Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing

SPD East Precinct, June 2020

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability released findings on Monday afternoon clearing former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey of wrongdoing in the evacuation of the department’s East Precinct last June.

Questions about the decision to abandon the precinct swirled for more than a year without any clarity from the department until KUOW published an investigation in July that identified Mahaffey—the commander in charge of managing the department’s protest response on June 8—as the person who made the call.

OPA director Andrew Myerberg criticized SPD for being silent about the decision to abandon the precinct, writing that the decision created “a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play.” In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, City Council President Lorena González echoed the same frustration, writing that the OPA’s report “shows how SPD treated responsibility as a ‘hot potato’ that no one wanted to get caught holding… You can’t always predict the outcome of key decisions—and mistakes will happen—but the damage to public trust is made much worse when high-ranking SPD leaders play games of hot potato and fail to be forthright with elected officials, the media and the public.”

However, Myerberg also concluded that Best had the authority to delegate decision-making to Mahaffey. Similarly, he determined that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate the precinct was based on the information available to him—including flawed claims from the FBI of a terrorist threat—and that his decision allowed SPD to temporarily de-escalate. “No one—including OPA—can say that [an] alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming,” he wrote, “just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct.”

Assistant Chief Brian Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.

The OPA’s investigation, which relied on interviews with Best, Mahaffey and other SPD employees and members of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff, largely mirrored KUOW’s version of events, with two exceptions. In early June, with the East Precinct at the center of nightly protests on Capitol Hill, SPD leaders were increasingly anxious about the risk of an attack on the precinct. Protesters in Minneapolis had burned a police precinct to the ground less than two weeks earlier, and SPD leadership worried that the same thing could happen in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the department’s initial protest response, which relied heavily on barriers, fixed lines of officers in riot gear, and weapons like tear gas and pepper spray, only escalated the conflict on the streets outside the East Precinct. Continue reading “Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing”

Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech

1. When the city initially denied a permit for a June event celebrating the art of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (relenting at the last minute after the ACLU of Washington threatened to sue), the department said it did so because of an “emerging concern” that any event commemorating CHOP could be “disturbing or even traumatic” to community members.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department told PubliCola, “We will not be issuing a permit for this event as we have heard from community members expressing concerns that any events celebrating or commemorating the events that occurred at Cal Anderson in summer of 2020 would be disturbing or even traumatic to the community.”

But emails PubliCola obtained through a Parks Department records request reveal that this “emerging concern” consisted of emails from a relative handful of individuals, mostly people suggesting that an anniversary event would lead to graffiti, vandalism, and crime in the park. Three of the emails from members of the public mentioned trauma as a concern.

The emails also suggest that the mayor’s office wanted to deny the permit from the beginning, and landed on a number of different justifications for doing so before the city ultimately landed on “community concerns” as the official reason. (The mayor’s office has not provided records yet in response to a similar request.) In addition to the concern about community “trauma,” the mayor’s objections, as Parks staffers described them, included, at various time, concerns about COVID-19 protocols, the impact of closing down a street for the event, and the “safety and security” of people in the area.

According to the emails, Durkan’s office began raising concerns about the CHOP Arts event as far back as early May, and met with high-level staff in several departments on May 20 to discuss the event. Parks staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that the mayor’s office wanted them to deny permits for the event, and any event related to the anniversary of CHOP, because of the association with last year’s protests alone.

Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, confirmed that she convened the meeting. Her message to department leaders, Formas told PubliCola, was “We’re not permitting an official city event that violates the Governor’s order, shuts down multiple blocks of the City for a block party celebrating CHOP, and could be a security and safety concern if there’s permitted and unpermitted events occurring at the same time with thousands of people.”

Organizers did change their plans for the event several times, but the final version of the application, which Parks had received by June 4, did not propose blocking off any streets.

Formas suggested that COVID protocols were the mayor’s primary concern at the time.

“In mid-May, we were in the midst of planning for special events permits for May and June and planning for expected unpermitted protests around downtown and Cal Anderson,” Formas said. “We understood that there would likely be many unpermitted protests and marches downtown and on Capitol Hill, which did in fact occur, and we were planning for allowing permitted events that met the Governor’s restrictions. So ultimately the question was how do we balance COVID-19 safety and security of both planned and unpermitted events.”

Emails between parks employees, however, suggest that Durkan’s main concern was that the city shouldn’t appear to be acknowledging or commemorating the anniversary of CHOP, a long-term protest zone that formed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct after SPD abandoned the precinct amid protests against police violence last summer. The incident became a significant embarrassment for Durkan and the police department, which refused to say who gave the order to abandon the precinct; reporters at KUOW unravelled that story earlier this month.

The Parks Department came away from the meeting with Formas believing that the mayor’s direction was clear: Avoid permitting any event associated with CHOP, period.

For example, on May 20, the Parks Department’s recreation division director, Justin Cutler, wrote in an email to Parks staff that “the Mayor’s Office has given direction that we are not to permit events at Cal Anderson at this time. More specifically any event that would be celebrating CHOP.”

In a May 20 email to parks staffers about upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park, Parks Commons Program director Randy Wiger described the CHOP Arts event as “canceled as per mayor.”

In a Powerpoint distributed on May 23, the CHOP Arts event is “X”d off a list of upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park; the document cites ‘New direction from Mayor’s Office’ as the reason.

And on June 3, Wiger reiterated on a different email chain that “the direction from the Mayor’s Office is ‘no celebration of the CHOP zone.'”

The CHOP Arts event, which organizer Mark Anthony described as a kind of “Black renaissance fair,” went ahead as scheduled on the weekend of June 11. It did not result in a new protest zone.

2. On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a clerk file—a type of clarification for earlier legislation—that would designate facial recognition as a form of “surveillance technology,” closing a loophole in the city’s surveillance regulations that came to light after a Seattle police detective used an unapproved facial recognition software in at least 20 criminal investigations.

The bill would augment Seattle’s three-year-old surveillance ordinance, which requires the council to approve surveillance technologies before a city department can put them to use. When the council passed the ordinance in 2018, they defined surveillance as any method of tracking or analyzing the “movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals.”

In November 2020, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigated South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes for using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview.AI without his supervisors’ knowledge. In his defense, Kartes argued that the surveillance law does not cover facial recognition. Continue reading “Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech”

City Spends $150,000 on “Street Czar”; Mobile Shower Immobilized; Human Service Contracts Extended

Activist Andre Taylor speaks to reporters inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone in June.

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The city of Seattle has signed a $12,500-a-month contract with Not This Time, the grassroots group founded by community activist Andre Taylor after his brother, Che Taylor, was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers in 2016. The contract includes office space in the city’s Municipal Tower.

Under the contract, the city will pay Taylor a total of $150,000 over 12 months to act as a “Street Czar” providing “community safety de-escalation services”; to “provide recommendations to the City on de-escalation, community engagement, and alternatives to policing”; and to continue Not This Time’s Conversation With the Streets program, among other responsibilities.

The contract says that Not This Time will work on “urgent de-escalation of conflict and violence between the police and the community assembling in the Capitol Hill neighborhood” —an issue that was very much on the mayor’s mind when the contract was signed in June.

While Taylor was a frequent presence inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest Zone, he did not make significant inroads among its leaders, some of whom viewed him as an outsider trying to convince them to cede ground to the mayor and then-police chief Carmen Best, who were desperate to get people to leave the area.

Taylor, who has been criticized by other activists for appearing alongside the mayor at press conferences and events, says he has little patience for “professional agitators” bent on conflict rather than coming to agreement; this is how he saw the leaders of CHOP, which helps explain why they never saw eye to eye.

Although the contract itself refers repeatedly to “de-escalation,” Taylor says the goal of the contract is really to serve as a “liaison between communities and the city” and facilitate conversations that lead to policy change.

“Street czars are people who have some credibility from the streets, that have changed their lives, [and] that are also working within the system,” Taylor says. “Seeing, around the country, the lack of these type of people, I’d seen how problematic it was and I encouraged the mayor to be forward-thinking, and she understood our concern and was in agreement with me.”

Taylor says he’s aware of the criticism that Durkan is using his organization to boost her own image as an advocate for changes to the police department. He says that isn’t his concern. “I’m not looking for a perfect person,” he says. “I’m looking for an open door and an opportunity to help my people wherever I can.”

Mayor Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about the contract, directing me first to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services and then to the Department of Neighborhoods, which technically holds the contract. Nor did her office respond to followup questions about whether she had initiated the contract, as sources inside and outside the city say she did. “Unfortunately the contract isn’t with the Mayor’s Office,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said in response to questions.

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2. If you were wondering to yourself, “What ever happened to those pricey mobile shower trailers Erica couldn’t shut up about about a couple of months ago?”, here’s your update: After the city’s contract with California-based VIP Restrooms ran out, the city signed a monthly contract with United Site Services, a national company with local offices, to provide new trailers.

The mobile showers were supposed to include one “roving” trailer that traveled between Seattle Center and Lake City. But after discovering that there was little interest in the the weekend-only Lake City location, the city decided to rotate the trailer to the University Heights Center, which is hosting a safe lot for people living in their cars.

However, that siting was short-lived; according to Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman Sabrina Register, during a “routine move” in July, “the trailer was involved in a minor accident” and the city had to dock it at Seattle Center. The city replaced that trailer with a new one owned by Snohomish-based OK’s Cascade Company LLC in August.

Register says the city plans to start moving the new trailer from site to site in late September; a third trailer is providing showers outside Green Lake Community Center, which is undergoing renovations.

The showers appear to be getting used significantly more than the city anticipated. Compared to an expected average usage of three showers per hour, the King Street and Seattle Center sites are averaging a shower approximately every ten minutes, for a total of more than 6,500 showers since the trailers started operating in May.

SPU did not immediately respond to requests for copies of the new shower contracts.

3. Homeless service providers across King County were informed in a meeting last week that, because the city and county are significantly behind schedule in recruiting and hiring a CEO for the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the city and county are extending all their existing homeless service contracts through the end of 2021, and extending the COVID-era suspension of performance pay requirements—which can result in money being withheld—until the end of next year.

The authority was supposed to hire its new leader no later than September, but that has been pushed back until November at the earliest.

If this contract extension also applies to funding, that means homeless services provided through city and county contracts won’t be cut, but they won’t grow, either—which could prove problematic as eviction moratoriums expire and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness grow.