Tag: police accountability

Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change

By Anne Levinson

In early June, as Seattle residents protesting police brutality were being met daily with disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate force by law enforcement, several current and former elected officials reached out to me asking what state legislators could do in the next session to strengthen accountability in law enforcement.

It was a question I welcomed. During two terms providing independent oversight for Seattle’s police accountability system, I had reviewed thousands of misconduct complaints and investigations, observed dozens of police trainings, conducted a special review of Seattle’s police disciplinary system, issued reports highlighting needed accountability system reforms, identified for the city in detail the provisions in the police contracts that had tilted the system and were detrimental to the public, and helped draft and secure passage of the 2017 police accountability ordinance.

And when a new Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract was ratified in the fall of 2018, over the unanimous objections of more than 30 community organizations, I provided expert witness testimony, explaining to the judge overseeing the federal consent decree the ways in which the contract threatened to corrode community trust and confidence. The judge agreed, finding the City partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May 2019 and directing the City to tell the court by that July how it planned to remedy the identified barriers to accountability.

A year later, in May 2020, the city had still not submitted its plan to the court and yet it asked the court to largely end the consent decree. Then the demonstrations began.

So when I was asked that question last June—with a governor, Senate and House leadership, committee chairs, and other legislators interested in police reform; many labor leaders no longer accepting the proposition that they couldn’t be both pro-police reform and pro-labor; and the city still out of compliance with the consent decree—it was clear that the time had come for the state to lead.

Several potential state-level reforms were already garnering public attention in our state and elsewhere, including truly independent investigations of deadly-force incidents; qualified immunity reform; demilitarization of police; reforms to the inquest process; elimination of no-knock warrants; and establishing a statewide public database on use of force.

But there are two other reforms I had  recommended that have not gotten much public attention until recently: (1) Removing police accountability from the collective bargaining process; and (2) Strengthening the law for officer decertification to address serious misconduct. Each is critically important and long overdue.

First, the state must clearly exempt police misconduct and disciplinary systems from Washington collective bargaining law so that every local and state law enforcement agency can establish strong, effective, and transparent accountability mechanisms that serve the public as they should, rather than continuing to provide only as much accountability as police unions will accept.

Police are not the same as other public sector employees. Others aren’t required to carry and use guns. They haven’t been given broad discretion to take your liberty and sometimes your life. It’s why there is a separate accountability system to address misconduct. And it’s why there is a consent decree. The provisions in police contracts can have very different impacts on the public than similar provisions in other public sector contracts.

Across the country, police contracts no longer just address wage, benefits, and other subjects traditionally thought of as “working conditions,” as other labor contracts do. Instead, police contracts have been used to shield officers from accountability when misconduct occurs, diminish transparency, and preclude or weaken civilian oversight. It’s why I so strongly opposed ratifying Seattle’s police contracts in 2017 and 2018 and weighed in on behalf of the community to the federal court.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

Here are a few examples of provisions in Seattle’s police contracts that impede accountability and walk back reform efforts.

The contracts reinstated officers’ ability to appeal discipline through multiple routes, including to an outside arbitrator. (Eliminating this ability was a priority in the 2017 accountability ordinance). As reform advocates, chiefs, and local elected officials have seen in thousands of cases across the country, arbitrators routinely substitute their own judgment on discipline, overturning chiefs’ decisions, ordering officers who committed serious misconduct to be reinstated.

This weakens the chief’s power to hold officers accountable in line with public expectations, allowing arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions for any number of reasons, including minor procedural issues, even in cases where the chief’s decision is supported by a preponderance of evidence. It allows hearings to be closed to complainants, the public, and the media, and allows months, if not years, of delay before appeals are resolved. As of August, Seattle has 80 appeals pending, some going as far back as 2016.

What other barriers to accountability are buried in Seattle’s police contracts? If a complaint of misconduct involving dishonesty or excessive force is not made within a certain period of time, or if a complaint isn’t fully investigated within 180 days, the officer cannot be disciplined, regardless of the misconduct or the reason for the delay. How the days are counted is filled with vague conditions constantly subject to challenge.

There’s more. The burden of proof required to prove misconduct has been raised to an undefined “elevated” standard for any termination that results from misconduct that could be considered “stigmatizing” to the officer. Only certain misconduct complaint and investigation files are retained; others must be purged. Civilian oversight is limited when the alleged misconduct is criminal, even though these cases often involve the most serious types of misconduct. Civilian oversight subpoena authority has been narrowed. Officers are allowed to use vacation and sick leave when the discipline is supposed to be days without pay. Officers under investigation – and their union representatives – are allowed to withhold relevant information during the investigation and raise it later, as evidence to challenge discipline. Officers’ names must be redacted when case information is made available to the public.

And more. The long-recommended oversight of secondary employment (off-duty work as an officer) by independent, civilian management was never implemented. Instead, it was included in the SPOG  contract and then rolled back. There are limitations on the number of civilian investigators. Different ranks are treated differently. And there are even contract provisions that require the public to pay for a large part of the union president’s salary.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

In court filings, the city argued that all these types of police contract provisions are commonplace. The success of police unions in embedding structural barriers to accountability across the country is thus ironically used as a reason to stifle reforms. The city also argues that the public and the judge should understand that police contracts continue to have these provisions because the nature of bargaining requires give-and-take. That is exactly the problem.

Police, like all employees, deserve contracts that provide for fair wages, benefits, and good working conditions. But there is no reason to continue to accept the argument that standards and practices to address police misconduct must be considered “working conditions” that cannot be determined by police management and local government leaders outside the bargaining process.

Police have been granted extraordinary powers to use discretion in a range of ways that have enormous impact on the public, including taking away liberty and the use of deadly force. Legal and procedural safeguards against police abusing these powers in ways that undermine public trust should not be subject to the give and take of bargaining. Nor should the public have to pay so that their community can receive constitutional, effective, and respectful policing.

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Second, the state must completely overhaul the law enforcement decertification law.

Washington is one of 45 states that require law enforcement officers to be trained and licensed (“certified”), with standards for revoking that license (“decertified”), as many other professionals must be

How and when decertification happens is fundamentally important to accountability. If an officer is fired or convicted of a crime, but not decertified, the officer can simply go to another law enforcement agency. Washington’s law for decertifying officers is limited in scope and riddled with loopholes that allow problematic officers to move from department to department with impunity or to avoid accountability if their agency does not act.

Back in early 2014, when providing independent oversight of Seattle’s police accountability system, I recommended that Seattle work with other cities and counties and the state legislature to overhaul the law. We also included reform of the decertification law in the city’s 2017 accountability ordinance. But the city never really took it on. So when asked what police reform the legislature should prioritize in the next session, significantly overhauling the decertification law was also at the top of my list. Senator Jamie Pedersen, Chair of the state Senate’s Law & Justice Committee agreed, and in early June offered to be the prime sponsor of a bill that will enact a wide range of reforms.

To really remedy the gaps and loopholes that make Washington’s law—and most all decertification laws in other states—so ineffective, improving one or two elements of the law is not enough. So I’ve recommended many changes, starting with making sure that the grounds for decertification cover the wide range of misconduct that should result in an officer losing their license.

Continue reading “Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change”

OPA Releases First Findings from SPD Protest Response Complaints

SPD officer seen placing his knee on a demonstrator’s neck on May 30 (Screenshot from video by Matt McKnight, Crosscut)

By Paul Kiefer

On Friday morning, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released the first set of five completed investigations into alleged misconduct by Seattle Police Department officers during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May. These investigations amount to only a tiny fraction of the OPA’s remaining protest-related caseload. The office consolidated more than 30,000 complaints it has received about SPD’s response to demonstrations into more than 100 separate investigations.

The documents released Friday included two investigations stemming from high-profile incidents during the first days of the protests: One in which an officer was accused of kneeling on two demonstrators’ necks during an arrest downtown on the night of May 30; and a widely-publicized incident in which an officer pepper-sprayed an seven-year-old child earlier the same day.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg only found evidence to sustain two of the four complaints that stemmed from the nighttime arrests. Based on video of the incident, Myerberg concluded that the officer had only kneeled on the neck of one of the demonstrators and instead kneeled on the other demonstrator’s head.

In an interview on Thursday, Myerberg said that “a knee on the head is not against [SPD] policy,” but added that “it’s not encouraged, and [officers] aren’t trained to do it.” Kneeling on a demonstrator’s neck, however, is now against department policy; at the time of the arrest, those restraints were only “strongly discouraged.”

If the OPA had been able to conclude that the officer had intentionally used a neck restraint to restrict the protester’s breathing, the office would have been able to recommend more serious disciplinary action. Myerberg said the SPD policy manual defines a prohibited neck restraint as the intentional application of pressure to a subject’s neck for the purpose of “controlling a subject’s movement or rendering a subject unconscious.” Myerberg said he couldn’t disprove the officer’s claim that he had unintentionally placed his knee on the man’s neck, but he did determine that “what the officer did was not proportional or necessary, because even if inadvertent, the risk of harm is pretty substantial.”

Therefore, the OPA concluded that the officer had unintentionally violated the department’s use of force policy. The OPA also sustained a complaint that the same officer had inappropriately cursed at and threatened demonstrators, calling one woman a “bitch” and telling a fellow officer that he would “fuck up” another demonstrator.

Interim Chief Adrian Diaz will now be responsible for determining how to discipline the officer for both offenses. ”

The OPA also sustained a professionalism complaint against a different officer for an  incident in which the complainant filmed him saying, “I have a hard-on for this shit and, if they cross the line, I will hit them” while responding to a demonstration. The officer in question admitted his wrongdoing to the OPA‚ saying he said he had been quoting a movie (“Top Gun”).

His admission of wrongdoing opened the door for Myerberg to make use of a new disciplinary track for SPD officers called rapid adjudication, which began as one of the accountability reforms proposed by former OPA Auditor and retired Judge Anne Levinson in 2014 and adopted in 2018 as part of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract.

In a rapid adjudication case, the officer accepts a disciplinary action and waives the right to an investigation or an appeal, saving the city and themselves from an investigative process that could last up to 6 months. The goal of rapid adjudication, or RA, Levinson said, “was to create a department in which officers can admit their mistakes and acknowledge responsibility. Typically, union contracts prioritize due process‚ officers have the right to investigations, for instance—so there wasn’t room for officers to admit wrongdoing.”

In this case, the officer will only receive a written reprimand. At the moment, Myerberg’s office doesn’t measure the efficacy of disciplinary actions in changing officers’ behavior, but he hopes they will start tracking that data in the future. “We could look at recidivism,” he says, adding that a punishment as minor as a written reprimand could still incentivize good behavior because multiple reprimands are grounds for the department to suspend or terminate an officer.

Myerberg’s office did not sustain the complaint against the officer who pepper-sprayed the seven-year-old, concluding instead that the officer had not intended to spray the child and therefore hadn’t violated department policy. The OPA wasn’t able to interview the child or his father (who was pepper-sprayed alongside his child) after the family’s legal counsel didn’t respond to the OPA’s interview requests.

However, based on body camera footage and officer testimonies, the OPA found that the father and child were standing behind a woman who was trying to wrestle away an officer’s baton; when that woman ducked, the pepper spray hit the child. The bodycam footage also appeared to disprove the father’s claim that he and his child had been praying with members of their church just before the incident: the footage showed the father yelling obscenities at officers in the lead-up to the incident.

Because a picture of the child crying after being pepper-sprayed circulated widely on social media, Myerberg expects the OPA’s findings in that case to be unpopular, but he also doesn’t believe his office has legal grounds to push for disciplinary action against the officer. Instead, he said, the City Council’s crowd control weapons ordinance—the subject of an ongoing court battle—could provide recourse in similar situations in the future.

Because the ordinance bans the use of several less-than-lethal weapons (including pepper spray) in crowd-control scenarios, Myerberg said that in the future, “officers could be liable even for unintentional harm.” It would not, however, open the door to retroactively punish the officer for pepper-spraying the child on May 30.

The OPA also declined to sustain complaints in two other cases. In one, protesters alleged that an officers violated the department’s use of force policy by pushing them back with batons; one complainant added that because of his sexual orientation, the officers’ aggression “seemed homophobic.” After reviewing the bodycam footage, Myerberg found no reason to conclude that the officers had used excessive force, nor did he find evidence that the officers acted out of bias.

The second case arose from a complaint that an SPD officer pushed down an elderly man on Capitol Hill on May 30th. The person who filed the complaint, however, heard about the incident second-hand, and Myerberg’s office couldn’t find any witnesses or video evidence of the incident to back up the complaint.

The OPA will continue to release protest-related findings on a rolling basis. Myerberg’s office has not given a timeline for the next sets of investigations, but the OPA website includes a dashboard showing the progress of demonstration-related complaint investigations.

Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up

By Girmay Zahilay

On the evening of November 5, 2019, I stood in front of a packed room at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City and delivered my victory speech. I had just been elected to the King County Council and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I told the audience of family and friends that “we did not come here to start a movement, we came here to build on the work of those that came before us.”

As I spoke those words, I thought of all of the struggling, organizing, and advocating that prior generations had done for our benefit. I saw black and white images of people marching for Civil Rights; I saw Black students being attacked with fire hoses while protesting; I saw Native Americans fighting for their land and sovereignty.

The work of those that came before us weighed on me so heavily that my voice cracked during my speech. How could we ever live up to what our past heroes had accomplished? They had endured once-in-a-generation battles and fundamentally changed society for the better.

Back in November 2019, I could have never imagined that just months later our nation would enter its own once-in-a-generation battle. I had spent my entire campaign talking about affordable housing, zoning policies, and criminal justice reform. But the trials and tribulations of 2020 have made so much more possible than the usual reform-style policies. This year, we have a powerful opportunity to fundamentally improve our society. We have the political will to rebuild our institutions from the ground up and better serve the most vulnerable in our region.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities.

Among these powerful opportunities is the chance to transform our vision for public safety. For King County residents, this starts with adopting Charter Amendment 6 in November. This amendment will empower the King County Council to transfer certain public safety functions, such as crisis response, away from the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of the community organizations that should have been in charge of responding to community needs all along.

The murder of George Floyd highlighted what Black organizers and advocates had been saying and working on for decades: our systems of policing are racist, unresponsive to root causes of crime, and frequently introduce lethal force to situations that do not warrant it.

Here in King County, the police killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, and many others, were preventable. We could have saved their lives and we can save countless others moving forward. We can better serve our neighbors who have been most harmed by state action. We can put people on track to get the support they need. We can accomplish these goals not by reforming the institutions we already have, but by reimagining public safety altogether.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities. In addition to empowering community-based organizations, it would give the groups that are already working to keep their neighborhoods safe the resources that they need to do so on a bigger scale.

Our default response to every challenge in our region should not be to deploy officers armed with guns. The future of public safety looks like a diverse toolkit of effective public health solutions. Mental health support teams can respond to mental health crises, rapid response social workers can tend to people in need, and trusted mentors and violence interrupters can help our youth. Unarmed code enforcement professionals can address noise complaints and traffic infractions.

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As our laws stand, however, the King County Council does not have the authority to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement. Our King County Charter, the local constitution governing our region, says that the King County Sheriff’s Office “shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.” This prohibition, combined with the fact that our King County Sheriff is an independently elected position, insulates the Sheriff’s Office from external policy instruction.

Rising to the promise of this moment requires us to amend the King County Charter and remove the restrictive language that ties the Council’s hands. When King County residents open their ballots this November, they will choose to approve or reject “Charter Amendment No. 6”, which if approved, would give the King County Council the authority to change the duties and structure of our regional system of public safety.

A more effective and equitable approach to safety is around the corner with Charter Amendment Number 6 as step one.

This potential change is one I would have never thought possible last year at my election night party. But in 2020, we have entered an unprecedented battle, and it has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity. Policymakers should use this momentum to go beyond surface level reforms and rebuild our systems from the ground up.

Our federal, state, and local governments have a long history of devastating Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our fates as human beings are intertwined. If one group is especially vulnerable to the virus, we will all be less safe. The same holds true for the racist impact of our criminal legal systems. If Black and Brown people continue to be over-policed, criminalized, and incarcerated, with divesting longterm social and economic consequences, we will all be less safe.

Let’s rise to meet this moment. Let’s rebuild our systems to better serve the people we have most harmed, and let’s ensure safety, prosperity, and justice for all.

Girmay Zahilay is a King County Council council member representing District 2, which includes central and southeast Seattle.

After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree

New Consent Decree Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Photo via Leadership for a Networked World.

By Paul Kiefer

Merrick Bobb, who served for seven years as the court-appointed monitor for reforms to the Seattle Police Department mandated by the Department of Justice in a 2012 agreement between the city and federal government known as a consent decree, quietly resigned from his position on August 31.

In a letter explaining his decision, Bobb expressed dismay that SPD’s responses to this summer’s protests left him wondering whether “lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.” Looking beyond the department’s protest response, Bobb also pointed to SPD’s “‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems” (referring to the language of one of his team’s earlier reports on SPD) as another primary reason for the department to remain under federal oversight.

US District Judge James Robart appointed Dr. Antonio Oftelie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to replace Bobb as monitor. Robart appointed Monisha Harrell, the board chair of Equal Rights Washington and a (now outgoing) Community Police Commission commissioner, as deputy monitor. In a new order on Monday, Robart also appointed two associate monitors: Matthew Barge, a senior consultant at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, and Ronald Ward, a Seattle attorney who served as deputy monitor alongside Merrick Bobb.

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Oftelie is stepping into the monitor role at a time when the position demands a heavier hand than Bobb has provided since Robart ruled that the city was in compliance with the consent decree in 2018. After that ruling, Bobb said in an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on Thursday, he believed that his “job was done” as the monitor. “We’d brought the department to that point [of compliance].” But Bobb added that SPD’s protest response made it clear that “there needed to be a new monitor and new team to deal with new facts on the ground.” In that interview, Bobb did not mention that Robart ruled that the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May of last year because of accountability-related concerns.

Oftelie says that police accountability will be one of his priorities as monitor. In an email to the Seattle Times this week, Oftelie specifically said that his team’s focus will be on “SPD’s accountability and transparency structures”—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the CPC. But according to some local accountability experts, Oftelie’s proposal to reassess the city’s accountability structures will unnecessarily retrace the steps of longtime accountability advocates while real accountability reforms continue to languish. Continue reading “After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree”

In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director

 

By Paul Kiefer, with reporting by Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday afternoon, the Metropolitan King County Council voted by a narrow margin against renewing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs’ contract, which expired in June. (Jacobs was serving as de-facto head for the past two months). In her place, the council appointed OLEO’s current Deputy Director, Adrienne Wat, to serve as interim director.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci first proposed not renewing Jacobs’ contract two weeks ago. Her surprise announcement came a month after the council received the findings of an independent investigation into allegations by OLEO staff that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory remarks to them during her four-year term as director. For example, one staffer complained that Jacobs had commented (sarcastically, she says) that she could only see a white man as deputy director of OLEO, and, on a separate occasion, that she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade celebration because it was for women only.

OLEO community engagement manager Jenna Franklin praised Jacobs for hiring “people who are different and more diverse than her—that’s what a leader like that should do.” But she notes that “the ability to work with sensitivity in collaboration with diverse staff and communities is essential for public servants.” King County’s Equity and Social Justice rules state that “elected leaders and directors are ultimately responsible for ESJ,” Franklin notes, “including in regard to workplace and workforce.”

“In this case, she has acknowledged missteps and that impacts to staff did occur.  Missteps shouldn’t be the sum total of a person, a system, or those [they] represent.”

“There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”—Deborah Jacobs

In today’s hearing, Balducci explained that her push to not reappoint Jacobs was driven by  concerns about the OLEO work environment; an investigation into Jacobs substantiated five of the eight complaints against her. One of those sustained complaints stemmed from an incident in which Jacobs apparently commented that an employee’s weight and race made it easier for him to build rapport with sheriff’s deputies; the man, who has struggled with weight-related self-image problems, said he felt uncomfortable speaking to Jacobs directly about her comment.

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness,” Balducci said in an interview before the vote. “I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace. If we are going to be about investigating and calling out a lack of equity in one place it makes [the need to have equity and accountability within OLEO] even more compelling.”

The vote not to reappoint Jacobs was closer than the August 18 vote of the council’s Employment and Administrative Committee to recommend removing Jacobs. (That committee includes all nine members of the council.) In the earlier vote, the council voted 7-2 to not reappoint Jacobs; on Tuesday, the full council reached the same conclusion with a 5-4 vote. Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against the ouster both times; council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jim McDermott changed votes.

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The most vocal opposition to Jacobs’ ouster on Tuesday came from Dembowski and Upthegrove, Both expressed concern that Balducci and other colleagues are being too harsh and that replacing her is not in the best interest of police accountability in the county. “The assets that I’ve seen [Jacobs] bring to this office,” Upthegrove said, “particularly as it pertains to community engagement and the tenacity with which she’s represented our interests, and what we’ve seen to be a passionate commitment to racial and gender equity, leads me to believe that the mistakes she made aren’t enough to lead me to this conclusion.” He also said removing Jacobs was an example of a double standard: “I can’t help but thing of members of law enforcement who continue to have their jobs today in the face of mistakes and judgement calls that—in my mind—are much more serious.”

Dembowski echoed those concerns, adding that he saw the council’s approach to replacing Jacobs as legally dubious. “I’ve been very troubled by this process,” he said during the council meeting. “It’s generated a $2 million claim,” in the form of a tort Jacobs filed in Pierce County two weeks ago alleging sex and gender discrimination by the county. “I think that we mixed discipline from the report with reappointment, and I think they should have been kept separate.”

Local police accountability watchdogs also expressed their concerns about the council’s move to oust Jacobs, whom they see as a brave and determined force for greater oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Annalesa Thomas, a co-founder of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington and the mother of Leonard Thomas (killed in 2013 by Fife Police while unarmed and holding his son) appeared during Tuesday’s public comment period to voice her support for Jacobs; in an interview before the vote, Thomas said Jacobs “has brought to the forefront many of the issues that family members [of police shooting victims] raise. She didn’t go along to get along.”

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness. I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace.”—King County Council member Claudia Balducci

For her part, Jacobs acknowledges that she was sometimes reckless in her comments to coworkers and hoped for a chance to make amends, but she is also convinced that the council’s decision was driven by politics and a lack of support for accountability itself. “It’s been an unjust process and I wouldn’t wish this treatment on anyone else,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be really hard for anyone to survive because it’s a hostile climate, there is little support, and mistakes are seized upon.”

Jacobs also says her record as a fierce defender of accountability—and the resulting tensions between her and the KCSO—has left her constantly defending herself since she took the position in 2016. “They [KCSO] don’t trust me,” she explained. “There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”

Balducci denied that her proposal against Jacobs was intended to assuage the KCSO. “I cannot state in strong enough terms how important it is to me that we have a strong, courageous, diligent leader of our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Those things are not bad. Those are good things,” she said. “There is a kind of inherent tension and even conflict that can exist in the role itself, and you need somebody who isn’t intimidated by that and who need to go forward with what needs to be done.” Continue reading “In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director”

Durkan, Best Decry Council’s Proposed SPD Budget Cuts as Too Fast, “Wrong Year”

By Paul Kiefer

In a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan responded to the City Council’s proposal to cut the Seattle Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget by about $3 million with backhanded praise, saying the council was “looking in the right places but in the wrong year.”

The majority of the council, with the exception of Kshama Sawant, has united around a plan that would cut 100 positions from SPD’s budget, relying on a combination of attrition and layoffs that would, if all goes according to schedule, start in November. The midyear budget discussions were sparked by an unanticipated 2020 budget shortfall of more than $300 million.

In her remarks, Durkan emphasized that any major reforms to SPD will take a year or more to implement because of the combined challenges of the pandemic, the West Seattle Bridge closure and (ironically) months of protests. “2020 is not the best playing field to discuss further reductions to SPD and reinvestment in community,” Durkan said.

The proposed layoffs, though they would only amount to about half the cuts, have been a point of contention for Best and Durkan, who maintain the council has no legal authority to propose “out of order” layoffs of more-senior officers.

Ordinarily, the least-senior police officers are subject to layoffs first. But this, Durkan and Best said, would “gut” the most diverse group of officers in SPD’s history and reverse progress on improving the diversity of the police department. (Best characterized this possibility as the council proposing “layoffs based on race.”) To get around this problem, the council has proposed “out of order” layoffs targeting officers doing functions the council wants to reduce or eliminate, like SWAT and the Navigation Team.

According to Durkan, while a Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC) rule allowing the police chief to request out-of-order layoffs has been used in the past for individual cases, doing so on the scale suggested by the city council would require Chief Best to “justify every single decision,” which would draw out the layoff process well past the end of the year. I have followed up with the mayor’s office for clarification about the legal reasoning behind this claim.

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Best also criticized the council for proposing that her department lay off dozens of officers “basically overnight,” arguing that there would be a “service gap” while the city researches and organizes alternative emergency response teams. This gap could mean, she claimed, that when someone called 911 at midnight to report a rape or robbery in process, an officer might not be able to respond right away. None of the specific positions the council has proposed cutting are patrol officers who respond to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best did not accurately characterize several of the council’s other proposals, including their plan to civilianize data-driven policing by transferring this division—which analyzes policing data and makes much of it available to the public— from SPD to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS). Although the council has said they proposed the move to put police data in more objective civilian hands, Best said the council believed that “we would be better off as a police department if we do not use data.”

In another instance, Best said the council’s proposed layoffs would completely eliminate SPD’s public affairs unit, forcing the media to submit all questions to the separate public records division. In fact, although one council amendment would result in the layoffs of all four sworn staff in the department’s Public Affairs Unit, that proviso would not affect the unit’s civilian staff, who also respond to press questions.

Similarly, Mayor Durkan accused the council of proposing the complete elimination of implicit bias training from the department. In reality, the council’s proposal would withhold funding for implicit bias trainings “until the Executive submits a report describing the effectiveness of shifting officer behavior through implicit bias trainings,” and would direct the department to look into online trainings as a cheaper option. 

Durkan has already proposed $76 million in cuts to SPD budget in 2021, but most of those savings would result from transferring some functions, like the 911 call center and the Office of Police Accountability, out of SPD. Only $20 million would come from cuts to the SPD budget, mostly through attrition, leaving positions vacant, and cutting the budget for security at special events.

The council will take up the budget proposals—including council member Kshama Sawant’s competing package, which calls for much deeper and more immediate cuts—tomorrow morning at 10am.

 

Breaking News: The C Is for Crank Is Expanding!

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

I’m really excited to announce that The C Is for Crank has hired Paul Faruq Kiefer as our new police accountability reporter.

Paul’s impressive resume includes experience as a member of the RadioActive Youth Media team at KUOW, where he produced this award-winning feature; a news internship at WUNC radio in Durham, NC; and freelance work for KUNF in Fayetteville, AR, the Progressive, and the South Seattle Emerald, where he first caught my attention as part of the reporting team that produced this story about the pandemic’s impact on active drug users.

Paul will be covering the entire police-accountability beat, including the upcoming Seattle Police Officers Guild contract negotiations; the debate over how, and by how much, to cut the Seattle Police Department’s budget; the city’s response to protests against police brutality, which is currently playing out in court; and the role of the city’s alphabet-soup accountability agencies, among what I’m sure will be many other stories.

At a time when other media outlets are contracting and laying off staff, it’s exciting to be able to announce that this site is expanding, thanks in HUGE part to support from readers like you! After I posted that I was raising money to supplement grant funding for this position, readers stepped up and kicked in well over the initial $5,000 goal, which will make this position sustainable for at least one year. If you’d like to contribute to The C Is for Crank’s ongoing operations, or this position specifically, all your options are here.

Thanks for your support, and please join me in welcoming Paul—who can be reached at paul@thecisforcrank.com—to the team!

Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

After announcing proposals to shift 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Management, parking enforcement, and the Office of Police Accountability away from the Seattle Police Department Monday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered a fiery broadside against the city council, accusing them of proposing an ill-considered plan to slash police spending without giving any consideration to what comes next. Durkan, up for reelection next year, was in full campaign-speech mode, positioning herself as the lone adult among squalling children.

“Seven out of nine council members committed to cutting the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent without a plan,” Durkan said. “This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” Later, Durkan accused the council of making the “arbitrary” decision to “just cut 50 percent because that’s what people put on a placard.” Police Chief Carmen Best piled on, accusing the council of wanting to eliminate the jobs of half the police department this year.

But is that narrative accurate? And is it fair of the mayor to suggest that the council went to a demonstration and was convinced to cut half the police department by a protest sign? Here are some of the primary factual claims the mayor and police chief made to reporters and the public on Monday morning, and an assessment of their accuracy.

Claim #1: The city council has made “made the arbitrary decision to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent this year in 2020 and 50 percent next year” without any plan or consideration of the impacts such a “blunt cut” would have on the city’s ability to respond to crime and other emergency calls. “The city council decided in the space of hours … that they were going to cut the police department by 50 percent,” Durkan said Monday.

The seven council members who committed to making significant cuts to the police department all made slightly different statements, so it’s difficult to generalize about what each of them, individually, believe.

However, the one thing that was unambiguous during last week’s budget meeting was that in 2020, the council intends to cut not 50 percent of the total police department budget (a scenario Durkan has used to suggest the council would immediately shut down the entire police department as soon as the budget passes in August, since half the money for 2020 has theoretically been spent) but half of the budget that will remain for the last four months of the year, or about $65 million over the $20 million in cuts the mayor’s office has already proposed.

Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda said as much last Wednesday, as has public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold, who also emphasized that she supports cutting the remaining police budget over a four-month period, not all at once.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Jackie Vaughn, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is working with the council to come up with a detailed plan for replacing some police functions with community-based organizations, said, “This scale-down of police will happen in a phased way, [and] the corresponding scale-up of community-based organizations would happen at the same time,” also “in a phased way, starting this year to prepare us for 2021.”

And council member Dan Strauss, who has said he supports eventual cuts of around 50 percent, called it “a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work and cannot work because they are not ready to [start] today. … The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding [to calls for service] without giving then the time they need to be successful.”

Like Durkan, who noted that her own proposal to cut the department by a total of 5 percent this year came about “in three weeks,” the council plans to come up with a plan to reallocate police dollars on a short timeline, but the cuts themselves will be phased in starting in September.

Moreover, since cuts that will involve actual layoffs will require a separate bargaining process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (and some of the proposed changes will require approval by the court monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the department), it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the biggest changes will be pushed back to the end of the year, possibly beyond. What the council is proposing is an acceleration, not an immediate, wholesale gutting of the department.

Claim #2: Cutting the police department means cutting cops… or perhaps an entire police precinct… or possibly no longer responding to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best have repeatedly made the alarmist claim that a 50 percent reduction to the police department’s budget would require them to “fir[e] half the police department overnight,” as Best put it Monday. At the press conference, Best said she wanted to “thank our officers for continuing to answer calls, running into the face of danger to offer aid, all while hearing a political conversation that half of them aren’t needed.” Best explained that “our budget is almost entirely personnel,” so cutting police would mean cutting an equivalent number of jobs.

The police department’s budget is actually 75 percent personnel; it has also grown tremendously over the years, usually outpacing the growth of the city budget as a whole. As Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight has demonstrated, the lion’s share of this growth has come not from adding officers but from salaries that have ballooned well beyond the average salary in Seattle, even before overtime is factored in. Simply eliminating overtime (such as the $6.3 million officers were paid for guarding the East Precinct like a citadel under siege during recent Hill protests) would reduce the department’s annual budget by more than $30 million.

As for the department being forced to “quit responding to 911 calls,” as Durkan put it, or eliminating the entire Southwest police precinct… Neither activists nor the council have proposed eliminating the 911 system. (Decriminalize Seattle’s plan, for example, calls for phasing in the replacement of 911 operators with civilian dispatchers.) And as Herbold pointed out during the city council briefing on Monday, the mayor and police chief do not have the authority to shut down a police precinct; only the council can make that kind of decision.

Claim #3: The city of Seattle has already taken the steps to “rethink policing” that other cities are just beginning to consider, so there’s no reason to make radical changes.

“We have done so much of what is being called for nationally. We’re already there,” Best said. Durkan said people pointing to Camden, NJ, which dismantled its police force seven years ago, as a model for the future of policing in America have “misunderstood” what happened there. After reassessing a costly and often violent force, Camden did “the things that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in Seattle— deescalation training, outreach, mental health interventions.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked similar calls to disband the police, “all the things that they are [proposing], we have already done,” Durkan said. “The Seattle Police Department’s deescalation training is literally the model for the nation.” Continue reading “Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims”

Mayor’s Office: Cutting Police by 50% This Year Would “Require the City to Abolish the Department”

On Wednesday morning, just before the council discussed options for cutting the Seattle Police Department budget by as much as 50 percent, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong sent a letter to council members urging them against such “blunt efforts.” Instead, Fong said, the council should approach the process of “re-envisioning policing” in a more “thoughtful” way, with a process of “structural reform” that would stretch well into 2021 and beyond.

“SPD has already spent half of its $400 million annual budget by now, so a $200 million cut (or 50% of SPD’s budget) would leave the department with zero budget remaining for 2020 and require the City to abolish the department,” Fong wrote.

A “$100 million reduction (or 25% of SPD’s budget),” he continued, “would mean immediate layoffs of up to 1,000 personnel leaving [police] Chief [Carmen] Best and the Seattle Police Department unable to conduct basic functions.  In addition, it would be irresponsible to make immediate cuts without any conceivable mechanism to stand up alternative models to achieve community safety. …  [T]he Executive does not think that simply making target cuts in SPD’s budget, without looking at the work or personnel being done/cut or the ability to have others do the work, will advance community safety.”

Durkan has consistently responded to demands that the city defund SPD by promising to “reimagine” the role of the police and brushed off protesters’ three high-level demands—immediately defund SPD by at least 50 percent, reinvest that money in community-based approaches to safety, and release all jailed protesters—as naive or unrealistic. Fong’s email, for example, says the cuts advocates are proposing are “not informed by any analysis or considerations of the underlying functions and services that SPD currently delivers.”

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Instead of immediate cuts, Durkan has proposed a multi-step process before making any kind of structural changes to the department, including community “engagement and further [interdepartmental] analysis [that] will lead to additional recommendations for SPD reforms and alternative models for service delivery,” as Fong’s letter puts it.

This commitment to further “reform” and a process of community engagement led by the city is unlikely to satisfy advocates and abolitionists pushing for immediate cuts and systemic changes. Nor is it likely to satisfy the council, which was talking on Wednesday about phasing in cuts of perhaps $85 million—”the back of the envelope figure,” according to council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda—to be coupled with investments in community-based programs, including a new 911 system that would replace police with community responders on non-criminal calls.

By arguing for a slower approach and emphasizing reform and “re-envisioning” (as Fong’s letter puts it), the mayor’s office is committed to an incrementalism that many on the council—which amends and approves the mayor’s budget—have already rejected. Durkan’s proposal to cut $20 million from the police budget this year, as I’ve reported, only represents an additional cut of $4 million over what she proposed to the council before protests against police violence broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May. As SPD has acknowledged, the department has already met all its hiring goals for 2020, so Durkan’s proposed cuts won’t impact the number of police on the streets.

Like most police departments, SPD is a unionized institution of highly paid workers who are generally resistant to cuts or policy changes. Even getting officers to move so-called “mourning bands,” black tape strips used to signify the death of a colleague (in this case, a member of the State Patrol who died in March), to a place where they do not obscure badge numbers has apparently been a major challenge, despite legislation requiring them to do so.

In his letter, Fong suggests that union rules that protect officers with seniority would lead to the department cutting “some of our younger and most diverse officers” first, “defeating the hard work done to recruit officers that reflect and serve their communities.” Advocates coming forward with proposals for systemic change are unlikely to be moved by such arguments, especially when they imply that community organizations have not thought their own priorities and proposals through.

Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City

The lens of crisis shifts so quickly now that it can be hard to keep everything in our heads at once. Last week, the city held a five-and-a-half-hour hearing on the injustice of our city’s policy toward its homeless residents, which includes pushing them from place to place if they do not “accept” a specific shelter bed on a specific day—a one-size-fits-all policy that is especially inept at responding to the conditions of vulnerable people in the middle of a nationwide public health crisis.

Over the weekend and today, and almost certainly tomorrow and the rest of the week as well, the city and nation have focused our attention on another crisis that, like the criminalization of homelessness, has racism and dehumanization at its core: Police violence against black and brown Americans.

The cameras don’t look away, even when political leaders do.

The protests against the murder of George Floyd are multifaceted and raise real questions about whether cities have the right to dictate the “proper” way to protest, as well as legitimate concerns that a movement for justice (“peaceful,” as that term is defined by law enforcement, or not) has been hijacked by outside forces on the right or left. But they also may be an inflection point (it seems far too optimistic to talk of turning points) in the debate over the role of police in Seattle and other cities, and to what extent cities should allow police to act with impunity, and unquestioned, for behavior that any rational person would consider unreasonable: Putting a knee on a young man’s neck, or spraying mace indiscriminately into a mostly peaceful crowd, or covering up badge numbers with rubber tape on the grounds that it is an inviolable “tradition.”

This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and her police chief, Carmen Best (and fire chief Harold Scoggins, who always looks and sounds like he knows he isn’t going to be quoted at these things) stood up and intoned the same lines they have been reciting all weekend, repeated with a bit more fervor and flourish. A protest by “peaceful people” of color and allies got hijacked by outside forces, “young white men,” probably right-wing or perhaps left-wing, “bent on destruction and chaos,” with “nothing but ill intent” in their hearts. (The phrase “ill intent” was repeated so often that it started to sound more like a mantra than a talking point.) The nightly curfews, initially imposed with less than 15 minutes’ notice, are meant to “take the lawful people off the street” and are necessary, night after night, to “protect public health and safety.” Looting, rioting, fighting back when police throw tear gas canisters and flash bangs indiscriminately into crowds: “This is not what people trying to express their opinions do,” Best said. “This is what criminals do. So we have to differentiate between the two.”

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As the protests have stretched into their second week, the rhetoric from the mayor’s office and the police department has grown more pitched and baroque. This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

Mourning bands, black bands that many officers placed over their badge numbers, making them harder to identify, had evolved from something people might not be aware of (“Google it,” Durkan said this weekend, helpfully spelling it out: “M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G bands”) to a tradition so hallowed and ingrained that it was actually offensive for the public to suggest that concealing badge numbers during a protest about police accountability might send the wrong message. Durkan, exasperated, insisted, “There was no attempt by anyone to cover badge numbers” and called the very existence of badge numbers on officers’ badges “a fallback and in some ways an unnecessary redundancy” to the first-initial, last name identification on officers’ name tags.

Herbold, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, was hardly the only council member who raised concerns about the behavior of police this week, or who will be demanding answers from the mayor and police chief about why police acted with such apparent indiscretion during protests against police violence. (One reasonable answer might be that they felt empowered to do so.)

Durkan even expressed surprise when a reporter asked about reports (described, videotaped and posted on social media by hundreds of witnesses for anyone to see) that officers had fired tear gas, flash grenades, and pepper spray indiscriminately into crowds that were mostly peaceful, saying that she would follow up with city council member Lisa Herbold, who had spoken earlier in the day about witnessing many such instances herself over the weekend. “I don’t know the facts of the case that she’s indicating… but we’ll reach out to the council member to find out what she’s concerned about,” Durkan said. Continue reading “Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City”