Tag: Office of Inspector General

SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops

Iosia Faletogo, 36, was shot and killed by a Seattle Police Officer in December 2018 during a struggle that began with a low-level traffic stop.

By Paul Kiefer

A long-awaited announcement by Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlining a plan to phase out low-level traffic stops by police officers did not appear when expected this month. The delay raises the prospect that the policy change, previously a point of agreement between Diaz and police reform advocates, could become entangled by the impending shakeup in city leadership, especially as Diaz waits to learn whether incoming mayor Bruce Harrell will appoint him as the police department’s permanent chief.

Last Tuesday, members of SPD’s command staff met with staffers from the Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the police oversight agency that first pushed SPD to forego low-level traffic stops earlier this year, to brainstorm how to disentangle traffic enforcement from policing. The meeting was a chance for Diaz to solidify a plan of action before the end of the year: a deadline he seemed to endorse in October.

Before he could announce any changes, Diaz quietly left his office for the holidays, which most likely means the traffic stop reforms will remain on hold until next year. The new year could also bring a new police chief: While Diaz has expressed his interest in becoming Seattle’s permanent police chief, Harrell says he will conduct a nationwide search. Impending shakeups within the core group of city departments responsible for spearheading traffic stop reform risk delaying the changes even further.

Removing police from low-level traffic enforcement, Inspector General Lisa Judge argued last summer, is a way to address longstanding concerns that both community members and police officers have expressed the safety risks involved in traffic stops. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote in a letter to Diaz in May. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Traffic stops are still among the most common types of encounters between police and civilians in Seattle, though SPD’s traffic enforcement has waned as the department focuses its officers on other priorities after two years of high attrition. As of early November, SPD had issued about a third as many traffic citations as it did in 2019. The fines collected from minor traffic citations make up a relatively tiny portion of the city’s revenue—about $5 million since 2019.

Despite the drop-off in traffic stops, racial disparities persist: Though the Seattle Municipal Court has incomplete data on the demographics of people cited for traffic violations, even the partial data shows that Black people are overrepresented by a factor of two compared to the city’s overall population. Nationwide, drivers of color are also more likely to be injured or killed by police during routine traffic stops, a trend that Judge highlighted in her letter to Diaz in May.

Po Leapai, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, is all too familiar with the dangers of traffic stops. On New Year’s Eve in 2018, SPD officer Jared Keller shot and killed his cousin, 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo, in Seattle’s Licton Springs neighborhood after a minor traffic stop and a case of mistaken identity turned into a foot chase. “We learned he had been killed from Facebook,” Leapai said. “We were all at a family New Year’s barbecue waiting for him to show up, and he never came.”

The incident began when two SPD patrol officers driving behind Faletogo on Aurora Avenue N. decided to search his license plate. Their search linked the license plate to an older woman with an expired driver’s license, a relative of Faletogo’s who owned the car. When Faletogo pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store, the officers pulled in behind him and turned on their emergency lights. After learning that Faletogo lacked a driver’s license and had two felony charges from his teenage years, the officers called for backup. When four more officers arrived, Faletogo ran.

The officers caught up to him across the street, tackling Faletogo to the ground. A gun fell out of his waistband, and as the officers tried to pin him to the pavement, Keller shot Faletogo, killing him.

The Office of Police Accountability, cleared Keller of wrongdoing for the shooting, citing Faletogo’s gun and his attempt to resist arrest. But in May, Judge cited Faletogo’s killing in her argument to end the use of police for low-level traffic enforcement.

Leapai believes his cousin would still be alive if SPD patrol officers hadn’t decided to stop him for a minor traffic infraction. “Those traffic stops are another kind of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “I can’t see why there was a need to pull my cousin over, and it definitely wasn’t worth killing him.”

Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Seattle in December 2020, arguing that the traffic stop that led to his death was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Faletogo was Samoan; a woman riding in the car with him was Black. Nathan Bingham, who represented the family in the lawsuit, said that the traffic stop itself is at the heart of the problem. “That stop never should have happened,” he told PubliCola. “Minor traffic stops, by their nature, always come with the threat of deadly force by police. They’re volatile and unpredictable.” The city settled with the Faletogo family for $515,000 in September.

If SPD takes more time to consider scaling back traffic stops, Seattle will find itself in a race with state lawmakers to implement reforms when the discussion about traffic enforcement resumes in January. At the very end of last year’s state legislative session, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a bill that would have prohibited police officers from stopping drivers for eight common civil infractions, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license. Continue reading “SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops”

New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct

Seattle Police Department cruiser parked outside of Union Station in Seattle's International District
(Paul Kiefer: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

A year-long audit of Seattle’s disciplinary system for police officers by the city’s Office of the Inspector General identified an array of shortcomings in how the Seattle Police Department hands out discipline and flags misconduct in officers’ records.

Among other discoveries, auditors revealed that SPD supervisors aren’t able to track when officers work highly paid overtime hours while suspended for misconduct, and that the officers’ misconduct records don’t appear to have an impact on whether their commanders decide to promote.

The OIG’s audit focused on the steps that follow a misconduct investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability, starting with how SPD decides to discipline officers who violates department policies.

The OPA director and SPD supervisors are responsible for choosing a range of possible consequences for an officer’s misconduct based on a review of past discipline for similar cases, but the police chief has the final say in how to discipline an officer. According to the audit, between 2018 and 2021, police chiefs chose the least-severe discipline in nearly half of all cases. When presented with a range between suspending and firing an officer, the chiefs—during the period the auditors looked at, Carmen Best and Adrian Diaz, along with short-term acting chiefs—chose suspension in every case the OIG reviewed.

At least six officers who hadn’t completed their suspensions were able to work enough overtime hours to offset the financial impacts of their suspensions, the OIG found. In one case, the auditors discovered that an officer worked nine hours of overtime on a day when they were supposed to be suspended.

If the police chief decides to throw out the OPA’s findings altogether, city law requires them to explain their decision in detail to the mayor, city council, and the city’s police accountability bodies. This happened in May, when Interim Chief Adrian Diaz overruled an OPA investigation that pinned responsibility for a widely criticized use of tear gas against protesters in 2020 on a well-known lieutenant. However, the chief is not required to explain his reasoning if he decides to ignore the OPA’s disciplinary recommendations. While the OIG acknowledged that it is rare for a chief to ignore discipline recommendations, the auditors warned that “a future chief may be able to undermine the accountability system and public trust” by ignoring discipline recommendations with impunity.

The OIG’s auditors also pointed out that basing discipline on similar misconduct cases has disadvantages. Some cases of misconduct are too novel to find an easy point of comparison, Judge said, and relying on disciplinary standards from a decade ago makes it difficult to adjust penalties to reflect new public concerns about police misconduct. While a police chief could decide to impose harsher consequences for some types of misconduct, such as excessive force or reckless driving, the auditors warned that police unions would likely challenge stricter discipline by appealing to an arbitrator: a tactic that frequently works in the union’s favor.

According to Judge, police departments have to find a balance between a uniform, transparent set of disciplinary standards and having the flexibility to handle the unpredictable moving parts in many police misconduct cases. “There probably isn’t a ‘right’ system for deciding how to discipline officers,” Judge said. Even departments that set well-defined standards for how to discipline officers run into problems, she added. “If the system involves classifying an officer’s misconduct on some kind of severity scale, you still wind up with supervisors finding a way to classify their officers’ misconduct as more- or less-severe.”

Of the 50 officers promoted to sergeant within SPD in the past three years, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct, including several who had recently been suspended.

The OIG refrained from suggesting any changes to SPD’s disciplinary system, citing the imperfections in other models the department could adopt. “We run into a challenge when we make recommendations,” Judge said. “Our job is to identify systemic problems within the department, but once we cross the line by telling them how to remedy it… We would just be grading our own work.”

The OIG’s audit also discovered that officers with histories of misconduct rarely have trouble rising through the ranks. Police chiefs promote officers based on their scores on a competency exam, and the auditors found few signs that Diaz or his recent predecessors—including acting chiefs—chose not to promote officers based on their disciplinary records. Of 50 officers promoted to sergeant between 2018 and 2021, the auditors found that 13 had recent records of misconduct when they were promoted, including several with recent suspension at the time of their promotions.

Some small policy violations may never appear on an officer’s record. The OIG’s auditors found that the OPA, with support from SPD commanders, frequently opts not to uphold misconduct allegations against officers for technical or inadvertent errors—failing to turn on a body-worn video camera, for example. Instead, the OPA often requires such officers to go through retraining, allowing the officer to walk away without the policy violation on their record. Until 2019, the OPA also had the option to hold officers responsible for minor misconduct without recommending any discipline; the office abandoned that strategy after SPOG overwhelmed the city with grievances about the OPA’s decision to mark officers’ records for minor misconduct. Continue reading “New Audit Points to Shortcomings in How SPD Punishes Misconduct”

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.

Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices

1. Last week, the Seattle Parks Department removed an encampment next to the Lake City Community Center without prior notice, removing tents and possessions in the middle of the day, when many residents were reportedly away. According to Mike Mathias, a volunteer who’s working to house about 50 people living on Seattle School District-owned land on the south shore of Bitter Lake, three miles away, the sweep has had spillover effects. When people are removed from one location, Mathias said, “they go into areas in the immediate vicinity and have conflicts with those people, and it trickles down. It’s almost like a wave, and we knew it was coming.”

Mathias’ organization, Anything Helps, has been out at the Bitter Lake encampment daily for more than a month, trying to connect residents with services, diversion, and housing, but more people keep arriving every day. Currently, despite Mathias’ efforts to prevent people from setting up additional tents, there are more people living at the Bitter Lake encampment, 56, than there were last month, when the school district set a goal of moving everyone off the property by September 1.

As we’ve reported, the city of Seattle has refused to send outreach workers to the Bitter Lake encampment, because the city doesn’t own the property; Mayor Jenny Durkan has suggested that the school district dip into its reserves to set up a parallel human services system to help the people living on its property. Recently, a large sharps container appeared by the restrooms at the city-owned park right next to the school district land, and residents said the city has started picking up their trash.

According to a Parks Department spokesperson, the department removed the encampment without providing prior notice to its residents because tents were “set up in parking spots,” and because someone had connected electrical wires through the roof of the Lake City Community Center, which is closed. “Parks stored property as per the City storage policy,” the spokesperson said. The parks department did not immediately respond to a separate request for information about the sharps container and trash pickup on Monday.

The community center sweep was the second in Lake City in less than a week; on July 29, the city removed a longstanding encampment at the Lake City Mini Park, prompting a protest by advocates for people experiencing homelessness. Unlike the removal last week, the city provided advance notice to the Mini Park residents.

2. A newly released audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) casts light on risky firearms storage practices at the Seattle Police Department’s training facilities that enabled an 18-year-old participant in an SPD program for young people interested in law enforcement to steal a handgun from a storage room in 2019.

The thief was a teenage participant in SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

The audit, which began in January 2020 but was delayed when the OIG shifted attention to SPD’s protest response, discovered that the department may have violated the city’s gun storage rules by failing safely store firearms at two training annexes.

The problems came to light when an officer leading a training for SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program—which offers courses on police procedures and tactics for 14- to 21-year-olds—discovered that his handgun was missing from the training facility’s storage area. The thief was a teenage participant in the LEEP program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

When the OIG eventually reviewed the gun storage systems in SPD’s training annexes, investigators discovered obvious shortcomings. In one annex, officers stored their guns in a metal cabinet secured with a single padlock; in the other, officers stored their firearms in room protected by a padlocked door. “If the padlocks are inadvertently not used, left unlocked, or the keys are not secured,” investigators wrote, “anyone accessing the [storage cabinet or room] would be able to access every firearm inside.” Even the padlocks themselves, investigators added, can easily be picked with common tools. Continue reading “Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices”

Police Accountability Leader Asks SPD to Phase Out Routine Traffic Stops

Image by Erik Mclean via Unsplash.

By Paul Kiefer

Citing concerns from community members and police officers about the dangers of police traffic stops, Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge sent a letter to Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz on Tuesday asking him to start phasing out traffic stops for “civil and non-dangerous violations”—violations that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public.

Judge, whose office conducts audits of systemic problems within SPD and issues policy recommendations, cited half a dozen well-known examples of traffic stops that turned fatal. Her list included a traffic stop for a suspended license on Aurora Avenue North that led to an SPD officer fatally shooting 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo on New Year’s Even in 2018; Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in March.

“Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Judge also noted that even non-fatal traffic stops can undermine public trust in police officers. Traffic stops are the most common type of encounter between police and civilians—SPD issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions in 2019 alone—and Black and Latino drivers are far more likely to be injured or killed during routine traffic stops.

SPD isn’t required to act on Judge’s letter, nor is the letter a fully formed policy proposal. Judge’s office will need to conduct more research into best practices for phasing out low-level traffic stops.

However, Judge told PubliCola that she believes the issues she raised in her letter require an urgent response. “Rather than taking to time for a painstaking audit, we have a practice of sending an ‘alert letter’ to SPD to get the ball rolling quickly.” This isn’t the first issue Judge has flagged for SPD: In February, her office sent letters to Diaz urging him to clarify his department’s vehicle pursuit guidelines and to reconsider how his officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises while carrying knives.

Judge is not alone in pressuring police departments to scale back the use of traffic stops: during the final weeks of this year’s state legislative session, state senator and King County Executive candidate Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a long-shot bill that would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for eight minor civil violations. Nguyen told PubliCola in April that he hopes the issue will return to the surface during next year’s session.

If SPD follows Judge’s recommendation, Seattle would join a growing number of cities across the country—both small and large—taking steps to reduce the risks posed by traffic stops to both officers and civilians. In 2020, the New York State attorney general recommended that New York City’s police department phase out traffic stops for minor violations after officers shot and killed a driver in the Bronx whom they had stopped for a seatbelt violation in October 2019. More recently, after Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop last month, Brooklyn Center’s city council voted to prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions and non-felony offenses or warrants, instead assigning that responsibility to a new civilian department.