Tag: Office of the Inspector General

Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.” Continue reading “Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works”

Police Accountability Office Dismissed Widespread Mask Violations as “Cultural Issue”

Photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr; Creative Commons license

By Erica C. Barnett

A new report from the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, routinely dismissed complaints from the public about officers refusing to wear masks as required, viewing noncompliance as a “cultural problem” rather than individual insubordination. A spokeswoman for the OPA said the office “does not investigate systemic issues, which are the sole purview of the OIG.”

The OPA did not sustain (uphold) any of the 98 complaints the OIG reviewed about officers ignoring the mask mandate. These complaints included a highly publicized incident in which an officer refused to wear a mask inside a hospital; that officer was disciplined for violating SPD’s professionalism policies, but the OPA said mask noncompliance was a “systemic issue that needs to be remedied” by the department, not a matter for individual discipline.

The report also found that SPD supervisors rarely disciplined officers even for third, fourth, and fifth violations of the mask mandate, using “supervisor actions” (training or coaching by a supervisor, usually reserved for minor policy violations) in lieu of formal discipline.

“Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.”—Inspector General report on widespread mask violations at SPD

The OPA spokeswoman declined to comment on the OIG’s conclusions.

“I think what you see with the frustration expressed by OPA and the tone of this report is an acknowledgement that such widespread non-compliance with policy, and even direct orders, can’t be adequately addressed by piecemeal, individual discipline or external policy recommendations,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “Issues like this that have a strong underlying cultural or philosophical root require action on the part of leadership to shift that culture to change behavior.”

According to the report, both the OPA and SPD treated officers’ refusal to comply with mask mandates as a “minor nondisciplinary issue,” even after the state Department of Labor and Industries penalized the department on two separate occasions for “serious” violations of state law requiring work sites to be “free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, serious injury or death.”

For the first violation, from February 2021, L&I fined SPD $5,400 and outlined a course of disciplinary action, including progressive discipline (discipline that becomes more severe with additional violations) for officers cited for failing to follow mask rules more than twice. L&I ultimately closed that complaint because officers were using various tactics to slow down disciplinary proceedings against them, making it harder for the OPA to investigate and punish officers who wouldn’t wear mask.

L&I’s second citation, from July 2021, involved multiple complaints that officers weren’t wearing masks while responding to public demonstrations. Although the agency couldn’t interview any of the officers involved in this second complaint because they were all on furlough or refused to cooperate, L&I issued a $12,000 fine.

According to the report, then-OPA director Andrew Myerberg, now a public-safety advisor to Mayor Bruce Harrell, “noted that it seemed procedurally unjust to sustain an insubordination allegation against an individual officer when others higher in the chain of command might also not be wearing masks.

“Director Myerberg stated that no one in headquarters wore masks and related that someone had sent OPA a photo of multiple lieutenants, captains, and chiefs celebrating an event at headquarters without any masks. Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.” Continue reading “Police Accountability Office Dismissed Widespread Mask Violations as “Cultural Issue””

Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?

Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety

By Paul Kiefer

A Seattle police oversight office released a report on Tuesday revisiting controversial Seattle Police Department actions during protests in June 2020 and urging the department to find ways to build new public trust. The report from the Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG) is the second in a series drawn from panel discussions between oversight officials, community members and representatives from SPD, including some commanders who led the department’s protest response.

On its surface, the report’s narrow focus on nearly two-year-old controversies comes across as old news; most of the incidents described in the report were already investigated by the Office of Police Accountability. Inspector General Lisa Judge, however, says that the reports point to a persistent lack of trust between SPD and a notable portion of the general public—distrust that escalated during the protests and that remains relevant as SPD embarks on new projects, including crackdowns on visible drug use and shoplifting in the downtown core.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless. Many of the report recommendations address protest response tactics, use of force, and weapons, but the larger recommendations regarding trust and legitimacy translate to every aspect of SPD’s operations within the community.” What remains unclear is whether SPD will do anything to address the persistent distrust the report identifies—and whether that distrust can still shape the department’s future.

Although SPD’s protest response may no longer be front-and-center in Seattle’s political zeitgeist, Inspector General Lisa Judge said, “the issues of public trust in SPD and legitimacy of SPD’s use of its authority are timeless.”

The first of the OIG’s Sentinel Event Reviews, released last July, focused on the first three days of the protests and concluded that SPD should aim to “facilitate” protests, rather than controlling or directing them. That report also suggested some basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests.

The latest report centers on the second week of protests, when clashes between police and demonstrators shifted from the downtown core to SPD’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. Two of the panel’s members—Lieutenants John Brooks and James Dyment—were instrumental to SPD’s decision-making during that phase of the protests, including the use of tear gas and blast balls against demonstrators.

The panel reviewed five key moments in the second week of protests, including the impacts of tear gas on residents of an apartment building next to the East Precinct and an incident in which the brother of an SPD officer drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot a man who tried to stop him before surrendering to police.

As the group discussed the tactics behind and public perception of each incident, a pattern emerged: While SPD representatives could often explain the policy and tactical thinking behind a controversial decision, the community representatives on the panel remained critical of SPD’s motives.

When discussing the allegedly retaliatory arrest of a man who filmed a widely circulated video of an officer pepper-spraying a child at an earlier demonstration, for example, SPD representatives said officers were unaware of the man’s identity when they detained him a day later for shining a laser pointer in their eyes. Community representatives on the panel were skeptical; according to the OIG’s report, the panelists argued that “law enforcement agencies sometimes justify illegitimate actions after-the-fact and have not been historically forthcoming about misconduct.”

Some of the panel’s discussions, the report says, “highlighted the loss of trust in SPD by a wide cross-section of the Seattle community. Improvements in tactics and communications are only part of the necessary solution. SPD will also need to find effective approaches to fostering transparency, education, outreach, and accountability when officers violate the rules, to rebuild community trust.”

“SPD wants the community to trust them so they can expand their budget and more easily apprehend people, but SPD doesn’t trust community members when we say that defunding the department is what would actually make us safer.”—2020 protester and Seattle Abolition Support volunteer Peter Condit

In its report, the OIG offered two dozen recommendations for changes to SPD’s protest response planning. Many of the recommendations—including a proposal for SPD to conduct a public education campaign on the dangers of laser pointers, ostensibly to reduce the risk of clashes between officers and protesters—address panel members’ criticism of specific SPD decisions in 2020.  Others, like a suggestion that SPD reserve tear gas for “full-scale riot situations,” addressed changes to department policies that could remain relevant in the long term.

Some of SPD’s critics say 2020 taught them another lesson that remains relevant today, especially as SPD sounds the alarm about a rise in gun violence while attempting to rebuild its ranks after two years of high attrition. “SPD is now trying to make use of crime statistics to regain public support,” said Peter Condit, who regularly took part in protests in 2020 and now volunteers with an organization called Seattle Abolition Support. “But the protests were a galvanizing moment for a political movement that is still alive. They created a body of people in Seattle who are immune to SPD’s propaganda because they witnessed how the department treated community members, and that group of people has stuck around and continued to organize in creative ways.” Continue reading “Oversight Report Raises the Question: Are the 2020 Protests Still Relevant Today?”

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.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

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’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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.