Tag: Office of Police Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters

1. The two hotels that the city belatedly rented out to serve as shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in service for a little over three months of their ten-month contracts with the city. In that time, they have moved a total of 15 people into some form of permanent housing, according to the city’s Human Services Department—about 6 percent of the 230 people the city planned to cycle through around 200 hotel rooms over the life of the contracts, primarily through rapid rehousing rent subsidies.

According to a spokesman for the Human Services Department, 13 people have moved into permanent housing from the 139-room Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by LIHI on a $3.1 million contract; 10 of those received rapid rehousing subsidies. Two people have moved out of the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club on a $3.1 million contract, into permanent housing .

In the context of homelessness, “permanent housing” refers to the type of housing, not the length of a subsidy; rapid rehousing subsidies, for example, can last up to 12 months, but the market-rate apartments they help pay for are called “permanent” to differentiate them from transitional housing or shelter. Permanent housing can include everything from long-term supportive housing to moving in with relatives.

Both shelters include rapid-rehousing programs, which the city is funding through separate 10-month contracts. Chief Seattle Club runs its own rapid rehousing program at the hotel, at a cost of just over $800,000, and LIHI is working with Catholic Community Services, which has a $7 million contract.

“We anticipate the number of rapid rehousing enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”—Human Services Department spokesman

According to the HSD spokesman, “Chief Seattle Club case managers are working with participants to identify the best housing solution. … As with any brand new shelter, it takes time for the program to ramp up, clients to stabilize, and for people to find housing solutions that work best for them. This is why the program was designed for 10 months to allow time for individuals to connect with the best resources–whether it is rapid rehousing, diversion, or the permanent housing solutions coming online. We saw this play out at the Navigation Center when it opened. We anticipate the number of RRH enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”

When the city started intensifying encampment sweeps earlier this year, it used COVID vulnerability criteria to move people from encampments into the Executive Pacific Hotel. This has resulted in a population that faces more barriers to housing than the unsheltered population as whole, and thus less likely to succeed in rapid rehousing, which requires participants to earn enough income to afford a market-rate apartment within a few months to a year.

As a last resort, the OPA assembled a 13-person panel for a blind study. None of the panelists heard the n-word after listening to the recording for the first time, and only five heard the slur after investigators revealed the allegations against Zimmer.

LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola last month that “the majority” of people living at the hotel “are not candidates for rapid rehousing.” The Chief Seattle Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. Neither an outside audio expert nor a 13-person panel could conclusively tell Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability whether an officer called a man the n-word during a 2020 DUI arrest.

The OPA’s investigation into whether Seattle Police Officer Jacob Zimmer used the racial slur hinged on a single, hard-to-discern word captured on Zimmer’s body-worn video during the arrest. According to the original OPA complaint, Zimmer commented that the man was a “tall-ass n—-r.” Continue reading “Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters”

Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office

1. In addition to shutting down the spray park at the Ballard Commons—a story first reported by My Ballard on Friday—the Settle Department of Parks and Recreation confirms that 11 of the city’s 22 wading pools will also be closed all summer due to “budgetary and staffing impacts from the pandemic,” according to a spokeswoman for the department.

The Ballard spray park is located in the middle of a large encampment that has persisted despite sweeps by the city and the repeated installation of hostile architecture designed to deter sitting and camping at the Ballard library branch next door. “Because of health and safety concerns of Seattle/King County Public Health and our own Safety Office regarding ongoing encampments and other activities at Ballard Commons Park, we regretfully decided not to operate the spraypark there this summer,” the Parks spokeswoman said. “No other SPR sprayparks are closed this year.”

During last week’s historic heat wave, city-run options for people living unsheltered to escape the weather were limited to some library branches, a handful of senior and community centers, and a cooling center at Magnuson Park. Amazon opened its own headquarters as a cooling center for up to 1,000 people last Monday, but required ID at the door—something many unsheltered people don’t have.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief issued a one-day suspension for a South Precinct detective who used an unapproved and controversial facial recognition technology to search for suspects in criminal investigations.

According to Office of Police Accountability investigators, Detective Nicholas Kartes opened an account with Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in the fall of 2019.

Over the following year, Kartes used the program to search for suspects in ten SPD cases and approximately 20 cases from other law enforcement agencies. His searches returned one match—a possible suspect in a case under investigation by a different agency—though Kartes didn’t keep records of his searches or inform his supervisors that he was using the software. Kartes told investigators that he had informed his counterpart at the other agency that the found the match using Clearview.AI; he did not know whether his counterpart used the evidence to bring charges.

In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos.

Kartes argued that facial recognition software like Clearview.AI doesn’t qualify as “surveillance technology,” as defined by the surveillance ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in 2018, because the ordinance only addressed technologies used to track the “movements, behavior or actions of identifiable individuals.” SPD policy doesn’t prohibit officers from using facial recognition technology; in fact, SPD’s policy manual is silent on the issues raised in the surveillance ordinance.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg concluded that Kartes hadn’t clearly violated any law or department policy, though he advised Diaz and the City Council to close the loophole as quickly as possible. Instead, Myerberg ruled that Kartes violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

This is not Kartes’ first brush with the OPA over the issue of surveillance. In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos. In that case, Kartes told investigators that he was unaware of the surveillance ordinance, though after he familiarized himself with the law, he argued that his use of a drone to photograph the outside of a house wasn’t technically “surveillance” as defined in the ordinance.

“We know that while many of you have grown accustomed to teleworking during this time, in-person interactions are important to our work culture and employees’ wellbeing by creating opportunities for relationship building, collaboration, and creativity,” Durkan wrote.

Instead of disciplining Kartes, Myerberg recommended that SPD send a reminder to officers about the contents of the surveillance ordinance and directed Kartes to receive re-training. By the time Kartes received retraining from his supervisor, the OPA had already begun investigating his use of Clearview.AI.

3. Now that the state is officially out of COVID lockdown, Mayor Jenny Durkan wants city employees to come back to the office. In an email to city staff on Friday, Durkan said that all employees will “return to the office in some capacity” by September 12, unless they get special approval for an alternative work arrangement (AWA, because everything has to have an acronym) from the city. Continue reading “Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office”

Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence

Disciplinary appeals by SPD officers dropped sharply in 2020 (Source: Office of Police Accountability)

By Paul Kiefer

This month, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is processing the first wave of challenges to Seattle Police Department disciplinary actions since last fall of last year—the longest stretch without a police disciplinary appeal since 2016, despite a spike in reprimands, suspensions and terminations of police officers since Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz took the job last September.

In May and early June, four officers who led an out-of-policy high-speed chase in South Seattle last year challenged the written reprimands they received from SPD leadership for the incident; the city attorney’s office didn’t make three of those appeals public until Tuesday afternoon. Although a written reprimand is a less severe type of discipline than other options like suspension or termination, a mark on an officer’s record can lead to a harsher discipline if the officer violates department policy again.

According to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation of the incident, the out-of-policy chase began when four pairs of SPD officers responded to a 911 call about a stolen pickup truck. Although the man who stole the truck hadn’t committed a violent crime—under SPD policy, a prerequisite for a high-speed pursuit—a South Precinct sergeant allowed the small convoy of cruisers to chase the suspect through a residential area, occasionally driving at more than 80 miles per hour. The officer in the passenger seat of the last cruiser was a 19-year SPD veteran and a field trainer; his driver was an officer-in-training. Six minutes later, a police lieutenant intervened and ordered the officers to end the pursuit; the South Precinct captain later referred the incident to the OPA.

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The OPA only held the four most senior officers—including the field training officer and the sergeant who approved the chase—responsible for breaking department policy; all four have appealed the written reprimands they received from Diaz with the support of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). Their cases will now go before an arbitrator: a type of attorney who reviews labor disputes and can determine whether to overturn or reduce the discipline.

The last SPD officer to appeal a disciplinary decision was Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2020 after an OPA investigation found that he had beaten his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, including calling his Black sergeant a “monkey,” calling a fellow officer a “lazy Mexican” and referring to a third officer as “that crazy SPD whore.” Continue reading “Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence”

No Charges Against Cops Who Violated Voting Law; City Finally Buys Shower Trailers

1. Eight Seattle police officers who registered to vote using the addresses of Seattle Police Department precincts instead of their home addresses—including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan—will not face criminal charges. Instead, after an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two of the officers (including Solan) received one-day unpaid suspensions and three received oral reprimands; the remaining three officers retired or resigned before the investigation ended.

The South Seattle Emerald first reported that eight SPD officers had registered to vote using their precinct addresses in July 2020, after a search of county voting records found at least one officer registered at each of the department’s five precincts. Because registering to vote using an incorrect residential address is a felony in Washington—one punishable by a five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine—the OPA initially referred the case to SPD for a criminal investigation.

The department decided not to investigate; according to the OPA’s report on the case, an SPD captain justified the decision by noting that the officers were already under investigation by the King County Department of Elections, and by claiming (incorrectly) that all of the officers lived in Seattle.

While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

In lieu of an investigation, the OPA began its own investigation of the officers’ alleged policy violations, ultimately ruling that all eight officers violated SPD’s professionalism policies, as well as a policy prohibiting officers from using their precinct addresses for personal business. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg didn’t say whether he believed the officers knowingly violated state law, though he noted that King County Elections’ investigation will eventually resolve the question. “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he wrote in his report. “This is especially the case for police officers who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing it.”

If the elections department does rule that the officers knowingly broke state law, county election officials told the OPA they are unlikely to press charges—the law targeting incorrect voter registration addresses is frequently broken and rarely enforced.

Only five of the officers agreed to interviews with OPA investigators. While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

2. The city will replace two rented shower trailers, which have been stationed at Seattle Center and King Street Station in Pioneer Square since last fall, with trailers it bought from a Pittsburgh-based company called Restroom2Go Restroom Trailers. According to a Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman, the trailers cost the city just over $188,000.

As the COVID pandemic abates, the city has begun closing down and relocating facilities and services for people experiencing homelessness, including “de-intensified” mass shelters and hygiene facilities like the two shower trailers. For now, the spokeswoman said, people will still be able to shower at King Street Station, but the shower trailer at Seattle Center will have to move as summer programming returns to the former World’s Fair grounds. A temporary shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has already started shutting down, with residents moving back into the Navigation Center (a congregate shelter in the International District).

Another DESC shelter whose residents moved to Exhibition Hall during the pandemic, the Queen Anne Shelter, remains closed.

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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.

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As PubliCola has reported over the past year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was reluctant to provide mobile showers for people experiencing homelessness even before the pandemic. Although the city council provided funds to purchase shower trailers in 2019, SPU, under Durkan, didn’t spend the money, forcing a mad scramble to rent trailers at an exorbitant cost once the pandemic began. (Even then, the city took months to actually deploy the trailers.) Eventually, the city ditched its gold-plated trailer provider for a more affordable service.

According to SPU, the city is still looking for a place to move the Seattle Center trailer “on the campus,” and is also working out what to do with the two trailers in the long term. “City staff are considering exploring the best options for the trailers, including making them mobile, keeping them stationary or a hybrid approach, to meet the needs of our clients and maximize utilization.”

Even with the two trailers remaining in service, there are very few options for people living unsheltered to take a shower citywide. Lack of access to hygiene is a major quality of life issue, and a barrier to accessing public facilities like transit and libraries, not to mention applying for a job. According to the city’s current hygiene map, there are just 14 places in the city that offer free showers, most of them concentrated near the downtown core; neighborhoods south of I-90, including all of West and Southeast Seattle, have just one shower location each.

3. Someone—perhaps the same brave long-lens photographers who add images of unsheltered people to Google Maps results for various Seattle parks—took the time recently to rename the Ballard Commons Park “Straussville” in Google Maps.

Dan Strauss is the city council member for District 6, which includes the Commons; unsheltered people have lived and congregated in the park, which is next to the Ballard branch library, for many years, but have become more visible during the pandemic as the city decreased encampment sweeps. As of Monday morning, the fake park name had been removed.

City May Relinquish Control Over Homelessness Contracts; Surveillance Law May Not Cover Facial Recognition; No Plan Yet for Complaints Against 911 Dispatchers

1. After insisting for more than a year that the city needs to retain full authority over homeless outreach and engagement programs, the city has changed its mind, and will reportedly hand outreach over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority along with all the other homeless service contracts currently managed by the Seattle Human Services Department.

KCRHA director Marc Dones told outreach providers that their contracts would move to the new authority at a meeting on Wednesday, several who attended the meeting confirmed. Derrick Belgarde, the director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the belated change makes sense: Outreach “needs some separation from the HOPE team and their efforts.”

Previously, as we’ve reported, Durkan and HSD have argued for keeping outreach, and only outreach, at the city, on the grounds that the HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) needs to have direct access to outreach workers who can connect people in encampments the city removes to shelter and services. The connection between the HOPE team and outreach workers was at the heart of the larger dispute over this year’s contracts, with providers arguing that the new contracts would place them at the “beck and call” of a team that serves as the vanguard for encampment sweeps.

The meeting, led by deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, was called to discuss changes to a set of proposed 2021 contracts that providers said were unacceptable; among other changes, the contracts the city originally sent providers would have required them to do outreach at encampments that the city planned to remove, regardless of whether the community or clients they serve (young adults or Native people, for example) were present.

The new contracts will revert to essentially the same language as the contracts providers signed in 2020. Provisions requiring outreach workers to be on site on the day of encampment removals will be stripped from the new contracts, and the city will greatly reduce the data reporting requirements that some providers found objectionable—eliminating the need, for example, for providers to give the city detailed daily reports on the people they encounter living unsheltered.

Belgarde said he was heartened by Dones’ and Washington’s emphasis on progressive engagement at encampments—focusing first on outreach, and then on more intensive case management, which is the point at which asking more personal questions is appropriate. “They seem to understand why you don’t do it” the first time you meet someone living at an encampment, he said. “It’s traumatizing. You can’t go out there with a pen and pad like you’re a lawyer or the police making notes.”

An HSD spokesperson would confirm only that the department is “in ongoing conversations with providers on a number of items, including what coordinated outreach looks like for both city and county shelter spaces and investments. Additionally, the City is already in conversations with the KCRHA about logistics for the transfer of contracts to the KCRHA. Our primary goal is supporting the ramp up of the authority. HSI will maintain outreach contracts through the end of 2021.”

2. After an investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) into a Seattle police detective’s use of a controversial facial recognition software, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg sent a letter to SPD Interim Chief Adrian Diaz concluding that while the detective used the unapproved technology without permission, it’s unclear whether facial recognition is covered by the surveillance ordinance the city adopted in 2018.

The OPA launched an investigation into South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes’ use of Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in November, when a civilian watchdog obtained emails showing that Kartes had used the software several times since 2019. At the time, Myerberg told PubliCola that the investigation would hinge on whether Kartes used the software during a criminal investigation, which he said would constitute a clear policy violation and seriously undermine public trust in the department.

In his letter to Diaz on Wednesday, Myerberg wrote that Kartes used Clearview.AI’s search function roughly 30 times since 2019, including for an unclear number of criminal investigations; Kartes didn’t keep records of cases in which he used the technology, so OPA investigators weren’t able to assemble a complete list. According to investigators, Kartes did not inform his superiors that he was using the software. The OPA hasn’t said whether Kartes will face discipline for his use of the unapproved technology.

However, in his letter to Diaz, Myerberg wrote that the city’s surveillance ordinance, which requires city departments to seek the council’s approval of any surveillance technology it intends to use, defines “surveillance” too narrowly to include facial recognition—because software like Clearview.AI does not allow SPD to “observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals,” Myerberg argued, it may not be addressed by the law.

To deal with the gray area surrounding facial recognition technology, Myerberg recommended that Diaz either create a new surveillance policy that explicitly forbids the use of facial recognition software; he also suggested that Diaz could ask the city council to modify the 2018 surveillance ordinance to clear up any confusion about whether it applies to facial recognition software.

Myerberg’s letter to Diaz came just over a week after the Metropolitan King County Council voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by county departments, becoming the first county in the nation to pass such a ban.

3. When Seattle’s 911 dispatch center left the Seattle Police Department last week, the OPA lost its jurisdiction over the roughly 140 civilian dispatchers who work in the center. And the new department—the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which the Seattle City Council hopes will eventually hold other civilian public safety agencies—hasn’t yet outlined a plan to handle misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Though complaints against 911 dispatchers made up only a small portion of the OPA’s caseload, the unit faced roughly 30 to 40 complaints annually over the past five years. Among the most notable recent cases was a dispatch supervisor fired last year for assigning herself overtime to supplement her income despite being unqualified to answer emergency calls, and another dispatcher whom Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz fired in April for telling a Black caller that “all lives matter” during a call about a car break-in.

The OPA’s jurisdiction is set by city law; according to Myerberg, that law—Seattle’s Accountability Ordinance—only authorizes his office to investigate “potential acts of misconduct perpetrated by SPD employees,” which no longer includes 911 dispatchers. While Seattle’s Human Resources department could take on complaints for an additional 140 employees, Myerberg said that if the council or mayor want his office to continue handling complaints against dispatchers, the council will need to expand the OPA’s jurisdiction, which may also require bargaining with the dispatchers’ union.

PubliCola has reached out to CSCC Director Chris Lombard about his plans for handling misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Diaz Demotes Assistant Chief for June 2020 Protest Response

Former Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in a letter to Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold that he has demoted Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak for his role in the Seattle Police Department’s response to the first weekend of city-wide protests in the summer of 2020.

Diaz’s decision to demote Hirjak came two weeks after he overturned the findings an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that held a well-known lieutenant—John Brooks, a veteran officer who has lead SPD’s protest response unit since September—responsible for directing officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray against mostly peaceful protesters near the East Precinct on June 1.

At the time, Diaz argued that Brooks should not face discipline for decisions made by his superiors in the department; Diaz also claimed in a blog post on May 13 that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation” that cleared Brooks of responsibility for using excessive force against protesters.

However, the chief assured fellow city leaders and the public that he would discipline someone—likely a member of his department’s command staff—for the June 1 debacle. “I am committed to full accountability and transparency for all of our actions, but I am also committed to ensuring that I reach every decision correctly and fairly,” he wrote.

During a meeting of the Community Police Commission the following week, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg questioned Diaz’s claim to have uncovered new information about SPD’s response to the June 1 protest. “As far as we know, there is no new information,” Myerberg said to the CPC commissioners. “The new information may be the chief thinking that, given his view of the chain of command, that he wants to hold an assistant chief responsible.”

Hirjak, who was Brooks’ commander on June 1, was the most obvious choice, though OPA investigators who interviewed the assistant chief had previously determined that he did not directly order officers to disperse the crowd. As an assistant chief, Hirjak was not a member of a union, which allowed Diaz to demote him without an investigation or a legal challenge.

In his letter to Herbold on Wednesday, Diaz walked back his claims about “additional information” that could implicate Hirjak. “There was (and is) no separate investigation and no information that [the] OPA did not have access to,” he wrote. Instead, Diaz wrote that he based his decision on a broader review of command failures between May 29 and June 1, 2020, when large-scale protests began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers; Hirjak was the commander responsible for SPD’s protest response that weekend.

“My decision is based on concerns and observations regarding planning, logistics, communications, decision-making, and staffing analyses that in my view laid the groundwork for the escalation of tensions that followed,” Diaz wrote on Wednesday. ” undamentally, I must have confidence that each and every member of this department’s sworn Command Staff… be able to step into an incident command position as circumstances may require. This demotion is a reflection of my lack of confidence in [Hirjak’s] ability to do so.”

Per city code, Hirjak will return to his previous rank of captain within SPD.

Police Chief’s Reversal of Misconduct Finding Reveals Flaws In Accountability System, Advocates Say

An SPD cruiser carrying Lt. John Brooks (center) orders protesters to disperse from a Capitol Hill intersection in October 2020.

By Paul Kiefer

During a meeting of Seattle’s Community Police Commission on Wednesday, police oversight officials expressed concerns about Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’s decision to overturn an Office of Police Accountability misconduct finding against SPD lieutenant John Brooks, who directed officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray to clear a mostly peaceful crowd of protesters from the area near SPD’s East Precinct on June 1, 2020.

During a discussion of the case between the commission and Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, CPC co-chair Erin Goodman said Diaz’s ability to unilaterally reverse the findings of a misconduct investigation reveal a fundamental flaw in Seattle’s police oversight system. “It makes us all question the strength of the accountability system as a whole,” she said.

Myerberg’s office ruled that Brooks was responsible for directing officers to use crowd-control weapons against protesters despite inadequate evidence of a threat. Diaz disagreed with Myerberg’s decision, and in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President Lorena González announcing his decision last week, he argued that it’s unfair to judge the decisions of the officers at the protest in hindsight, and that someone at a “higher level of command authority” was responsible for SPD’s missteps.

Last Thursday, Diaz wrote a post following up on his letter on the department’s blog, announcing that he would hold someone accountable for the incident, and that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation.”

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But without any clarity about who Diaz will discipline or when he will discipline them, CPC members remain concerned that his decision to absolve Brooks means that no one will face consequences for tear-gassing peaceful protesters. “There were a lot of people who were harmed that day,” said Reverend Harriet Walden, a longtime CPC commissioner, during the meeting on Wednesday. “It makes it difficult for those of us who try to work collaboratively with SPD.”

In fact, Diaz’s reference to “additional information” about SPD’s protest response on June 1 only added to the CPC’s concerns. “Did you get the sense that SPD withheld information from your office during your investigation?” Goodman asked Myerberg during the meeting. Continue reading “Police Chief’s Reversal of Misconduct Finding Reveals Flaws In Accountability System, Advocates Say”

Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower

1. The nearly year-old debate over street sinks for people without access to indoor plumbing boiled over at last week’s meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee, as Seattle Public Utilities director Mami Hara outlined some of the Durkan Administration’s many objections to providing cheap, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands.

As PubliCola has reported, the city council funded street sinks last November, with a goal of quickly installing more than 60 simple sinks at key locations around the city. Access to clean running water and soap—not just hand sanitizer, which the city is currently considering as an alternative to sinks—is essential to preventing the spread of communicable diseases such as shigella, hepatitis, and cryptosporidiosis, which have spread among Seattle’s homeless population since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of most publicly accessible sinks last spring.

Six months later, there are still no sinks on Seattle’s streets. Instead, the mayor’s office, SPU, and the Department of Neighborhoods have expanded the scope of the funding to include food waste disposal, “options for accessing safe drinking water,” and new ways to “reduce illegal dumping and litter.” Last month, the city put out a request for proposals for a new “Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Pilot” with the goal of picking two or more contractors later this month.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said the council’s budget directive wasn’t “to evaluate what kind of additional programs or services should be investigated … it was, how fast can we get these dollars out the door for very low-cost, already proven handwashing strategies. So I would like to ask…. where are the handwashing facilities and why is it taking so long?”

The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” SPU director Mami Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

Andres Mantilla, Durkan’s DON director, responded the city had expedited the grant application process to move more quickly than usual. Hara added that although the council might find it “counterintuitive when your’e trying to get things out quickly to consider public health requirements,” the utility has an obligation to think about people’s safety. For example, she said, people could “cross-contaminate” sinks with germs if the water isn’t “continuous, reliable, and adequate.” The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water.”—Councilmember Tammy Morales

“I understand the frustration—it’s like, ‘Let’s just put a sink out there,’ versus making sure that it’s done in a way that does not cause injury or harm to folks as well,” Hara said.

In response, Mosqueda pointed out that the city expedited temporary permits for restaurant owners to put tables on sidewalks in response to COVID, and council member Tammy Morales noted that while she was glad to hear that the executive branch now wants to open up the application process to small groups besides the Clean Hands Collective, such as mutual aid groups, “this work was intended to be out the door months ago and we are entering the fourth wave now of COVID.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water,” Morales said.

2. Later in the same meeting, Morales addressed public commenters, saying they should direct their anger about ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments at the mayor’s office (which oversees encampment removals) rather than the council (which has adopted legislation opposing them). After following that comment with a number of calm but pointed policy questions, Morales got a dressing-down from Durkan ally Alex Pedersen, who suggested she was being rude to executive department staff.

“I just want to implore my colleagues to strive to treat our city government colleagues with respect and to not question their intentions,” Pedersen said, admonishing Morales to “take the temperature down and treat our colleagues with respect.” 

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Pedersen’s tone-policing comments prompted Mosqueda to jump in. Morales, she said, had been “respectful and in order,” and her questions were “very much appropriate for the situation that we’re in—a year into the pandemic, when the CDC has continued to say that we should not be sweeping people if we had no alternative non-congregate options available.” We’ll have more on the state of outreach and encampment removals this afternoon.

3. Two officers who filed a complaint against Navigation Team director (and former SPD lieutenant) Sina Ebinger subsequently complained that a friend of Ebinger’s followed them in her police cruiser, cut them off, and threatened them with professional retaliation after Ebinger lost her assignment on the team, a newly released Office of Police Accountability case file reveals. Continue reading “Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower”

Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

Protesters gather at Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020 (Bruce Englehardt via Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

As protesters began to trickle away from a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, an unmarked Seattle Police Department cruiser waited at an intersection near  department headquarters while a small crowd of demonstrators crossed the street. “God, I fucking hate these people,” said one of the officers in the cruiser as the crowd passed.

A small gap opened in the crowd as the traffic light switched to yellow. The cruiser’s driver—a sergeant, and the most senior of the four officers in the car—flashed the car’s warning lights and accelerated towards the protesters in the crosswalk. A few marchers dove to safety, barely escaping the cruiser as it passed. Onlookers watched as the cruiser sped away. Inside the car, an officer laughed.

Now, misconduct allegations against the sergeant, and how the city handled them, help illuminate how the last year’s protests have pushed the city’s police oversight bodies into uncharted waters.

The case of a sergeant who drove through a crowd of protesters is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

Within months of the incident, the sergeant took a new position as a misconduct investigator with SPD’s Office of Police Accountability. At the time of his transfer, the sergeant’s disciplinary record didn’t raise any red flags. While OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has a hand in deciding which officers transfer to and from his office, he said he wasn’t aware that the sergeant had driven through a group of marchers at the start of last summer’s protests, so he gave his approval to the new arrival.

Then a witness filed a complaint with the OPA about the near-hit-and-run, calling the sergeant’s actions “completely unprofessional and terrifying.” Although the sergeant wasn’t an investigator when he drove the cruiser into the crowd, his case is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

The OPA handed the investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct to a relatively new office: Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency that conducts audits of systemic or policy-based problems within SPD—and, in cases like that of the sergeant, investigates misconduct complaints against OPA staff.

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The OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff may help reveal some of OPA’s own vulnerabilities. As mandated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild—Seattle’s largest police union—nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers. The sergeant’s case revealed an inevitable challenge for the OPA: officers who transfer to the office from other roles in SPD may carry baggage, including a history of misconduct, that isn’t immediately apparent to the OPA director.

OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff relatively quickly could improve Seattle’s police oversight system, but only if the OPA director has the power to remove problematic investigators from their staff. Whether the OPA director can successfully exercise that authority remains untested.

The sergeant also argued that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators.

The OIG is not the first agency to investigate misconduct by OPA staff, but its creation by the Seattle City Council in 2017 vastly improved the efficiency of those investigations. Until 2017, Seattle’s Human Resources Department (or, in some cases, a private attorney) investigated most complaints against OPA staff. That structure was significantly slower than other misconduct investigations, in part because the investigators lacked significant experience in police oversight.

In findings released on April 7, Inspector General Lisa Judge ruled that the sergeant who drove through the crowd on May 30 had violated SPD’s standards for professionalism and safe driving. His decision to drive through a group of demonstrators, she wrote, “put an exclamation point on the community sentiment being expressed during [last summer’s] protests,” as did his failure to chastise his passengers for laughing as protesters dove to avoid their car. Continue reading “Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges”