Tag: Office of Police Accountability

Office of Police Accountability Director Joins Harrell Cabinet as Public Safety Advisor

Public Safety Director Andrew Myerberg

By Paul Kiefer

Andrew Myerberg,  the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, will join Mayor Bruce Harrell’s cabinet as the new director of public safety. In his new role, Myerberg will serve on the mayor’s bargaining team during contract negotiations with police unions, draft changes to Seattle Police Department policies, and advise other city departments as they stand up new civilian alternatives to policing.

Myerberg will report to Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell, who previously served as part of the monitoring team appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the Seattle Police Department. On Wednesday, Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell told PubliCola that she will share most of her “broad portfolio” of responsibilities with Myerberg.

Both the deputy mayor and Myerberg will also sit at the bargaining table as the city negotiates new contracts with Seattle’s two police unions. Bargaining with the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents police captains and lieutenants, began last year; negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents officers, detectives and sergeants, is expected to begin later in 2022.

The city’s most recent contract with SPOG expired in 2020, and police reform advocates see the next contract as the key to implementing a slate of oversight measures that the last contract blocked. After the departure of Ned Burke, the city negotiator responsible for bargaining with SPOG, in October, Myerberg is one of the few remaining city staffers with expertise on law enforcement union contracts. Myerberg was also heavily involved in the development of the city’s landmark 2017 accountability ordinance, which the most recent SPOG contract largely defanged.

At a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Harrell said that he views Myerberg as “someone who knows police accountability, who knows police reform, [and] who knows how situations play out in real time.”

Myerberg faced criticism this week from the public and members of the Seattle City Council over his handling of an investigation into a disinformation campaign by a group of Seattle police officers during protests for racial justice in June 2020.

The OPA completed its investigation of the incident in September, finding a now-retired captain responsible for ordering the disinformation campaign, but the office did not release its findings until last week. During a presentation to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday morning, Myerberg faced questions from council members about the delay, as well as about his recommendation that SPD not discipline the rank-and-file officers who spread disinformation through SPD radio channels at the behest of their supervisors. One of those officers subsequently left the department only to rejoin SPD a month ago.

Police accountability advocates frequently criticized Myerberg for being too lenient, in their view, with officers accused of misconduct. Most of the criticism centered on his handling of excessive force cases, which Myerberg argued are rarely black-and-white enough to merit firing an officer. In an interview with PubliCola in February 2021, Myerberg said that he was reluctant to push for harsher consequences because he was wary of spurring officers to appeal their cases to an arbitrator.

“It’s difficult to jump up to termination or suspensions if you haven’t done that in the past,” he said, “because if I’m not consistent, the discipline could be overturned on appeal.” Myerberg sometimes had similar reservations about upholding bias allegations against officer, particularly when complaints center on the ways that officers’ unconscious biases manifest in their interactions with the public.

Myerberg’s efforts to avoid having discipline overturned on appeal may be one reason for the overall decline in the number of disciplinary appeals filed by Seattle police officers over the past five years. But Myerberg’s successor could reverse that trend, using the risky appeals process to attempt to stake out stricter standards for police conduct.

Harrell will be responsible for appointing the next OPA director, who will also need a confirmation vote from the city council. The mayor’s office has not yet named a temporary director for the office.

SPD Staffing Hits Historic Low, Police Oversight Leader Addresses Protest Ruse, 911 Call Center Outage Explained

1. After a second year of high attrition, the Seattle Police Department now has about 950 officers in service, down from 1,282 in 2019. Meanwhile, the department’s efforts to boost recruitment haven’t produced results, leaving SPD with no clear path out of its staffing predicament.

The decline of SPD’s ranks to fewer than 1,000 active officers marks a new milestone for the department, which now has fewer officers than it did in 1970, when Seattle had two-thirds its current population. An additional 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department.

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

The shortage of officers has gutted SPD’s detective units, and “augmentation emails”—requests for non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements—have become a near-daily feature of departmental operations.

The department’s new hiring incentive program, which former mayor Jenny Durkan introduced in October, hasn’t resulted in “any uptick in applications,” SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik said. The bonus program offers up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments.

Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz maintains that the department needs at least 1,400 officers. During the city council’s budget deliberations last fall, SPD set a hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022. Although the council voted to accept that assumption when adopting SPD’s 2022 budget, some council members, including budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, expressed doubt that SPD will see a net increase in officers this year.

2. Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg offered more details about the Seattle Police Department’s policies on ruses during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee, responding to questions about a widely criticized disinformation campaign an SPD captain launched during protests in June 2020.

On the night of June 8, 2020, then-captain Brian Grenon instructed a group of his officers to transmit a series of radio messages that would give protesters listening in on police radio channels an inflated impression of the number of SPD officers patrolling the city. Some of the officers concocted a story about a group of far-right extremists wandering through downtown, possibly with weapons, in search of a clash with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The transmissions sparked anxiety among protesters gathered near Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, putting many on edge.

In September, Myerberg’s office determined that Grenon and a fellow supervisor were to blame for “improperly add[ing] fuel to the fire” during a tense month of protests. The OPA absolved the lower-ranking officers of wrongdoing, citing the lack of supervision they received from Grenon; on Tuesday, Myerberg commented that the officers were “set up to fail” by their supervisors. Higher-ranking SPD commanders, including Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey and then-chief Carmen Best, told OPA investigators that Grenon didn’t ask for permission to use the ruse. Grenon and the other supervisor resigned from SPD months before the OPA concluded its investigation, which didn’t become public until last week.

While SPD policy and Washington state law allow police officers to use ruses while working undercover or to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.”

Myerberg also pointed out that SPD policies don’t currently require officers to document ruses—a challenge exposed by the June 2020 ruse, which neither Grenon nor any lower-ranking officers documented. While Myerberg expects that SPD will soon update its policies to require officers to keep records of their ruses, he does not anticipate that the department will ban the tactic.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis took the opportunity to point out a pattern of the highest-ranking SPD commanders absolving themselves of responsibility for high-profile mistakes during the 2020 protests, citing the abandonment of the East Precinct—for which the OPA held Assistant Chief Mahaffey responsible—as a corollary example. “I’m tired of reading the news about the latest thing that came out of 2020, and everyone in the mayor’s office and the front office of SPD says they didn’t know about it, and everything gets dropped on some guy in the middle,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an effective way to run a hierarchical organization.”

Committee chair Lisa Herbold also raised criticisms of the investigation, questioning Myerberg’s decision not to rule that the lower-ranking officers violated department policy.

3. A series of technical failures and human errors snowballed into an hour-long 911 outage in Seattle last month, the interim director of Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) told the council’s public safety committee on Tuesday.

The outage began in mid-afternoon on December 9 when the company that provides an internet connection for Washington’s 911 operating centers was doing routine maintenance. For unknown reasons, the backup network failed, disconnecting 911 lines across the state.

According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, emergency calls automatically re-routed to his center’s alternative phone line. Responders didn’t realize initially that the flood of calls to the secondary phone number included emergencies; when they noticed the problem, supervisors instructed call-takers to treat calls on the alternative number as priorities.

The chaos intensified when the CSCC attempted to send a push alert to Seattle residents instructing people to call the alternative phone number for emergencies. Instead, Lombard said, the message went “well beyond” Seattle, reaching people as far away as Kitsap County. “Many, many” people misread the message, Lombard continued, and called the CSCC’s backup phone number to test if it was working. Within minutes, calls to the CSCC increased by more than 1,200 percent, overwhelming call-takers.

In the future, Lombard said that he would like King County’s 911 center to handle emergency alerts, and that he hopes emergency alerts will direct people to a website, not a phone number.

Even without unexpected outages, the CSCC is struggling to keep up with call volumes: According to Lombard, between December 20 and January 3, CSCC staffers were unable to pick up 15 percent of calls to their non-emergency line. The 911 call center has struggled to recover from two years of high attrition that left more than half of its call-taker positions empty, although Lombard reported that applications for call-taker positions have increased five-fold since the city introduced a hiring incentive program for the CSCC.

—Paul Kiefer

Former Officer Fired For Punching Handcuffed Woman Sues SPD

In-car video from the June 2014 arrest.

By Paul Kiefer

Adley Shepherd, a former Seattle police officer fired in 2016 for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, filed a lawsuit against the Seattle Police Department in federal court on Friday alleging that the department punished him disproportionately to appease the public and the federal court monitor who tracks reforms to SPD.

In June 2014, Shepherd arrested 23-year-old Miyekko Durden-Bosley after stepping into an argument between Durden-Bosley and her daughter’s father, Robert Shelby. When Shepherd handcuffed Durden-Bosley and pushed her into the back seat of his patrol car, she kicked him in the jaw. Two seconds later, Shepherd retaliated by punching Durden-Bosley in the eye, leaving her with two small fractures in her eye socket. After an investigation of the incident by the Office of Police Accountability, former SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for using excessive force.

Shepherd maintained that he had followed his training and appealed his case to an arbitrator with the support of his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). The arbitrator overturned Shepherd’s firing, ordering SPD to re-hire him and offer him back pay. According to Seattle’s contract with SPOG, the arbitrator’s ruling was final.

Former Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes decided to challenge the arbitrator’s ruling, arguing that reinstating Shepherd would violate the “public policy against excessive force in policing.” Both the King County Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals sided with Holmes, and Shepherd did not return to SPD. The courts’ rulings were a victory for police oversight advocates, who argue that arbitrators too often allow officers to go unpunished for misconduct; to SPOG and other police labor organizations, the decision raised the worrying prospect that law enforcement agencies will continue to chip away at the binding nature of arbitrators’ decisions.

Rather than appealing his case higher in Washington’s court system, Shepherd has now taken his case to the US District Court of Western Washington. In his lawsuit, he alleges that O’Toole fired him to appease the public and Seattle’s consent decree monitor—the eyes and ears of the federal judge who oversees reforms to SPD as part of 2012 agreement between the city and the US Department of Justice.

Since his firing, Shepherd argues in his lawsuit, “there have been several high-profile use of force incidents that have gone unpunished or only resulted in short suspensions,” which he views as proof that his firing was a disproportionately harsh consequence for his actions. In his lawsuit, Shepherd suggests that SPD’s commanders may have singled him out because he is Black.

Shepherd also alleges that SPD “improperly train[ed]” him and then punished him for following instructions. In his lawsuit, Shepherd’s attorney cites a training officer who, during Shepherd’s appeal to an arbitrator, testified that officers were trained to react to a punch or a kick by hitting back.

SPOG is no longer involved in Shepherd’s case, and he is no longer seeking to return to SPD. Instead, Shepherd is only asking the court to order SPD to compensate him for his firing and its aftermath.

Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons

A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of thousands used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city
A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of hundreds used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city

1. A series of fake radio transmissions by Seattle police officers in June 2020 that described a group of armed, far-right extremists wandering through the downtown core “improperly added fuel to the fire” during a tense summer of citywide racial justice protests and clashes with police, according to Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, whose office released its investigation of the incident on Wednesday.

The transmissions were a part of a misinformation campaign conceived by Brian Grenon, then the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. The transmissions came only hours after officers evacuated the precinct at the instruction of Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey. In an interview with the OPA, Grenon explained that the ruse was intended to convince demonstrators that the department had “more officers out there doing regular stuff” at a time when SPD was stretched thin. Grenon didn’t seek approval for the campaign from then-police chief Carmen Best or Mahaffey, nor did he tell his subordinate officers what to say.

The lower-ranking officers chose to describe a group of armed Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for street brawls that featured prominently in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, gathered near Seattle City Hall. In interviews with the OPA, the officers said that they had never taken part in a disinformation campaign before.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, however, that SPD has faced scrutiny over disinformation in the recent past. In 2019, the OPA launched an investigation into an officer who lied to a driver suspected of a hit-and-run; though the incident only damaged a group of parked cars, the officer claimed that the crash left a person in critical condition. Less than a week later, the driver died by suicide after agonizing over the incident, believing he had killed someone.

While Washington state law allows police officers to use a ruse while undercover, to gather information for investigations and to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.” In the 2019 case, Myerberg ruled that the officer’s ruse was not necessary or appropriate, and that it likely led directly to the driver’s suicide. SPD suspended the officer responsible for the ruse for 6 days, and Myerberg recommended that SPD begin training officers on ruses, “including when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”

On Wednesday, Herbold noted that SPD has yet to fully implement Myerberg’s recommendation, and said she has asked Myerberg to issue a new recommendation, specifying that officers need to document any ruses so that investigators can review their appropriateness.

Although Myerberg noted that the Proud Boys ruse likely contributed to some protesters’ decisions to arm themselves, it appears that none of the officers involved in the ruse will face discipline. Grenon and another commander who supervised the effort have since left SPD, and Myerberg held that while the four lower-ranking officers who took part in the ruse exercised poor judgment, their supervisors were to mostly to blame.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson, in response to an email from Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Vehicle Residency Outreach program

2. When new Position 9 City Councilmember Sara Nelson took her oath of office Tuesday afternoon, she emphasized her experience as the co-owner of Fremont Brewing, referring to herself as “the first small business owner on City Council since 2009.” (Jan Drago, who owned a Häagen-Dazs franchise on the Ave, retired that year).

In an email responding to a homeless service provider’s concerns about Fremont Brewing’s use of large concrete “ecology blocks” to obstruct parking on the streets surrounding its Ballard brewing facility, however, Nelson said she no longer has anything to do with the business, which she co-owns with her husband, Matt Lincecum, and could not respond to any requests for Fremont Brewing to remove the obstructions.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election,” Nelson said in an email to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, head of the city-funded Vehicle Residency Outreach program. “This is why I haven’t spoken to any reporters about this matter and why I must decline to engage in discussion with you now. For current information about SDOT’s enforcement of complaints of street use violations, I have referred inquiries to [the public information officer] at SDOT (copied).”

Kirlin-Hackett’s initial letter asked Nelson to “now abide as a sitting Councilmember [with] what the law requires; that is removing the ecology barriers that surround your brewery.” In his response to Nelson’s email, Kirlin-Hackett wrote, “I know it is a very usual thing for those elected to want to wash their hands. But it’s clear by your response you know this is a problem and violation of the law. If you read the letter from SDOT I sent, you’ll know their very problem is their inability to have the support of the Executive or Council in how to apply the law.”

Many property owners in industrial areas, including several in the blocks immediately adjacent to Fremont Brewing, have placed ecology blocks in the public right-of-way to prevent people living in RVs (which, under Seattle law, can only park overnight in industrial areas) from parking on the street. The use of ecology blocks to obstruct parking is illegal, but SDOT has not enforced the law, opting instead to send warning letters to businesses, including Fremont Brewing, that use the blocks to deter RV parking.

SDOT’s laissez-faire approach to street use has not extended to RV owners themselves; shortly before the most recent snow and ice storm, the city showed up with tow trucks to remove a group of RVs from West Green Lake Way, part of a sweep that also forced people camping in the area to move their tents to a different part of the park.

Nelson did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about what her “formal separation” from Fremont Brewing entails.

3. A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a South Seattle home on Wednesday afternoon after the man killed a police dog and stabbed the dog’s handler, Officer Anthony Ducre, in the face.

The dog, named Jedi, was previously at the center of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle by a woman he attacked during a training exercise in a Tukwila parking lot in January 2020. At the time, SPD was using the parking lot as part of a training course for K-9 units. Ducre was leading Jedi through the course on a long lead and lost sight of him around a corner; there, Jedi found a woman taking a break from her job in a nearby building and—acting on training—bit her leg. The woman, Valerie Heffernan, later settled with the City of Seattle for $225,000. Continue reading “Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons”

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”

Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case

By Paul Kiefer

More than three years have passed since a driver hit a Real Change vendor who was riding his bicycle near the parking lot of the Grocery Outlet in the SoDo neighborhood. At the time of the crash, the vendor, whom PubliCola is calling John to protect his privacy, was living in a RV in the neighborhood.

Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) finished its investigation into misconduct allegations against Evan Pitzner and Dane Hagan, the two Seattle police officers who arrived on the scene and, according to John’s account, targeted and mocked him for being homeless.

John didn’t file a complaint with the OPA himself, but several members of the public did after watching a viral video—edited and released by Real Change in 2020—that showed Pitzner and Hagan chuckling as John sat injured on the pavement nearby. Neither officer will face discipline for the incident. The OPA didn’t sustain any of the allegations against Hagan, and while investigators concluded that Pitzner behaved unprofessionally, he resigned from SPD before investigators could interview him about the incident.

At the heart of the complaints against Pitzner and Hagan, were allegations of anti-homeless bias—allegations that the OPA dismissed as unprovable. For John and the Real Change staffers who first took issue with the officer’s comments, the OPA’s ruling raises questions about how Seattle’s police oversight system defines and punishes bias—especially bias against people experiencing homelessness.

“In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo, I once had an officer walk away from a [traffic stop] to stop me for not wearing a helmet. They just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

Although he never spoke with the OPA, John says he has no doubt that Pitzner and Hagan treated him differently because he was homeless. “It was obvious,” he said.

Pitzner and Hagan were among the last responders to arrive at the scene. A team of field officers from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) witnessed the crash and had stopped the driver nearly a block away, and paramedics from the Seattle Fire Department were assessing John’s injuries when the officers showed up. When paramedics told Hagan that John described feeling pain “everywhere,” he repeated “everywhere” out loud while pretending to write on his notepad. His pen never touched the page.

The DOC officers told Pitzner and Hagan that both the driver and John were at fault for the crash. The driver left without a citation, though the state later revoked his driver’s license; Pitzner reasoned that the driver’s advanced age, not “malintent,” was to blame. He cited John for not wearing a helmet.

Then, as a sheriff’s deputy dragged John’s bicycle—a Lime Bike—out of the street, Pitzner wondered aloud whether the bike was stolen. “Do you really want to know?” the deputy asked. “Yes, because it’s a felony,” Pitzner replied. (Stealing an item worth more than $750 is a Class B felony in Washington state.) John claims that he borrowed the bike from a friend who used the Lime app to rent it.

Hagan and Pitzner set off to a nearby store to find security camera footage of the crash. Inside, the officers struck up a conversation with a customer and a cashier about rising crime in SoDo. “We keep this area pretty thick with officers anyways because there’s a lot of crime that happens down here, associated with people—we don’t like to draw correlations,” Hagan commented. “There’s also not a drug and housing status correlation either, apparently… as I’m told,” he added, apparently referring to the concentration of homeless people in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, John was sent to Harborview Medical Center, where he says he underwent surgery on his knee. He left the hospital a few days later with a walker, three fractured ribs, and an unrelenting pain in his neck. “I couldn’t raise my head—I had to look at the ground for two years,” he said.

“I don’t like that [Pitzner] brought up the bicycle, because it seems immaterial. But maybe Pitzner has seen a lot of bicycle theft cases. Given the limitations of the complaint, it’s really hard to subjectively identify whether he asks if the bike is stolen out of bias or if he just has good investigative instincts.”—OPA Director Andrew Myerberg

From John’s perspective, Pitzner and Hagan didn’t conceal their bias against him. “Why did they automatically categorize me as suspicious?” he asked. “Why would they automatically assume I stole that bike?” The officers didn’t ask John directly whether he had stolen the bicycle, and they didn’t pursue the issue further.

John added that police officers had stopped him more than a dozen times in SoDo, including nearly a half-dozen times for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. “It was hard to avoid in that neighborhood,” he said. “In downtown, officers are so busy that they don’t have time to stop you for small stuff. In SoDo… they just wouldn’t leave homeless people alone, even if you kept your space clear and minded your own business.”

OPA investigators disagreed. “The fact is that he wasn’t wearing a helmet while crossing an intersection and got into a collision,” said OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “Given that fact, I can’t see how we could ever prove that the citation was biased.”

Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change, pushed back on this interpretation. “We had a person injured on the pavement in a crash, and the driver didn’t stop. A hit-and-run is a felony, but the officers took a more respectful tone with the driver and let him go without a citation—he just lost his license. Instead of worrying about [John’s] injuries, they focused on whether he was wearing a helmet. Why is that the priority? Why did they show him so little respect and care?” Continue reading “Investigators Find No “Clear-Cut” Anti-Homeless Bias in Viral Bike Crash Case”

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”

Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing

SPD East Precinct, June 2020

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability released findings on Monday afternoon clearing former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey of wrongdoing in the evacuation of the department’s East Precinct last June.

Questions about the decision to abandon the precinct swirled for more than a year without any clarity from the department until KUOW published an investigation in July that identified Mahaffey—the commander in charge of managing the department’s protest response on June 8—as the person who made the call.

OPA director Andrew Myerberg criticized SPD for being silent about the decision to abandon the precinct, writing that the decision created “a sense of distrust within community and the belief that there was something nefarious at play.” In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, City Council President Lorena González echoed the same frustration, writing that the OPA’s report “shows how SPD treated responsibility as a ‘hot potato’ that no one wanted to get caught holding… You can’t always predict the outcome of key decisions—and mistakes will happen—but the damage to public trust is made much worse when high-ranking SPD leaders play games of hot potato and fail to be forthright with elected officials, the media and the public.”

However, Myerberg also concluded that Best had the authority to delegate decision-making to Mahaffey. Similarly, he determined that Mahaffey’s decision to evacuate the precinct was based on the information available to him—including flawed claims from the FBI of a terrorist threat—and that his decision allowed SPD to temporarily de-escalate. “No one—including OPA—can say that [an] alternative strategy would have produced better results than those that occurred or that it would have prevented CHOP/CHAZ from forming,” he wrote, “just as no one can say this unidentified alternative strategy would not have resulted in more uses of force to disperse the crowd and, potentially, to rescue stranded and endangered officers left inside of the precinct.”

Assistant Chief Brian Grenon described panicked officers “ripping open lockers” and “kicking in doors” during a mad-dash attempt to gather all the weapons, computers and hard drives in the building. After supervisors intervened, the precinct’s officers departed for the West Precinct.

The OPA’s investigation, which relied on interviews with Best, Mahaffey and other SPD employees and members of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff, largely mirrored KUOW’s version of events, with two exceptions. In early June, with the East Precinct at the center of nightly protests on Capitol Hill, SPD leaders were increasingly anxious about the risk of an attack on the precinct. Protesters in Minneapolis had burned a police precinct to the ground less than two weeks earlier, and SPD leadership worried that the same thing could happen in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the department’s initial protest response, which relied heavily on barriers, fixed lines of officers in riot gear, and weapons like tear gas and pepper spray, only escalated the conflict on the streets outside the East Precinct. Continue reading “Assistant Chief Who Ordered Abandoning East Precinct Cleared of Wrongdoing”

Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Police officer Christopher Gregorio is currently serving a 20-day suspension for failing to follow his department’s de-escalation protocols before fatally shooting 57-year-old Terry Caver last May. While an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) concluded that Gregorio’s recklessness exacerbated an already volatile encounter on a Lower Queen Anne sidewalk, OPA Director Myerberg ultimately ruled that Gregorio couldn’t be disciplined for the shooting itself, only the decisions that led to it.

Matthew Milburn, who also fired at Caver during the confrontation, is no longer with SPD; he refused to give an interview to OPA investigators, and the case against him remains open.

On May 19, 2020, a half-dozen officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West to respond to a series of 911 calls about a man—Caver—carrying a knife and threatening passersby. When they arrived, Caver stood alone on the sidewalk, his knife concealed under a coat; the officers demanded that he drop to the ground.

Gregorio arrived on the scene with a police dog and parked close to Caver. “Don’t park right near him, guys, are you crazy?” another officer shouted.

Caver broke into a run, shouting, “You’re going to have to kill me!” as he passed Gregorio. While other officers kept a distance, Gregorio and Milburn chased Caver down the sidewalk; Milburn fired a Taser at his back to no effect, and Caver turned to face the officers with his knife hand outstretched. Both Gregorio and Milburn opened fire, killing Caver. From the moment Gregorio stepped out of his car, the entire incident lasted just 17 seconds.

Caver’s cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, says Gregorio’s suspension is hardly enough to hold him accountable for her cousin’s death. “It’s just awful,” she said. “Terry really mattered to us, and that officer shouldn’t be able to put his badge back on.” 

Members of Caver’s family often worried about his wellbeing. “We knew he was always afraid, always paranoid that somebody was after him—that the police were after him,” his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, said on Tuesday. Caver had faced legal trouble since his teenage years, and his mental health took a serious turn for the worse after he survived a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles soon after leaving prison in 2010. After his sister brought him to Washington to undergo surgery at Harborview Medical Center, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Taylor believes that the LA shooting triggered her cousin’s mental illness.

The accounts of Caver’s final moments, gleaned from 911 calls and officers’ body-worn cameras, were painful for his family members, who said his behavior was similar to earlier paranoid episodes. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him,” his sister, Vanessa, said in August. “He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared.”

In the OPA’s view, the shooting was a clear example of how an officer’s failure to approach a volatile situation carefully and patiently can devolve into a shooting. According to OPA investigators, officers had an opportunity to leave space between themselves and Caver, who was “almost certainly suffering from a mental health crisis” or intoxicated. The closest bystanders “were either across four lanes of traffic or were hundreds of feet away,” Myerberg wrote in the summary of the case.

Myerberg found that Gregorio “failed to engage in any planning or tactical discussions” before firing his weapon, in large part because his decision to park next to Caver “set up a situation where he had just seconds to prepare” for the encounter. Investigators also found that Gregorio gave little consideration to Caver’s mental health before stepping out of his car, and that shouting at Caver to drop to the ground only increased the tension. Without time or space to prepare or a plan or to wait for backup from officers equipped with crisis intervention skills or a less-lethal weapon, Myerberg wrote that Gregorio gave himself few options besides using force. Continue reading “Officer Who Shot Man on Queen Anne Sidewalk Last Year Gets 20-Day Suspension”

Police Chief Fires Two Officers Who Trespassed on Capitol Grounds During January 6 Attack

Image by blinkofaneye on Flickr; Creative Commons license.

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in a blog post on Friday that he has fired officers Alexander Everett and Caitlin Rochelle for violating department policy and federal law by trespassing on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020 while insurrectionists stormed the legislative chambers inside.

Using video evidence provided by the FBI, investigators from Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) were able to place Everett and Rochelle at the steps of the Capitol as rioters clashed with police nearby. Though Everett and Rochelle told investigators they didn’t know they were trespassing in a restricted area, neither the OPA nor Diaz were convinced; in his letter on Friday, Diaz wrote that “it is beyond absurd to suggest that they did not know they were in an area where they should not be, amidst what was already a violent, criminal riot.”

But Everett and Rochelle—a married couple—were only two of the six Seattle Police Department officers who traveled to Washington, DC to attend former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. OPA investigators were able to place three of the officers elsewhere in the city during the attack. Though the fourth officer told investigators that he was not present for the attack, neither the OPA nor the FBI could corroborate his claim; investigators didn’t rule out the possibility that he trespassed on federal property.

Though Diaz chose not to discipline the other four officers who attended the rally, some members of the city council and Seattle’s Community Police Commission argued being present for the rally constituted grounds for firing all six. “I don’t understand how we can derive any other decision other than they were there to spur what those people did to storm the Capitol,” CPC Executive Director Brandy Grant said during a commission meeting in January. Continue reading “Police Chief Fires Two Officers Who Trespassed on Capitol Grounds During January 6 Attack”