Tag: police accountability

Port Police Review Suggests Hiring, Use-of-Force Policy Changes

By Paul Kiefer

With the Seattle Police Department at the center of attention during city-wide protests in the summer of 2020, the Port of Seattle took the opportunity to launch a sweeping review of its own police department.

Although the Port Commission did not launch the review in response to public criticism of Port police, the department’s reputation was on shaky ground. When protests erupted at the end of May, Port police officers joined SPD during widely scrutinized clashes in downtown Seattle, and in June, the department placed its chief, Rodney Covey, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that he discriminated against a Black officer.

A month later, with the department in the hands of acting chief Michael Villa, a task force led by the Port’s director of equity and the president of the Port’s Black employee resource group began sifting through the policies and practices of the Port police.

To steer the task force, the commission tapped national police consulting firm 21CP Solutions, a firm replete with former SPD leaders, including former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, former SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey, and former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best.

The task force presented the final product of its year-long review to the Port Commission on Tuesday, offering a mostly positive assessment of the department with some notable suggestions for improvement.

Most of the group’s recommendations involved the department’s policy manual, which relies heavily on a service called Lexipol—a library of boilerplate law enforcement policies that subscribing agencies can modify to match local laws. The reviewers deemed many of Lexipol’s policies “overly complex and technical, hard to comprehend, [and] disjointed,” and noted what while the Port police can adjust the policies to make them easier for officers to understand, the department has modified only 45 percent of the Lexipol policies in its manual.

The task force also outlined a slew of changes to bring the department’s policy manual in line with statewide standards for law enforcement and the department’s on-the-ground practices.. Notably, Port police policies don’t currently require officers to de-escalate confrontations when feasible.

The review could not account for 11 uses of force by Port police officers during protests in downtown Seattle and Tukwila in May  2020, including the use of tear gas, in part because the Port police only started wearing body cameras this year, after a new state law forced them to do so.

When reviewing the remaining 90 incidents between 2018 and 2020, the consultants found that officers typically tried to use some de-escalation tactics even in the absence of an explicit requirement in their policy manual. Because of the lack of body-camera evidence to corroborate these officers’ accounts, the reviewers noted that their analysis was “only as deep as the reporting was accurate.”

The majority—75 percent—of these 90 incidents took place at SeaTac airport; the rest happened on or near Port properties in South King County, the Duwamish shoreline, and the Ship Canal.

More than half of the department’s uses of force involved trespassing calls, which are a rough proxy for responses to unhoused people on Port properties, particularly at the airport. The people on the receiving end in these incidents were disproportionately Black, whereas almost all uses of force against “members of the traveling public” at Port facilities involved white people, who were generally intoxicated, experiencing a mental health crisis, or both. While the reviewers largely avoided criticizing the officers’ decisions to use force, they raised concerns about two incidents in which officers used force to take people into custody for trespassing instead of simply allowing them to leave the airport.

In response, the task force recommended that the department shift away from a “police response to homelessness,” which they argued could also drastically reduce racial disparities in the department’s uses of force. The department recently hired a sworn officer with a background in social work to fill a new crisis coordinator position, which launched as a pilot last month. The goal, Villa said, is to “reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness at the airport” by referring unhoused people to services elsewhere in King County.

The report found that officers of color were more likely to report feeling undervalued and excluded from opportunities than their white coworkers; interviews with department staff later clarified that the officers’ concerns stem from perceived “cronyism” within a mostly white group of department staff. To address equity and fairness concerns, the task force recommended the department adopt formal policies to address conflicts of interest in the disciplinary process and reduce opportunities for bias during promotion decisions. The reviewers also suggested that the department develop a plan for recruiting Latinx and entry-level female officers; the department currently employs only one Latinx officer, and it has not hired a woman for an entry-level sworn position in three years.

The department has six months to create a plan to implement the recommendations. Deborah Jacobs, the former head of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight and one of the outside experts who participated in the review, believes the department is on firmer footing than other police departments that have faced similar reviews. “These aren’t the kinds of extreme issues we see in some other departments: these are fixable,” Jacobs said. But like all police departments, she added, the most intractable challenges—and the most difficult to pin down—are cultural. “As we have seen time and time again, culture eats strategy and policy for lunch.”

Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives

1. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the court will not consider former Seattle police officer Adley Shepherd’s appeal of an earlier Court of Appeals decision that upheld his termination from the Seattle Police Department in 2016. The ruling ends a protracted legal battle with the city of Seattle that has loomed over the past half-decade of police accountability reform efforts in the city.

Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car during a late-night arrest in June 2014. Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator, who sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The city prevailed in both superior Court and the Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a longer-term struggle with the city’s police unions to limit arbitrators’ power to overturn disciplinary decisions made by police department leaders.

2. In an unusual move, the executive committee of the Sound Transit board decided to delay approving a one-year contract extension for agency CEO Peter Rogoff Thursday. The committee went into closed executive session for more than an hour before coming back into public session and bumping Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. Rogoff makes a base salary of around $380,000 a year.

Sound Transit has spent the past 17 months debating the best way to cut costs in response to budget shortfalls and higher-than-anticipated cost estimates for key components of Sound Transit 3, the regional light rail and bus system expansion voters approved in 2016. After a number of tense public meetings, which included Rogoff, the board ultimately adopted a compromise plan spearheaded by King County Council member Claudia Balducci that would accelerate projects in order of priority if more funds become available in the future.

Because the discussion happened in executive session, no one is talking about what the committee discussed. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick, speaking on behalf of board chair (and a University Place council member ) Kent Keel, said, “following the committee’s discussion in executive session today, the full Sound Transit Board will continue discussion of the contract at its September meeting,” on September 23.

“Chair Keel emphasized his responsibility to honor the confidentiality that always surrounds the contract review process prior to when the Board discusses its action in open session, and that nothing further can be shared at this time,” Patrick said.

3. Mark Mullens, the only police officer on Seattle’s Community Police Commission, was unusually vocal during a question-and-answer with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg during Wednesday’s commission meeting. Myerberg came to the meeting to address the OPA’s investigation into the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Terry Caver by Seattle police officer Christopher Gregorio last May. After the OPA concluded that Gregorio failed to de-escalate during his confrontation with Caver, Interim Seattle Police Chief suspended Gregorio for 20 days and transferred him out of the department’s K9 unit—a rare outcome for police shootings in Seattle, which typically end without discipline. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives”

Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man

Det

By Paul Kiefer

Concluding their investigation into a fatal 2019 shooting by King County Sheriff’s Office detectives, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) sharply criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to learn from a string of similar shootings and outlined 23 policy and training recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The recommendations accompanied OLEO’s report on the killing of 36-year-old Anthony Chilchott by plainclothes detectives.

In November 2019, Detective George Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, who was wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, parked next to a power station in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, and the detectives were under instructions not to confront him directly.

Without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott, who was unarmed, in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the SUV and broke Chilcott’s window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht fired Alvarez,for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” during the fatal confrontation near Enumclaw in November 2019. She reprimanded Lerum for failing to wear a protective vest and failing to identify himself as a police officer, but he remains on the force as a deputy.

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During a presentation before the King County Council on Tuesday, OLEO policy analyst Katy Kirschner said the sheriff’s office had failed to adopt adequate training and policies for plainclothes operations, and that these gaps contributed to Chilcott’s death. Kirschner also said the sheriff’s office hasn’t done enough to impress upon officers that “speculative or generalized fears” that a suspect could harm bystanders aren’t a justification for using force. “Top-down messaging is a key part of making these reforms work,” she said.

OLEO brought up similar points when it reviewed the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens by plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in 2017..

In their report, OLEO reiterated its longstanding recommendation that the sheriff’s office conduct in-person, recorded interviews with officers less than a day after a shooting or other serious incident. Currently, the King County Sheriff’s Office can only require officers to provide signed statements 48 hours after a serious incident; in the Chilcott case, Alvarez and Lerum didn’t provide statements until eight days after the shooting, and they weren’t interviewed until the sheriff’s office began an internal investigation eight months later.

“I don’t think I can overemphasize the importance of collecting statements from officers in a timely manner,” Kirschner said, adding that written statements are far less valuable than in-person interviews with an investigator, who can ask officers questions that might not otherwise come up. Continue reading “Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man”

Vaccination Resistance at SPD Continues Amid COVID Spike; Harrell Turns Down Police Accountability Debate

1. The highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in Washington, including within the Seattle Police Department. In the past three weeks, 29 officers tested positive for the virus, marking the highest increase in cases within the department since the beginning of the pandemic. SPD also saw cases spike in April, when roughly 20 officers tested positive for the virus.

The new spike also spurred a sharp increase in the number of officers in quarantine. At the beginning of August, only one officer was in quarantine; on Monday, 33 officers were isolating themselves. The number of officers in quarantine reached its peak in late November of last year, when 80 officers quarantined after exposure to the virus; those figures plummeted at the beginning of the year, routinely falling into the single digits.

This month’s increase in infections among police officers comes on the heels of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to require all city employees to receive the COVID-19 before October 18, 2021 or risk termination. The city’s vaccination mandate sparked outcry from the coalition of city unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, who argued that any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule.

In a letter to interim Labor Relations unit head Jeff Clark, coalition co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the October 18 timeline won’t leave enough time for the city to “bargain in good faith”; instead, his coalition demanded that the city not enforce the mandate until it completes negotiations with the unions.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is among the loudest critics of the vaccination mandate. In a letter published on his union’s blog on August 9, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest.

“SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?” A week later, Solan clarified on his podcast that his objection to the mandate “isn’t about whether the vaccine works. That isn’t our lane.”

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules, but the city’s vaccine mandate could provide a chance for the department to start collecting this data.

Van Eyk said Monday that intransigent conservatives aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting jabbed; some employees of color are hesitant, too, because they mistrust a medical system that has historically exploited African Americans and other BIPOC individuals.

2. The state auditor’s reported Monday that the city council’s controversial contract with the nonprofit Freedom Project to oversee the Black Brilliance Research Project last year was built on questionable foundations.

While the council’s decision to award the $3 million no-bid contract to the same organizations that lobbied for the funding didn’t technically break any state rules, state auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a press release on Monday that “the city exercised only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” while handling the contract.

The city council initially set aside dollars to pay for research about public safety spending priorities last fall at the urging of a fledgling coalition called King County Equity Now (KCEN); according to the auditor, the council decided long before awarding the contract that KCEN would receive city dollars to lead the research. But because KCEN wasn’t technically a nonprofit at the time, the council turned to South Seattle-based restorative justice nonprofit Freedom Project to handle finances while KCEN led research teams.

The arrangement allowed the council to award the contract to Freedom Project without a bidding process; in turn, KCEN hired Freedom Project as a sub-sub-contractor. But the collaboration between Freedom Project and KCEN collapsed shortly before the contract’s end in February of this year, driven partially by disputes about late payments to researchers.

In the review, the auditor’s office criticized the council for shaping the $3 million contract to fit KCEN’s proposals before awarding the contract. McCarthy also argued that the council agreed to accept deliverables that were too broad to be meaningful, leaving room for questionable spending and a final research report that didn’t provide a clear blueprint for launching the highly anticipated participatory budgeting process. “The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan last week.

McCarthy’s letter included recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the widely criticized Black Brilliance Research Project contract, including improving how the council documents its decisions about awarding contracts.

Meanwhile, budgetary and administrative disagreements about how to move forward with participatory budgeting have delayed the project—originally intended to begin in the spring of 2021—until next year.

3. Mayoral candidate and former city council member Bruce Harrell turned down an invitation from the Community Police Commission to participate in a general election debate that was supposed to happen in September, prompting the CPC to cancel the debate. The CPC is one of the city’s three police oversight bodies; among other duties, it recommends reforms and weighs in on policy proposals related to policing and police accountability.

Jesse Franz, the spokesman for the CPC, told PubliCola Monday that the CPC had planned to focus specifically on the mayoral election this year, and had no current plans to host debates in the races for city attorney and City Council positions 8 and 9.

As we reported last month, the CPC held a spirited debate over whether to host a candidate forum at all. Some members, including the Rev. Harriett Walden, contended that elections are outside the commission’s scope, while others, such as commission co-chair LaRond Baker, argued that the CPC’s role includes informing the public about potential leaders’ positions on public safety issues.

In a statement issued after PubliCola reported on Twitter that the debate was canceled, the CPC said that although “Bruce Harrell has declined our invitation to participate,” the commission “still hopes to find the best ways to educate and facilitate a community dialogue about the critical issues Seattle’s future mayor will face regarding public safety and police accountability. We hope to share those plans with you at a future date.”

Harrell’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.

Evening Fizz: County Picks New Oversight Director, Report Recommends Shifting Half of 911 Calls Away from Cops, City Directory Disappears

1. The Metropolitan King County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to appoint Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator with Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, to serve as the next permanent director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which oversees the King County Sheriff’s Office. The sole vote against Abouzeid’s appointment was from Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn.

Abouzeid was one of two finalists for the position; the other candidate, Eddie Aubrey, is the head of the oversight office for the Richmond, California police department. During his interview last week, Abouzeid described an eight-year plan to develop OLEO’s role as a “mini-think tank” on police reform and oversight, as well as a player in the county’s negotiations with law enforcement unions; at a previous community meeting, Abouzaid also expressed support for future state legislation that would restrict counties from adopting law enforcement union contracts that limit oversight.

Currently, Abouzeid works as a civil rights attorney with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois state senate in 2020, though he withdrew before the Democratic Party primary.

Current interim OLEO Director Adrienne Wat has led the office since last fall, when the council narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, after an independent investigation found Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to her staff during her four-year tenure.

Both Jacobs and King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez later alleged that her ouster was partially engineered by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. According to Mansanarez, the sheriff attempted to persuade Mansanarez’s union—which represents most sworn employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office—to agree to wear body-worn video cameras in exchange for removing Jacobs, who often clashed with both Johanknecht and the union. Johanknecht denies the allegations.

OLEO’s first director, Charles Gaither, also left the office in 2014 after conflicts with then-sheriff John Urquhart. Following his departure, Gaither received a $84,500 settlement from the county after alleging that sheriff’s office staff harassed him based on his race. Jacobs also filed a discrimination claim against the county after her departure last fall; that litigation is ongoing.

Abouzeid will take over in September, only months before the county’s contract with the KCPOG expires and before the sheriff becomes an appointed position—a shift that will almost certainly bring a new sheriff into office.

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2. A team of city employees assembled by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last September presented a report to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that proposed shifting up to 12 percent of the calls for service currently handled by the Seattle Police Department to other responders in the near future—roughly 48,000 calls a year, or six percent of SPD’s officer hours.

Mayoral staffer Chrissie Grover-Roybal told the council that a portion of the calls 911 dispatchers can shift to non-police responders in the short term are so-called “person down” calls, which involve someone who is either asleep or unconscious in public, and other low-level welfare checks that present relatively little risk to the responders. Last Friday, Durkan appeared alongside council member Lisa Herbold and the heads of the city’s public safety agencies to announce a proposal to create a new unit to handle those low-acuity crisis calls—a new Fire Department unit tentatively called “Triage One,” which could call for backup from other responders as needed. 

But on Tuesday, Herbold pointed out that Triage One, as currently proposed, would only handle a small fraction of the 48,000 calls that the team concluded do not require a police response. Julie Kline, the mayor’s senior public safety advisor, responded that the Triage One proposal will only be an early step in shifting low-level 911 calls away from police.

In the long term, the report suggests that alternative, non-police responders could eventually handle as many as half the calls to which police currently respond.

The team’s estimates relied heavily on an analysis of SPD’s calls for service by the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). Researchers from the NICJR pointed to nearly 200 call types that could be low-acuity enough not to merit a police response; in their report, however, the interdepartmental team only proposed shifting 28 of those call types to non-police responders in the near future.

The team cast the proposals as an opportunity to transfer a portion of SPD’s workload to accommodate a smaller number of officers available to respond to emergency calls: since June 2020, more than 250 sworn officers have left SPD. “Offloading some of our service hours begins to make up for the people we’ve lost,” said Chris Fisher, SPD’s chief strategy officer.

3. The city of Seattle’s IT department quietly eliminated the online directory of city staffers that was the only place where members of the public (and journalists) could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city. The public-facing directory was replaced last week with a 404 error page; it has since been updated with links to contact spokespeople for various departments, as well as the generic public-facing pages for each department. However, anyone who wants to contact a city staffer who is not a designated point of contact for the department won’t find that information on seattle.gov.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office provided a statement from the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer, Jim Loter, who said the directory had to be taken down “because the underlying application code, database, and server were beyond ‘end-of-life’ and could no longer be supported, secured, or maintained at current levels.” Loter said the city is currently working on a replacement system and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year.

“This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution,” Loter said, adding, “I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City. However, I assure you that the change was made solely due to operational reasons and not to intentionally obfuscate public information.”

Even if all goes smoothly and the city restores the directory before the end of the year (a big if), that will still mean almost half a year in which ordinary citizens and journalists lack access to this basic public information. No one should have to file a public records request—or convince a gatekeeper—to find out how to contact the right person at the city.

Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Usually Keep Their Jobs. Advocates for Survivors Say That’s a Problem

Seattle Police Department West Precinct; image by Adbar, Creative Commons license

By Paul Kiefer

Last November, a small team of Seattle police officers parked near the home of one of their colleagues, Officer Amy Jean Branham. They were responding to a 911 call from Branham’s estranged (now ex-) wife, who told dispatchers that Branham had attacked her during an argument about their pending divorce.

Branham’s wife told the responding officers that Branham was drunk. She pointed to red marks on her neck and chest, claiming that Branham had placed her in a headlock. But Branham told the officers that the fight began when her wife tried to force her way into the house. She showed her colleagues a red mark on her jaw—evidence, she said, that the fight wasn’t as one-sided as her wife claimed.

Washington law requires police officers who respond to domestic violence calls to arrest the person they determine was the “primary aggressor.” The responding officers decided to arrest Branham’s wife, reasoning that Branham was only trying to prevent her wife from entering the house; the Seattle City Attorney chose not to file charges. Meanwhile, Branham’s wife obtained a protection order, alleging that Branham was prone to violence and stalking.

As part of the protection order, a King County judge ordered Branham to turn over her service weapon, prompting Interim Chief Adrian Diaz to place her on administrative leave. Meanwhile, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) conducted an investigation of the allegations against Branham. In findings published last month, investigators concluded that Branham violated the department’s professionalism policies by hitting her ex-wife, as well as by following her ex-wife off-hours in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security cruiser, which she had access to as part of a joint task force. She received a written reprimand.

Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

The issue of intimate partner violence by officers tends to fly under the radar; the last case that drew significant local attention was in in 2003, when then-Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife, Crystal Brame, at a Gig Harbor shopping center. In the past five years, SPD has fired three officers for domestic violence or harassment, including Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2019 for beating his former girlfriend and repeatedly using racist slurs to describe his coworkers, and Daniel Amador, a North Precinct sergeant arrested in 2016 for raping and abusing his daughters.

Officers accused of domestic violence or harassment can be found on nearly every level of the department’s hierarchy. Officer Todd Harris, a member of the department’s gun violence reduction squad, was charged by a Snohomish County prosecutor with domestic violence assault in 2012; Sergeant Alfred Warner, whose ex-wife obtained a protection order against him after he allegedly pointed a gun at her during an argument in 2006; and Sergeant Brian Rees, whose ex-wife—at the time, a fellow SPD officer—sought a protection order against him after he allegedly punched her and spent his off-duty time stalking her inside the department’s north precinct building.

Domestic violence allegations are notoriously difficult to prove in court, which survivor advocates say has allowed some Seattle police officers with a history of abuse to avoid accountability and remain in positions of authority within SPD. Today, at least six officers who’ve been accused of abuse or domestic violence remain on the force, including in supervisory roles.

For some survivor advocates, allowing these officers—especially those who received criminal charges—to remain in positions that can involve handling domestic violence calls raises questions about the department’s respect for survivors. A record of abuse, advocates say, could impact the way an officer interacts with people seeking help, including victims of domestic violence, and could reflect on the officer’s ability to control their temper and exercise good judgment.

“Survivors and advocates end up wondering how much weight is given to our voices if we’re dealing with officers who work alongside these people who have been accused of abuse,” said Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, the director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, which provides legal assistance to victims of sexual violence.

Advocates like Mukhopadhyay are especially concerned about officers who’ve risen in the ranks after facing domestic violence charges. Sergeant Domingo Ortiz faced domestic violence-related charges twice before he reached his current rank: in 2000, he received a deferred sentence after punching a man who took his estranged wife to lunch, and in 2004, Pierce County prosecutors charged Ortiz with domestic violence harassment for threatening to hurt his estranged wife “permanently.” (Ortiz was not convicted of the 2004 charge).

Similarly, now-Captain Scott Moss was charged with assault in 2009 for allegedly cutting his then-wife’s hand with a kitchen knife. Ultimately, a King County Superior Court jury acquitted Moss after his attorneys attributed his wife’s injuries to her history of mental illness and self-harm; Moss’ wife chose not to cooperate with the prosecution. It’s fairly common for victims to decide not to cooperate in domestic violence cases, which typically prompts courts to dismiss the charges against the alleged abuser.

Since his acquittal, Moss has received a series of promotions, including a recent stint as the acting captain of SPD’s Special Victim Crimes section, which includes the department’s domestic violence unit.

Most of the officers accused of domestic violence have run into other types of legal trouble during their careers with SPD. Ortiz, for instance, was one of three officers named in a 2010 excessive force lawsuit stemming from a violent arrest at the department’s evidence warehouse; and in 2014, a US district court jury found Rees guilty of excessive force for pepper-spraying a woman while another officer detained her at a May Day protest two years earlier.

Continue reading “Officers Accused of Domestic Violence Usually Keep Their Jobs. Advocates for Survivors Say That’s a Problem”

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””

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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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 updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”