Tag: Office of the Inspector General

Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control”

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies, released the first round of recommendations for changing how the Seattle Police Department responds to protests. The OIG made its recommendations after a year-long review of SPD’s response to last summer’s protests by a panel of community representatives, including current and former members of the Community Police Commission, and SPD staff, including some who played key roles in the department’s protest response.

With the help of OIG staff and outside facilitators, the panel reviewed a series of widely criticized police actions during the first three days of protests in late May and early June of 2020—a period that accounted for two-thirds of SPD’s uses of force and arrests during the protests—and assembled recommendations that could help the department avoid similar missteps in the future.

The proposals range from basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests, to more unique suggestions, like loosening the department’s policies on neutrality to allow officers to express solidarity with protesters.

In general, the panel recommended moving SPD away from a “crowd control” approach, emphasizing that the department’s role should be to facilitate protests, not direct or manage them.

“We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.”—OIG director Lisa Judge

Inspector General Lisa Judge, who heads up the OIG, said some of the tactical recommendations—directing officers to minimize unnecessary arrests at protests, for example—are “no-brainers.” But at least one could be controversial. Responding to officers’ concerns about communication failures during the first few days of protests, the panel suggested that SPD could consider replacing radio communication with an encrypted messaging system, such as WhatsApp, during protests.

John Hollway, a consultant from the University of Pennsylvania Law School who helped design and facilitate the OIG’s review, said the change to encrypted messaging would give officers a reliable and better-organized channel for communications that can easily be shared with other law enforcement agencies providing backup during large-scale protests. Radio communications rely on a single channel that can only be used by one officer at a time—an obvious challenge for the department during frenetic protests. But shifting to an encrypted messaging system could also allow SPD to operate less transparently during and after protests. Messages sent using apps like Whatsapp are private and can be set to disappear, making them unlikely to show up in response to records requests. And unlike Whatsapp conversations, members of the public can easily tune in to SPD’s radio frequencies.

“There’s a tension here between transparency and tactics,” Judge said. “We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.” Though the panel’s recommendation doesn’t specifically suggest that SPD keep a record of its encrypted communications, Hollway said that ideally, the department should determine how to communicate discretely while archiving officers’ messages so that oversight agencies could review them as needed after-the-fact.

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The panel used the report to question Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to impose a citywide curfew starting on May 30, advising future mayors to exhaust other communication options before declaring a curfew. “If you’ve got 100 cops and 5,000 people who are very angry at policing in government and institutions, you are setting your police officers up for failure if you choose that as your strategy,” said Judge. “Even the police panelists said that they felt frustrated that the curfew pressured them to make arrests instead of focusing on more serious priorities.”

The panel’s recommendations for cultural change, Judge said, were about reframing the role of police at protests not as crowd control but protest facilitation. “The notion that [police] can command or manage a crowd is outdated, and it’s just not consistent with constitutional principles,” Judge said. “This report clearly states that they need to shift to an approach that’s about facilitating a protest, not directing it.”

As part of the shift in SPD’s approach to protests, the panel recommended that the department assemble a team of “dialogue officers.” This unit, based on a model launched in Sweden during large-scale protests in 2001, would act as a conduit for sharing information between protesters and police. “The whole point would be to have the dialogue officers spend the entire year building relationships with community members so that, when a protest happens, they pass information back and forth between the crowd and police.” Continue reading “Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control””

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

Proposal Would Grant Full Subpoena Power to Seattle Police Accountability Bodies

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council member Lisa Herbold announced a new proposal to explicitly grant subpoena power to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power would allow the two police accountability bodies to compel testimony from people who were involved in, or who witnessed, police misconduct but refused to testify. It would also allow the two offices to compel witnesses to hand over records and other evidence in police misconduct cases. If witnesses refused to testify or provide evidence, the proposed law would allow the OPA and OIG to turn to the City Attorney’s Office to obtain a court order enforcing the subpoena.

If passed, the legislation would fulfill a three-year-old promise to expand the powers of the OPA and OIG. The city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance explicitly granted the OIG and the OPA the authority to issue subpoenas during investigations if a witness refused to cooperate, but those powers were placed on the bargaining table during the 2018 contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).

During that process, which largely neutralized the 2017 ordinance, the city’s negotiating team agreed not to implement those elements of the accountability ordinance. Although the contract allowed the city to unilaterally bring SPOG back to the bargaining table to negotiate the OPA and OIG’s right to issue subpoenas, the negotiating team has not revisited the issue.

As a result, although SPD officers have been required to comply with OPA and OIG investigations for the past three years, the two offices have had no legal recourse if a witness decided not to testify. Neither office has needed to issue a subpoena to obtain testimony or evidence from an SPD officer, so the ordinance would be a proactive measure.

In a press release accompanying the announcement, Durkan said the proposal would “set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG,” which expires at the end of the month.

Herbold’s public safety council committee will take up the legislation on December 8.