a hard reset, deleting all his data.

The investigation notes that city phones require employees to reset their passwords every 90 days, which Gagliardi said contributed to officials’ tendency to forget their passwords. In response to a question from PubliCola about text retention, Gagliardi quipped, “I would also argue with the expectation that these people know how phones work.”

Durkan said in earlier depositions that she dropped her phone in a puddle on the beach, dried it out in a bag of rice, and then restored all her messages from an iCloud account. City officials, in general, are not supposed to save things to cloud servers because of security concerns, so this was actually a violation of a separate city records policy.

Later, someone changed her settings from “keep messages: Forever” to “keep messages: 30 days,” which was “the single factor that caused the destruction of all of Mayor DURKAN’s text messages sent or received between 10/30/2019 and 6/24/2020,” according to the investigation. Durkan denied changing this setting, as did her longtime friend and assistant, Colleen O’Reilly Bernier.

However, the investigation noted that Bernier made a number of “demonstrably false” statements during her deposition—falsely claiming, for example, that she didn’t handle Durkan’s phone after it was damaged on the beach, when she actually made changes to the phone’s settings with the help of a city IT employee. This suggests, according to the investigation that Bernier may have changed the setting, resulting in the destruction of thousands of messages; however, Gagliardi wrote in his investigation notes that there was no way to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.

“They’ve basically encouraged the deletion of transitory messages almost immediately. They said there’s no reason to keep those messages at all. They have left the termination of whether or not a message is transitory up to their employee.”—Chief investigator Detective Gagliardi, King County Sheriff’s Office

In Best’s case, the investigation found that she, as well as other city employees, had a “reasonable belief” that her text messages were being backed up somewhere, based on the fact that city emails go to a central server even if people delete them on their city devices.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that to the contrary, that she believed anything else,” Clark, from the prosecutor’s office, said. “There’s no smoking gun, if you will—there’s no admission by her of, you know, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s get together and delete all of our text messages’ or anything of that nature to call into question her reasonable but mistaken belief.'”

Even if Best hadn’t believed the city was backing up her text messages on a server somewhere, the investigation found, the overwhelming majority of her messages were “transitory” in nature, meaning they didn’t deal with substantive policy decisions and were of “short-term, temporary informational use.”

“They’ve basically encouraged the deletion of transitory messages almost immediately,” Gagliardi said yesterday. “They said there’s no reason to keep those messages at all. They have left the termination of whether or not a message is transitory up to their employee.”

Jennifer Winkler, the city’s longtime records manager, told investigators that employees could theoretically ask to have their messages saved on a secure server. However, “they have not identified such a secure server to save those text messages. Essentially, the city of Seattle established the policy and not the practice,” Gagliardi said. This means that unless the city changes its policy, it will continue to be up to individual employees, all the way up to the mayor of Seattle, to decide whether their messages or worth saving or to delete them permanently.

Example messages from the investigation, however, included a number of texts that are similar to texts reporters receive routinely in response to city of Seattle records requests, suggesting that this “transitory” standard is applied inconsistently. Additionally, the texts included information that could be of interest to the general public, including messages sent during the protests about immediate strategies and tactics, such as movement of police from one place to another. According to the investigation, these messages were exempt from rules against deletion because the information in these texts “was subsequently documented in official Seattle Police incident reports and after-action reviews.”

Ultimately, Best deleted almost every text in her phone manually, later justifying the deletions by saying all the messages were “transitory.” Similarly, Durkan “stated that she avoided using text messaging for policy decisions, stating that due to the pandemic and then the protests, she was having cabinet meetings almost every day and that most of her communications were in person. She specifically stated that “the practice would be to not communicate things of substance by text.”

As for the “reasonable belief” that all text messages are stored in a server somewhere, Gagliardi noted that most of the officials named in the investigation were not particularly tech-savvy and wouldn’t realize, for example, that text messages in general don’t automatically go to a separate server once they’re deleted. When you delete messages from your personal phone, your cell-phone provider does not pay for a server to save them for you; unless you save them to a separate server or cloud service, they’re just gone.

When PubliCola asked Gagliardi if it was possible for any city official to save their text messages after deleting them, he laughed and responded, “Yes and no.” Jennifer Winkler, the city’s longtime records manager, told investigators that employees could theoretically ask to have their messages saved on a secure server. However, “they have not identified such a secure server to save those text messages. Essentially, the city of Seattle established the policy and not the practice.” This means that unless the city changes its policy, it will continue to be up to individual employees, all the way up to the mayor of Seattle, to decide whether their messages or worth saving or to delete them permanently.

SPD Chief Says He Doesn’t Know How Fake Tombstone for Police Shooting Victim Ended Up On Display In Precinct Break Room

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the Community Police Commission Wednesday morning to address a body-worn video showing a fake tombstone with the name of Damarius Butts, who was killed by four SPD officers in 2017, displayed on a shelf above a microwave in a break room at the department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. The video also shows large Trump 2020 flag hanging on a back wall of the room.

The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is investigating the incident.

During his comments, Diaz did not directly apologize for the display, saying only that he “acknowledged the impacts that we created after George Floyd’s murder, and I apologize for those impacts—those impacts that we’re here discussing today.” Diaz added that since 2021, when the video was taken, the department has taken a number of steps to create a “healthy environment,” including a relational policing program called Before the Badge and trainings in a system called Outward Mindset. He also noted that officers were under a great deal of stress during and after the 2020 protests.

“Over the last three years we’ve lost 575-plus officers, [so] our personnel since that time has changed. We are changing,” Diaz said. “We continue to move this department forward. But change takes time.”

“I want to know why this happened. I want to know why it was allowed to continue. I want to know if anyone has been held accountable. I want to know what is being done so it never happens again. I want to know why killing my son and getting away with with it wasn’t enough. I want answers and so far, I haven’t heard any.”—Stephanie Butts, mother of police shooting victim Damarius Butts

In response to questions from CPC member Adrian Leavitt, who is also the attorney for Butts’ surviving family, Diaz said he had no information about where the tombstone came from, how it ended up at the East Precinct, who propped it up on the shelf, how many weeks or months it sat there, or how many people saw it before it was finally removed.

“As far as some of the other details, as far as officers who saw it, who displayed and who put it up, those are stuff that I think OPA will hopefully be able to kind of unwind and be able to articulate what happened,” Diaz said. “We had a significant amount of officers that left the department, many officers from the East Precinct specifically, and so we still don’t know if some of those officers that left the department were a part of that.”

Butts’ mother, Stephanie Butts, said she was shocked when she learned SPD officers were “so callous that they were heating up food in a microwave below my son’s fake tombstone and didn’t see anything wrong with that. … I want to know why this happened. I want to know why it was allowed to continue. I want to know if anyone has been held accountable. I want to know what is being done so it never happens again. I want to know why killing my son and getting away with with it wasn’t enough. I want answers and so far, I haven’t heard any.”

In an official statement released last week, SPD suggested the tombstone may have placed outside the precinct by a protester, and referred to the shelf in the break room as a “storage shelf” where SPD stored items “until they were discarded.” The video does not show any other items in a similar state of “storage.”

According to Leavitt, the tombstone was taken from a nearby memorial for victims of police violence that featured many similar tombstones representing people killed by police.

Diaz said efforts to improve the culture at SPD have already started bearing fruit. “In a short time, our OPA complaints have seen a drastic reduction compared to four years ago and our use of force has seen a drastic reduction, a 40 percent reduction,” Diaz said. “And up until yesterday, we had not had an officer involved shooting involving a person in 13 and a half months.” On Tuesday, police shot a man in downtown who was suspected of stabbing another person a few blocks away. That shooting is currently under internal investigation, according to the department.


SPD Fires Controversial Cop Who Taunted Protesters, City Eases Back-to-Office Mandate

1. The Seattle Police Department has fired controversial officer Andrei Constantin, who created a fake Twitter account to harass and mock protesters and make fun of victims of police violence, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

According to the SPD disciplinary action report explaining why Constantin was fired, the officer posted dozens of “extremely unprofessional, offensive, derogatory, and entirely unacceptable” tweets that “celebrated violence against protesters, ridiculed human beings who were injured or killed, taunted the family members of deceased individuals, and publicly accused SPD of hating its employees, blamed victims of assault, appeared to celebrate a homicide, and stated George Floyd ‘got justice.'”

Constantin’s tweets, originally uncovered by Twitter user @WhiteRoseAFA in October 2021, included posts calling people who participated in the 2020 protests against police violence “antifa terrorists” who should be “napalmed”; mocking the death of the young activist Summer Taylor, who was struck by a driver in a section of I-5 that had been closed down for a march; and telling the mother of an activist who was murdered in Portland, “Rest in piss bitch.” Constantin posted as @1SteelerFanatic under the name “Bruce Wayne”; he deactivated the account last year.

Constantin was previously the subject of at least nine other Office of Police Accountability complaints. Those complaints, detailed on the SPD.watch website, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing himthreatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; and detaining a homeless Black bike rider and for nearly an hour. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Constantin received an eight-day unpaid suspension after shattering the driver-side window of someone’s car while they were sitting at a gas station.

In his written decision to fire Constantin, SPD police chief Adrian Diaz acknowledged Constantin had received “counseling” for the mental anguish he claimed to have endured as the result of the 2020 protests, but said that in light of his long disciplinary history and the “inexcusable” nature of his posts, Constantin could no longer work at SPD. Constantin last day at SPD was September 22.

2. The union representing Seattle Public Utilities’ 85 call center employees has reached an agreement with the city that exempts these workers from the mandate that all city employees come in to the office a minimum of two days a week, PubliCola has learned. As we reported in July, many call center workers preferred working from home because it was a huge improvement on commutes that could add up to hours of unpaid time in the car or on the bus each day.

“The City shall exempt the employees in the SPU Contact Center from any in-office minimum requirement, in acknowledgement of the substantial expense compliance would cause that department to incur,” the agreement says.

As we reported in July, call center workers have been more efficient and effective, by the city’s own metrics, since representatives started working at home instead of a crowded room in downtown Seattle.

The agreement allows SPU to require workers to come back to the office if management decides it will “improve operations.” It also requires call center employees to live within a three-hour drive of the Seattle Municipal Tower so they can get there if needed—a change that narrows the possibilities for true telecommuting.

In addition, other city employees who are subject to the mandate—part of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “One Seattle” effort to bring workers back into a still-struggling downtown—will be allowed to spread their in-office days across a two-week pay period, instead of coming in two days every week. The agreement also clarifies what counts as “in the office” (field work, including inspections, public meetings, and trainings will count as in-office time) and give individual departments the opportunity to ask for exemptions from the rules.

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.