UW Can Keep Civilians Who Replaced Campus Cops, Choe Show Canceled, Dembowski Bows Out

1. The University of Washington prevailed earlier this month in a labor dispute with the union representing the officers of its campus police department, allowing it to move forward with a plan to the replace armed police officers in its residence halls with new, unarmed “campus safety responders” without going to the bargaining table. The decision by Washington’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) could set the stage for other employers to shift some duties from sworn officers to unarmed civilian responders—a change that some in Seattle’s government see as a possible fix for the city’s shortage of sworn police officers.

After pressure mounted on the school’s administration in the summer of 2020 to reevaluate the role of armed police officers in campus security, UW president Ana Mari Cauce promised to expand the university’s existing civilian responder programs by adding a new team who could respond to non-criminal emergency calls, including welfare checks. Less than a year later, the university also opted to remove armed police patrols from its dorms, replacing them with a combination of in-house social workers and campus safety responders.

The rank-and-file police officers who previously patrolled the dorms objected to the new arrangement, filing an unfair labor practice complaint accusing the university of “skimming” some of their responsibilities to a new team of employees in violation of the university’s contract with their union.

PERC sided with the university, ruling that the decision to use civilians instead of sworn officers to patrol the dorms has a “limited impact” on the police officers themselves—an impact, they wrote, that is outweighed by UW’s “compelling interest” in rethinking how it approaches campus safety. According to the ruling, the change did not require UW to lay off or cut the pay of any police officers, nor did it reduce opportunities for the officers to work overtime. The PERC ruling also noted that UW has only hired four campus safety responders since January, resulting in hardly any change to who responds to emergency calls on campus. Between September of 2021 and the start of this month, sworn UW police officers received 205 dispatches to residence halls; the campus safety responders received only six.

The ruling could be significant in Seattle, where city council members and members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s staff have expressed interest in shifting some responsibilities from sworn police officers to civilian units like the Community Service Officers (CSOs) and parking enforcement officers. Although the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has generally opposed reducing officers’ responsibilities, SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage has increased pressure on elected officials to find ways to allow SPD officers to focus on serious crimes by assigning more responsibilities to civilians.

2. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski quietly bowed out of the race to replace King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg less than two months after he filed for candidacy in early January. Dembowski told PubliCola that he filed to “take a look at the race,” but he did not elaborate about his decision to drop out. The remaining candidates include the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s current chief of staff, Leesa Manion, as well as former deputy prosecuting attorney Stephan Thomas and current Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

3.KOMO TV, which is owned by the national conservative broadcasting conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, fired reporter Jonathan Choe today after Choe posted flattering coverage of a rally by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, to protest the continued detention of those implicated in the January 6 attack on the US capitol.

Choe promoted the rally in a series of tweets that included a montage of protest footage set over a white nationalist anthem known as the “Männerbund,” which includes the lyrics, “In our own towns we’re foreigners now, our names are spat and cursed/ The headline smack of another attack, not the last and not the worst.” That tweet, which Choe later deleted, encouraged readers and KOMO viewers to come down and meet with the Proud Boys, who would stay on hand to “mingle and answer questions if anyone is interested in learning more about their cause and mission.”

In a second tweet, Choe praised the Proud Boys for being polite and allowing him to “record freely on public property without interference. No umbrellas or hands in my face.” The latter was a reference to Choe’s frequent claims that he is targeted by protesters or “antifa”. On his feed, Choe frequently tags Andy Ngo, a Twitter provocateur who has written sympathetically about the Proud Boys and has worked tirelessly to demonize “antifa” (which he characterizes, inaccurately, as an organized, violent group of militants) to his right-wing audience.

PubliCola independently confirmed Choe’s firing. David Neiwert, reporting for DailyKos, received a statement from KOMO saying the station “did not direct or approve Jonathan Choe’s decision to cover this weekend’s rally, nor did his work meet our editorial standards.”

Choe is best known in Seattle for his efforts to confront and elicit reactions from unsheltered people and their advocates, including mutual aid volunteers. His Twitter feed is an avalanche of footage showing people in crisis and commentary condemning homeless people for existing in public, including endless poverty porn-style videos of people living unsheltered.

Although KOMO has an official policy of “objectivity,” Choe’s feed overflows with over-the-top praise for city workers conducting sweeps of homeless encampments. (“GAME OVER,” he tweeted repeatedly during a recent sweep of tents across the street from City Hall). On many occasions, Choe has started on-camera confrontations with volunteers and activists working with unsheltered people, even identifying some to his readers (and tagging Ngo) as “antifa.” (Choe has blocked us on Twitter, along with many other local reporters following this story.)

Sinclair, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” series, expressed no public concerns that Choe’s coverage of homelessness was exploitative and misleading, nor that it put homeless people in danger and violated their right to privacy. For KOMO, advocating for white supremacy appears to have been a bridge too far; posting videos condemning homeless people for existing in public, apparently, was not.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed

It’s an Afternoon Fizz today, in two parts!

1. Scott Lindsay, a former public safety advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray and a contractor for the pro-SPD lobbying group Change Washington, didn’t just appear in the latest piece of KOMO poverty porn, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”—he co-produced it.

Since losing a race for city attorney to incumbent Pete Holmes in 2017, Lindsay has transformed himself into a spokesman for the belief that homelessness is caused by drugs and drug addiction can be fixed by forced treatment and jail. This perspective is popular among many fed up with seeing the aesthetically unpleasing signs of visible suffering, such as the people unwittingly featured without their apparent knowledge or consent in KOMO’s latest “news documentary,” because it suggests an easy, obvious solution that politicians are simply unwilling to adopt. But as experts on homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction (alcohol being the most common street drug), and mental illness have documented for decades, mental illness and addiction are not conditions that respond to even the sternest talking-to.

Lindsay, a star of both “Seattle Is Dying” films and a co-producer of the most recent installment, strides quickly past tents in a segment from “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”

Lindsay, whose on-camera contribution to KOMO’s simplistic narrative is to suggest that jail and mandatory treatment (of what sort, no one ever seems to say) will solve Seattle’s problems with homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and property crime, told PubliCola he was not paid for his work as a co-producer on the 90-minute film. Longtime KOMO employees, however, are reportedly unhappy that the activist received a producing credit for his behind-the-scenes work on a film that was presented as a piece of journalism.

2. As other media have documented (exhaustively—one wonders where all the cameras and helicopters were when larger encampments were removed over the past year, or why protesters haven’t descended on other long-term camps and walled them off with fortresses of junk), Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was swept this morning. The Seattle Times has been covering the removal from the scene, as has Capitol Hill Seattle. 

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One incident that hasn’t been mentioned in the coverage so far is what happened when the city’s Human Services Department tried to set up a resource tent on the periphery of the scene. The usefulness of such outreach methods is questionable—setting up a canopy tent labeled “City of Seattle” in the middle of a protest against the city seems quixotic—but what isn’t in question is why the table is no longer there: According to HSD, protesters threw bricks and eggs at the city employees sitting under the canopy, leading them to make a hasty retreat. (PubliCola has reviewed a photograph of the scene, which show chunks of bricks and multiple broken eggs.) The employees included three social workers known as system navigators who were previously part of the Navigation Team.

3. Those social workers are now part of a new(ish) program called the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team. (Everything’s an “ecosystem” now.) In addition to coordinating outreach efforts that will be done by nonprofit providers, rather than by the city itself, the HOPE team is supposed to help direct unhoused people into shelter, including 300 new hotel units that are supposed to serve as short-term lodging for people moving rapidly from homelessness into either permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing programs. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed”