Tag: Andrew Myerberg

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

Public Safety Director Andrew Myerberg

By Paul Kiefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Police officer Christopher Gregorio is currently serving a 20-day suspension for failing to follow his department’s de-escalation protocols before fatally shooting 57-year-old Terry Caver last May. While an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) concluded that Gregorio’s recklessness exacerbated an already volatile encounter on a Lower Queen Anne sidewalk, OPA Director Myerberg ultimately ruled that Gregorio couldn’t be disciplined for the shooting itself, only the decisions that led to it.

Matthew Milburn, who also fired at Caver during the confrontation, is no longer with SPD; he refused to give an interview to OPA investigators, and the case against him remains open.

On May 19, 2020, a half-dozen officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West to respond to a series of 911 calls about a man—Caver—carrying a knife and threatening passersby. When they arrived, Caver stood alone on the sidewalk, his knife concealed under a coat; the officers demanded that he drop to the ground.

Gregorio arrived on the scene with a police dog and parked close to Caver. “Don’t park right near him, guys, are you crazy?” another officer shouted.

Caver broke into a run, shouting, “You’re going to have to kill me!” as he passed Gregorio. While other officers kept a distance, Gregorio and Milburn chased Caver down the sidewalk; Milburn fired a Taser at his back to no effect, and Caver turned to face the officers with his knife hand outstretched. Both Gregorio and Milburn opened fire, killing Caver. From the moment Gregorio stepped out of his car, the entire incident lasted just 17 seconds.

Caver’s cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, says Gregorio’s suspension is hardly enough to hold him accountable for her cousin’s death. “It’s just awful,” she said. “Terry really mattered to us, and that officer shouldn’t be able to put his badge back on.” 

Members of Caver’s family often worried about his wellbeing. “We knew he was always afraid, always paranoid that somebody was after him—that the police were after him,” his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, said on Tuesday. Caver had faced legal trouble since his teenage years, and his mental health took a serious turn for the worse after he survived a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles soon after leaving prison in 2010. After his sister brought him to Washington to undergo surgery at Harborview Medical Center, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Taylor believes that the LA shooting triggered her cousin’s mental illness.

The accounts of Caver’s final moments, gleaned from 911 calls and officers’ body-worn cameras, were painful for his family members, who said his behavior was similar to earlier paranoid episodes. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him,” his sister, Vanessa, said in August. “He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared.”

In the OPA’s view, the shooting was a clear example of how an officer’s failure to approach a volatile situation carefully and patiently can devolve into a shooting. According to OPA investigators, officers had an opportunity to leave space between themselves and Caver, who was “almost certainly suffering from a mental health crisis” or intoxicated. The closest bystanders “were either across four lanes of traffic or were hundreds of feet away,” Myerberg wrote in the summary of the case.

Myerberg found that Gregorio “failed to engage in any planning or tactical discussions” before firing his weapon, in large part because his decision to park next to Caver “set up a situation where he had just seconds to prepare” for the encounter. Investigators also found that Gregorio gave little consideration to Caver’s mental health before stepping out of his car, and that shouting at Caver to drop to the ground only increased the tension. Without time or space to prepare or a plan or to wait for backup from officers equipped with crisis intervention skills or a less-lethal weapon, Myerberg wrote that Gregorio gave himself few options besides using force. Continue reading “Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension”

Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises

Seattle Police Officer Raises His Weapon Toward Derek Hayden on February 16, 2021.

Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and police violence.

By Paul Kiefer

At around 9:20 PM on February 16, Derek J. Hayden approached a Port of Seattle Police cruiser parked on Seattle’s waterfront. Holding a kitchen knife to his throat, Hayden told the pair of Port Police officers that he wanted to die.

The two Port Police officers called for backup. Within minutes, Seattle Police Department officers began searching for officers who could respond to the scene, specifically asking for any officers carrying a weapon known as a “40-millimeter” launcher that fires a large, foam-tipped projectile. Meanwhile, the Port Police officers followed Hayden on foot as he walked north and began cutting himself.

Though the Port Police officers carried their own 40-millimeter launcher—the department equips every squad car with the weapon—the officers later told SPD that their attempt to use the weapon to disarm Hayden “failed,” though neither the officers nor spokespeople for the Port Police provided additional details about the failure.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis.

By about 9:23, a pair of SPD patrol officers arrived on the waterfront, stopping their car less than a half-block in front of Hayden. As the pair stepped out of their car, footage from one of the officers’ body-worn video cameras shows a group of officers who were already at the scene—including the Port Police officers, though the identities of the officers alongside them are unclear—following Hayden at a distance. Aside from the officers and Hayden, the sidewalk was empty—the nearest bystanders were inside a restaurant down the block.

Neither of the SPD officers were carrying a 40-millimeter launcher, though one carried an assault rifle—a weapon SPD officers often carry when responding to calls about an armed person in crisis. One of the SPD officers stood on the opposite side of the car, ordering Hayden to drop the knife. The officer with the assault rifle stepped out of the car on the side facing Hayden.

“You need to stop,” yelled the officer with the assault rifle. Hayden raised his arms and walked towards the officer, responding, “just do it!” The officer walked backwards, shouting at Hayden to drop to the ground. “Do it,” Hayden repeated. “Please kill me.” As Hayden came closer, the officer backed up slightly, then fired at least three rounds. Hayden collapsed in the street as other officers rushed towards him. He died at the scene.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis. SPD officers shot and killed Terry Caver, a 57-year-old man suffering an apparent schizophrenic episode while carrying a knife in Lower Queen Anne on May 19, 2020.

Two months later, police in Bothell shot and killed 25-year-old Juan Rene Hummel during another apparent mental health crisis; like Caver and Hayden, Hummel was carrying a knife. At least one-third of all people killed by police in Washington since 2015 were experiencing some kind of mental health crisis at the time of their death.

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SPD, like police departments around the state, is gradually beginning to delegate some mental health crisis responses to mental health professionals.  But mental health crisis calls involving a person carrying a weapon are still a sticking point in the debate about which duties should be shifted police officers to mental health specialists. When SPD officers shot and killed Derek Hayden on February 16, mental health care advocates, police oversight leadership and state legislators were already leading efforts to shape a new approach to armed mental health crisis response.

Andrew Myerberg, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability—the civilian-led agency within SPD that conducts investigations into allegations of police misconduct—arrived on the waterfront later that night. Though the details of Hayden’s death were still hazy, Myerberg saw enough reasons for concern to launch an investigation into the shooting.

“The core of the investigation,” Myerberg said, “is whether the officers followed the department’s de-escalation policies.” Those policies emphasize that, when “safe and feasible,” officers should make an effort to buy time in tense situations by placing space and barriers between themselves and a person in crisis, and that officers should enter potentially volatile situations with some de-escalation plan in mind.

Myerberg noted that the tactics used by the other group of officers at the scene—following Hayden at a distance, for instance—may provide a vital point of comparison in the OPA’s investigation. “We’ll be asking whether the officers who stepped out of the car checked with the officers who were already on the scene about possible plans,” he said. However, Myerberg added that the Port Police officers’ unsuccessful attempts to disarm Hayden wouldn’t absolve the SPD officers from their responsibility to de-escalate when feasible. “Every officer involved has an obligation to try to de-escalate,” he said. Continue reading “Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises”

Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability

Protest at 11th Avenue and Pine Street on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is less than halfway through the 142 investigations it launched into the Seattle Police Department’s response to last summer’s protests—the result of nearly 20,000 individual complaints. Since September, the office has closed 55 of those investigations.

Relatively few of the investigations resulted in the OPA finding an officer guilty of misconduct significant enough to merit discipline: The office only ruled that officers seriously violated department policy in 12 cases. Some involved well-publicized incidents. For example, the OPA ruled that an SPD officer breached department policy when he threw a tear gas canister at an NBC news crew in Cal Anderson Park on June 1, hitting correspondent Jo Ling Kent in the arm. Of the 12 officers involved in those incidents, SPD has issued written or oral reprimands to six, including the officer who threw the tear gas canister at the news crew. The other six officers await a disciplinary decision from Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

But the OPA isn’t limited to deciding whether or not an officer needs discipline. The office’s rulings on protest-related misconduct allegations have been a window into the OPA’s toolkit—and into the strategic thinking of its director, Andrew Myerberg.

Training Referrals

In about 20 percent of protest cases, Myerberg recommended “training referrals” instead of discipline. A training referral directs SPD to re-train an officer on the specific policy or practice they violated; the OPA typically issues the referrals to first-time offenders.

In one case, an officer received a training referral for having his body-worn video camera off when he fired a pepper ball at a reporter reaching into her bag at a protest on Capitol Hill; after watching the bodycam footage from a nearby officer, the OPA concluded that SPD couldn’t hear the reporter identify herself as press, and believed she was reaching into her bag for something to throw at him. Another officer was referred to training after insinuating that he would ticket a bicyclist who questioned why SPD officers were using a Seattle Public Schools property as a staging ground.

La Rond Baker and Erin Goodman, the co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission—one of the OPA’s counterparts in the city’s police accountability system—said it was unclear that training referrals are having their intended effect. “We believe there needs to be a critical conversation both about the effectiveness of these trainings, and the negative effects limited disciplinary sanctions might have on the culture of the Seattle Police Department and public trust in Seattle’s accountability system,” they told PubliCola in a joint statement.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Myerberg says that the OPA hasn’t collected data about how well the training referrals work—for example, by tracking whether officers who go through mandatory training break the rules again—because of staffing restraints. “We have anecdotally looked at behavior changes,” he said, adding that his office hasn’t seen any noticeable patterns of repeat offenses.  Nevertheless, the OPA hasn’t formally reviewed the recidivism rates of officers who receive training referrals.

He also argues that issuing training referrals for first-time offenses that aren’t serious uses of force, bias incidents or dishonesty is a matter of fairness. Recommending more serious consequences for those first-time offenses wouldn’t be appropriate, Myerberg said, because “there’s no other employer that would hold their employees to that high a standard,” particularly given the unusual pressures of officers’ jobs—though, as police accountability advocates pointed out routinely over the past year, no other employer gives its employees the right to detain or kill. He added that issuing training referrals is an opportunity to push SPD supervisors to take a more active role in correcting officers’ behavior and department culture.

 

Management Action Recommendations

In some cases—like that of the British journalist who SPD officers arrested at Cal Anderson park last July—the OPA ruled that officers acted in line with department policy, but that their actions pointed to flaws in policy or training (rather than in the officers’ judgment). When those situations arise, Myerberg can issue a “management action recommendation” to suggest changes to the department’s policy manual and training curriculum.

Since September, Myerberg has issued eight of those recommendations. Those include a recommendation that SPD train its officers to make fewer misdemeanor arrests at protests to avoid escalating tensions, and that the agency screen its social media posts for accuracy. Current SPD policy only requires the department to screen tweets about shootings by officers and other incidents in which police kill or seriously injure people. Continue reading “Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability”

State Proposal Creating Community Oversight Boards for Police Could Have Unintended Consequences

By Paul Kiefer

A bill that would create a framework for civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies across Washington state is making its way toward a vote on the floor of the state house, but police accountability experts say that the bill needs refinement to avoid unintended consequences.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-30), would require every jurisdiction statewide that employs 15 or more law enforcement officers to create a “community oversight board” to receive and investigate civilian complaints about police misconduct. It also sets some rules for board membership, barring people who work for or have close ties to law enforcement and reserving seats on each board for community members.

Unlike most cities in Washington, Seattle already has a trio of police oversight bodies: the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigates individual cases of misconduct; the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which reviews Seattle Police Department policy and tactics and issues recommendations; and the Community Police Commission (CPC), which mostly plays an advisory role for SPD. In its current form, the bill would allow Seattle to keep all three bodies, but with some significant changes, including requiring the OPA to rebuild an all-civilian investigation team and potentially move outside of SPD, limiting its access to department records.

When the House Public Safety Committee fielded comments on the bill on January 26, OPA director Andrew Myerberg told the committee that he could not fully support the proposal. In its original form, the bill didn’t create a clear exception for accountability agencies like the OPA. “I do agree with the bill insofar that I believe civilians can do the work of police accountability and do it well,” Myerberg said, but he worried that the framework for community oversight outlined in the bill would require jurisdictions like Seattle to dismantle their existing civilian oversight structures and replace them with a single board tasked with both misconduct investigations and policy advising.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

After the first round of testimony, Johnson worked with representatives from Seattle and Spokane, which also has an existing police oversight agency, to amend the bill with concerns like Myerberg’s in mind. The most notable adjustment was the inclusion of a clause allowing jurisdictions with “multiple similar oversight bodies” to retain those agencies if they comply with the rest of the bill’s contents. One of the goals of the changes, Johnson told PubliCola, “is to preserve the functions of the OPA as long as the membership rules for community oversight boards are implemented within the OPA.”

To do so, Johnson said, the OPA would need an all-civilian investigative team by January 2023. Currently, nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers—a consequence of Seattle’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which limits the number of civilian investigators. If passed, the bill would supersede Seattle’s agreements with its police unions. The bill would also require the OPA to reserve some of its civilian staff positions for people representing impacted communities. Continue reading “State Proposal Creating Community Oversight Boards for Police Could Have Unintended Consequences”

SPD Confirms That At Least Five Officers Were In DC During Capitol Attack

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, the Seattle Police Department confirmed that at least five of its officers were present at the rally held by former President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. on January 6th that preceded the hours-long attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters. More than a week after an SPD officer reported two of his colleagues to his superiors for a Facebook photo of the pair at the rally, three more officers notified the department that they, too, had attended the event.

Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg broke the news during a meeting of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) on Wednesday morning. At the time, only two new officers had stepped forward; they were joined by one more officer later that afternoon, which Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz acknowledged on the department’s blog. In his comments to the CPC, however, Myerberg said he “anticipate[s] that there may be more.”

Myerberg said his office is investigating whether any of the five officers took part in the attack on the US Capitol; Diaz promised to fire any officers involved in the insurrection. During the CPC meeting, Myerberg added that the OPA will also try to discern whether the five officers had ties to any militias or white supremacist groups. “In my mind, membership in an [extremist] group would be a disqualifying factor for employment with the Seattle Police Department,” he said, “but that’s going to be the chief’s call.”

However, Myerberg also noted that his office hasn’t been able to interview any of the officers yet. The OPA’s manual requires its investigators to give officers accused of misconduct two notices before conducting interviews: one when the office first begins their investigation and another after investigators complete a preliminary review of the evidence in the case. The OPA has to provide the second notice within 30 days of opening an investigation; Myerberg told the CPC that his office will likely need that time to sift through footage and photographs, so he estimates that his investigators will start interviewing the officers in a month.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The two officers whom the OPA began investigating on January 8 are currently suspended with pay. In his blog post, Diaz noted that the three new officers under OPA investigation are still on duty. “The difference is that they self-reported,” said Myerberg. “When they did that, they affirmatively stated that they weren’t involved in any illegal activities. The first two didn’t provide that kind of statement.”

If the OPA investigations find the three officers were involved in the attack, Myerberg noted that in addition to being fired, the officers would also lose their certification to work as law enforcement officers in Washington for lying to the department.

However, Myerberg emphasized to the CPC that his office can’t treat the officers’ presence at the January 6 rally as evidence of misconduct in and of itself. “If you just have a firmly held belief that the election was stolen and you want to go yell on the mall,” he told the commissioners, “you’re allowed to do that.”

During and after Myerberg’s presentation, some commissioners shared their belief that department should not treat its officers’ presence at a rally alongside hundreds of avowed white supremacists as a benign act of free expression. “I don’t understand how we can derive any other decision other than they were there to spur what those people did to storm the Capitol,” said CPC Executive Director Brandy Grant, adding that the department’s efforts to respect the free speech rights of the five officers stood in sharp contrast to its response to SPD’s response to last summer’s protests.

CPC Commissioner and SPD Officer Mark Mullens, typically one of the commission’s quieter members, also spoke up during Wednesday’s meeting. “I would ask that the OPA keep in mind the African-American officers,” Mullens, who is Black, said. “We have to guard ourselves from people who mean to harm us, meaning white supremacists. It’s unsettling to think that there’s a possibility that there might be some behind you—someone who is supposed to be backing you up—that’s involved in” white supremacist groups.

Later in the meeting, Mullens shared that MAGA hats have become a regular sight in at least one of SPD’s precincts. “Your political views are your business,” he said. “And whether you’re racist or not is still to be found out. But when you’re wearing that [hat], you’re not taking into consideration Black officers and other officers who might be triggered by that… [and] there’s also the question of the community’s trust.”

Proposal Would Grant Full Subpoena Power to Seattle Police Accountability Bodies

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council member Lisa Herbold announced a new proposal to explicitly grant subpoena power to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power would allow the two police accountability bodies to compel testimony from people who were involved in, or who witnessed, police misconduct but refused to testify. It would also allow the two offices to compel witnesses to hand over records and other evidence in police misconduct cases. If witnesses refused to testify or provide evidence, the proposed law would allow the OPA and OIG to turn to the City Attorney’s Office to obtain a court order enforcing the subpoena.

If passed, the legislation would fulfill a three-year-old promise to expand the powers of the OPA and OIG. The city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance explicitly granted the OIG and the OPA the authority to issue subpoenas during investigations if a witness refused to cooperate, but those powers were placed on the bargaining table during the 2018 contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).

During that process, which largely neutralized the 2017 ordinance, the city’s negotiating team agreed not to implement those elements of the accountability ordinance. Although the contract allowed the city to unilaterally bring SPOG back to the bargaining table to negotiate the OPA and OIG’s right to issue subpoenas, the negotiating team has not revisited the issue.

As a result, although SPD officers have been required to comply with OPA and OIG investigations for the past three years, the two offices have had no legal recourse if a witness decided not to testify. Neither office has needed to issue a subpoena to obtain testimony or evidence from an SPD officer, so the ordinance would be a proactive measure.

In a press release accompanying the announcement, Durkan said the proposal would “set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG,” which expires at the end of the month.

Herbold’s public safety council committee will take up the legislation on December 8.

ACLU Calls on Durkan to Ban Facial Recognition Software After Possible SPD Violation

Clearview AI Software Logo (Source: Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, a blogger’s public records request turned up evidence that a Seattle Police Officer has used a widely-criticized facial recognition software called Clearview AI for over a year, possibly violating Seattle Police Department policy and raising questions from privacy advocates about the use of prohibited surveillance technology within SPD.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Washington responded to the revelation by calling for Mayor Jenny Durkan to issue a specific ban on the use of facial recognition software by city agencies, as well as for a city council hearing to question SPD representatives about their use of surveillance tools.

As PubliCola first reported in November, the ACLU first sounded the alarm after the department released roughly 200 emails containing references to Clearview AI, a search engine for faces that enables law enforcement agencies to identify unknown people—protest participants, for example—by matching their photos to online images, allowing police to arrest or interrogate them.

Clearview AI has been the subject of harsh condemnation from privacy and police accountability advocates since it first drew national attention last year. The company’s business model relies on scraping billions of images from across the internet without permission; as a result, Clearview AI’s database of faces includes untold numbers of people with no criminal background whatsoever.

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Most of the emails SPD released were promotional offers sent from Clearview AI to SPD officers of all ranks, including former Police Chief Carmen Best. But one officer—Detective Nicholas Kartes of the South Precinct’s burglary unit—accepted the company’s offer, opening an account with his work email in September 2019. In the past year, Kartes corresponded with a Clearview AI representative about his experiences “experimenting” with the application, and login alerts sent to Kartes’ work email indicated that the account was used on at least two desktop computers. Both computers’ IP addresses place them in Seattle city government buildings, and one IP address belongs to a secure city network.

The revelation was alarming enough to prompt Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg to launch an investigation into Kartes’ use of Clearview AI. However, Myerberg told PubliCola in November that merely opening an account with Clearview AI might not constitute a policy violation, though using the account for law enforcement purposes would be a clear violation of department policy. He added that there is no precedent for that kind of misconduct.

But the city council’s 2018 surveillance ordinance that restricts SPD’s use of surveillance technologies might not cover Kartes’ use of an unapproved software. Mary Dory, a public safety auditor working with the Office of the Inspector General on the case, told PubliCola in November that the ordinance was designed to address the use of surveillance technologies by SPD itself, not the behavior of an individual officer using surveillance software without the department’s knowledge.

That dilemma is now at the center of the ACLU’s disagreement with Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz. Jennifer Lee, the manager of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project, told PubliCola that her organization sees Kartes’ use of Clearview AI as a violation of the surveillance ordinance, and believes that SPD is liable for Kartes’ infractions. She cited Kartes’ use of his work email—and, possibly, his work computer—as evidence that the detective opened a Clearview AI account for law enforcement purposes.

Lee says that the ACLU of Washington is calling for Durkan to issue a targeted ban on facial recognition technology. “We have a surveillance ordinance which is supposed to prevent exactly what happened: SPD secretly using a surveillance technology,” she told PubliCola. “But it’s clear that without an explicit prohibition on facial recognition use, there are risks that remain.”

A press release from the ACLU sent out on Wednesday morning also called for council members Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen, the chairs of the council’s public safety and transportation and public utilities committees, respectively, to hold a public hearing to “get answers from SPD about its use of Clearview AI and other surveillance tools.”

In a response sent to the ACLU of Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Diaz categorically denied that SPD has sanctioned the use of Clearview AI by its officers. “We have no intention or interest in pursuing a partnership with Clearview AI or acquiring the use of any facial recognition technology,” he wrote. He also challenged the ACLU’s assertion—included in their press release—that multiple SPD detectives have used Clearview AI since September, pointing out that the emails only clearly point to Kartes’ use of the technology. (In November, Lee told PubliCola that the login alerts from multiple desktop computers point to the possibility of multiple detectives using Kartes’ account).

Diaz also made a passing reference connecting the Clearview AI promotional emails to a possible phishing attempt involving city of Seattle email addresses; PubliCola has reached out for clarification.

Because Diaz’s response dismisses the ACLU’s assertion that the department is liable for Kartes’ conduct, the ACLU’s call for Durkan to issue a specific ban on facial recognition software is effectively dead in the water.

Morning Fizz: As the City Debates Police Accountability and Homelessness, Brutality Allegations and Encampments Proliferate

Seattle Police Department officers and other members if the Navigation Team watch as a person experiencing homelessness gathers their possessions during an encampment removal at the Ballard Commons earlier this year.

1. Last Wednesday, acting Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a new partnership between his department and the Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which specializes in producing “analyses to identify and reduce the causes of racial disparities in policing.”

In a press release, Diaz said the CPE will spend the next several months studying SPD’s “functions, training, policies, accountability measures and impacts on communities of color”; the researchers will then “convert” their findings into “strategies to ensure [that] SPD eradicates public safety inequities moving forward.”

In her September executive order launching an assessment of SPD’s functions and possible areas for civilianization, Mayor Jenny Durkan also included the CPE as a source of “subject matter expertise” alongside the city’s own accountability partners, including the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Policing Commission (CPC).

This is not the CPE’s first time in town. In 2015, after the CPC asked SPD to review its crowd control policies in the wake of that year’s Black Lives Matter protests, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole included the CPE on a panel of experts tasked with reviewing the department’s crowd control tactics and presenting recommendations for improvement. The CPE did not release its 23-page report until 2017, and the panel never presented their recommendations publicly. The CPE’s recommendations were generally unremarkable: for instance, the analysts suggested that “SPD should further pursue explanations of the elevated severe use of force during demonstrations.” 

Diaz’ announcement gave no indication that the new CPE study will be any more transformative than its last one, not least because he did not name any accountability mechanism attached to the analysts’ recommendations (some accountability mechanism may exist, but a CPE representative didn’t respond to a request for comment on that front). 

Moreover, the scope of work that Diaz described suggests that the CPE’s study could easily overlap with the work of the city’s existing accountability bodies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, whose office is currently working on a sentinel review of SPD’s protest response, told PubliCola that the CPE analysts should “engage with the current accountability structure and assess whether they’re actually doing anything different and whether there is value added.” There could be room for the analysts to collaborate with her office, she added, so long as they respect “the ongoing work of accountability partners.”

2. As the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan continue debating what will will replace the Navigation Team, which Durkan formally dismantled in September, encampments have continued to proliferate around the city. Although one could argue that encampments are merely a symptom of a longstanding crisis Seattle has failed to adequately address, the city’s decision to temporarily stop sweeping people aggressively from place to place during the pandemic has exacerbated the visibility of the crisis. 

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Prior to COVID, the Navigation Team was conducting hundreds of encampment removals a year. Post-COVID, they dramatically scaled back this work, doing sweeps only at encampments that were the source of large numbers of complaints or that presented significant public safety issues, like the large encampment that was recently removed from a cracking, partially demolished pedestrian bridge downtown.

A large encampment at the Ballard Commons, across the street from the Ballard public library, was removed in May after neighborhood residents and community groups complained that it made the park feel dirty and unsafe. Like all sweeps, this one redistributed, but didn’t visibly reduce, the number of people living unsheltered in the neighborhood. Since then, not only has the Commons been thoroughly repopulated by unsheltered people, the people who were ordered to leave in May seem to have simply moved a few blocks away, a predictable outcome whenever encampments are swept. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As the City Debates Police Accountability and Homelessness, Brutality Allegations and Encampments Proliferate”