Tag: consent decree

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chart showing police stops by race in Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report Shows Ongoing Racial Disparities in Use of Force, Sparking Criticism and Questions About Future of Consent Decree

By Erica C. Barnett

A review of the Seattle Police Department’s use of force over the last three years, released by the federal monitor who oversees the consent decree over the department, found that despite a decline in the use of all levels of force, officers remain far more likely to use force against Black and Native American people than white suspects, and that Black people were most likely to experience the most serious type of force, which includes shootings by police. Thirty-six percent of use of force incidents involved Black individuals, who make up just over 7 percent of Seattle’s population.

Between 2019 and 2021, SPD officers used the highest level of force (known as Type 3 force) against 15 Black people, compared to 15 white people and 15 whose race officers listed as “unknown.” Overall, the race of nearly one third of all use-of-force subjects (and more than half of the people police used force against during the summer 2020 protests) was recorded as “unknown” (compared to 9 percent of people arrested overall), making it hard to draw clear conclusions about the true extent of racial disproportionality in use of force. This data gap could simply mean “a box wasn’t checked,” Oftelie said during a public meeting about the report Tuesday night, or it could be “something a bit deeper and more culturally nefarious, like officers have not wanted to check that box… in order to avoid repercussions” related to racial bias.

At Tuesday’s meeting, community members, including members of the city’s Human Rights Commission and a staffer for City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, raised questions about the report’s conclusions and how they’ll be incorporated into upcoming negotiations with the city’s largest police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Malik Davis, a staffer for Pedersen, expressed frustration about the secrecy surrounding contract negotiations, noting that SPOG’s 2018 contract, which invalidated major elements of the city’s landmark 2017 police accountability ordinance, was the reason the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, James Robart, ruled the city partly out of compliance with the agreement the following year.

Oftelie is expected to recommend a path toward ending the consent agreement later this spring.

Meanwhile, the city’s Human Rights Commission, which is not one of the city’s official “accountability partners,” is seeking amicus status on the consent decree in order to share “the stories and solutions of our residents and community stakeholders most affected,” according to an SHRC press release. “In simple terms, the amicus status will enable the Commission to be a ‘friend of the court’ and have the ability to petition the court for permission to submit a brief in support of our neesd for continuous police accountability,” the SHRC wrote.

Two members of the city’s Community Police Commission, which does have amicus status with the court, said Tuesday night that amicus status does not give them carte blanche to “petition the court” or communicate with Judge Robart directly; it does allow them to “file on on the city’s brief, like we did in 2020 when the city tried to come out from under the consent decree,” CPC member Rev. Harriett Walden said. Continue reading “Report Shows Ongoing Racial Disparities in Use of Force, Sparking Criticism and Questions About Future of Consent Decree”

Councilmember Pushes “Seattle Is Dying” Narrative, Data Confirms Stop-and-Frisk Disparities, Someone Is Posting Fake Sweep Signs, and More

1. Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who owns Fremont Brewing with her husband, invited 11 business representatives to discuss their public safety concerns at her economic development committee on Wednesday. Nelson’s committee doesn’t deal with crime or homelessness and isn’t considering legislation; instead, the meeting served as a kind of open mic for business owners to trade alarming anecdotes and agree that the ultimate solution is more police.

Nelson teed up the conversation by saying Seattle is in a state of “crisis,” one that will require swift action by Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Attorney Ann Davison, who she hoped will “really put some things in place that can make a difference right now.” Last week, Harrell announced a new “hot spot” policing effort targeting high-crime areas; Davison announced she would dramatically expedite charging decisions for misdemeanors in an effort to move cases more quickly through her office.

“These issues that we’re hearing about, they are escalating,” Nelson said. “They’re intensifying, becoming more brazenly disruptive to businesses and dangerous to staff and customers. … Even having more officers on the street won’t cut it, because even before there was such a staffing shortage, there still did not seem to be enough to start addressing rising crime well before the pandemic hit.”

The panel included business owners from every council district except District 5, whose council representative, Debora Juarez, said she no longer goes to Pike Place Market downtown “unless it’s Saturday in broad daylight” because of the “safety issue[s]” there. Pike Place Market (which closes at 6) remains one of the few areas downtown that is consistently bustling and full of people—the antithesis of a high-crime area.

To a person, the panel blamed rising crime and a challenging business climate not on the global pandemic, which has decimated business districts worldwide and led to rising crime and poverty in every American city, but on the fact that there are not more visible police in Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Calls for more police (and prosecution) are standard fare when crime ticks up, but Seattle’s experience with ramped-up policing efforts—from the Stay Out of Drug Areas zones of the mid-2000s to the Nine and a Half Block Strategy of 2015—has demonstrated repeatedly that police crackdowns alone don’t reduce crime. Downtown, in particular, is less populated during the day because so many people continue to work from home; without daytime commuters as customers, it’s hard to keep a business open, and criminal activity thrives in depopulated spaces.

Even if crime could be solved (as opposed to merely shifted) by flooding the streets with cops, Seattle is struggling to hire and retain officers and has fewer officers that it did in 1970.

2. The federal monitor overseeing reforms to the Seattle Police Department released a report on Monday detailing ongoing disparities in who Seattle police officers stop and frisk, though the monitor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, stopped short of blaming the disparities on officers’ racial biases. Since SPD began gathering data on the race of the people officers stop, frisk, and detain in 2015, the racial disparities revealed by that data have not changed much: police are more likely to stop Native American and Black people than white people. Although officers frisk white people less than any other race, they are more likely to find a weapon when frisking a white person.

In his new report, Oftelie argued that while the persistent disparities are “concerning” and contribute to public distrust of the department, the demographic data does not “prove bias by individual police officers or agencies—as they operate within the context of social factors that may contribute to disparities.”

Oftelie’s report also noted that SPD stopped fewer people in 2021 than in any other year since the department began gathering data on stops in 2015. Last year, officers stopped 4,282 people: 30 percent fewer people than in 2020, and more than 50 percent fewer than the department’s recorded high in 2018.

The sharp reduction in the number of stops reflects a combination of changes, including SPD’s shrinking ranks, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and new state laws setting stricter standards for when police can use force—including, some officers argue, grabbing someone’s arm to prevent them from walking away from a stop. In 2020, more than half of SPD’s stops did not end in an arrest or citation; Native American people were the most likely to be arrested after being stopped by police.

3. One block away from the spot where someone placed fake “no camping” and no-parking signs last year, another set of alarming fake signs has cropped up. The new signs, which are designed to look like the city’s official encampment removal notices, warn encampment residents that they must “REMOVE ALL PERSONAL PROPERTY” by 9:00am on February 9; if they haven’t left by then, the sign continues, “THE CITY WILL BE NOTIFIED AND ALL REMAINING ITEMS WILL BE REMOVED.” Unlike official notices, the signs don’t have a city seal and are laminated and attached to stakes in the ground.

A spokesman for the city confirmed that the signs were not official city notices and “there are no plans to remove the encampments at the locations listed in the notices tomorrow.” The spokesman did not know who had posted the signs.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule called for at least three other “priority site” removals this week: Prefontaine Place in Pioneer Square; Third and Yesler; and N 46th Street and Greenlake Way.

4. The Seattle Fire Department debuted a new feature of its emergency dispatch center on Tuesday afternoon: A team of nurses will join the center’s staff to field calls from people with lower-acuity medical needs, which SFD Chief Harold Scoggins says will free up dispatchers, paramedics and ambulances to focus on the most serious medical emergencies.

Scoggins said the new Nurse Navigation Program—a partnership with one of the city’s ambulance providers, American Medical Rescue—will initially take between 8,000 and 10,000 of the roughly 160,000 calls the fire department receives each year. “In many cases, this will help to divert 911 callers with non-emergency issues away from an ambulance transport to a hospital’s emergency department, and connect patients instead towards self-treatment, Urgent Care or a Telehealth appointment,” he said.

AMR paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to Seattle in 2016 for not meeting the city’s response time requirements.

Continue reading “Councilmember Pushes “Seattle Is Dying” Narrative, Data Confirms Stop-and-Frisk Disparities, Someone Is Posting Fake Sweep Signs, and More”

Police Monitor Raises Concerns About SPD Budget; Crosscut’s New Editor Kills Opinion Section

1. During the Seattle City Council’s Monday morning briefing, budget chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to a Seattle Times editorial published last week charging that the council’s proposals for the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget could plunge the city into another confrontation with the federal district court.

The editorial, which called on mayor-elect Bruce Harrell to hold a “public safety summit” soon after he takes office in January, challenged Mosqueda’s claim that the council’s amended SPD budget had been vetted by the court-appointed monitor who acts as the eyes and ears for Judge James Robart—the federal judge responsible for overseeing reforms to SPD as part of a decade-old arrangement called the “consent decree.” The Times’ source: An email to the editorial board from the monitor himself, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who said that no one on the council had spoken to him directly about their plans for SPD’s 2022 budget.

“I understand that it must continue to be an inconvenience to the Seattle Times editorial board to acknowledge that we did indeed continue to engage with the court monitor directly, as we have done in the past,” Mosqueda said, adding that Greg Doss, the council staffer who specializes in SPD’s budget, “reached out and directly engaged” with Oftelie on behalf of the council. “The court monitor is very aware that Greg [Doss] works on behalf of all council members,” Mosqueda said.

During his meeting with Doss and a representative from the City Attorney’s Office, Oftelie did not offer direct feedback on the council’s budget proposals. A week later, he sent a memo to Mosqueda, along with public safety chair Lisa Herbold and council president Lorena González, raising concerns about the council’s plans to scale back SPD’s budget data analysis. Specifically, Oftelie described two programs—one that would identify 911 call types that could go to non-police emergency responders, and another that could identify officers with a pattern of using force during crisis calls—as vital to the department’s progress. If the council went through with plans to cut SPD’s data analysis budget, he added, the federal court might intervene. Despite his warning, Oftelie emphasized that “it is not the monitor’s role or intent to dictate City budget decisions.”

Mosqueda’s office debuted the council’s changes to Durkan’s budget proposal a day after receiving Oftelie’s memo; during the quick turnaround, Mosqueda said that she worked with the council’s central staff to ensure that the proposed budgets for the two data analysis projects Oftelie flagged would remain untouched. The council’s proposed budget now only omits funding for two of SPD’s proposed technology programs, totaling around $1.3 million.

During the council’s budget discussions last week, Mosqueda called the first—a body-worn video analysis software used to assess racial disparities in policing—a “nice-to-have” item that the council could support in the future. The second technology is a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital statistics to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress.

After Mosqueda’s rebuttal on Monday, Oftelie reiterated his frustration with the council’s communication style. His meeting with Doss, he told PubliCola, “was a one-hour briefing and in no way was meant or implied to be any type of ‘approval’ of the budget.” And after he raised his concerns about the council’s budget proposal in his memo, he added, “no one from City Council acknowledged receiving the memorandum or connected with me to discuss it before their Tuesday meeting.”

In the past year, the consent decree has loomed large over Seattle’s budget discussions; in June, the council abandoned plans to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s 2021 budget under pressure from the federal court. Oftelie, who advises the court about Seattle’s progress on police reforms, has argued that SPD needs to be able to rebuild its ranks after two years of record-breaking attrition in order to comply with the consent decree.

Meanwhile, the council could soon run into problems with the federal court on another front: an ordinance that the council passed in August restricting SPD’s ability to use so-called “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas for crowd control. Two weeks ago, Diaz reached out to Oftelie for legal guidance as his department prepares to update its policies to comply with the new law. In his letter to Oftelie, Diaz wrote that the ordinance may be at odds with the consent decree, setting the stage for another potential fight over the council’s power to pass police reform laws while SPD is under federal oversight.

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2. Crosscut, the nonprofit news website that merged with Seattle’s PBS affiliate, KCTS, six years ago, is eliminating its opinion section, leaving Seattle with one less source of editorial views to counter the Seattle Times’ generally conservative opinion and editorial pages. Crosscut’s new executive editor, M. David Lee III, announced the decision in a memo to all staff last week. Lee replaces Victor Hernandez, who joined the site in 2018.

The section, which features Knute Berger’s “Mossback” history column along with regular opinion pieces by Transit Riders Union director Katie Wilson and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant,  will be replaced by a “new process of engaging community voices,” according to an internal memo from Lee. Berger told PubliCola he would continue writing for Crosscut and referred all other questions to Lee, who did not respond to an email Monday.

“There are a lot of priorities that need to be attended to and one of the top ones is the ‘Opinion’ section of Crosscut.com, which has been a fixture of the organization since its inception in 2007,” Lee, who joined Crosscut last month, wrote in the memo. “With the section, the goal, at the time and to this day, is to engage our community in conversation regarding important issues. Listening to the communities that we serve is one of the most important things we need to do as a non-profit public news organization. We must reflect the landscape in which we live and serve. Change is also important. Adapting and retooling how we engage with the community is what we must do moving forward and, because of that, we will be sunsetting the traditional ‘Opinion’ section of Crosscut.com effective November 30th.”

As a “project” of a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Cascade Public Media, Crosscut can’t endorse candidates or advocate for positions on issues itself, but it can run opinions by people outside the organization. In the recent past, those pieces have included opinions by former Washington state Republican Party chair Chris Vance, Republican congressman Dan Newhouse, right-wing radio host John Carlson, and Bryant. Nonetheless, board members have reportedly raised concerns over the years that the opinion page slants left. The governing board that oversees the site includes a former Seattle Times editorial board member, former Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and Amazon global real estate VP John Schoettler.

Lee,  a former television news director and sportscaster in markets including Tallahasee and Green Bay, is also an independent filmmaker. In a post on Crosscut, Lee described himself as “a lifelong, self-proclaimed, ‘Star Wars Geek'” who was drawn to Crosscut by “the talent here” and “the commitment here to public non-profit journalism.”

“The beauty of Crosscut is that we can go deeper, offer unique insight to a story or issue that other outlets are unable to do, or just choose not to do. As I said above, this is something new for me. And I expect that Crosscut will change me, and I’m excited about it,” Lee wrote. For now, he concluded, he’ll “be exploring the city, getting to know the talented staff here and doing the work for you, our readers, while heeding words of Yoda: ‘Do or Do Not. There is no Try.”

Crosscut’s local news reporter, David Kroman, recently decamped for the Seattle Times. After a lengthy struggle to unionize, the Crosscut Union still lacks a contract, after rejecting a proposal from management earlier this fall that the union said would lower their annual pay increases provide no improvements to retirement, vacation benefits, or health care. Cascade Media’s CEO, Rob Dunlop, made more than $500,000 in 2019.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

SPD Chief Reiterates Reservations About Rules Restricting Use of Controversial Weapons at Protests

Seattle police officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Twitter Screenshot – Chase Burns)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz expressed his support last week for most of the recommendations the city’s Office of the Inspector General issued in July as part of its year-long review of SPD’s response to protests in the summer and fall of 2020. But he argued that some of the office’s recommendations—specifically, those suggesting the department scale back its use of tear gas and batons during demonstrations—don’t mesh with legislation passed by the city council in August restricting his department’s use of crowd control weapons, asserting that the restrictions actually increased the chances that SPD will use batons and tear gas during future protests.

Drawing from a year of panel discussions with representatives from both SPD and police accountability advocates, the OIG—an independent police oversight body that audits both the Seattle Police Department and its Office of Police Accountability—suggested several changes to the way SPD trains officers to respond to protests, including a recommendation that officers not form immovable lines in front of protesters. The panel assembled by the OIG also recommended that the department consider replacing radio communications with an encrypted messaging system like WhatsApp and create a central command center to streamline communications between officers during demonstrations.

In a letter to Inspector General Lisa Judge made public last Friday, Diaz said he supported the idea of revamping his department’s protest management strategies to avoid a repeat of last summer’s mistakes. SPD has already started retraining officers to avoid making arrests for minor tussles during protests, he wrote, and the department is purchasing new, “more subdued” uniforms to replace the intimidating body armor worn by officers during last year’s protests.

The chief also used his letter to raise concerns about the city council’s decision in August to restrict on his department’s use of so-called “crowd control” weapons. “It would be naive,” he wrote, to believe that SPD won’t need crowd control weapons to respond to protests in the future.

But Diaz was skeptical of other recommendations, including a suggestion that SPD change department policy to allow officers to show support for protesters, which Diaz said could create “legal complexities” for the department. And in response to a recommendation that SPD rely on CCTV cameras to spot acts of property destruction, Diaz noted that his department might need city council approval to expand its surveillance authority.

The chief also used his letter to raise concerns about the city council’s decision in August to restrict on his department’s use of so-called “crowd control” weapons. “It would be naive,” he wrote, to believe that SPD won’t need crowd control weapons to respond to protests in the future. In fact, Diaz argued that the only way to meet the OIG’s broader call to reduce serious uses of force against protesters, including tear gas, is for the department to purchase greater supply and variety of crowd control weapons.

While the OIG’s report urged his department to avoid using batons and tear gas against protesters, Diaz warned that under the new restrictions, his officers could be more likely to use those weapons as a last resort.

His warning is not new. In August, the council rewrote an earlier crowd-control ordinance, which banned the use of tear gas, blast balls, and other “less-lethal” weapons, after a federal judge blocked that law, citing the risk that SPD might resort to using batons against protesters if they didn’t have access to pepper spray and tear gas. But even after the council revised the ordinance, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan refused to sign it, predicting that the federal court would once again intervene to stop the new restrictions from taking effect. At the time, Diaz didn’t publicly side with Durkan; his letter to the OIG is the first sign that he may have reservations. For now, Diaz declined to comment on what lays ahead for the new law.

Several of Diaz’s subordinates—including Lieutenant John Brooks, the on-the-ground commander during many of last year’s protests—helped shape the recommendations. However, because the OIG finished its review before the council passed the latest version of the crowd control weapons bill, the office’s panel of stakeholders didn’t factor the new law into their recommendations.

The new restrictions on crowd control weapons can’t take effect without the federal court’s approval—a consequence of the 2012 agreement between Seattle and the US Department of Justice known as the consent decree, which placed a federal judge in charge of overseeing reforms to SPD. The department has until mid-November to draft policies on crowd control weapons that reflect the new law.

In his letter, Diaz also noted another key variable for the department: the city budget. “Our ability to implement change hinges precariously on our budget and staffing,” he wrote, “both of which have been under significant threat over the past 18 months.” For now, he added, SPD is relying on grants and dollars from the nonprofit Seattle Police Foundation to pay for training programs. Though he avoided making any explicit demands, his underlying argument was clear: If the OIG wants SPD to implement its recommendations, the office will need to go to bat for SPD’s budget.

Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors

1. The City Council voted on Monday to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department after another year of abnormally high attrition.

The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing—updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.

Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis response unit tentatively called Triage One.

SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program,” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD—as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”

A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.

“Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left.”— City Councilmember Alex Pederesen

Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5-4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.

In an email to PubliCola Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”

Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.

2. Upcoming changes to the Department of Justice’s rules for court-appointed consent decree monitors are unlikely to impact Seattle’s own agreement with the police department, according to Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, because they only apply to new consent decrees.

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a consent degree—an agreement that the department will adopt reforms to address its history of racially biased policing and use of excessive force—administered by the Department of Justice and overseen by a monitor appointed by US District Court Judge James Robart. The proposed changes are an attempt to reform the monitoring system to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest or financial improprieties. Continue reading “Last-Minute Push for SPD Hiring Incentives Fails, Feds Impose New Rules on Consent Decree Monitors”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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.

In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”

Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air

Breakdown of Estimated Salary Savings Under Herbold Proposal

By Paul Kiefer

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department salaries came to an end on Tuesday, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a ‘do not pass’ recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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.

Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders. Herbold also proposed offsetting the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budged holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities. Continue reading “Council Vote Leaves Fate of Proposed SPD Cuts In the Air”