Tag: Office of Inspector General

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.